by Nik Ripken and Barry Stricker
Why do Christians so often reject their call to global missions? The answer to this is in the power of lies and our tendency to believe them.
Early in the gospel story, we are told that Jesus “was tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). He heard the whispers of the evil one: Is this task something you can accomplish? Have you heard the call correctly? Is this obedience worth your life? The questions were intended to distract Jesus from his mission. However, he stayed true to his calling. Even today, he promises he will help us do the same. Still, we acknowledge the power of lies.
God’s people today hear the same whispers: Is this task you have been given something you can actually do? Have you heard the call correctly? Is this obedience worth your life? Soon, we discover we have been distracted. What seemed so clear is suddenly not clear at all. But God’s word is clear. His intentions for us are compelling.
So why is it we regularly hear that more than ninety percent of the world’s evangelistic witness is focused on less than ten percent of the world’s population? Or why do we regularly hear that the Church in the West devotes over ninety percent of God’s resources on itself, sharing only leftovers with the nations? Why do unreached peoples still hunger for a missionary presence? Why do seminaries in the West send fewer than ten percent of their graduates overseas?
Although answers to these questions are complex, some of the answers are wrapped up in the lies God’s people have heard and believed. Below are five lies that need to be recognized, refuted and rejected.
Lie #1: The Bible is an important book, but it was written at a certain time, to a certain group of people, in a certain setting. God’s call no longer applies to our world today.
This lie celebrates God’s activity in the past. It is impossible to read scripture and miss the call to mission. According to this first lie, however, that call belongs to an earlier day. It no longer applies. This first lie claims to honor the Bible, but ultimately dismisses scripture as ancient history. This first lie claims to love the Bible, but ends up stripping scripture of its power. This first lie sounds like this: “Study the Bible; learn it; live by its precepts; even preach it—but realize we live in a different day. God no longer calls his people.”
The following story refutes lie #1.
He was thirty years old when he heard an interviewer had come to his country. The interviewer was trying to understand how it was possible for men and women in this particular country to come to faith in Christ, given the severe persecution that was so prevalent. The man’s people group exceeded twenty-six million at the time—and at that time, outsiders were aware of only three believers.
The man arranged to meet with the interviewer. He shared about earlier days. He talked about disharmony in his marriage. He explained that his children were sick and weak, his crops simply refused to grow and his livestock multiplied erratically.
True to his folk-Muslim culture, he went to the spiritualist for advice. After describing the problems in his life, he received this word: “I will sacrifice a chicken on your behalf. You are to return home. Fast and meditate for three days and three nights. On the third night, an answer to your problems will come.”
The man did exactly as he was instructed. He told the interviewer, “On the third night, a voice without a body came to me, saying ‘Find Jesus, find the good news.’” The man knew nothing but Islam. He had nothing but an oral Quran. He had never met a Christian. He had never heard of a Bible. He did not know whether “Jesus” was a fruit, a vegetable or a rock. He did, however, want the good news he had been told about. This voice instructed him to go to a particular city about five hours away. It was a city the man had never visited. The voice instructed him to ask the first two men he met in the city to direct him to a certain street. Then, he was to search for a door marked with certain numbers.
This man, without informing his wife or children, left his village the next day. He walked five hours over the mountains. He arrived at the city, and he asked the first two men he saw to direct him to a certain street. He walked down that street until he saw the door marked with the correct number. He knocked on the door until an older gentleman opened it. “What do you want?” the older man asked. The young man answered, “I have come to find Jesus and the good news!”
A hand shot out and pulled the young man into the house. “You Muslims must think I am idiot to fall for something like this!” the older man cried. But the young man replied, “Sir, I do not know if you are an idiot or not, but this is why I have come. I have been told to come.”
Over the next hour, the young man told his story. God had led this man to the home of one of the three believers known among that people group at the time! Patiently, this older man shared the story of Jesus with the young man until the good news became his own. The young man returned to his village. Over time, his wife saw the change in his life and she too became a believer. His children regained their health; his crops and livestock prospered. Faith broke out in his village.
God is still at work. He still calls. Even in seemingly dark places, God is making himself known.
Lie #2: God is moving powerfully and miraculously overseas. However, his miracles do not happen in the West.
This second lie forces us to grapple with our understanding of miracles: what they are and whether they continue to happen today. Reports of the mighty acts of God around the world are common. Stories from Asia tell of hundreds of thousands of baptisms, followed by waves of new church starts. Stories from Africa celebrate revival. Stories from South America speak of spiritual and numerical growth. In the West, we find these stories exciting, but we also tend to believe that such things only happen in faraway places. We tend to believe that God does not do miracles here, with us. The story below refutes lie #2.
The Chinese House Church Movement is a story of the miraculous. Conservative estimates of believers in house churches in China begin at 100 million. The interviewer was astounded by the church growth observed in three church planting movements. In one location, over 150 house church leaders were being trained. Pastors sat on the ground in rows as other leaders passed among them. They seemed to be tearing pages out of books, distributing them to the people seated on the ground.
