by David Kornfield
There is a need for a different understanding of “missionary” than what many people have.
I came to Wheaton College, a scared, excited freshman, from a high school of fifty people, with the goal of returning to missionary work in Bolivia as quickly as possible. Nine years later I’m still here. Why am I still here, when I know I’m called to starting churches in Latin America? Why am I committed to an indefinite time here?
Basically, preparation. "What?! Nine years of preparation and more to come," you say. "What are you planning to be – a Jesuit?" No, a missionary. "Whew," you say, you must have a different idea of being a missionary than I do! That’s possible, since there are about as many ideas about what a missionary is as I’ve got fingers on my hands. It’s impossible to talk about this subject without stepping on someone’s toes.
Perhaps the most prevalent concept is that a missionary is anyone who joins a mission organization and usually, though not always, works overseas. The thinking behind this is roughly equivalent to thinking that anyone who joins a church is a Christian. You may go overseas as a mechanic, a pilot, a nurse, a missionary, children’s school teacher, a secretary, an accountant, and so on. If you join a mission, although you may do nothing differently overseas than if you were in the States, you are a 11 missionary." And that takes very little more preparation than what it would take to earn a living here in the States. So, if that’s your concept of missionary – a concept much popularized by the recent emphasis on short-term missionaries – then we may be on different wave lengths. It is not surprising that the country that has instant TV dinners, instant coffee, minute rice, instant breakfasts, instant just- about- everythings, would produce the instant missionary. I suggest there is a need for a different understanding of "missionary" than what many people have. God is preparing me for his service in Latin America, and this takes time.
TIME TO GAIN VISION
The Almighty wants men and women with Christ’s vision – a vision of a mature and perfect church. I confess that in saying this I am making the assumption that the children of the King have a passionate vision for him above and beyond all else.
Let me tell you briefly how my vision concerning Christ’s church has grown. Coming to Wheaton, I expected to return upon graduation to work in Bolivia with young people, both Bolivians and the children of missionaries. I sensed keenly from my own experience the need for these two separate groups of God’s people to come together. In my second year at college I was working with the young people at Wheaton Bible Church. One night I walked a fellow student to her home and then stayed up till three in the morning with her and another friend discussing the question, "How can I be most influential for God?" What he led me to think is that by teaching in a university I could influence not just teens, but the elite of the country and thereby perhaps the whole country. This new vision blew the "wineskin" of the old one to pieces. A few months later I was excitedly sharing this with our mission director and he said, "Dave, don’t you think you might be limiting God?" The new wineskin began to be strained as I began to think how I might influence Latin America for God. I prepared myself professionally in anthropology and in educational planning for Third World countries. I also began to get more and more excited about starting churches.
In Latin America I learned that, almost without my knowing it, God had popped the Latin America wineskin and expanded my vision yet again. I realized with a shock that my great love was no longer for Latin American per se, but for Christ’s church. The Father wants to take our hearts and fashion them after the heart of our Lord, as Paul expressed in Ephesians 5:21-33. A study of this passage will reveal the passionate love Christ has for his church, the vision he has of her, and the commitment he has to see her become all that she is called to be. Having such a vision for the church, I am convinced, is something God desires of each one of us, and is something that anyone thinking of being a missionary just has to have!
Many missionaries who go overseas to be church-planters have never started a church in their own culture. Some missionaries who go overseas have as their image of the church a rectangular shaped building with a steeple, pews, a pulpit, hymnbooks, and a pastor. Some missionaries who help start churches make an imitation of the same thing in another culture. Is the typical U.S. church what Christ really wants his church to be? Some of us will almost instinctively say no, as we react to ways we’ve been hurt or turned off by the church. The kind of missionary God really wants is one who has Christ’s love for the church and on that basis is willing to carefully think through what the church should be and commit his life to seeing the church become that. God desires not just individual maturity, but corporate maturity, and that is what the church is all about.
This is what God has been demanding by way of preparation for me – not seminary, but sitting down and carefully working through with others our theology and our practice of the church. And then getting up and putting it into practice by starting a church in Wheaton and expecting to see it multiply into two churches. God is keeping me here in Wheaton and in the U. S. because he has so much to teach me about his church, and there is no other way to learn it than through living it.
TIME TO LEARN SUBMISSION
But God wants more of a missionary than a vision of his church. The second basic characteristic I think God is looking for is submission. Satan delights in seeing Christians treat this as a "red flag" word. But submission to Christ cannot be separated from submission to his people, much as we pretend it can. Which is most prevalent in our churches – a team ministry in which mutual submission, interdependence, and community are modeled, or a "Lone Ranger" ministry in which unilateral authority and independence are modeled? The world’s model for maturity is independence and its model for, strength is power. Christ’s model for maturity (Eph. 4:11-16) is interdependence and his model for strength (Matt. 20:25-28) is servanthood.
