Closing the Rift: Addressing Common Mission Misconceptions
by Daniel Lim
I long for the Church to fully embrace its identity as the missional powerhouse God has formed it to be—that Christ-centered, transformational catalyst that even the gates of hell cannot stand against.
It is Friday evening in a warehouse park in Los Angeles, and the nations are gathering. They arrive in carloads, many from major missionary receiving nations—China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Other nations are represented as well—Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Myanmar, Iran, Cameroon, Pakistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia. They represent the hopes and dreams of their families, communities, and nations. They came to America with a singular goal: to obtain an American college degree.
Each international student comes with his or her own unique story. There is the Middle Eastern student who once played for a national-level soccer team. Another Middle Eastern student worked for his country’s customs and immigration department. Also gathered are a Chinese government official, an African tribal chief, a pastor’s kid from a Muslim country, and a South Korean student who climbed out of a second story window to attend church when her parents confined her to her room for becoming a Christian.
A handful are Christian, but for most, we are the first followers of Jesus they have met. With sixty percent of international students coming from 10/40 Window nations, and about thirty percent from restricted access nations (Institute of International Education), this is hardly surprising. Many have been cautioned against Christianity. Some are even openly hostile, snorting in derision whenever anything spiritual is mentioned. Yet here they are, at the end of a busy week, coming to a church in a converted warehouse. God brings the nations to us.
We begin the evening with an icebreaker, and then split off into groups for open discussion. The topics are written by the students, are randomly drawn, and range from the silly to the serious. As the groups begin their discussions, the facilitator shares the only overtly Christian content of the night: this discussion group exists because we are obeying Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, and that is who the international students are.
Living Out Christ’s Love
The discussions begin. Lively dialogue ensues, punctuated by bursts of laughter. When the opportunity arises, the Christian facilitators address a topic from a Christian worldview, but many nights are filled with more fun discourse than doctrinal discussion. That is deliberate. Our goal for this group is not primarily to tell students about Jesus, but to do that which is harder: to incarnationally live out Christ’s love, building friendships deep enough to allow us to speak powerfully of the God they have already experienced through us. The discussion group is just a gateway.
Our team of servant leaders meet with students during the week, continuing to deepen friendships over meals, outings, and hang outs. As lives are shared, they notice that we are different, that something sets us apart from everyone else they know. Many have called us their second family because of what they experienced in our community. Some have become curious enough to ask why we care as deeply as we do. These are the ones we invite to discover the One who makes us who we are.
The Bible studies are designed to help the students learn to dig into the word of God themselves, “doing theology” as they wrestle with the text and its implications. Those who follow Jesus are then invited to join us in serving their fellow students.
The goal of our ministry among the students is twofold: (1) we desire to have students encounter, fall in love with, and follow Christ, and (2) we help those who follow Christ to learn to handle the word of God so that they will be equipped to take the gospel back to their home communities and beyond, making disciples wherever they go. The strategic impact of linguistically pre-trained, culturally competent, internally respected missionaries going into those 10/40 Window nations is undeniable. Many of these students are the future movers and shakers of their nations. With forty percent of current world leaders being ex-international students, the potential strategic impact is immense.
The Church as a Missional Powerhouse
However, that is only part of my ministry as a mobilizer. As I invite churches to work with international students, we invite them to interact with the other, showing them that mission is right on their doorstep. I long for the Church to fully embrace its identity as the missional powerhouse God has formed it to be—that Christ-centered, transformational catalyst that even the gates of hell cannot stand against.
Yet too often as I speak with churches and invite them to participate in God’s world-encompassing, epoch-spanning plan for all nations, I hear people say that they are “not called” to missions. The underlying presupposition is that missions is about “them” and “us”. Some are called, and some are not. If you have not been called, you can and should support those who have been called. But if you have been called, then congratulations, welcome to the club, report for duty at 0800, and prepare to leave everything behind because you are now part of the Christian Seal Team Six and you are shipping out to Not-here-istan!
This strange dichotomy of the called and the uncalled, the missionary and the “regular Christian,” seems almost ubiquitous in the American Church today. The problem is that this view is simply not biblical. In fact, there are a number of misconceptions with regards to missions that I commonly encounter, and which I am increasingly convinced need to be addressed as a priority.
Many, if not most, self-identified evangelicals in America hold to these paradigms of the world mission enterprise. Yet only about 0.15% of evangelicals are directly involved in overseas missional work (Christianity in Its Global Context 2013), and only between 3-5% of those are working in pioneer fields. Does that not hint that something is not quite right? Should the Church not be more invested in what most agree is the great undertaking of the Kingdom of God?
Paradigm Shifts for the Church
A thoroughly biblical understanding of God’s perspective on missions must be reclaimed among the pews, for what the Church believes about missions impacts what the Church does in missions. To that end, I commend the following paradigm shifts for your consideration. They are neither new nor radical, but simply address commonly-held assumptions regarding the Church and its mission.