In horror, the interviewer suddenly realized these leaders were tearing copies of the Bible into page-sized pieces. He asked what could possibly cause such destruction of God’s word. The answer cut him to the heart. “There are about 150 pastors here today,” he was told. “Only five of us own a Bible. We are tearing our Bibles into its separate books and distributing them so that each leader can return home with at least one book to teach from the Bible.”
The interviewer watched as they passed books of the Bible back and forth. “Have you taught Genesis? No? Here it is.” Rip. “Have you taught Luke yet? Here is Luke.” Rip. The sound of tearing pages filled the air.
Then the house church leaders began to ask the interviewer questions. One asked, “Has Jesus made it to other countries yet or has he come only to China?” The interviewer told them of millions of believers in other countries. The church leaders cried out in delight. They were amazed to hear of churches that were free to meet whenever they wished. They were astonished to hear of individuals who personally had several copies of the Bible, in addition to study books.
Suddenly, the house church leaders began to cry, “Why, God, don’t you love us like you love the believers in America? Why can we not experience the miracles you grant to the believers in America?” The interviewer could not believe his ears. He asked them to explain their anguish. Their experience rivaled the stories of the apostles. Miracles of healing were common. Thousands were coming to faith in Jesus. Almost half of their pastors had served multiple years in prison for sharing their faith—often starting churches in those prisons. How could they possibly compare those miracles to what the interviewer had told them about America?
They were surprised the interviewer did not understand. “Which is more miraculous?” they asked. “That we can divide our Bibles chapter by chapter, or that you can own dozens of them, along with music books and study materials? Which is more miraculous? That Chinese are being healed by the hundreds of thousands and that maybe a thousand of them can discern their healing has come from Jesus—or that you can access doctors and health care any time you choose? Which is more miraculous? That we move from house to house, meet on different days of the week and at different times during the day—or that you can go to church all day, every day, and that no one would ever think of arresting you or your pastor? Which is more miraculous? That we view prison as our theological training ground—or that you can study in special schools set aside for believers? Which is more miraculous?”
It was the interviewer’s time to weep. He realized what he had called “common” in his own country would be considered profoundly miraculous by most of the believing and persecuted world.
We should take care in defining the miraculous. What we dismiss as common is nothing other than the activity of God. It is crucial we see it, call it what it is, live in gratitude for all God is doing and recognize the responsibility that accompanies gifts such as these.
Lie #3: If God wants me to be a missionary, he will give me a
This third lie is an attempt to avoid personal responsibility. It sounds good at first: If God wants me to go, he can make that clear. But just beneath the surface is another thought: Absent a special call from God, I have no personal responsibility. The following story refutes lie #3.
He came to Jesus at the age of eighteen. He had finished high school and was working in a factory. One night, he heard God’s call and gave his life to Christ. Upon the advice of people he trusted, he made his way to a denominational-based college. He did not have much background in the faith, but he was hungry to learn. He began to read the New Testament and was taken by the four Gospels.
He fell in love with the work and the will of God. He simply trusted God and tried to live his life under the authority of scripture. Reading what he later learned was the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 and another word in Acts 1:8, he thought, “This is God’s word and it has authority over me. God says in his word that I should go the nations, so I must do that if I am to be Jesus’ follower.” It was simple and straightforward. With joy, this uneducated man had understood that the entire world was open to him for ministry. That is what God had told him in his word. And that is what he believed—until the day that he encountered the mission agency.
He was married now, and thrilled at the prospect of following through on the biblical command to “go to the ends of the earth.” With his wife, he applied through his denomination to serve overseas. Soon he and his wife were in a small room with some men in suits. They looked at him and said, “Tell us about your call to foreign missions.” He innocently looked at them and said, “I read Matthew 28:18 and Acts 1:8.” They smiled. “That’s good,” they said, “but with this board, there has to be an experience of ‘a divine call’ to foreign missions. Tell us how God called you to overseas missions.”
The young candidate was confused. “I read the Bible,” he said. “I read Matthew 28:18 and Acts 1:8. I read God’s command to go to the nations—and I am trying to go!” By now, his wife was in tears. Raised within the denomination, she could see her husband did not know the secret code words that opened the doors for overseas missions. With patience, the men in suits explained again the agency’s position about “a call” that would allow the agency to send a family overseas. Not knowing any better, the candidate replied, “I am simply trying to be obedient to what God has commanded me to do. It seems this denomination has created a special call to foreign missions that would give people an excuse not to be obedient to what God has already commanded.” Dead silence. Surprisingly, he was approved. He and wife headed overseas.
Every culture has filters through which God’s voice is discerned. Every person is culturally conditioned to hear God in certain ways. But religious systems add more filters. The longer a religious system is in place, the more requirements are developed to guide those who are part of that system. We claim, rightly, that “call” is vital. But our conversations about call should be focused on where we have been called rather than on whether we have been called. Should I be in Jerusalem? Judea? Samaria? Should I be serving at the ends of the earth? That is a conversation worth having. But have I been called? That question should have been settled long ago.
