Every Christian is familiar with the Great Commission. It’s that command of Jesus that tells his followers that they are to go and make more followers of Christ (Mt. 28). Christians have long held two major misconceptions about this passage. The first misconception is that Christ’s command here is only for “professional” Christians (e.g. pastors, missionaries, evangelists, etc). That is not true. Christ’s command is for all Christians. The second misconception, problematic especially in the West, is that Jesus cared about people praying the “sinner’s prayer." But Jesus didn’t care about momentary “belief.” In fact, John 2 shows us that there were those who believed in Christ, but in whom Christ did not abide. “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.[d] But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” In the Great Commission itself, Jesus says that the disciples he is looking for will be taught to obey all of the words that Christ had spoken. A true Christian is a disciple of Christ, and a disciple has a deep-seeded faith that is rooted in the heart and bears fruit in actions. Jesus portrays this ever so clearly in the parables about seed that falls on bad ground, branches that don't bear fruit, etc.
Being a missionary begins with your self-care (the self-care principle):
Self-care has been a very popular discussion point in our society as of late. I hate bandwagons, but I find that I can’t help but jump on the self-care bandwagon. The last two years of my life have taught me that I cannot and will not disciple others if I am not being discipled and nourished myself. Over the past two years we have had evaluations through our mission’s organization that look at our personality and conflict management styles, and have discussed how we utilize our skills and shore up our weaknesses. We have had a number of seminars and retreats that have poured conviction and truth into our lives with specific applications and accountability. We have gone to marriage counseling. We have begun to observe the Sabbath. We have created traditions and blocked off calendar time to protect our family’s time together. We have been very vulnerable and have begun sharing very openly with others about our needs and asking for prayer and encouragement. We prioritized our lives and made sure that while we worked hard, we left work at work. Work was not going to be our identity and run us into the ground. We read books that could bolster our deficits and/or encourage us and give us energy.
We have dug so deep in the past two years and have rearranged our priorities so thoroughly that we often feel like we’re new people. We have much more going on in our lives now, yet we feel clear-headed. I want to suggest to you that you will not be effective in the Great Commission until you start working on yourself and your family. If you find that you are being “effective” without self-care, I would suggest that you will likely recant in thirty years. You may be “effective” at work, at a hobby, at some large goal in life, at saving money, etc – but if your effectiveness doesn’t come from having performed self-care and prioritization first, you’ll find that in thirty years your work, hobby, money, and projects don’t really matter because your stress is high, health is bad, and family is in tatters. You won’t truly, effectively be able to pour into others and create a meaningful impact unless you begin at home.
Good missionaries take advantage of newness (the humility principle):
When we were on our first support-raising-road-trip, we met with a mission’s coordinator who poured so much wisdom into our lives. This wisdom has directed a number of strategies we’ve implemented. The director told us a story about a trip he took to visit some missionaries in Russia. One evening, all of the guys ended up going to a Russian sauna, which is apparently a bit different than what we’re used to. One of the more seasoned missionaries told the director to observe the difference between a new American’s approach and a new Brazilian’s approach. The American walked into the sauna, looked around at what everyone else was doing, then copied them. The Brazilian, however, came into the sauna, realized he didn’t know what to do, and asked one of the Russians for help. While the American figured out how to do things the right way without humbling himself to ask for help, the humble Brazilian not only ensured that he did things correctly, but he also opened the door to creating conversation and community. As a Christian, what is our goal? Efficiency and doing things “right” and independently so we don't need another's help, or receiving grace as well as we give it within community? Forget about building relationships – how can we preach the gospel if we can’t model the acceptance of grace? We Americans tend to only want to model power and we always want to be the purveyors of grace. We often act out the narrative of the gospel, but with us playing the role of the grace giving god and never the one in need of grace.
As Christians who long to disciple others, we need to humbly submit to newness often. We do this first and foremost because it is a representation of the gospel. God has placed it within our hearts to receive joy when we grace others, and to prevent another from experiencing joy by refusing their grace is terrible. We prevent many mini-gospels from being played out on a daily basis. But beyond that, encountering another through gracing is a fantastic way to meet people who need the ultimate grace of God told to them and expounded upon.
What might this look like? New to a neighborhood? Don’t wait for your neighbors to come to you. You go to them. First time in a particular store? Don’t hunt down the section you’re looking for. Ask for assistance. Want to take your family for a nice evening at a park? Go to a new park and ask for restaurant recommendations in the area. You have new experience and unknowns every day. If you don’t, create them. Put yourself in a position to experience the grace that others are often so willing to give. That is an easy task for my family right now, as we are living in a new country where we don’t even know the language. But as I have thought more and more about this, it has made me think of all of my missed opportunities to be graced by others in the States.
