“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18)
Two new ways of approaching the “uttermost ends of the earth” evangelistic mission of the church have become dominant in recent decades. They have become so pervasive among American churches, I have no illusions of changing them significantly. But since both seem to violate some of the biblical paradigm, I feel compelled to highlight some of the hazards as I see them. I will attempt to, bring all aspects of ministry under the functional authority of Scripture. I do this in the hope that a rising generation may make enough course correction in these approaches to capture them for a new era of biblical mission advance in finishing the task Christ gave.
I was invited to address a large group of pastors from the Calvary Chapel network. The “father” of the Jesus People movement, Chuck Smith, is also the founder of the Calvary Chapel movement which at the time of my first visit numbered about a million strong across the nation. I was invited to talk to the pastors about missions. On the way from the airport to the conference center I asked about the movement’s missions involvement. “Very strong,” I was told, “we send tens of thousands of missionaries.” That puzzled me, for the entire Protestant church of the United States sends fewer than 50,000 of what I call “missionary.” A week later I had begun to wonder about the significance of that conversation so, on the way back to the airport, I asked a more discriminating question, “How many career missionaries have Calvary Chapels sent?”
“We don’t do numbers, of course, but I would estimate about 200.” What I didn’t know was that my speaking had been something of a set-up. Some of the younger men wanted to introduce the novel idea of sending career missionaries.
Calvary was the first major wave of the tsunami that has swept missions-interested churches in America: send all the people you can on short term ministry. But as far as career missionaries is concerned, at 200, I figured they were sending about .002% of their membership into career missionary service. The reason I was so startled was that up until then I had been preaching in churches that were sending 2%, 10%, up to 20% of their membership into apostolic missionary service!
Another thing I learned that week, they also spearheaded the other phenomenon in late-twentieth century North American missions: support the nationals. At the time they were supporting 3,000 pastors in India, for example.
I have returned for a number of their pastors’ conferences by which some of the leaders hoped to move toward a more Pauline-type ministry, intentional targeting of the last half of the world, seeking to reach those who live out of reach of both national pastors and short-term witnesses. Many Calvary chapels have begun to send long-term missionaries to reach the yet unreached peoples of the world.
In other words, how do we make sure mission is done under the functional authority of Scripture? Consider, “let-the-nationals-do-it” phenomenon.
The first problem, and a fatal one, is that in the lost half of the world by definition, there are not churches to partner with. If those now out of reach are to be reached, some churches somewhere are going to have to reach across borders without the luxury of a receiving brotherhood.
But there are other problems. Even for those the plan would seem best positioned to help, it can prove more damaging than helpful. Around the world this paradigm has created a spiritual welfare state, with poorer churches becoming dependent on American dollars. The need to trust God and sacrifice for him gives way to dollar searching and the church becomes spiritually anemic since God-dependency is the foundation of spiritual vitality. So great care must be given to accepting the invitation to send us your dollars, not your people
Short term missionaries. Everyone is called to go to “the uttermost parts of the earth,” we’re told. Don’t worry about formal preparation. What Christ called for was witnesses and everyone is called to that role. Actually, some would say, to prepare or train a witness undermines his authenticity, so don’t pause for any kind of formal training. And don’t worry about long-term commitment. Just go! If everyone goes, even for a few weeks—we’ll get the job done quickly
But there are some problems with the new paradigm. Biblical problems for starters. The Commander-in-Chief has not only designated all his troops as witnesses to the resurrected Christ, he is commissioned his church to disciple the nations. “Teaching them to observe all that I commanded,” he proclaimed as the job description. Discipling takes more than a few weeks witness through an interpreter. Besides, we can’t escape the model “as the Father sent me…” He became one with us, lived among us, absorbed our culture, spoke our language. In fact, he emptied himself of all his heavenly prerogatives and became a servant among us (Philippians 2:6-8). Ultimately, he gave his life for us. Now, says Jesus “as the Father sent me so send I you.” That’s his plan and we by-pass it only to short-circuit his purpose of building his Church all over the world.
But it’s not only Scripture, it’s the reality of today’s world. Half the people on earth live today out of reach of gospel witness. They don’t have access to the good news. Short-term witnesses aren’t going to reach that final half. First, the “sent one” must stay long enough among a people to understand them sufficiently to communicate clearly and winsomely the good news and, secondly, long enough to win the trust of the people.
On the other hand, is there no role for the short-term witness? Since fewer are willing to become incarnational and the questions of preparation and gifting are by-passed, our task is to figure out how the short-termer can fit into the New Testament paradigm. Why not spend a few minutes praying over these questions: Is short-term ministry carefully planned and deliberately harnessed to maximize Kingdom effectiveness? Are there effective policies in place to make sure money sent overseas is not causing collateral damage either for donors or recipients?