I am writing this post from Taiwan. As I have been working with both local leaders and American pastors, I have been struck by a few things and thought I would share them with you.
First, I have traveled to Taiwan as a part of the Upstream Collective. The reason is to accompany American pastors with a desire to be missional on a cross-cultural, international encounter. (You can scroll down the last few posts to learn what we are doing in Taiwan.)
Each person on the trip has the missional impulse as part of their DNA, and they are here to consider how they might join God on his mission globally. While I admire the faithfulness of these men, I must admit my surprise to see that there is not a bigger interest in such global concerns among American pastors in general. My fellow travelers seem to be rare of a breed in ministry.
Second, when I blogged about this on Sunday, two readers contacted my hosts– one working with the Presbyterian Church in America and one from the Oversee Missionary Fellowship (OMF). Why? Well, according to one email, the author explained, “I’m particularly interested in attracting young missional church planters here.”
Third, I was recently told by a pastor who called himself “missional” that his church needed to pull back on their global mission support to help their people “be missionaries right here.”
All this provokes me to ask, “Why are so many missional Christians uninvolved in God’s global mission?” As the missional conversation continues and deepens, what has occurred that has led to our blindness to the lost world around us?
There are five reasons I think this has happened:
1) In rediscovering God’s mission, many have only discovered its personal dimensions.
I don’t mean they have somehow localized mission into their interior, “private” life– that would make little sense. Rather, the encouragement for each person to be on mission (to be “missional”) has trended toward a personal obligation to personal settings, rather than toward a global obligation to advance God’s kingdom among all the nations.
“Missional” has merged with privatized Christianity to serve as the reason for personal projects carried out in personal spheres. This is not bad, necessarily. But when the missional impulse is not expanded to include God’s global mission, it results in believers moved only to minister in their own Jerusalems with no mind toward their Judeas, Samarias, and uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8).
2) In responding to God’s mission, many have wanted to be more mission-shaped and have therefore made everything “mission.”
Missions historian Stephen Neil, responding to a similar surge in mission interest (the missio dei movement of the 1950s and following), explained it this way: “If everything is mission then nothing is mission.” Neil’s fear was that the focus would shift from global evangelization (often called “missions”) to societal transformation (often called “mission”). He was right.
Recently John Piper echoed these same concerns, differentiating between evangelism and missions. He reminded us that when “Every Christian is a missionary” equals “missional,” then we have diluted the need for and specialness of missionaries to foreign lands. (Although I would want to nuance John’s language a bit, I agree with his point.)
One American church’s website recently identified their ministry as missional, which they proceeded to define as “reaching out to the community to invite them to come” see what is happening in the church. Another’s young adult community service project consisted of landscaping the church grounds. Inviting people to church and cleaning up the church are noble endeavors, but passing them for “missional” and “service” is ministerial naïveté at best. It demonstrates the fuzziness that creeps in when labels become catch-alls. And as the outer edges of the missional label gets fuzzy so does mission to the outer edges of the world.
3) In relating God’s mission, the message increasingly includes the hurting but less frequently includes the global lost.
One only needs to watch the videos to see the emphases: global orphan projects, eradicating AIDS, Christmas shoeboxes, etc. All of these causes now have advocacy groups, and rightly so, as they are important. However, their vocabulary and frames of reference do not frequently make room for evangelizing the very people they touch. The message of world evangelism, actually, seems more common in legacy/traditional churches than in missional churches. Missional churches seem to speak more of unserved peoples rather than unreached peoples. As we engage to deliver justice, we must also deliver the gospel regardless of anyone’s status in a culture.
4) In refocusing on God’s mission, many are focusing on being good news rather than telling good news.
St. Francis allegedly said,”Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Interestingly enough, Francis never actually said this, nor would he have done so due to his membership in a preaching order. But it is a pithy quote tossed into mission statements and vision sermons in missional churches all around my country. Why? It seems that many in the missional conversation place a higher value on serving the global hurting rather than evangelizing the global lost. Or perhaps it is just easier.
I am not urging a dichotomy here, only noting that one already exists. It is ironic, though, that as many missional Christians have sought to “embody” the gospel, they have chosen to forsake one member of Christ’s body; the mouth.
5) In reiterating God’s mission, many lose the context of the church’s global mission and needed global presence.
For whatever reason– the admirable one of commitment to the local church or the ignoble one of commitment to personalized consumeristic Christianity– we have lost the grand scope of the entire family of God. While Christ calls people from all tongues, tribes, and nations, we have become content with our own tongue, tribe, and nation. Many churches are wonderfully embracing the missional imperative, but as they seek to “own” the mission by adapting their church into a missional movement in their local community, some inadvertently localize God’s mission itself and lose the vital connection all believers share together. A hyper-focus on our own community results in a, have lost vision for the communion of the saints.
So how do we fully embrace missional without losing the mission? The Mission Exchange (formerly the Evangelical Foreign Mission Society) asked me to talk to their global leaders on the topic “How to Put ‘Missions’ Back into Missional.” In my talk, I proposed four principles we needed to consider:
First, recognize it is God’s mission, and we need to be passionate about the mission as He describes it. We don’t own mission and it is not ours to define. A church vision statement is fine, but God’s mission is better and bigger. Our first task is to submit to God’s mission.
Secondly, evangelicals have understated the call to serve the poor and the hurting and need a stronger engagement in social justice. This sounds counterintuitive if we are seeking to remedy the loss of concern for articulated evangelism. But social engagement entails relational engagement, and relational engagement entails opportunities to share the gospel. The successes and experiences in our communities should awaken hearts and minds to global needs. We just need to maintain the reason for social justice: the glory of God in the worship of Jesus.
Third, share God’s deep concern about His mission to the nations– that His name be praised from the lips of men and women from every corner of the globe. Feel the Great Commission in your bones. Ask God to turn your heart to those you cannot see. As Paul did, develop ways to “struggle personally” (Colossians 2:1) for those far away.
Fourthly, churches that are serious about joining God on his mission will obey his commands to disciple the nations. The end product of missional endeavors should be a thriving Christian ready to produce more thriving Christians.
It appears to me that many missional churches are missing the Great Commission in the name of being missional. That makes zero sense. It is a huge (but historically common) mistake.
If we are truly interested in being missional– in joining God on His mission– our efforts should actually reflect His stated mission. We are bound to the Great Commandment as the fullest human expression of God’s love. But the Commandment is not hermetically sealed off from the Great Commission. Rather, the Great Commission provides the what of mission, while the Great Commandment provides part of the how. Answering the age-old question of “Who is my neighbor?” should result in the desire to “make disciples of all nations.”