The urgency of world missions

My first trip overseas was startling. I went into Russia a couple of years after the fall of the Soviet Union on an evangelistic trip. I didn’t want to be there much more than Jonah wanted to preach in Nineveh. A generation of Americans grew up thinking of “the Russians” as the main threat to freedom and safety in the world. As a nation, I didn’t love Russia. Of course that changed as I actually met people and lived with them for a few days. Scores of the Russians we met accepted Jesus. It changed my heart also.

The trip also startled me because I had come to consider my part in preaching and evangelism to be more important than it is. Preaching and witnessing through a lost interpreter for a week emptied whatever persuasion existed in my words. The Holy Spirit was on his own and glorified God in spite of my clumsy work. God wanted me to be there but the work of evangelism did not depend on me. It’s an important lesson.

People will say a lot of things on behalf of world missions during this season. The mission is urgent. The laborers are too few. The necessary resources are already in the hands of God’s people. We should give and send and go as we are able. I believe these things but we should also avoid thinking or saying that God’s will is captive to our strategies. There are plenty of solid reasons for supporting missions.

First I offer a couple of warnings. There are some inadequate reasons for evangelism and missions. However well intended, work laid on a shaky foundation will be limited and temporary. For example, we note that our obedience does not obligate God. We cannot secure the salvation of a country, group, or individual by mere strategy. Perhaps it is his will that we preach or otherwise serve without any apparent harvest. Our continued service is not contingent on our evaluation of success. Our Master will judge our work, and decide when it is sufficient in scale or duration. Smart planning is great and worthy; a great harvest is exciting and blessed. Our success is not cast in these terms, though.

On a related note, we don’t go to the world because we think we might hurry or hinder the return of Jesus. That reading of Matthew 24:14 has reared its head a couple of times in modern history (one that comes to mind was the inception of Bold Mission Thrust back in the 70s, when an SBC agency head suggested that the initiative would impact the Lord’s plans). It ignores passages like Colossians 1:6?where Paul refers to the gospel bearing fruit in “all the world”?and redefines the “imminent” return of Jesus so that we know at least when he can’t come. Pursuing missions for these reasons becomes a doomed attempt at manipulation. It implies a level of control over God’s will that the Scriptures do not support.

The best reason to go is that God tells us to go. “As you are going?” is my favorite reading of the first phrase of the Great Commission. As we go through our days, as we travel on business, as we go on vacation, as we go to the bank and so on. We also have the example of Paul and even his non-apostle friends that some of the going should be intentionally missionary. Some churches aided Paul in his journey as they were able, and beyond that.

Sure, God tells us something of his purpose and even his methods?he does not keep us ignorant. The point remains that obedience is a sufficient reason for missions and evangelism. Because of our own stubbornness, other reasons will not always compel us. God does not have to convince us that he is right. It is enough that we are convinced that the Lord is God. That was the lesson for Job and Elijah.

Like Jonah and me, Christians go because we must. The blessing is that joy usually accompanies our obedience if we will have it. It worked that way in my Russian experience but I’m not sure how Jonah finally felt about things.

There is also an indebtedness that accompanies our redemption. Paul refers to this in Romans 1:14-15. God’s revelation of himself is the key to eternal life for all who hear. The gospel we carry is God’s and the debt is ultimately to him, but he also gives it to us for delivery to others. Salvation is ours but we are additionally like UPS guys carrying a package with someone else’s address on it. We deliver.

As implied above, we are further motivated to missions by love for others. It is the natural result of God’s love shown to us. Maybe you’re like me and have trouble loving a nation or the faceless crowd, but we cannot be indifferent to individuals whom God loves. It’s not in our new nature. Love for others is both a result and a demonstration of our love for God. If we love God or people we will do something about it. Missions is thus the natural result of our sanctification.

OK, if we have good and biblical reasons for world missions, why do it according to the Southern Baptist model? Several reasons seem pertinent in our day.

Cooperative missions is a biblical concept. The churches in the New Testament era provided support for one another as well as for missions work. Cooperation also reflects that fact that we have some very important things in common through the indwelling Spirit and the lordship of Christ. These transcend many cultural barriers, even among those people of the same nation and language. The more we have in common with other churches in matters of interpretation and practice, the more closely we can cooperate in missionary endeavors. That’s what it means to be in a denomination.

The wisdom and stewardship of this model is also biblical. The fact that cooperative missions works honors biblical principles of wisdom and stewardship.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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