Monday, January 07, 2019

Anonymous Asks (21)

“How do you know if you’re being called to go to the mission field?”

Anyone interested in the answer to this question may find it useful to first read two previous posts in this series (numbers 18 and 20), which concern finding the will of God with respect to marriage, college and careers. Much of what the New Testament teaches about the “call” of God remains the same regardless of what it is we may think we are being called to, so for the sake of those who have read them already, I won’t recycle what I said there ad nauseum.

That said, scripture says a little more about the calling of God with respect to missions than to other areas of life.

Four Relevant Verbs

The mission given to his disciples by the resurrected and soon-to-be-glorified Christ may be summed up in a very few verbs: “go”, “proclaim”, “disciple”, “baptize”. These instructions are not debatable, and if we claim to follow Jesus Christ, they apply to every one of us.

That said, not everything Jesus said to his disciples just prior to his glorification applies to you and me today. Some of his words applied locally and at the time he said them, rather than globally and indefinitely. They are not ours to appropriate. The statement that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria” is of that sort. It was addressed specifically to Peter, James, John and the rest. It is doubtful, though not impossible, that Holy Spirit intends you to feel particularly drawn to a ministry in Israel. In any case, if he does, this verse is not the way he will communicate it to you. The bit about “to the end of the earth” may be a little more relevant to your current circumstances.

How Far and Where?

What Jesus did not tell his disciples is how far each of them should go, or how they should go about choosing where to go. These are individual matters of conscience, gift, circumstances and practicality. James, for instance, never got out of Jerusalem. Was he out of the will of God? Did he miss a call? Surely not. The “great commission”, so-called, can be obeyed down the street, over your back fence, at the doctor’s office, on the way to work or, dare I say it, over the internet, provided you are reaching out of your comfy Christian cocoon to share your faith with those who will listen. I would argue you could potentially proclaim-disciple-baptize in your very own home if that’s where your neighbors and friends are more comfortable.

This is not to diminish the value of overseas missions, but simply to point out that the Lord’s command was a very general one. Not every disciple who heard it felt compelled to rush out and book passage to the “end of the earth”, and the apostle who gives us as close to a template for missions as exists in scripture was not even present at the time to receive these instructions. Those who did not pack their bags immediately to fulfill the Lord’s commission were not necessarily recalcitrant or cowardly, though it’s possible some were. Many were surely concerned with “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria”, exactly as the Lord had commanded them. They went first to those closest to them, which is not only obedient but logical and loving.

Perhaps there’s a principle there to be observed. There is, after all, something peculiar and not-quite-right about obsessing over abstract, hypothetical unbelievers halfway across the world while stepping over real, live, lost bodies on the street in front of you.

Two Thousand Years of Difference

There is also a legitimate argument to be made that the situation before us today is not the situation faced by the apostles in the first century. For two thousand years, Christians have obeyed and gone. The gospel has been preached quite literally at the “ends of the earth”, assuming we take Jerusalem as our starting point. In the first century, Paul could get on a boat and go virtually anywhere, knowing that the whole world needed to hear the message he carried with him and that in every city he entered, it was likely nobody had yet heard the gospel clearly preached. Today, many areas of the globe have heard enough about the message of Christ to deliberately and carefully exclude Christians who would otherwise travel there openly, and almost every country in the world has internet access across multiple strata of society.

That’s not exactly the same situation.

The “nations” referred to in Matthew are ethnically-related people groups, not political unions. The folks behind the Joshua Project make the case that of the approximately 17,000 identifiable people groups in the world, 7,000 of these have less than 5% of their population who profess Christianity. For calculation purposes, they consider these peoples “unreached” despite the fact that there are small numbers of native believers currently living among them.

For those who feel drawn to overseas missions today, it makes sense to me to think in terms of going to groups who have historically had less testimony directed their way, rather than those who have repeatedly been evangelized and who live within miles of established gatherings of believers.

That’s not the same as getting a specific, personal “call”, but it certainly seems a reasonable approach.

Commands and Examples

For those looking for something more specific and personal, it needs to be noted that outside of the “commission” passages we do not have instructions about missions in the form of commands. Rather, the Bible provides us with examples, or “patterns”, if you like. Some Christians regard examples from scripture as authoritative. Others do not. Most of us are somewhere in between: we regard as authoritative those examples that are not too inconvenient for us to follow, and regard as unauthoritative those we are not disposed toward. If that sounds a bit mean, I’m just being real.

The first time Paul went out on one of his missionary journeys, he was indisputably called and led. That does not necessarily make him the model for everyone who seeks to take the gospel outside their immediate comfort zone, but it does provide strong hints about how the Lord’s leading works in the real world. It’s a whole three verses long, so I’ll quote it all:
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
Only an Example, But ...

Despite the fact that it’s “only” an example, there are principles here we ought to consider:
  1. Barnabas and Saul were members of a local body of believers. They were not freelancing.
  2. Barnabas and Saul were already hard at work right where they were. They were numbered among the “prophets and teachers” in Antioch. They were already seizing the opportunities before them.
  3. Barnabas and Saul were actively seeking the will of God. That is presumably what the worshiping and fasting was about. In any case, they were burdened about something.
  4. Three other godly church leaders agreed they should go, and took responsibility for sending them. That’s what the “laid hands on them” bit means.
Taken together, we should probably conclude that the Lord’s specific will is made known to people when they are in a particular condition: (i) in fellowship with other believers; (ii) subject to the direction of others; (iii) already actively serving in whatever way is open to them; and (iv) showing a desire to serve in a greater or different way.

If God is calling you to some specific work halfway around the world, I would suggest all four of these characteristics will be evident in your life already. If he is not — as I suspect is the case with most of our readers — it nevertheless remains the case that unprecedented opportunities exist in every western city on earth to “go” in obedience to the commands of the Lord ... without going very far at all. Representatives from just about every people group on the planet are already on our doorstep.

That might be the place to start.

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