by Cody C. Lorance
How is it that when it comes to the development of mission strategy, missions has become essentially syncretized to a secular world? How had they come to make plans which did not actually require faith in order to be carried out?
The room was abuzz with chatter as a number of mission teams busily worked at completing their respective assignments. This was in many ways a typical training event for those who were setting out on a new journey in mission as church planters. The assignment at hand was called the “Master Plan” and essentially was designed to challenge would-be planters to consider how to engage unchurched people, lead them into an encounter with Christ, disciple them in the context of the new church family, and equip and release them for leadership.
As I moved around the room, I observed how the various teams approached the assignment—flow charts were created, church-growth experts were cited, and methods and gimmicks were developed. All in all, it was business as usual.
I wondered why none of the teams seemed to be giving any consideration whatsoever to what God was supposed to do in the process. By and large, the “Master Plans” being conceived really did not require the Lord to do anything other than keep the world spinning and the normal trends of human sociology consistent. As I considered plan after plan, I realized that there were no prayers that needed to be answered, no biblical promises that needed to be kept, and no signs and wonders that needed to be performed. In a manner of speaking, the plans were rather atheistic.
I grew increasingly discouraged as I witnessed this kind of thinking represented by team after team. These were pastors and top lay leaders, great men and women of God who prayed, read scripture, and possessed tremendous devotion to the Triune God. These were people who truly believed that Jesus Christ was the only hope for the world. So how was it that when it came to the development of mission strategy, they had become essentially syncretized to a secular world? How had they come to make plans which did not actually require faith in order to be carried out? Why had they forgotten the God without whom we can do nothing (cf. John 15:5)?
As I meditated upon these things, I came to a final church-planting team. These were men from Ghana, who had immigrated to Chicago in response to what they believed was the Holy Spirit’s calling to plant a multiethnic church. I looked at the large white paper that the team had been making notes on and discovered yet another flowchart, very similar to what I had seen from the other teams. Expecting to hear another atheistic, “Master-less” plan, I asked Pastor Eric Aidoo to explain his chart.
“This first box,” he began, “represents people who are sick or in broken relationships or otherwise need a mighty breakthrough. God will lead us to these people and we will pray for them and invite them to our all-night prayer meetings.” He pointed to the second box and continued, “When God heals them, he will open their hearts to the gospel and they will want to come to our Sunday worship service or to another event. As they hear the message, God will save many of them.”
Before Pastor Eric could move on to the rest of his flowchart, I asked, “Pastor, what if God doesn’t answer prayer? What if he doesn’t work in a powerful way?” With a confident smile, he responded, “If God doesn’t show up, our efforts will be utterly fruitless.”
His words stirred me. I recalled another meeting where leaders from a major evangelical denomination were gathered to develop mission strategy. Taking notes during the meeting, I realized that we went on deliberating and discussing strategy for hours without even mentioning God. I remember feeling very disturbed by that and wondering whether any mission organization remained which had built itself, its mission, and its strategy entirely upon the promises of God.
To what extent can mission leaders today say that if God doesn’t keep his promises, then our plans and ministries will utterly fail? Have we created strategic fail-safes that allow us to progress toward or even accomplish our organizational goals even if our prayers go unanswered and God does not do anything particularly interesting? Have we become functionally atheistic in our mission praxis today? Consider these questions:
- Why are so many divisions in Christ’s body not only tolerated, but actually perpetuated?
- Why do we continue to create duplication and redundancy in mission efforts, rather than pursue collaboration and partnership?
- Why are many areas of injustice and oppression ignored simply because they do not appeal to our donor bases?
- Why are “effectiveness” and “measurable results” prized more highly than faithfulness, obedience, sacrifice, and suffering?
- Why have so many organizations uncritically adopted Western business models and practices and allowed them to shape mission strategies which are only lightly flavored by scripture?
- Why do we pursue “high caliber” leaders through assessment and selection methodology that is often in direct contradiction to the consistent pattern of scripture (cf. 1 Sam. 16:7)?
- Why are prayer, fasting, and worship rarely considered as essential components to our strategies?
- Perhaps it would be worthwhile for me to stop and consider whether a particularly kind-hearted atheist with good management skills couldn’t do my job as a mission leader just as well as me. To what extent is faith actually necessary in the work I am engaged in?
