by Justin D. Long
Three temptations the church faces—and why we resist them.
I have a motto that appears on all my e-mail: "Never retreat. Never surrender. Never cut a deal with a dragon." I can’t claim originality for it: This is a case of something bad (a quote from a role-playing game I perused in a store several years ago) turned to something good (a motto for a life of missionary commitment). It is a firm answer to three temptations that the church faces.
Temptation No. 1: Retreat from the frontier. One of the greatest missed opportunities in the world’s history was in 1266, when the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan asked the pope to "send me 100 men skilled in your religion… and so I shall be baptized, and then all my barons and great men, and then their subjects. And so there will be more Christians here than there are in your parts." The pope sent just two Dominicans-and they turned back because of snow.
Missionaries are often tempted to retreat. Buffeted by a strange culture, lost in the midst of a new language, harangued by a hostile government, persecuted by radical elements in the local religion, lacking material comforts, beset with a huge task, having little help and support from home. The missionary must overcome many obstacles daily, and it is not an easy task. Many burn out and return home. There is no shame in going on "retreat" for a while (as Jesus did, spending time alone with God seeking renewal). Still, to retreat from our commission into what people call a "normal" life is wrong—yet so easily done.
Worse, there are circumstances that occasionally force us to retreat. It is an unfortunate fact that missionaries are many times required to return to home base due to a lack of resources. I cannot fault a missionary for this, but I do fault the church. How sad it is when our army must return from a battle, without having really fought the good fight, without seeing souls saved-all because Christians were selfish with their money, desiring to spend it on games and coffee instead of investing it in people! Like those who give offense to little children, I think a millstone should be hung around their neck and they should be cast into the sea. Harsh, perhaps-but then not so harsh when you consider a world where 2 billion people easily have the means to make sure the gospel is presented to the 1 billion who have never heard.
Temptation No. 2: Surrender the frontier. To follow our story, in 1278, the pope sent five Franciscans, and by 1300 they were at work in 17 stations throughout the empire, with a monastery at Cambaluc.
Most missionaries resist the urge to retreat. They are met with a second temptation, a much more insidious one: to surrender the challenge of work among frontier peoples, and serve instead the backslidden, downtrodden, persecuted Christians in the nation. After all, what could a handful of Franciscans do among millions of Mongols? What can 8,000 missionaries today do for 1 billion unevangelized people? Or, to put it more specifically, what can a handful of modern nonresidential missionaries and advocates do for the 1 million Qashqa’i of Iran?
This is not to say that ministry among the Christians of frontier countries isn’t needed. However, a frontier-focused missionary working in such a country shouldn’t be working exclusively among Christians! We might be working with them in order to mobilize them to reach the unevangelized; but whatever we do must be a means for the end of preaching the gospel to those who have never heard it. Frontier missionaries cannot surrender mat calling. We must constantly seek for new ways, options, possibilities, and opportunities for creatively evangelizing the unevangelized peoples of our planet.
Fortunately, the Franciscans didn’t make this mistake, and now we turn to the results of their labor.
Temptation No. 3: Cutting deals on the frontier. By 1349, there were 30,000 Christians in the Mongol empire in China, most of them Mongols. Although this is hardly the whole of the Mongol empire, it nonetheless demonstrates the staying power and incredible impact of the commitment the Franciscans had. In 1358, the inevitable, harsh response of our spiritual enemy began. Mongol hordes under Tamerlane began to destroy the Christian civilization in China and Northern India. Within a decade, Christianity had all but disappeared from the country of China, and by 1380—four years before John Wycliffe produced the first English Bible—the Mongols had completely destroyed the church throughout Asia. Seventy thousand heads were piled on the ruins of Isfahan and another 90,000 in Baghdad.
Few missionaries were going to China just then. At the time the big revival was in Russia, where Christianity was being spread far and wide by Orthodox monks. Still, isn’t it interesting that throughout history most Christians have been drawn to where the flame is reaching bonfire levels, rather than to where it needs to be started? I call this the "third temptation": the temptation to cut a deal with the dragon.
