The Lost Art of Missions

When I use the word missions, I mean in the traditional sense of the word, like first century traditional. Dare we compare our modern methods to the original demonstration of Jesus’ example of missions seen from the beginning?  Are there essentials in missions that should not be rearranged, regardless of society or culture?  I also mean the furtherance of this same behavior seen in Jesus’ followers after His command to “go” into all the nations. Within three centuries of this radical edict, they disrupted nations. They even turned the once powerful Roman empire upside down on it’s head. Then, this command drove us outward across the globe for two millennia.

Reflecting back, l view the spread of the gospel since Jesus’ ascension.  Is there a true increase or decrease of conversions today?  Are we still a disruptive force?

Where’s The Growth? (The Problem)

We are still in business, and business is booming. Megachurches span multiple campuses across multiple cities with average attendance approaching the thousands. But when we look at the profile of the average attendee, not all is how it appears. 

Ed Stetzer serves as a senior fellow of Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center and a visiting research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has extensive experience in church planting and training pastors and church planters spanning six continents and regularly speaks and writes about American church growth.

In Stetzer’s 2016 book, “Planting Missional Churches” he states that only 4 percent of USA church growth is genuine conversion growth. The other 96 percent is transfer growth.

Though in business, it seems we are no longer in the business of reaping new life, but rather the business of only branding to ourselves while calling it “evangelism.” Regardless of the results, we are satisfied with competitive, transfer growth in our churches. We do this because it works for us. 

Speaking even further into this phenomenon (back in the ‘90s), George Barna had the insight to study this trend even then and wrote of the results in his book “Marketing the Church,”

“Since the 1980s, the proportion of born-again Christians has remained constant at 32%, despite the fact that churches and parachurch organizations have spent billions of dollars on evangelism. More than 10,000 hours of evangelistic television programming have been broadcast, in excess of 5,000 new Christian books have been published, and more than 1,000 radio stations carry Christian programming. Yet despite such widespread opportunities for exposure to the Gospel, there has been no discernible growth in the size of the Christian body.”

In the ‘80s, 10,000 hours of radio broadcasting was impressive, but pale in comparison to today’s media-saturated world. Just on YouTube alone, the total number of people worldwide who use it is 1,300,000,000. 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute!  Almost 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every single day.  In an average month, 8 out of 10 18 to 49 year olds watch YouTube.  The world is awash with media. We Christians have contributed millions of hours of “Christian media” as well.

We have a developing Christian movie industry and record labels making quality Christian music.  We have Christian art, literary treasures, commentaries, schools, and seminaries yielding incredible theological minds.  We have entertainers, powerful worship leaders, comedians, and television ministries reaching around the globe!  Yet, who are we reaching?  Still with all of this, our conversion numbers hold while other world religions grow at an alarming rate.

Mission Failure, Waste Spending

Because of these facts, I believe “the Church” is currently experiencing symptoms of “mission failure.” Expensive church growth models (such as the aforementioned), short lived expensive movements that last for a few years, and “conferencing” have proven to miss the mark of the desired result: true conversion growth and harvest.

How did our forefathers do it?  What is different?

When Jesus our “founder” came, I believe He taught us how to do “business” God’s way.  And as unsexy and simple as it may be, this is the fundamental blueprint of our purpose on earth, whether it fits our lifestyle or our preference.

So what did Jesus teach us regarding the practice of evangelism?

In the following passages of Luke, I believe we can we see Jesus’ model for missions.

Luke 9:37 (NIV)

“The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him.”

Luke 10:1-12 (NIV)

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.’”

Remember how Jesus taught us to pray? In the same way Jesus taught us how we should pray, I believe that He also taught us how to “mission”. As we just read in Luke, He broke it down . . .

Jesus and His Model of Missions (The Solution)

“The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him.”

The beginning of their very busy ministry day started with connection with God.  They came down from the mountain.  The mountain was where Jesus and His followers met God the Father. Similarly, church for the believer is the place where our community meets with God and with each other, in worship, teaching, and small groups.  Like in John 15, we cannot bear fruit without this connection to the Vine.  As Jesus warned, we will wither and die, unable to produce anything.

Take nothing with you . . . Do not greet anyone on the road . . .

First on this point, regardless of the road we are assigned in missions, we need to depend on the Lord as we go.  We must not bank on our resources or our natural ability to produce spiritual life. I am sure some of the disciples had money; some had less, some had more.  Some were more able, and some less able. On the mission field, Jesus taught His disciples to walk together with equal dependence on the Father. There was no social strata on this road.  

Secondly, focus and sobriety were key to accomplishing the mission.  Like a soldier with an objective, we too need to focus on the mission; we cannot get caught up with “small things” or succumb to a petty spirit on our way to the objective.  We need our minds sober and free from worldly distraction. In today’s world, this might look like putting our phones away while we are connecting with the people God brings to us. We must be near them, but not of them.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you”

The mission of the gospel is a mission of peace and reconciliation. Unfortunately in the past, in the name of God, Christians have foolishly used violence and political power to “spread” and institute the kingdom of God. This however, is a major violation of Jesus’ model and the result of this kind of proselytizing cannot institute lasting change in any culture. Similarly, arguing with people rarely, if ever brings authentic conversion.

"Go together . . ."

