When I first stepped foot on the soil of the Southeast Asian country I’ve now called home for seven years, I thought I knew what missions was. Our family of five had made the decision to leave our home in Houston and move to a remote mountain town on the other side of the globe. We packed up what we could in ten suitcases and set out on a journey that would teach us, stretch us, and give us a deeper understanding of what it means to make disciples of all nations.
Now years later after living and working among those who often have never heard the name of Christ, I can say that many of my ideas on what missions was were wrong or at the very least, incomplete. Every few years when we travel all over America and share about our work and the need for the gospel to go to every nation, I see that there are many others just like me who have an incomplete view of missions.
This month I want to break down three very commonly taught responses to missions- Pray, Give, and Go– and help re-frame them with scripture and stories from my own personal experience on the field. I do not claim to be a missiologist, but I don’t think that we have to have a theology degree to engage in biblical missions in a humble, ethical, and Christ-like way. We must simply have a heart that desires to love God and love people, and a willingness to learn how to best do that.
What is Missions?
There’s a trend in evangelical circles to say that “every Christian is a missionary.” While I do believe that all followers of Jesus are called to live missional lives and make disciples, to call everything “missions” can actually hurt the efforts being made to take the message of Christ into places where it has yet to go.
It’s important to know that the term missionary isn’t used in the Bible except in the titles of certain portions of scripture relating to Paul’s journeys to spread the gospel. It comes from the Latin missio which means, to release or send. The Jesuits (an order of the Roman Catholic Church) started using the term missionary in the 1500’s as a name for those they would send into foreign places to spread the message of Christ. Historically, missions has been viewed as taking the gospel (often including humanitarian aid) to foreign peoples and places. Evangelism is a term that better describes what happens when we live out our Christian witness in our local setting- our workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, etc. while missions can be used to describe going outside of our familiar setting to a foreign one for the specific purpose of sharing the gospel.
God is a Missionary God
If we go back to the beginning of God’s story for humanity, it is clear that God’s plan always included all tribes, tongues, and nations. The very act of choosing Abraham and his descendants to be God’s “chosen people” was in order to bless all the nations of the earth through them. (Genesis 12:1-3) God’s love for the world was brought to a pinnacle in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ which ultimately made a way for all nations to be restored to Him. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave [sent, released] his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV) It always has been and always will be the desire of God for every people group in the world He created to know Him, and He sent Christ into the world to make a way for us to be reconciled to Him. God’s will is that every nation would hear of Christ’s saving power and have the opportunity to respond to it because, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 NLT) If that’s His will, it should be our will, too.
Why Missions Matters
When everything becomes “missions” it’s easy for us to think we are fulfilling the Great Commission by inviting our neighbor to church. And that’s a huge part of it…but it’s only a part. The reality is, the majority of people in our world have no Christian neighbor to invite them to church. When we label evangelism as missions, we run the risk of assuming we’ve done our part by engaging in personal evangelism while neglecting the reality that there is a massive imbalance of Christian workers and witnesses in the western world vs. the parts of the world considered “unreached” and “unengaged” with the gospel.
According to The Gospel Coalition, There are 5.5 million full-time Christian workers in the world.
- 75.9% work in a context of a majority, or large percentage, evangelical Christian population
- 23.7% work in a context of greater than 2% evangelical Christians
- Only 0.37% work among the 3.37 billion unreached, where less than 2% are evangelical Christians
This statistic was one of the major factors in our family’s decision to transition from serving the local church in America to serving in an area of the world considered “unreached.” The reality is, there are billions of people in our world that will live their whole lives without ever hearing the name of Jesus or encountering a Christian. There are whole people groups with no scripture in their language. Even if someone in an unreached people group had a dream revealing Jesus to them, they most often have no local church or Christian within hundreds of miles to teach them how to follow Him. This is why missions matters.
Missions is a massive task, but one we don’t take on alone. As we partner with our compassionate God and the global body of Christ, we can find hope that our participation in this movement to see nations reconciled to God can and will bring eternal change. Together, we can make His name known in every corner of the globe.
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