When you’re in a hurry, basic traffic laws can become a burden. Driving the speed limit feels like moving in slow motion; tapping the brakes at a yellow light seems overly cautious; coming to a complete stop at a stop sign feels like a complete waste of time. Surely there’s got to be a faster way!
Urgency vs. Speed in Missions
Some churches take a similar approach to missions. They (rightly) feel burdened to take the gospel to those who have never heard, but the urgency and enormity of the task distorts their perspective. Rather than sensing their need for God’s wisdom and God’s power, they start to feel a different need—the need for speed.
The desire for speed in missions is understandable. There is a real heaven and a real hell, and people really need to hear the gospel. However, there’s a difference between a mission carried out with urgency and a mission that has speed as its goal. The former is desirable, while the latter can be deceiving and dangerous.
Changing Our Expectations
When speed and efficiency become your driving motivation in missions, the ordinary means God has given for the spread of the gospel can start to feel like a led weight slowing you down. Or, to return to the traffic analogy, like a 35mph speed limit on an open stretch of highway. But the minute we start to feel this way, there’s a problem. And the problem is not with God’s design.
We should expect our missional efforts to take time. Based on Scripture’s teaching, as well as the history of the spread of the gospel in the world over the last two thousand years, patience and perseverance are the norm, not speed and efficiency.
Sure, the Lord may choose to bless our efforts in amazing ways, quickly drawing many people to himself through the power of the gospel. He’s done it in the past. But exceptional seasons of ministry are just that—exceptional. We can’t schedule them, nor can we force God to speed things along with our strategies and techniques.
The Ordinary Means of Reaching the Nations
Rather than seeing the ordinary, biblical means of disciple-making as slow and restrictive, we need to rely on them as God’s good and wise designs for carrying out his purposes in the world. Consider several aspects of our missional efforts that, while often slow and difficult, are critical for faithfully carrying out the mission Christ has given us.
Learning a New Language
Unless a missionary is a world-class linguist, he or she will typically have to spend a lot of time learning the language of the people they’re trying to reach. There is no quick fix here. Attempts to bypass or rush through this step can be harmful in the long run.
Like all Christians, missionaries want to be sure they’re communicating the gospel accurately and clearly. They want to be able to answer questions and objections. But you can’t do that effectively with a language you hardly know. Learning a few phrases to help get around town is not the same thing as being able to explain to someone what sin is or why Jesus is the only way to the Father.
Unclear communication can leave people confused, or even deceived, about their spiritual state.
Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to give brief gospel presentations and then quickly move on to the next place. He commanded them to “make disciples,” which involves not only “baptizing” people but also “teaching” them to observe “all” that Jesus taught (Matthew 28:19). This is rarely a fast process.
Disciples of Jesus need time to grow. They need to understand the foundational truths of the faith and they need to turn from sinful patterns of living. They need to be able to recognize false teaching and they need to be prepared to endure opposition. Additionally, they need to practice the spiritual disciplines and learn to share their faith. None of those things can be mastered in a six-week course.
Conversion may happen in an instant, but discipleship is a much longer process.
The task of making disciples is inseparable from the task of planting healthy churches. The idea of free-floating Christians disconnected from a local body of believers is foreign to the New Testament. The church is, after all, Christ’s body (Colossians 1:18), the bride for which he died (Ephesians 5:22–33).
It’s in the church’s weekly gathering that God’s Word is preached, people are baptized, the Lord’s Supper is observed, and members come under the discipline and accountability of the body. This is the primary context for a disciple’s growth and maturity. Planting healthy churches is therefore critical to the task of missions. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
It’s difficult enough to plant a church in your own community—particularly if you’re looking for more than transfer growth from other churches—and that’s with people who share your language and culture. Now imagine doing that in a new culture when you don’t have the language mastered!
One way to fast-track the process is to tweak the biblical understanding of the church so that it’s more streamlined and reproducible. But this would be to substitute our wisdom for God’s, as if God doesn’t know what’s best for the spread of his gospel. Planting a healthy church may take time and energy, but in the long run, it will bring God greater glory and serve his people best.
None of the points above should make us feel less urgent about the spread of the gospel among the nations. But they should warn us against making speed our goal. The church’s mission is too important for that.