The temptation goes like this: We tell the devil, "I’ll stay out of your yard if you stay out of mine." The "yard" is defined by the Holy Spirit-our "big brother" who’ll beat the devil up if he gets out of line. If God starts moving supernaturally in some area of the world, we know we can thumb our nose at the enemy, leap in, and be part of the divine revival. Until God moves, however, we aren’t ready to get involved.
This is expressed by a missionary policy that says, "We go where the Spirit is presently moving." The corollary: If there aren’t already huge numbers of conversions, the agency won’t go. Scripture demands of us, "How will the lost be saved, unless they hear? And how will they hear, unless someone preaches? And how will workers preach, unless someone sends?" Now we have an answer: We wait for the Spirit to begin divinely moving among the lost with dreams, and visions, and miracles. Some suggest we wait for such a sign because God should lead any work. I think, however, the true root cause of this is fear.
We are frightened of the enemy. Who wants to go where Christians are being killed? You have to be certain-dead certain-of your commission as a missionary before doing that. If the supernatural is happening, then we have gained a sense of certainty.
We are frightened of looking like fools. What if we go and get arrested? Would God have protected us if we were really called? Does it mean we weren’t called? Does it mean we shouldn’t have gone?
We are frightened of being failures. What if we go, invest our lives, and nothing happens? No one accepts the gospel, no one is interested? What if, according to our measurements of success, nothing happened? Have we wasted donor money? Have we planned poorly?
To put it in another light, what of the ministry of the Franciscans among the Mongols? All of it was destroyed in the space of 25 years. Would it have happened if they had "waited on God"? Should they have even gone in the first place? These are the questions I’m sure some people today would be’ asking. If God is already moving- well, then, that’s another matter. We can see people are already being drawn to God. His anointing is obviously on the movement. We can’t fail. The harvest is ripe; all we have to do is step in and pick up the sheaves of grain.
Here’s the secret I think the Franciscans knew: God did not tell us to wait for him to move among the unevangelized. He told us to wait for him to move among us.
In the Great Commission account, Jesus says, "Wait until you are clothed with power from on high." Then the disciples were to be his witnesses. So they gathered together in the room, they prayed, they fasted, they earnestly sought this "anointing." They didn’t know what it would be like, what it would do-they only knew they wanted it. We should, too. Once they had it, they went.
Moses was a case study in fearful excuses. How many times have we said, "If only I had a visitation from a burning bush! Then I’d have a clear calling. Then I’d be certain I was doing the right thing!" Moses saw a burning bush and still had a dozen reasons not to go. What if he failed? What if Pharaoh didn’t listen? What if the Israelites despised him? God gave him signs. Then he gave signs to the Israelites and the Egyptians. Finally, God told them to shut up and get moving.
There was Moses, standing on the bank of the Red Sea: Israelites complaining, Egyptians racing toward them, the impassable waters in front of him. "Be still," he told the Israelites, "and the Lord will fight for you." But fighting was not what God had in mind. He told Moses, "Why are you crying unto me? Tell the Israelites to move on" (Exod. 14:15). So Moses, for lack of anything better to do, stretched out his staff over the sea… and the sea opened up. Nothing stands in the way of God’s plan except us.
It is not right to "stay in our place" and wait for God to move into the enemy camp. We are a spiritual army, armed, prepared, and given marching orders. It is time to start seeking out opportunities to wrestle with the enemy. Our primary mode of battle is the evangelization and conversion of the lost. Isn’t it time we got about our business?
When God has said "be my witnesses," it is wrong to stop and consider-to pray about whether we should get involved or not. We have a clear commission to the world, and it is wrong not to take the gospel everywhere, including straight into the enemy’s holdings. With only 8,000 foreign missionaries and 27,000 home missionaries working among the billion least evangelized, you are needed. You do not have to be qualified now-you can be trained. You do not have to be able- only willing. Everything you need to bring the gospel to the frontiers will be provided by a God who knows where you will fit in the great movement of world evangelization. The one thing you need do is surrender to your role in the Greatest Plan of all, and step out in action.
Justin D. Long is associate editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia.
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