I’m now 35 years old and have been in full-time Christian ministry and mission for more than fifteen years. Perhaps I’m due for a major crisis of faith or a serious bout with cynicism. Perhaps that is all I am really going through. Perhaps I am simply experiencing the death throes of the last vestiges of my youthful naiveté and idealism. Or perhaps the Lord desires to call his Church back to a simple and enduring faith as we engage in mission. Here is something that we know: “Whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe of him” (Ecc. 3:14).
As the people of God, we are not interested in un-enduring things. So since the only enduring things are whatever God does, we long to join him. Indeed, the trajectory of our mission strategy should always reflect a posture of radical leaning upon God to do everything in, through, and in spite of us. It should be manifestly clear that we are believers—convinced that the God we proclaim keeps his promises. It should be impossible for us to even conceive of our ministries making any progress without the outstretched hand of the Almighty. An atheist who examines our plans should find them to be utterly preposterous.
Leviticus 25 is a compelling chapter of scripture that provides us with a good illustration of what I am talking about. Here God is in the process of laying out for Moses his design for the nation of Israel. In particular, he is describing the concept of “Sabbath years.” He commands that every seventh year is to be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land. There was to be no planting or harvesting of any kind. Later in the chapter (v. 20), the Lord anticipates the question that is sure to be on everyone’s mind, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” God’s answer is astonishing:
I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old.” (vss. 21-22)
God lays out an improbable design and when the people ask how it is supposed to work, he says simply that he’ll do a miracle—every single time. To top this, God went on to redeem a sinful people and subsequently to commission them to the foolish task of preaching the message of Jesus Christ to every people group on the planet. As we focus on our particular areas of the global mission field, we may be asking ourselves how this is all supposed to work. How is the gospel to go forward among so many different peoples, cultures, and languages? How is mission supposed to work?
In short, mission works because God keeps his promises. Consider the following examples:
God answers prayer (Ps. 65:1-2). The Psalmist worships the God “who answers prayer.” There are countless other places in scripture that affirm this same fundamental truth. Such simple truths should not be neglected in mission strategy. Whatever else we do, let us pray. May we never become so strategically advanced as to miss this matchless and unfailing promise—when we pray, God will answer.
God’s word will not fail (Isa. 55:10-11). God’s word is very powerful and God’s purpose for his word is immutable. It is always a sure thing that his word shall accomplish the purpose for which God sent it forth. What is more, we know that faith must arise from a hearing of God’s word and that this is normally brought about through the sending out of God’s people to preach and proclaim the gospel (Rom. 10:14-17).
God will deliver the oppressed (Ps. 9:9-10:18). Here, as in many other places, we learn of God’s heart for the oppressed. He is, by nature, a stronghold and a refuge for the afflicted. The heart of God is toward such people and he hears their cries (9:12). God is a just judge who avenges violence (9:12). The needy and poor will not always be forgotten (9:18). God does justice for the orphan and the oppressed (10:18). But the oppressors? They shall be wiped out (10:16). It is only safe that we who are leaders in mission position ourselves so as to be on the winning side of this great confrontation.
Of course, scripture is filled with many other promises. Each must be carefully considered and applied to the context to which we have been called. In my own mission organization, we have taken the first step of prayerfully identifying twelve areas of divine promises that are especially relevant to our ministry among diaspora peoples. Our next step will be to pursue a total redesign of our mission strategy around these promises. Our conviction is that such a strategy will be as sure as the promises of God.
At this point in my career as a younger mission leader, there is tremendous confusion, transition, and struggle. Like many my age, I find myself with increasing influence and authority, but also with increasing pressure to conform to long-established organizational patterns with which I simply do not feel comfortable.
There is a generation ahead of me seeking faithfully to pass the baton, but not without certain conditions and the not-always-subtle expectation that I maintain their essential course, trajectory, and philosophy. These conditions are not completely without merit, of course, but I find myself growing more and more restless with much of the way we have come to do things in mission. In particular, what I have attempted to describe here as atheistic mission cannot be allowed to survive.
Younger, emerging leaders in Christian mission must follow in the footsteps of King Josiah and rediscover the Bible in our day, embrace the promises we discover therein, and boldly call the Church to a renewed faith in the God who will surely keep every single one (2 Kings 22).
Rev. Cody C. Lorance is senior pastor and church-planting leader for Trinity International Baptist Mission and a Diaspora missions catalyst with the Global Diasporas Network. He and his wife, Katherine, have three children and live in Chicagoland.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 350-354. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.