Doing missions requires intentionality (the 40 day principle):
Being new is a neutral status. There is nothing inherently good with being ignorant about a place, product, or cultural activity. With newness there must also come intentionality. The same mission’s director who advised us to accept grace also advised us on our first 40 day plan. His organization required that all missionaries garner a particular amount of committed prayer support - along with financial support - before they could go to the field. A missionary's first job on the field was to then meet one new person for each of the first forty days after they landed in country, sending prayer requests back to their prayer supporters (a.k.a. accountability team). The goal, he said, was to build in not only a habit of prayer amongst prayer supporters, but also to build in a habit of outreach in the missionaries. Let me tell you, he was right. The first few weeks in country are difficult. You’re trying to get a functional grip on the language, build routines with your kids and spouse, unpack belongings, set up house, figure out how to obtain groceries, learn how to pay bills, and the list goes on and on. Had we not had this director’s advice, the first forty days in Romania would have likely gone by with us focused completely on ourselves.
Instead of self-focus, we have learned that a grocery trip can wait because the neighbor we met invited us into her house to give us some fresh eggs. Our kid’s bed time can be extended thirty minutes because we stopped to talk with the four old ladies who sit on the wall outside our house and who always seem to delay us from wherever we’re going. Catalina and I may have to split up to run errands because we struck up a conversation with the produce lady, and now Catalina has to get the kids back home for lunch and a nap while I pay the bills. I have to sadly say that in our first three weeks here in Romania, I think I know three times as many Romanians in the same sized area as I knew individuals in our neighborhood back in the States. A big part of that is due to intentionality. We have not established a routine of doing our own thing and only talking with people if we should encounter them. We have determined to make people our focus and we have set up routines to make that happen.
Why don’t you try this for forty days? Grab a few close friends, a group from church, or whatever, and make a pact that you’re going to meet someone new for the next forty days. Make sure these are real encounters. YOU HAVE TO GET THE PERSON’S NAME. If you don’t get their name, you were probably just shooting the breeze and trying to check off that you talked to someone. Then, each evening, write up a brief synopsis or call your group and talk about who you met. Do you go to the grocery store every Monday evening and see the same cashier? Strike up a conversation. Do you take your family to the same park every Wednesday evening for family time? Talk to some people. Do you have a co-worker with whom you’ve never conversed? Converse! The opportunities really are endless. It all comes down to how intentional we choose to be.
Effective missions doesn't wait for others to reach for them (the incarnation principle):
All of the aforementioned things are fantastic ways to begin as a missionary. However, there is still one glaring problem if you just stopped here. Chances are, if you do everything I mentioned above, you’ll end up with a lopsided church, or no church at all.
Doing everything up to this point will likely not make disciples at all. We Christians love our conversations that avoid stepping on toes. We don’t want to risk offending anyone. So more than likely, our conversations with individuals will never make it to the overt expression of the gospel. The second problem is that even if we did muster up the courage to share the gospel, and even if our new friends accepted and came to church, a church made up of all our new friends wouldn’t look like a gospel-centered church. Our church would likely look just like us. The places we hang out, the activities we do, the restaurants in which we eat, and the stores in which we shop all likely contain people who are just like us, at least socioeconomically, if not ethnically as well.
We were required to read a book called “Get Real” for one of our final missionary trainings. In the book, author John Leonard explains this situation so well. He talks about how what most of us call friendship evangelism is really clique evangelism, and is not evangelism at all. We make a bunch of friends who are just like us and hope that they will one day ask us how to become a disciple of Christ. So not only do we not share the gospel, we don’t even live out the gospel. Our goal is not the gospel, it is entertainment and fun with hopes that the gospel will follow. But the gospel is all about gracing and being graced – living in a community where the only thing in common for many is Christ. Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, men, women, and children all worshiping together. How in the world could such a diverse group worship God together? The only explanation is God’s grace. Yet we friendship evangelists (myself included) choose to surround ourselves with those who don’t need our grace, and those to whom we never need to ask for mercy. Our churches tend to be composed of some of the least abrasive populations. If someone does rub us the wrong way, is too needy, or needs to forgive us for our offense towards them - we just go somewhere else. Many churches today preach the gospel but don't depict it - both because of our consumer culture and because of our comfortable form of evangelism to the lovely.
Once again, the mission’s director I mentioned earlier helped to give us a vision for combating this trap. He advised us that we take over as few belongings as possible to Romania. One obvious reason for this is that we don’t want to set ourselves up above those in the culture. We don’t want to Americanize everything. But he also said that it was so we can know our host culture. If we don’t take silverware, we’ll have to shop for it. We may find out that spoons are a very big deal in our culture, which may lead us to understanding their cuisine and some of their values. We may also find out about more important cultural distinctives. He told us a story of visiting a missionary couple who had been on the field a year, but who had purchased a car immediately upon arrival. While the purchase of a car wasn't an inherently bad decision, they made their choice to perpetuate their familiar lifestyle from back home, and without regard to becoming familiar with the culture in which they now lived. They didn't just buy a car, they used it exclusively and didn't learn the transportation system of their culture. When the director went to visit them after a year, he arrived at their house via public transportation and exclaimed relief at having just made the last bus of the evening at 8:00. The missionaries looked horrified. For the first year of their ministry they had been inviting nationals over for dinner. Their guests would start looking down at their watches around 7:30 or so, but would get comfortable once 8:00 rolled around. The guests had been assuming that the missionaries knew the public transportation schedule which everyone used, and since they kept their guests past 8:00, they would be driven home with the missionaries’ car. A number of nationals ended up walking home several miles because of the missionaries’ lack of cultural understanding. While the missionaries weren't trying to be malicious, they elevated their preferences above getting to know others and ended up offending a number of individuals.