All are called. We must first dispense with the factionizing fiction of the called and uncalled within the Church. From God calling all of Israel a Kingdom of Priests in Exodus 19 to Peter’s transfer of this mantle to the Church in 1 Peter 2:9, there is simply no biblical warrant for a separate subset of Christians who are called to a special type of service.
If one has read the Great Commission, or any other relevant passage of scripture, then has one not been called? For the follower of Jesus, it is often not a matter of an absence of a call, but of obedience to it. It is not whether we have been called, but what that call entails. Pastors, missionaries, and other “full-time ministers” do not receive a separate call from other Christians, but merely a specific directing of their call. All are called. There are no exceptions.
One call, many contexts. Each believer has been called to missions in different contexts—the workplace, the academy, the neighborhood, the business world, the political arena, among the last, the least, and the lost. It does not matter whether it is reaching our neighborhood, the people group in the heart of the Middle East, or in my case, the nations among us. All are a missional undertaking. The context does not change the content or the compulsion of the call, simply its location and methodology.
Making disciple-makers. The commission of the Church is not simply to make disciples, but to make disciples who make disciple-makers. It is insufficient, even unacceptable for a believer to simply join a church and warm a pew. Each person must grow into maturity, actively serving and passing on everything that he or she has learned to others. Both the Great Commission and the expressed pattern of Paul’s ministry in 2 Timothy 2:2 describe multigenerational disciple-making.
Missions is a branch of the Church’s ministry, but all ministry is a branch of missions. Rather than relegating missions to that one week, month, or weekend conference in a year, missions must be the central undertaking of the Church. If we are to raise a generation of disciple-makers making disciples, all ministry (from our counseling to our Sunday schools) must have as their penultimate goal the advancement of the kingdom in this world.
Mission does not fit into our lives. Our lives revolve around mission. Mission is not just about going on that trip or project, but about how we live out the missional call day by day, right where we are. While it seems obvious, most Christians in America think of missions as a specific project, rather than the central outworking of their walk with Christ. We must recognize that we are all missionaries, and that we are already living in our mission fields.
The gospel is not only the only right way, it is the better way. The gospel is more than a ticket to heaven. It is the good news that the curse is being reversed, in part now as we experience relationship with God, and in full when Christ returns. The Church, as the outpost of the kingdom, showcases how the deepest desires of our souls are met in Christ, even as it models the highest ideals of humanity. We are to be what the nations desire—the better way of life and relationship. Should that not be prominent in our ministry as we invite the world to follow the Risen One?
The gospel is not just for personal salvation, but for global transformation. The principles laid out in the Bible have wise and ample application for the public square. Just as the faithful prophets spoke into the contemporary issues of their day, we who follow Christ do have things to say about the issues of ours. The Bible is not silent about moral and ethical issues, the role and goal of government, or the administration of the law.
Given my own eschatological bent, I do not think that the Church will solve all of the world’s problems before Christ returns. However, the present Kingdom of God can and does bring powerful healing and transformation among the communities it touches. Beyond personal citizenship in the kingdom, the assembly of God is the embassy of God and a change agent in the world.
Missions is about long-term impact. Just as God’s plan for the world spans the ages, our perspectives on missions must have the long game in view. We must incorporate mission strategies that address the systemic issues of our target communities, rather than simply doing project after project. Given the complexities of the communities we seek to reach, any truly transformational ministry is necessarily multifaceted and multi-disciplinary.
Mission is a privilege, not a burden. The missionary call is often accompanied by suffering, but it is the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. Therein lies a closeness to Christ that is found nowhere else in this life. Therein lies the blessing and privilege of mission. Therein lies joy.
Mission is to be done in community. Missions is not an individual or small team undertaking, but the enduring endeavor of the entire Church. As the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment says, The whole church is to take the whole gospel to the whole world. To that end, we must think on the community level. Whenever possible, ministry should be undertaken as part of a missional kingdom community, drawing from the gifts and talents of our fellow ambassadors to reach the community around us. There is no room for territorialism within the local church.
The motivation for mission is the glory of God. Again, as the Lausanne Cape Town Commitment states, the ultimate motivation for missions is neither obedience to the Great Commission nor even love for the perishing, but zeal for the glory of Christ.
Center for the Study of Global Christianity. 2012. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Accessed August 20, 2013, from wwwgordonconwell.com/netcommunity/CSGCResources/
International Education. 2012. Open Doors. Accessed August 20, 2013, from www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors.
Born and raised in Malaysia, Daniel Lim serves with International Students, Inc. as an area mobilizer, partnering with churches to develop, equip, and train church-based teams to engage international students with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 92-96. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.