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Three Hills Worth Dying On in Missions

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Last month I was speaking at a missions conference in California and the members of the pastoral staff were explaining some difficulties they were having within the missions department. Recently, they had become convinced that their overseas church planters (missionaries) needed to be held to some common standards regarding language fluency and better definitions for what qualified as a New Testament church. Unfortunately, many of their missionaries had been overseas for quite some years and it was turning into a herculean task to convince them, and some in the church, that while in the short-term these standards would be challenging, in the long-term, for the sake of the church, it would be worth it.

Stories like this are quite common. As a growing number of churches want to know more details about what their missionaries are doing overseas, what methods they are using, and how they should measure “success,” the accountability will ratchet up. The pushback to this can be quite strong, though.

It seems that, outside of a slim minority, there is an unquestioned orthodoxy in missions today and woe to the one who steps out and questions it. The stories are too many, the movements are too large, and, dare I say it, the interests are too vested for it to be called into question.

Yet, there are still hills worth “dying on” in the world of missions. Not because they are the hills of my home church in San Diego or the hills of our ministry, Radius, but because they are biblical hills. Surely there are principles that we can pull from Scripture—as opposed to merely relying on stories from the field—that are worth mandating for our missions departments, our missionaries, and ourselves as we seek to see the gospel spread to every people group on earth. Let me propose three such principles.

1. Men do not naturally come to a clear understanding of the gospel.

In Acts 8:30 we read,

“So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’  And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” (emphasis mine).

No one naturally seeks God, or comes to gospel clarity, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit through the clear teaching of Scripture. Syncretism (the mixing of the previous belief system with the introduced one) is real and dangerous. The missionary or missions committee who believes that gospel truth will naturally bubble to the surface is not dealing in reality. Truth must be painstakingly taught for it to have a chance to take root. Paul himself asks for prayer from the Colossian church that “I may make the message (gospel) clear” (Col. 4:4). If Paul, with his full fluency in the languages he taught, his knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Jewish culture, and his incredible gifting, was concerned that he might not make the gospel clear, how much more concerned should we be?

2. Good ecclesiology is critical.  

I am constantly mystified at how poorly thought-out quips or out-of-context Scripture references tend to sneak out when some people speak of the church. Examples of this would be, “Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I among them” Matthew 18:20 (a common “proof text” for the smallest element of a church). Another is, “God didn’t call us to plant churches but to make disciples” Matthew 28:19 (the implication being that churches will spontaneously come into being if we just make disciples). Or the new one: “The church is so Western” (this is code for ‘the church overseas should look nothing like your home church’).

But upon closer examination, these statements fail to meet the burden of proof. The reference to “two or three gathered in my name” in Matthew 18:20 is referring to church discipline, not a model for church structure. Similarly, those who read only Matthew 28:19 and stop there miss how disciples are made, and part of that teaching is how they are to gather as churches. There are objective standards of a strong New Testament church. Those are neither Western nor Eastern, nor do they belong to any particular culture. The church is the city of the living God, the golden candlestick, a treasured possession, the bride of Christ. Let’s know her and speak of her in a way that honors her Husband.

3. Discipleship takes time.

If there is one dominant theme to the stories that are so common in missions today it is this: speed. Speed at which the gospel is understood, speed in disciples being made, and speed in those disciples spreading out to make their own disciples. Can disciples of Jesus Christ be made in quick bursts, or is it inherently a longer-term task?

Jesus spent three years with his disciples; Paul also spent three years with the Ephesian church elders (Acts 20:31). Then there was Paul’s relationship with Silas and Timothy. I often think of how these two men talked with Paul on ships, walked with him on trails, spent time with him in jail, or heard and watched Paul teach. And remember, in all of this Paul did not have to learn Silas and Timothy’s language or the Ephesian language. Jesus had thirty years of growing up in Jewish culture and of using the local language before he began his three years of ministry. For the modern-day gospel messengers, those are luxuries they do not have. Speed, if the New Testament serves as our model, is antithetical to discipleship.

I was recently blessed by reading The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and hearing some of the withering battles he endured. The following quote from the book captures well the culture of his time, and ours:

Alongside a willingness not to insist on Scripture, there came an excessive fear of being thought negative, controversial and belligerent. Criticism of any kind had become unpopular, and a “loving attitude” which accepted everyone for what they appeared to be was in vogue. If discernment between truth and error and the need to ‘beware of men’ were still counted as Christian virtues, they were now low down the list of priorities. [1]

There are hills worth dying on in the world of missions. Those hills, though, will rarely be discovered if we rely on numbers, stories, or experience to guide us. We will only end up with emotions and pragmatism as our guide. We must allow the infallible guide, the Word of truth, to inform our theology, which will inform our missiology, which will inform our methodology.

[1]Iain H. Murray The Life of Martyn Lloyd Jones (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth Trust, 2013) pg. 373

Brooks and his wife, Nina, planted a church among the Yembiyembi people in Papua New Guinea. In 2016, they returned to San Diego. Brooks now serves as president of Radius International. Both Brooks and Nina participate in the teaching at RADIUS as well as leading and traveling to spread the word about the necessity of pre-field training.
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