In the end, “professional," incarnational missionaries are really just those fulfilling the Great Commission in places that are not as natural to them. This could be a foreign country, it could be the inner city, or it could be to a different people group within a country. But professional missions highlights what a lot of non-professional missionaries miss – the Great Commission is about being incarnational. Did Jesus wait for disciples to come to him or did he go to his discples? I’m know some came to him, but Jesus most certainly sought people out as well. Did Jesus expect his disciples to be able to expound upon the trinity, to understand the resurrection, and believe in him as Lord? While eleven of the twelve main disciples eventually did all of those things, he met his disciples where they were and then brought them up in teaching. Most of the disciples didn't know any of those truths until the final days of Jesus's ministry, and the nuances of the trinity weren't even hashed out until much later in church history.
We Christians betray our beliefs with our actions. Our actions say that the gospel is for people who come to it. Grace is for people who seek out change. The poor who want help will find the church. Racial reconciliation will happen without us moving out towards others. But that’s not a picture of the gospel or discipleship. The gospel is incarnational. It is condescension in a good way. It is taking God and discovering that he is also man. It is realizing that God ethereally resides in heaven, yet also resided in a manger. The gospel is reaching out to the unlovely and finding that Christ has made them lovely. It’s reaching out to the enemy and finding that Christ has united us as brothers and sisters. One of the major reasons the gospel doesn't move forward is because we fail to live incarnational lives. Were God to have left us without the incarnation, we would be stuck with the rut of the law – working harder and harder for a change that could never be. Yet we Christians work out our rendition of the gospel in just that way today, as we fail to be incarnations of love to anyone who is not already worthy, like us.
Incarnational living is easy to identify, yet hard to embody. It can be love towards your spouse who is pursuing divorce. It can be looking a homeless man in the eyes and sitting down to talk with him. It can be working hard for the boss who mistreats. It can be forgiving and not taking someone to court. It can be stepping into a church that is ethnically different than yours, worshiping with them, and building relationships. It can be pushing back against the political party with which you identify when you know they’re wrong. It can be defending the oppressed with your words on Facebook. It can be moving into a smaller house so you can adopt. It can be moving into a poorer community so you can love, transform, and be transformed from the inside. Living in such a way that exudes love throws off any assumption of ill-will or bad motivations on another’s part and attempts to step into their lives. Incarnational living puts aside notions of us getting justice for ourselves and seeks to show mercy and grace to others. Incarnational living rarely happens amongst those who are like us. As John Leonard says, that is the type of thing that can only be done when you work on the “fringes and underbelly” of society.
To allow for missions you must build time into your schedule (the flexibility principle):
Finally, it is vital that to pursue discipleship you change your outlook on time. Doing new things, meeting new people, and investing in those people takes time. This doesn’t only mean scheduling time, but also variable time. You never know when an opportunity is going to arise. After meeting more and more people in your community, you’re likely to run into familiar faces more often. Are you willing to be ten minutes late to church because you’re talking with the gas station clerk? Are you willing to wake up fifteen minutes earlier to go to work because you’re getting to know a couple at Starbucks? Discipleship isn’t leading someone through a one minute prayer. It is meeting, getting to know, and truly loving and investing in another. When people are your agenda, it takes time.
All of us are called to share the gospel and disciple others, though the context for that looks as different as each individual. I feel like I’m cheating the system a bit here. It is absolutely not fair that I can sit here as a “professional” missionary and say all this. Honestly, I have it easier in a lot of ways. I have an organization pouring training, evaluations, and resources at me so I can manage self-care. We have tons of people willing to pray for us because of our unique commitment. We also don’t have to invent ways to become “new” to an activity or place. We’re in a completely new culture! Everything is a learning experience for us. Living incarnationally isn’t nearly as hard as it was in the States because there aren’t many people who are just like us. Choosing to move to another country when everyone in that country asks you, “why here?” and where so many are trying to move elsewhere is already a bit incarnational. Being intentional and creating time for people also isn’t as hard because…that’s our job!
At the same time, I wish I would have been more reflective before. It wasn’t impossible to do all these things in the States, I just never realized how I should have been going about my commission. I am hopeful that what I have learned will be helpful to you as well. I long for Christianity in the States to embody the discipleship and community that it should. I want Christianity to be a unifying force rather than a divisive one. I want others to look at the church and ask how all of these different groups can worship together. The gospel is not fulfilled in an individual context. It is only fulfilled within a community context. The gospel has not transformed your heart if it does not transform your community living. We are a body, connected to the head, Christ. God's grace and love towards us will enable us to love all others - those like us, those unlike us, and those who call themselves our enemies. And it is by this love for each other that Jesus says people will know we follow him. This evidence for the gospel has to happen through discipleship and community, and it won’t happen if we don’t ever take the time to ask ourselves “how?
Please pray that I will dwell on these truths and that God will do a great work in me. Everything I have written here is a revelation of conviction, not a recounting of victories I've had. I am a struggling disciple who seeks to disciple others.