We are going into the world . . . and the mission to “go” is a mission that requires community. God is not into rogue Christianity.  The maverick need not apply.  When we descend into the valley to connect with those in the world, accountability and comradeship are key to keeping ourselves from entering temptation.  The enemy of our soul loves to get us alone in places that have a culture of sin.  Though we enter these places, we should not enter alone. If we do, we easily wander and eventually drift into sin.

A fantastic picture of this is found in the story “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo’s friends are traveling through the “dead marshes.” As they traverse the path, Gollum warns Frodo . . .

“The tricksy lights. Candles of corpses, yes, yes. Don't you heed them! Don't look! Don't follow them!”  

In the movie, Frodo succumbs to the compelling nature and attraction of these “lights” in the swamp, but is pulled back by his companions from certain death.  In the same way, we who travel together on the field are ensured by Jesus’ model of community missions.

Eat their food . . .

When I was in India doing missions, a major component of connecting to the Indian culture was in the partaking of their food. “Food is Culture,” a book published by the Columbia University Press, was written by a culinary historian who wrote it on the premise that every culinary decision in any given culture was indeed derived by a culture of economics (availability) and medicine (digestibility and nutrition) that led to the development of specific social structures and traditions.  Because of this, food in all cultures is a major connection point of friendship and sharing.  Jesus Himself made a point of this bond by instituting the partaking of bread and wine as a means for His Church to remember Him.  Food is a language for people, and it is ungracious and foolish to insult the hospitality of any people group.  

“Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”

Healing, the prophetic, the casting out of the demonic, or a word of knowledge and the demonstration of these are a major part of Jesus’ ministry.  And yes, this ministry was passed onto us as evidenced in the book of Acts.  This principle was taught by Jesus to His disciples.  Jesus empowered them and taught them to do this as a sign that the kingdom of God was near. This was not for entertainment.  It was to demonstrate the movement of God before those who the seventy two met.  Jesus also warns us not to rejoice that we engage in this power, but that we know God and are known by Him.  These signs do not save us or are proof of our salvation, but are there to authenticate His presence.

If they reject you, warn them, shake it off and move on . . .

Culturally, we would be pretty silly to stand in the middle of the street and tell a town they are rejecting God (though foolish people do it with signs).  But the idea here is that people with whom you have connected but still reject your message need to know as a loving warning that they are not rejecting you, but God.  This is something we would think Jesus would not do or tell us to do . . . but it’s clear if people reject your message, at some point Jesus tells his disciples to convey that they have rejected God and not the messenger whom God sent.

The Vineyard

Seeing this, why have we shifted from the Jesus model? Where have we disconnected? Jesus gives us a parable that describes a similar “mission drift” of Israel.  It all has to do with the model and the mission of a vineyard that a master left to his tenants to work in Luke 20:9-14.

The Vineyard and the Tenants

“A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (NIV)

The owner created a vineyard, planted it, and then left it to hired tenants.  Tenants actually lived there and were given access to the benefits of the vineyard.  It was a perk.  But this perk became an entitlement.  The tenants, losing sight of the purpose of the vineyard (as the master had not been back for such a long time) dared to take it for themselves.  The temptation for the tenants to take what was not theirs was due to their belief that the master had left for good. They promoted themselves from the position of tenant, to owners.  Then they beat any who challenged their self-appointed positions.  In the end, they even killed their master’s own son.

Seeing this, I submit that we the Church also have taken the Master’s vineyard solely for ourselves, missing the original intention of this vineyard to become a blessing for the nations.

In our comfort, our unbelief, and with our love for personal gain and growth, we have forgotten (like the tenants) that the fruit of the vineyard is to be a blessing for others.  Despite our initial intentions, we have reserved this beautiful vineyard, its gifts and blessings, only for us, the Church.  Why work to harvest more than what we need?

This idea that the growing kingdom is a blessing for the nations is also seen in the parable of the mustard seed tree and, I believe, was also Israel’s original purpose.

Matthew 13:31-32 (NIV)

“He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’”

In this example, the mention of birds finding a place to perch in the branches of the mustard tree shows us the purpose of the mustard tree.  The once small tree eventually provides a benefit for others.  Over the centuries the kingdom has grown by the Father, but lately as the numbers show, the “birds” are not perching as we have somehow stunted its growth.

The Sin of Jonah

Church - because of our selfishness and unbelief, we have engaged in the sin of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to leave his culture and share God’s love with a rebellious and evil people.

Jonah 1:1-3 (NIV)

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away  from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.”

Like Jonah and Israel, we too have heard the call to “go” and reach the world with God’s presence.  We, like Jonah, have also looked at them and think to ourselves, “Filthy unbelievers will never turn, they deserve it.” Granted, we might make a way for them to come to us, but we certainly do not go after them like the lost coin or the lost sheep.  Instead of getting our hands dirty and spending our resources and innovation on reaching them, we have opted to instead build church in our own image.  We bear spiritual children from our own already exhausted and tapped spiritual communities.  And finally like Jonah, we find ourselves in the belly of a whale, suffocating on whale bile.  

In the darkness, at the bottom of the postmodern sea, God calls us out to become the Bride that brings healing to the nations, instead of bearers of condemnation and rejection.  When we turn back to our destiny as salt and light, and as worldwide ministers of reconciliation, we will then find ourselves on the shores of Nineveh, ready to face the world with God’s love and effective power.  We will win souls again, become wise, and master the high calling of becoming true “fishers of men”.