An Insider’s Perspectives on the Missionary Task
(Written for the Missions Team in our Community Church Hornsby)
As a missionary, I keep reflecting, rethinking and re-examining fundamental questions concerning the missionary task. Obviously I’m thinking and writing as an “insider,” not as an “onlooker.”
Questions that keep coming back include: What kinds of ministries come under the subject of the missionary task according to Scripture? Who according to the Scripture can be called a true missionary? Am I in fact a real missionary? Are the ministries we are involved in as “equippers” and “encouragers” just addendums to the missionary task or close to its very heart?
It is sometimes assumed both by Christians on the home front in supporting churches as well as by some missionaries themselves that evangelism is the only genuine mission activity according to the New Testament. This has given rise to some supporting churches deciding to support financially only those workers who are engaged in direct evangelistic and church planting activities. Some churches even narrow the options further, stating that they are willing to support only those workers who are called to plant churches in the “10/40 window.” With a similar mindset, some mission agencies prioritise evangelistic programs as their primary mission strategy.
No one can read the New Testament with his eyes open and miss the centrality of proclaiming the Good News to the unbelievers. The issue is not about deciding whether we should evangelise the nations or not, but understanding the core thrust of missionary work. Is evangelism the heart of true biblical mission?
Let’s examine the life and ministry of the apostle Paul as the great first century Christian missionary to both Jews and all non-Jewish peoples with a special focus on the latter. Was engaging in different forms of evangelistic ministry his highest goal or his greatest ministry passion? Answering this question will give us further insights into the primary missionary task according to the New Testament.
The New Testament missionary task may be defined as follows: God’s people as communities of followers of Jesus, moving out among all peoples of the world, in the authority of Jesus Christ their Lord, proclaiming and teaching God’s Good News in the power of the Holy Spirit to all peoples, with the goal to make disciples for Jesus’ praise and honour from among all peoples, and to lead them to live a life of faithful obedience in Jesus their Lord.
This missionary task was the very heartbeat of the apostle. His life and work is doubtless one of the richest sources for our contemplation and reflection on this very question of the church’s missionary task. Woven into his letters to some first century churches, also in Luke’s account as the Early Church historian (see Luke / Acts), are many profound and practical insights that we will help us better understand the church’s missionary task.
Let’s begin by taking a brief look at Paul’s reference to himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus,” the words he frequently uses in the salutation at the beginning of his apostolic epistles.
Often the modern missionary will connect the New Testament word “apostle” with the word “missionary”. In the New Testament, “apostle” is used almost exclusively for the “founding apostles”, namely, the Twelve and the apostle Paul. It is only occasionally used for a wider group of workers like Timothy and Silas. Our use of this word as a synonym for modern missionaries is strictly limited to the second meaning. However, this does not mean that the root meaning of this first century word has little or no relevance to 21st century missionaries.
How was the word apostolos understood and used in first Christian century? The following aspects are pertinent to our understanding:
- An apostle was an official messenger chosen and sent out by a recognised higher authority (e.g. the high priest). An apostle did not chose this calling or apostolic assignment for himself.
- For us, this higher authority is Jesus Christ, our Lord (Matt.28:18). Note well how Paul introduces himself to the churches: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God….” (Colossians 1:1) In a day when many missionaries “volunteer” themselves to serve as missionaries, we do well to return to this fundamental fact: God is the One who calls and sends out His servants, and He also determines all things related to their calling and ministries. This truth gives great significance to the missionary calling and work.
- An apostle was a “sent one”, a person commissioned with a specific assigned task and a particular message to deliver.
- For us, God has set both the assignment and the message. He calls and sends His people out with the task to proclaim the Good News of Jesus and, in Jesus’ own words, “to teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt.28:19-20)
- An apostle was endued with the authority of the person who commissioned him.
- For us, missionaries need to humbly recognise and accept this fact, that Jesus our Lord gives them the authority of His all-powerful name for the work that He commissions them to do in the power of His Spirit. This ensures that they can do any work assigned to them not in their own human energies but through God’s divine power, assured of results whether or not they are immediately evident.
- An apostle’s authority was limited to the task assigned to him.
