Wednesday, June 13, 2007

It Is Time

by Mike Stroope

For the past ten years, I have been seriously thinking about and campaigning for the local church's involvement in the worldwide mission of God. My conviction that the church should take the leading role in missions has not diminished over these years but has only increased as I have studied Scripture and considered the task of missions. Because God's mission is to reconcile the world to Himself, the church must find its purpose and meaning in this mission. I am convinced more than ever that the local church must be more than a passive observer of this mission; it is meant to be at its frontlines. As the church prepares for mission, sends its people to the nations, and participates directly in the harvest that is to come, it is the church. Because it exists for God's sending, the church has no option but to center its life and activity in His mission.

And yet, questions about how the local church's mission activity will look and by what means the church is to go to the nations seem to be the overwhelming concern. I hear pastors and church leaders voice deep conviction that their churches must do missions, but in the end most of them stumble over how it is to be done and by what means. That which we are deeply committed to is left undone because our familiar and convenient mission paths have disappeared. So, we want to do missions, but we don't know how or by what means. What is needed is a clear mission pathway, a vision of the way forward.

This past month I traveled to Niger, West Africa with a group from First Baptist Church, Arlington. What I saw inspired and challenged me. I offer two observations that I feel could provide us with direction for a way forward.

First, the seed of the gospel is powerful. I saw that a simple presentation of the story of God's love and sacrifice in Jesus Christ could trigger a response from people who had never heard. A Muslim man traveled from a nearby village, heard the story for the first time, and immediately said, "I want to follow Jesus." The story is not hard to tell nor is it complicated. It does not require much from us, except accurate telling. This is because inherent in the story is the power to change men, women, and children! The mission of the church is not rocket science. Its mission is to sow the powerful gospel seed and trust that it will produce a bountiful harvest. We need to remember that this gospel "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16), and thus, we do not control or produce its powerful effect. Structures and logistics exist only to serve the seed and are not in themselves the mission or its power. The mission of God is the broadcasting of this powerful seed by faithful sowers. I was reminded that my focus must be the seed and sowing.

Second, I observed rank-and-file, ordinary men and women of the church participating directly in the mission of God. Were they doing it with cross-cultural perfection, according to the latest strategy, or with super pure motives? No, but they were there, telling the simple story to people who had never heard, and they were there, loving men, women, and children in the name of Jesus. And they were there as part of a long-term commitment of the church, and they were the latest in a long chain of church members who had also been there. I saw an engineer, a social worker, a student, and a web designer, all members of a local church, sowing powerful gospel seed into lives of people in an African village. Alongside them were equally ordinary Fulani believers doing the same. These servants of the living God told the Jesus story to people who had never heard. Why? Because this is what the ordinary people of God do. Their calling is to give witness to their neighbor and to the ends of the earth.

While we stumble over the questions of how missions is to look and by what means it is to be done, literally millions of people in Niger, China, Brazil, Cambodia, and Zanzibar live their lives without knowledge of Jesus, and they pass into eternity without being reconciled to God. Scripture poses a set of questions to us: "How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom. 10:14-15) The story must be told and story-tellers must be sent, if people are to hear and believe. I have returned from Niger reminded that you and I will not be judged according to whether we correctly answer the logistical and structure questions of missions but according to how we respond to the command to send and tell.

In no way do I wish to minimize logistical and structural concerns. They are real and substantial. We must count the cost, we must responsibly attend to the details of going, and we must care for those we send. But I am afraid that we have become obsessed with these concerns to the extent that they blind us to our commission to tell the Jesus story. In a very real sense, these concerns have become a kind of anti- mission or a wet blanket that dampens or even extinguishes our passion for the mission of God. The truth is that we can miss the mission of God if we allow ourselves to be distracted by less than ultimate concerns or to become paralyzed by our inability to figure it all out. I believe the time for think-tanks and forums has passed. The time for talking is over. In fact, we can fool ourselves into thinking that because we have talked about missions, we are doing missions. We have talked enough. It is time to do missions.

One indication that now is the time to do missions is evidenced by the emergence of Global Connection Partnership Network, a new and unique church- based, sending entity. The goal of GCPN is to simplify the nuts and bolts of mission sending so that ordinary people from local churches are able to sow abundantly the seed of the gospel. As one who knows what it takes to send and sustain long-term witnesses, I am convinced that GCPN is positioned to provide necessary logistical support and structure, so that churches can move beyond these concerns and focus on effective sending of their people.

