I recently found myself speaking at a missions conference on the theme of, “What will it take? To reach all the nations for Christ?” What a great question for gospel-minded disciples!
By way of an answer at that conference, I shared Andrew Reid’s observation that our contemporary English-speaking evangelical culture has moved from sacrifice and suffering as normative for discipleship to fulfilment and achievement as our predominant framework.
A generation or more ago, virtually every evangelical university student would have read Howard Guinness’s Sacrifice. That was the Christian life: sacrifice and service.
Today, most of the books in our Christian bookstores have a different focus: themes of fulfilment or finding your ultimate purpose or the key to happiness. Here are some actual titles or subtitles from best-selling Christian books in Australia today:
The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health
What On Earth Am I Here For? (Personal fulfilment.)
The Secret to Love That Lasts (Emotional or relational fulfilment.)
A generation ago, Christian leaders read Oswald Chamber’s Spiritual Leadership. Today they might more likely read something entitled Seven Surefire Leadership Maxims.
I’m not saying the books today are all bad, or even that those ones are all bad. But notice the way in which the frame of reference has shifted. From sacrifice and suffering as an inevitable part of the Christian life that must be embraced to fulfilment and even strategy–that which is most strategic for me and my ministry–as the main frame of reference. It’s a subtle shift and one that moves us a step further away from the pattern we see in Scripture.
When Jesus bids someone to come and follow him, he bids them come and die.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it abides alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit to the Father’s glory” (John 12:24).
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” says the Lord (Mark 8:34).
“All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus be persecuted” , says Paul to Timothy and God to us (2 Timothy 3:12).
The Bible forces us to give up any expectation of a pain free Christian life, what’s more, a pain-free mission-focussed life!
Have you ever noticed how in times of war, the rhetoric for joining the military is always heroic? Join the army, be a hero, fight for justice and right against evil and wrong. But in times of peace, the rhetoric turns to fulfilment and personal development. Here are some actual words from defencejobs.gov.au
ARMY. CHALLENGE YOURSELF.
Find the job that’s right for you.
Further your education and join the Australian Defence Force. We have a fantastic range of education and career options for almost every stage of life.
Could it be that much of the malaise towards world mission and local evangelism in our churches is because we’ve been seduced by our context to think that we are at peace, instead of war? We seem to have given up on Ephesians 6 as a controlling metaphor for the Christian life. We no longer consider ourselves as being in the middle of spiritual warfare, but instead, we see ourselves on a journey spiritual self-development and fulfilment. Beware that drift!
Are you ready to suffer for the sake of the gospel of grace to the nations? Can you say with Paul, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 2:21)? Or, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”?
Do you recall that Paul and Peter, according to church history, die as martyrs in Rome? Eleven of the Twelve, according to church tradition, died the death of martyrs. So we remember Tertullian’s maxim: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
Could it be that our drift to the narrative of fulfilment and strategy is running counter to our commanding officer’s vision of a spiritual army at war, with faithful soldiers ready to fight, suffer, be wounded, and even to die? Could it be that too much talk of strategic ministry and mission, and of fulfilment in the Christian life, is working actively against God’s purposes to use suffering to achieve his Gospel ends? Consider the suffering of Christ!
David Williams, who heads up Church Missionary Society training at St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne tells this story from his own context. In 1893 the CMS acted to strengthen its mission in West Africa. A new Bishop had been appointed for the region. Bishop and Mrs Hill, two laymen, and five single women were sent to Yoruba, and three clergymen and two single women to Niger.
The sailing party left England on 22 November 1893, reaching Lagos on 13 December. On 6 January 1894 a telegram reached CMS in London. Bishop and Mrs Hill at rest. The Society was stunned. The evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury was deeply grieved.
The telegrams kept coming…
Rev E. W. Mathias, 17 January.
Rev J. Vernall, 20 January.
Rev A. E. Sealey, 21 January.
Miss Mansbridge, 23 January.
All dead, probably of yellow fever. Of the seven headed for Niger, only one was left, Rev Watney, who proceeded on alone.
A large meeting was called to send off a replacement bishop—Bishop Tugwell—and to pray. These words from Bishop Bardsley of Carlisle are recorded in the official history of CMS.
Some of you may ask … “Might not the men [and women] who have given their lives for Africa have done longer and more useful work in our home parishes? Wherefore this waste? … Brethren, let us not take up words from the mouth of Judas Iscariot.”
One hundred and twenty years ago they went and died in perhaps one of the most difficult mission contexts in the world at the time. It might have seemed such a waste, such needless sacrifice and suffering. Such a waste of strategic assets who could have had much more fulfilled ministries in England, blessing the churches there.
However, today we can see with more prefect hindsight and we know that there are more Anglicans in church in Nigeria on any given Sunday than there are in the UK, Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand all put together. 18 million believers in the Lord Jesus–plus many more belonging to other Christian denominations.
What will it take to reach the nations for Christ?
How are you dying today to self and to our cultural context, so that more of you and what God has entrusted to your stewardship might be put to his Gospel kingdom’s war effort against the forces of evil and darkness? What deprivation, suffering and cost are you willing to pay so that the Gospel might go to the nations, or just across the street to your neighbour?