- For us, as it was for Paul, missionaries are endued with God’s divine authority and power, not to make them “successful” in the worldly sense (i.e. to make their name great), but to bring honour and praise to God’s holy name.
- An apostle was held accountable for the way he carried out and finished his assigned task.
- For us, this means that the labours of all God’s servants sent out on God’s mission among the nations will be finally assessed before the Judgment Seat of Christ. Their accounting will not focus upon the quantitative results of their work but on the quality of their service, that is, their obedience and faithfulness in carrying out the work right to the end.
Paul also uses other important terms to describe his calling as an apostle. For example, he loves to speak of himself as “a bond-slave (doulos) of Jesus Christ,” also as “a minister (diakonos = servant) of Christ Jesus.” Paul’s delight in referring to himself in these lowly terms must be seen in his joy to be identified with God’s holy Doulos and Diakonos – Jesus, his Master. (Note among many Scriptures: Philippians 2:5-11; John 13:12-17; Mark 10:42-45.) An indepth study of these other New Testament words will also add depth and richness to our understanding of the missionary calling and work.
How does Paul describe the passion of his missionary heart? What was his aim? Paul answers these questions in Colossians 1:28-2:2. He expresses his God-assigned calling and task in these words: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (verse 28). (The word “perfect” means “complete” or “mature,” not sinless.)
In our defining the missionary task, we need to pay careful attention to how Paul himself understood his missionary task. In Acts 26:18, testifying before King Agrippa he underscored his calling to lead the nations out of darkness into God’s marvellous light through the faithful proclamation of God’s Good News. Whereas in Colossians 1:28, he stresses his calling to proclaim Christ and the believers’ fullness in Him (see verse 27), leading them towards maturity through admonishing and teaching them the whole truth of God (see Acts 20:20-21, 24). Both these elements of preaching and teaching Christ form the missionary task in all ages.
These verses unfold before us Paul’s consuming passion not just to preach the Gospel and plant churches but even more importantly, to proclaim and teach the manifold riches of God in Christ so that believers everywhere possess a healthy and maturing faith in Christ.
And as one who frequently equips and encourages God’s servants through writing letters and e-mails, I take note of the fact that Paul exercised this ministry of edification towards God’s people through the letters he wrote to them. He wrote to the churches he planted (e.g. Corinth, Philippi et al), and he also wrote to other churches who were founded by people like Epaphras (see Col.1:7), people he delighted to call, “our dear fellow-servants”.
Paul’s testimony reveals the comprehensiveness of God’s worldwide mission. Thinking biblically about God’s missionary task implies that we give ourselves: both to proclaiming Christ to unbelievers, whether they belong to an isolated unreached people-group or are sophisticated, educated people living fast lives in one of the world’s huge megacities, and to proclaiming Christ to Christians, many of whom remain ignorant of the riches of their inheritance in Christ and are in practice “unbelievers” when it comes to living Christianly.
Does not this two-fold missionary task find its ultimate expression in the Great Commission, that is, the final instructions of the Lord Jesus to His disciples just prior to His ascension to glory? (See Matt.28:18-20.) Jesus’ instruction and command is not to “convert the lost” but to “make disciples of all nations”, “teaching them to obey all things that He had commanded them”. And was this not at the very core of Jesus’ own ministry – making believers into disciples?
Let’s now apply the above-mentioned truths to our 21st century missionary task. What then is the missionary task as local churches we need to do and accomplish? What work does a true New Testament missionary give himself/herself to? Allow me to offer for your prayerful consideration my own reflections and answers from an “insider’s” perspective.
Today so much happens under the heading of “the missionary task”. Almost anything goes! So what should we prioritise and give our energies to? What truths should guide us in our thinking, planning and “doing mission”?
- The Lord calls and sends out workers to the harvest fields of the world:
- Jesus calls His workers personally as He did with the apostle Paul, but He primarily calls them not as “volunteers” but as active participants in their local church.
- Local churches who are in step with the Spirit will experience the Spirit of mission sending out workers from among them to do the work of God’s mission even to the ends of the earth (see Acts 13:1-4).
- Each is responsible to obey the prompting of the Spirit – both local churches (especially their spiritual leaders) and individual believers.
