The push for being missional captures something very important in the heart of God, but this is dangerous when it comes at the cost of something else essential in the heart of God; pursuing all the nations, not merely those who share our language and culture.
(David Mathis, Finish the Mission)
A few weeks ago a pastor from a conservative reformed evangelical church with some commitment to mission asked me “Sam, why are we praying for missionaries every Sunday at church? What makes them so special, so set-apart? I moved with my family from Sydney to Brisbane. I left my immediate family to move up here too. I’ve made sacrifices to be here. My church should be praying for ME every Sunday. I’m as much a missionary as those missionaries that we pray for every week.”
I’m as much a missionary as those missionaries that we pray for every week [aren’t I?].
With those words and thoughts still ringing in my head I talked to one of “those missionaries” living in a mega-city in South East Asia. This was the gist of the conversation:
It seems that ever since we got here we have been moving from one crisis to the other. There has hardly been a day when one of our kids hasn’t been sick. We thought that we were through with most of it when two nights ago our youngest suddenly went downhill and was struggling to breathe. I immediately gathered her in my arms, jumped on my moped and with one arm holding her to my chest and the other the handle bars, I laboriously manoeuvred my way for thirty minutes through the car fumes, swarms of people and traffic to the hospital. Dangerous I know. But I had no other way to get her there. My daughter was immediately treated and spent the night in hospital. To my shame the whole night I wasn’t focused on the health of my daughter. I was wracked with the guilt of realising that the treatment that my daughter had received was only possible because I was a Westerner. All of the people that come to our church don’t have this privilege.
When we left Australia we sold up everything we had and put whatever we had left over in our suitcases. When we arrived in this country the content in our suitcases put us in the wealthiest 5% of this nation. Even in the moment of our greatest sacrifice we were still filthy rich! It is a daily gut-wrenching struggle trying to reconcile and live with our wealth when we are surrounded by people who have so little.
With tears welling up in his eyes he paused for a moment. He then continue:
In my quieter moments I am paralysed with the question, “What are you doing here? How can you put your wife and family through this?” I have nothing to say. Coming from the bush I used to marvel at the Brisbane skyline. Now it seems like every horizon in this city, in every direction, has a Brisbane skyline. I look at what I’m contributing in this immense city of cities and it feels so insignificant. What’s the population of this country? 40 million? Well every one of them speaks their language better than me at the moment. Surely it would be so much more cost-effective to employ some of them over me? I know that in our case that’s not true. The local church has told us that we bring something to the church in this country that nationals can’t bring. They say this to reassure us but we are still plagued with our doubts. And you know what the saddest thing is? We have no one to share this with.”
In an age when mission becomes everywhere to everywhere; when we are now all called “missionaries”; when there’s talk about the great need in Australia, let us not blur the lines between going to people in our own culture and going to people are completely foreign to us. Pretending that Brisbane is Dhaka, Bangkok or Jakarta is not only naïve but incredibly ignorant. Insisting that any town or city in Australia, with all her churches and evangelical Christians and ready access to Gospel ministry and resources in her own language and culture, is as equally needy as a village in Rakhine Province or in the Swat Valley is like saying that Sydney has the same degree of hunger and poverty and injustice as Syria. It’s just not true, and for many who live in the reality of that gap, it hurts very deeply when someone says it.
God’s Global Perspective
We are not saying that Australia doesn’t need Gospel mission—it does. We are not saying that local Gospel believers don’t need to constantly sharpen their local mission focus and practice—they do. We are not saying that local pastors aren’t worth praying for and that their sacrifices in ministry aren’t worth noticing—they are. But something happens when we take the word, “mission”, and strip it of the recent and powerful historical connection it has had to “world mission”, or “cross-cultural mission”. We can inadvertently become myopic and xenophobic. We can forget that the mission of God has a global, cross-cultural, every tribe and tongue and people and nation perspective. We can too easily frame our preference for mission according to our priorities instead of constantly attending to the way God sees his Church or mission in his whole wide world. We can forget that the biblical mandate is not to reach as many people as we can, as resource-efficiently or as cost-effectively as we can. No, it is rather, that we go and proclaim the glorious message of the Gospel to all peoples. Go … to All.
God did not just send money or an angel with a message … God revealed himself, came himself.
Further, losing the cross-cultural, cross-linguistic, cross-geographic, cross-socio-economic aspects from the language of mission cuts us off from a very significant theological principle: that of the doctrine of accommodation. That’s the idea that God accommodates himself to us; to love us, to serve us, to reveal himself to us, to save us. God did not just send money or an angel with a message—although he could have. No, God revealed himself, came himself, participated himself in the acts of revelation and redemption and salvation. To do this required crossing all sorts of differences between his infinitude and holiness, over to our brokenness and neediness.
Paying the Cost, Gaining Christ
Mission is a costly business. And in fact, the more costly it is for us, one might say, the more we experience something of how costly it is for God. Something happens to our godliness when we walk that path of costly crossing-over-to-that-foreign-needy-unknown-side following the Spirit’s leadership and in his power. We would argue that the more distant the other side is from our own culture and comforts, the more we have to learn to be like Christ. And if that’s true for the individual, it’s even more true for the Church.
So no, you’re not really missional if all you’re doing is thinking about local engagement, or engagement that is within a context that you’re comfortable with, and where all the unknowns are known. You’re not really missional if all your resources and Gospel dreaming is focussed on people just like you, in places just like your own, amongst people whom you hope will one day have a ministry like your own. God’s mission is to all peoples, in all their bewildering and staggering cultural, linguistic, economic, anthropological, social, human diversity.
Heaven won’t be just for people just like us. And so following God’s lead into mission means putting our prayers and our pennies and our people across all that diversity—beginning locally, and stretching our vision with God’s, to the ends of the world.