Think of the Acts 13 model of missionary recruitment and compare it with the following recruitment pattern. Joe Christian goes to a Christian college, an Urbana ’79, or a missions convention of some sort, and decides he’s going to be a missionary deciding independently of any church. He writes half a dozen missions, just as he once wrote half a dozen colleges – independently of the church. He’s accepted by two pretty much on the same basis he was accepted for college – he meets their entrance requirements (which probably do not include having a vision for Christ’s church or being in submission to elders). He chooses one of the two – independently of the church. Joe Christian then begins deputation – alone. X church doesn’t want to support him? Well, he’ll go down the block to Y church. Given enough time, Joe Christian gets to enough churches and eventually gets enough support. And once he has his support, he’s accepted as a missionary and he’s on his way. He’s on his way to being an authority in the church and on the church – without ever having understood submission. Without ever having understood interdependence, he is the model Christian for many to follow. Without ever having understood what it means to be part of a team, he’s trying to teach "body life" to others.
That is why I’m still here preparing. I’m learning about interdependence with my wife, with my fellow elders and church workers, and with the rapidly growing family God has given us as a church. I’m learning the value of a plurality of leadership in spiritual authority. I’m learning about accountability to others and responsibility for others. God has much to teach me and I rest confident that he will not send me until he knows I’m prepared.
TIME TO LEARN TO PENETRATE
God wants missionaries with a vision for his church and an experiential understanding of submission and interdependence, but he wants more. He wants missionaries who are eager and prepared to penetrate the world. Obvious? Yes and no. Let me paint a picture that is slightly ludicrous, but has just enough reality in it to hurt.
Joe "average" Christian goes to a state school and may or may not select just Christians as his buddies. He is quite likely to be actively involved with non-Christians at every turn.
Joe "better-than-average" Christian goes to a Christian college and loses almost all touch with the non-Christian world, but upon graduation is immersed in it again, and he either sinks or swims.
Joe "better-than-average among Christian collegians" majors in Christian education, Bible or Greek, not only losing touch with non-Christians during college, but also having a fair chance of never getting back into such relationships when he goes "into the ministry." Those who are most committed among this bunch go to seminary for three or four more years of professional disassociation from, the non-Christian world, with great unlikelihood of getting a job outside of religious organizations and the church.
Who has the most likelihood of being out of touch with the non-Christian world? Those who are most committed. Who is most likely to be a missionary? Those who are most committed.
We get upset with countries that ban missionaries who have nothing to contribute other than their religious vocation. Did you ever stop to think that God might be in control of that? Could it be his way of weeding out those who are not penetrating the nonChristian world?
it is because of this that my wife and I are preparing to be penetrators, she through nursing, me through educational planning. And such preparation takes time.
Does it seem too long? From our human point of view, especially with our instant culture, it certainly does. But think for a moment. How long did it take to prepare Joseph for leadership? Moses? Joshua? David? Jesus himself? Paul? The impact of our lives will be in proportion to our willingness to let God prepare us in his way and with his timing. Our lives are just like the seed in the parable of the sower. Some of us may spend all of our lives never being rooted as God wants, never having the solid foundation of finding our place in his church. Some may take root, but in our anxiety to do something for the Lord, we try growing so quickly that when problems come, our roots will not be able to hold us up. We overextend ourselves and God has to do some pruning to bring depth into our lives. And then there are those who are willing to die to themselves, be rooted deeply, and they will bring forth thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. They will do this not because they try, but rather because their roots are such that they can’t help themselves.
So why am I still in the States nearly six years after graduating from Wheaton? Preparation. I will be here until the church with which I work recognizes my calling to the ministry of starting churches, until the believers test and prove me in this area, and until in God’s timing my wife and I, hopefully, as part of a team, are set apart by the Holy Spirit to go to Latin America as missionaries. How long will that take? As long as it takes us to be prepared by God. When he knows we’re ready, he will repeat Acts 13:1,2 in our lives. The elders and church workers whom we are submitted to, with whom we are interdependent, through prayer and perhaps fasting, will recognize that the Holy Spirit has set us apart. Going as a team will allow us to continue living in submission and interdependence, as we become "sent ones" (the root meaning of the word "missionary").
God is calling for Christians who have a vision of his church who have an experiential understanding of submission and interdependence, and who are penetrating the world. You who have a God-given desire to be servants to his church, either here in the States or overseas, are you listening? If you are listening, are you willing to give what it will ake to prepare?
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