Lie #4: I have made a bargain with God. If I work hard in my own church, then God will not call my children to the nations. There is no way God would want me to be without my children and grandchildren.
Listen to the story below.
He was the toughest man the interviewer had ever met. From a Muslim background, the man agreed to meet in a Central Asian city where he was not known. His hawk-like features were arresting; his eyes chips of coal. His presence seemed to fill the entire room.
For years, he had been a freedom fighter, leading a squad of fifteen men in attempts to run the foreigners out of his Muslim country. As a freedom fighter, he reveled in stalking his enemies until he could slit their throats with his own hands. Those from his own country who cooperated with these godless foreigners often met the same fate by his knife. He rejoiced to feel their blood wash over their hands. He could not number the dozens, perhaps hundreds, he had personally put to death. He planned, he led and he killed.
He recalled when the day came that he could not get the blood off his hands. He saw the blood every waking moment and he saw the blood in his dreams each night. This went on for weeks. However, one night he had a different dream. In this dream, Jesus came to him and told him that he, Jesus, could remove this bloodstain forever. This divine encounter led this freedom fighter to investigate the man named Jesus and his claim of cleansing. The blood of Jesus washed this fighter clean of his bloodlust by cleansing his soul.
The change in his life was so dramatic that he began to carry the good news to others in his own country. He smuggled Bibles through the mountain passes of his homeland. He did this until, one day in an isolated mountain pass, he came face to face with the fifteen men he had once led. They had been looking for their former commander, this one-time freedom fighter now turned believer. They threw him to the ground and broke his wrists and ankles with the butts of their rifles. Before they could kill him, however, a secret believer in the group spoke up: “If we kill him, we will not be able to uncover others who might be helping him spread this foreign faith. Let me take him to a village nearby. I will patch him up so that we can beat the truth out of him and uncover other apostates.”
They placed their former leader into this man’s care. Traveling to the nearest village, this man patched the man up. Together, the two of them crossed the border into a neighboring country. Hours went by as the interviewer listened to the faith story of this man. Then, the interviewer asked this man to talk about his wife and his children. With a cry of despair, this nail-hard follower of Jesus pleaded, “How can God ask this of me? I will sacrifice my own life. But how can God ask this of me? I have already given so much, but I lie awake at night worrying that my son, my daughters and my wife will pay the same price that I have paid to follow Jesus. How can God ask that of me?”
There is only one thing more difficult than releasing our own lives into the hands of God—and that is releasing the lives of our loved ones. What risks are we willing to shoulder for the sake of the Kingdom of God? What is the hardest task? Going? That is difficult; however, going is not the hardest task. The hardest task is sending: sending our loved ones to serve the nations.
Lie #5: The safest place in the world is within the will of God.
“Are our missionaries safe?” is a commonly asked question. Missionary safety is of prime importance. Yet if that is the main issue for families, churches and agencies, then there is only one thing to do: stop sending. Western culture has attempted to cleanse faith of its rough edges. Surely God only wants what is best for me, my family and my country! When troubles come, are they not a sign of God’s disfavor? Has Western Christianity attempted to neuter the heart of faith by removing the suffering and persecution the New Testament promises are intrinsic to following Jesus?
It may be time for the Church in the West to admit we are afraid. Often, when Muslim Background Believers are asked what they learn from missionaries, they sadly respond, “Missionaries teach us to be afraid.” This is not just a missiological mistake. It is a sin. Missionaries may be afraid of getting local believers arrested or harmed. They may be afraid they will lose their visas or work permits. They may fear moving, learning another language or placing their children in yet another school. Where did missionaries learn to be afraid? They learned fear from their parents, churches and sending bodies.
The lie that personal safety, and an absence of risk, is of paramount importance is a heinous lie that has infected Western, believing enterprises globally. What do Chinese house church leaders call prison? They call it their “theological training school.” What did pastors and lay leaders call persecution, and even martyrdom, in their environment during the years of the Soviet Union? They called it “normal.”
Fear is devastating. It paralyzes. It is the deadly enemy of the Church. What can believers do in the face of such a destructive lie? Choose not to be afraid. The one thing Satan can never take from one of God’s created is the freedom to make the right and godly choice. Not being afraid is commanded. What’s more, it is always possible.
Five lies that need be recognized, refuted and rejected. God’s people have no higher calling than to live in the light of his truth. May it be so.
Dr. Nik Ripken (pseudonym) serves as a strategy associate with the International Mission Board. Nik has served with his wife Beth in Northern Africa and the Middle East since 1983. Barry Stricker began serving as pastor of Huron Shores Fellowship in Alpena, Michigan, in 2007. Previously, he was pastor of Tiburon Baptist Church in Tiburon, California.
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