- The Lord assigns to each missionary tasks linked with the spiritual gifts that the Spirit gives to them:
- The ministry of each one will be specific and with boundaries. As there is the variety of gifts, so also will there is a variety of missionary tasks and roles.
- No one missionary should be forced into one particular missionary mould. Not all missionaries, for example, are gifted and called to be “evangelists” though all are called to be faithful “witnesses” to the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- God’s missionary servants serve with joy and are most fruitful for the kingdom of God when they are assigned tasks for which God has prepared them. See Eph.2:10.
- The Spirit leads and guides His servants to the place(s) where they are to carry out their missionary labours:
- The country and location where missionaries serve should not be seen as a fixed point. While a few are led to remain in one place for many years, the majority are called to be mobile.
- God’s Spirit answers the questions, “when and where,” in differing ways throughout the life-time of a missionary. Certainly this was Paul’s own experience. For example, according to Acts 16:6-8, the Spirit of Jesus guided him and his companions to change their plans and move westwards instead of eastwards. At other times, the same Spirit led Paul to spend months, even years in some large cities like Ephesus and Corinth.
- The Lord is the One who determines the sphere of influence from the life and work of each missionary:
- It is God who determines both the breadth of influence from the work of each missionary. Some missionaries may serve faithfully even for many years but have a very limited sphere of influence, while others appear to have a much wider sphere of influence. But no individual will ever know the real fruit from his/her service for Christ. God often turns years of hard, unproductive work into a rich harvest, sometimes after the missionary has returned home in discouragement.
- God’s call to each of His servants (at home and on the field) is to carry out their assigned tasks wholeheartedly and diligently, believing that He will accomplish His holy purposes through their labours, to the praise of His name.
- It is therefore critical that both individual missionaries and sending churches apply biblical criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of missionaries. It is presumptuous to assume on the basis of human criteria that the work of one missionary or missionary family is of greater importance in God’s kingdom than the work of another.
- In the eyes of the home church, the work of some missionaries has a powerful appeal and therefore is put in the limelight, while the work of other missionaries is seen as uninteresting and without any lasting impact. Whereas the truth may in fact be the exact opposite, namely, that God’s greater work is taking place through the quiet, consistent and faithful work of those whose work is regarded as very ordinary.
- Both missionaries and home church missionary committees need to use biblical criteria and ways of thinking rather than worldly criteria when assessing the effectiveness of missionary labours. To evaluate or appraise one’s missionary work or the work of one’s missionary is imperative. But if we use only the standard of measurable, visible results, then we may be tempted to treat the work of some missionaries as “lacking” and therefore should cease. Whereas Jesus said that the work of the Spirit is like the blowing of the wind that no man can see (John 3:5-8).
- Therefore, let all missionaries and all supporting home churches trust our faithful Father to bring forth abundant fruit that remains through their missionary activities. (See John 15:16; Acts 2:47b.)
In closing, here are three responses that God asks of us in response to these truths, both those of us whom He calls to serve as missionaries, and those to whom He commits the responsibility to send and support their workers.
Firstly, a response of obedience – to go and keep on going out in the name of Christ, with the Good News of Christ, to the peoples whom Jesus is calling us to serve among the nations of the world. Jesus assigns the task, to which we need to respond: “Here I am / Here we are, Lord! Send me / us!”
Secondly, a response of humility – to accept humbly the calling and task that God has prepared for us personally, giving ourselves to fulfil each task diligently and with wholehearted dedication, without feelings of either superiority or inferiority when considering one’s sphere of influence. Remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:3 “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” No one reading the letters of the earliest apostles will find an arrogant, superior spirit as they speak about what God has done through them. Rather they were humbled by the vastness of their calling, in awe and amazement at God’s grace at work in them and through them. (See 1 Tim.1:12-17.) We need to clothe ourselves with a very similar mindset.
Thirdly, a response of faith and faithfulness – seeing these two attributes going hand in hand as we carry out our missionary endeavours. It is expected of all God’s servants to be faithful (see Paul’s repeated focus on faithfulness in Col.1:7; 4:9), that is, to be faithful to their Master in all the tasks He commits to their charge. But it is also expected that strong and bold faith in God will undergird all missionary labours, that is, a sincere and growing trust in God to work His works through us so that His name is honoured and exalted.