What is new and unique about this entity is that, unlike sending organizations of our past, GCPN is based in local churches and operates in a mutually interdependent relationship with churches to provide expertise, training, counsel, support, and collaborative sending. It is a hybrid organization that marries the essentials of our mission past with the best possibilities of our mission future. GCPN respects the missionary role of the church and serves its mission to be the people of God among the nations.

The time is now. It is time to be the people of God. . . going to the world, telling the simple story of God's love and redemption in Jesus, and loving real people in distant villages. It is time to join together. . .walk alongside, assist, and support each other. . . as we collectively pursue our commission to be the sent people of God. It is time for every tribe, people, tongue and nation to worship Jesus as their Lord and God. It is time.

Embracing the Covenant Call of God

As I departed from the airport after placing a young DBU graduate on a plane destined for one of the most difficult countries in the world, I was overwhelmed by a huge sense of responsibility. I have placed literally thousands of volunteers on planes in my 26 years as a minister. But this was different. This student will not be back in two weeks with wonderfully naïve stories of adventure about the people she met and the places she went. No. This one will not be returning in two weeks or two months. She is gone to serve as an extension of my church among a people who don't want her in a land Satan has claimed his own. Her mother's tears were raining on my heart. This send-off was truly an act of faith for my church.

As I drove away, the haunting question I could not avoid was, "What is an act of faith in the American church?" When I pondered that question I felt a huge sense of shame. For in most American churches we equate faith with our willingness to take on the challenge of a bigger bank note. Faith in many churches is often related to the physical expansion of our facilities. Faith for the American minister may refer to our willingness to slightly offend the overly-indulged and complacent in order to move them to a place of minimal sacrifice, realizing the risk of offending some to the point of withholding money or transferring their membership to another local church. How many times have I asked my church to do something that was truly risky? The real answer to that question is, not often enough.

I want my church to be pleasing to God. I want to be a part of a missional body of believers. It is difficult to imagine that any church could be missional without understanding God's heart for the world and the role of God's people in fulfilling His heart's dream. From Genesis to Revelation the Word of God tells the story of a relational God who would go to the most God-like extremes to bring a rebellious mankind back into a loving relationship with Himself. The Old Testament people of God received a commission through their faith-Father, Abraham, to be a people through whom all the peoples on earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:5). The commission of His people was further clarified in God's words to Moses - You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The result of the Old Covenant commission is imagined in the writings of the psalmist who commanded the people of God. . .declare His glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples. For great is the Lord, most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. . .

The Old Covenant was initiated by a Sovereign God with a chosen people whose calling was to reconcile a sinful world. In this reconciliation, God's glory among the nations is the ultimate reality. Anything short of an acknowledgement of his glory is a denial of Truth.

The New Testament describes God's people as ministers of a new covenant. . .of the Spirit. . .that gives life (2 Cor. 3:5). Jesus clearly defines the role of the New Covenant People in relation to the nations:

. . .go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. . .

Churches desiring to become missional must realize the responsibility of the covenant. As Jesus clarified, the covenant has not changed, it has just been fulfilled. The Church's role as New Covenant People is to share the good news of this fulfillment so that God may be glorified. That is why Paul relates to New Covenant believers as ministers of reconciliation - that God is reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

Until the Church ceases to see herself as only a recipient of the blessings of the covenant without embracing the responsibilities of the covenant, we are destined to fall short of God's intentions for us as the People of God. Yes, Israel was to receive blessing from God - but not that it might be grasped or held tightly, but that it might flow through her to a world that was lost. In the same way, the Church has been given the empowerment through the Spirit of God to be witnesses, ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation.

What would it mean for your church or mine to embrace the covenant call of God? No one can answer that for you but God Himself. But perhaps it may mean that we give less thought to cost, liability, face and form to focus on discipleship, formation, obedience, sacrifice and suffering. Now that's not popular American theology. We might even be forced to burn some chaff. So if we are measuring our success by budgets and numbers, we may be in for some serious re-shaping of our image. But in the end we will each answer the question, "What did you do with what I gave you?" I have a strong sense that the correct answer to that question will not be found in monuments and meetings. I have a feeling the correct answers to that question will be found in the names of individuals in a multitude with white robes holding palm branches in their hands.

I am praying for you as you seek God's direction for your church.
Cindy Wiles