by Gary Corwin
The great lesson of history is that we seldom learn the lessons of history.
The great lesson of history is that we seldom learn the lessons of history. This is true in politics, economics, international diplomacy and every other endeavor in which human relations play a part. This is also true of missions—perhaps nowhere is it more apparent than in the way we speak (or do not speak) about the task of mission, and the way we organize to fulfill it.
As to defining the task, we tend to fall into one of three camps. Some of us reflect modern notions of almost unlimited human capacity and potential (with some good old American “can do” spirit thrown in) to focus on a precise definition of the unreached, and on the time and treasure necessary to reach them. Others of us, shyer about human capacity and potential, but still having a pretty clear idea of who the unreached and least reached are, focus on obediently being in the right places to engage them (but often with less precise attention given to how we should go about the task). Still others of us, characterized by a more postmodern bent, tend to focus much less on the particulars of the task and far more on the particulars of our involvement in it. In short, it’s all about us.
Each of these approaches contains part of the truth, but each also lacks the kind of Spirit-sensitive integration that scripture calls us to. We should be realistic about what is required, but we should not make the mistake of either thinking it all depends on us or that simply doing right things will ensure the outcomes we desire. Job found this to be true, as did Raymond Lull, the early evangelist/martyr to the Muslims.
At the same time, we should be concerned about the passions of our hearts and our obedience to God’s big picture commands and how we go about fulfilling those. We are accountable for both our actions and our lack of them on a daily basis. Moses spent forty years in Midian learning this lesson, and countless servants of the Lord have spent years in the wilderness learning the same lesson.
God intends for us to find our fulfillment in him and in doing his will, but that does not mean we should be self-obsessed or forgetful that it is his glory, pleasure and kingdom we are to seek first. We can look to the disgraced Christian leaders who have fallen from their proud perches in recent decades as a reminder of the importance of keeping God central to our ministry.
What ultimately matters is not so much what we do, but whether we are connected to the vine and in step with what he is doing. The greatest lesson of history is that God often accomplishes his purposes through means and circumstances that we would never choose—war, persecution, famine, slavery and the like. If a review is necessary, just look at the life of Joseph, Acts 8:1 and early Church expansion around the Mediterranean Sea, the fall of the Roman Empire and the conversion of Europe’s barbarian peoples or the role the Japanese invasion of Korea had in setting the stage for massive Church growth in that land.
Concerning how we organize to fulfill the task today, common patterns again emerge that reflect a failure to learn the lessons of history. Here are a few:
1. We put far too much confidence in marketing schemes (name changes, slogans, direct mail campaigns, etc.) and far too little in Bible-saturated self-evaluation to determine whether we are actually doing what we should be doing. If we can find a way to bring the money in, we conclude that we must be doing the right thing and that there is no need to consider change, even when scripture, common sense or global need tell us something different. Israel’s self-destructive faith in the armies of Egypt rather than in the right arm of a faithful God can serve as a reminder of what not to do.
2. In spite of some notable exceptions, we still place far too much weight on the importance of organizational survival at the expense of Great Commission effectiveness. If we were honest, many of us would have to admit that we continue with old structures and policies more to preserve personal comfort than as the best means to achieve kingdom goals. God’s exile of both Israel and Judah make clear that his priority for his people is very different.
3. Our confidence in and constant search for newer and better methods, while admirable when pursued with modesty, often belies our human-centeredness and our addiction to the marketing schemes they make possible (see point one). Some wise person has defined perseverance as a long obedience in the same direction. It seems that we, like generations of religious innovators before us, sometimes forget this truth in our headlong pursuit of the short-cut or the unique.
Given the track record of human history it may be overly optimistic even to imagine it, but may God grant us the grace to be exceptional and actually learn the lessons of history.
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