Thursday, March 24, 2011

Not later -- now

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A missionary struck up a conversation with a businessman seated next to him on a plane flying over Southeast Asia.

The plane was heading toward an area where the missionary hoped to make new contacts with a people group yet to be reached with the Gospel. He asked in a general way if the businessman knew anything about the group and how to develop relationships with them.

“No problem,” the man replied. “I could introduce you to them. We’ve already been in their villages. We know how to get to their children. I can give you prices.”

Horrified, the missionary realized his seatmate’s business was sex trafficking. The businessman assumed the curious American questioning him was either a customer or wholesaler involved in the same trade.

After all, who else would care about the remote villagers they were discussing?

That missionary is the son-in-law of Tom Elliff, newly elected International Mission Board president. Elliff tells of the encounter to make a point about the mission terms “unreached” and “unengaged” — often used to describe the thousands of people groups with little or no Gospel witness.

“We’re actually deluding ourselves to say that they are unengaged or unreached,” Elliff says. “What we should say is that they are unengaged by us and unreached by the Gospel, because other people already have engaged them.”

Those others include not only criminals but legitimate corporations, humanitarian groups, governments — anyone who is serious enough about connecting with a group of people to “pay the price to get there,” Elliff explains. Their motivation may be to help or to exploit, but seldom to share the love of Jesus Christ.

“If it’s worth the price, we must go to the uttermost now,” Elliff says. Not in the next generation. Not after Christians solve all their church problems. Not after they get local and national politics straightened out. Now.

That’s why he seized the opportunity of his acceptance speech — immediately following his March 16 election by IMB trustees — to issue a bold challenge to Southern Baptists: Engage all of the estimated 3,800 people groups worldwide that have yet to be touched by the Gospel.

“I intend to introduce at the [June] 2011 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention a very simple plan by which each one of these 3,800 unengaged people groups can be embraced by a Southern Baptist congregation,” Elliff told trustees.

“I believe we can accomplish this in one year. Just think about that for a moment. Should Jesus grant us the days, by the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention meeting, we would be able to say that, to our knowledge, every people group on this globe has some church committed to take specific steps to strategize, to pray over, to learn about and discover some way that the Gospel witness can be shared with those people.”

Can it be done?

Local churches have many God-given ministries: worship, preaching and teaching, discipleship, caring for the needs of believers, evangelizing lost people close at hand, feeding the poor, visiting the sick. These days, they’re carrying out those tasks in a tough environment of increasing secularism, rapidly changing communities and social norms, conflicting demands from members and a still-struggling economy.

Effective international mission work, meanwhile, has become an enormously complex and expensive task — often conducted in hostile conditions — requiring in-depth cultural knowledge, detailed logistics and careful cooperation with like-minded partners. It calls for well-trained workers with a high degree of commitment — good missionaries, in other words.

But missionaries can’t get the job done alone. And they aren’t sent by mission boards and agencies; they are sent by local churches.

Missionaries are “your boots on the ground,” Elliff said. But fulfilling the Great Commission is “going to require local churches … becoming burdened for the unengaged and the unreached of this world, signing on, creating vital partnerships. This is not a new way of doing missions. This is a biblical way of doing missions — and your missionaries are eager for you to step up to the plate.”

If a time ever required boldness, “it is this day,” he said. “[You] can’t simply be content to say you’re for church … and the Rotary and good government and low taxes and oh, by the way, you’re for missions. It is something that is going to have to consume us.”

For all its challenge and complexity in our day, taking the Gospel to all peoples remains primarily a matter of the will. Will we pay the price of obedience to God’s command, or not?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When 'Plan A' fails

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Tired, hot and halfway to lost, the missionary drove down a dusty dirt road into a fishing village that appeared on no map.

A mangy dog barked. A few locals eyed the stranger from their shacks. The sun sank toward a red horizon.

“This is a dead end,” the missionary told himself nervously. He was a rookie. It was one of his first trips into the Philippine countryside on his own. Anywhere else seemed more promising for ministry than this, and he intended to get there as soon as possible.

He turned his pickup truck around. Just before he mashed the gas pedal, he heard a voice: “I want you to stop right here.”

No audible voice. God’s voice? The missionary pulled over — under protest.

“I’ll walk around for five minutes,” he muttered. “Then I’m outta here.”

He saw no one outside — just more dogs that followed him, growling with a distinct lack of hospitality. He forced himself to stroll through the village, almost hoping he wouldn’t find anyone. Turning one last corner before scurrying back to the truck, he encountered a group of fishermen mending their nets. He approached them.

“I’m a missionary,” he said, struggling to make himself understood with his beginner language skills. “Could you guys tell me if there’s someplace around here where I could tell people about Jesus?”

The fishermen looked at each other. “Why not here?” one of them replied.

That village eventually became home to a church, which went on to start three more churches, which in turn started others.

Funny how God works while you’re on the way to someplace else.

That young missionary, now a grandfather, remembered his long-ago experience at a home fellowship I attend. We were talking about the time Jesus fed more than 5,000 people in the wilderness (Matthew 14). Actually, He told His disciples to feed them. They were exhausted and hungry themselves. They didn’t begin to have enough food to satisfy such a large crowd — two fish and five loaves of bread. They probably worried about starting a riot.

“Bring them here to Me,” Jesus said, calling for the fish and bread (Matthew 14:18, NASB). Something happened between the time He blessed the food and the disciples started passing it out — something only Jesus could do. But He used His doubting followers while doing it.

“He says the same to us: ‘Just bring Me what you have,’” writes Andy Stanley. “We’re discouraged about our inadequate education or experience or training or resources — but whatever we have, however small it seems, Jesus wants us simply to bring it to Him, and He’ll use it to meet the need.”

We know in our hearts that it’s true. But it seems counterintuitive to the modern mind, like much of what Jesus said and did. We believe in education, preparation, planning, measurement and accountability — and rightly so. God deserves no less than our best. If ministry is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. It’s a foolish servant who spends valuable time (and his master’s resources) on new projects without counting the cost, using proven strategies and best practices.

And yet, plans and training aren’t enough. Planning didn’t start the Great Awakening in America or the Shantung Revival in China. God’s Spirit, convicting repentant sinners, did.

“A tension seems to exist between the plans we make and the plans God chooses to bless,” writes Guy Muse, my favorite missionary blogger. “In fact, the Lord actually states it this way: ‘My thoughts and my ways are not like yours. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my thoughts and my ways are higher than yours’ (Isaiah 55:8-9, CEV).

“Missionaries are expected to set goals, [make] action plans and work towards fulfilling them. ... I personally don’t mind putting things down on paper. Knowing what one is trying to achieve and working towards ministry goals brings a sense of direction and satisfaction. Only one problem, though: Year after year, only a small percentage of what is put down on paper happens as it was envisioned. We plan, but He leads. As He leads, we follow. More often than not, He leads in directions we had not anticipated.”

It has always been thus in missionary work — or any other ministry. When the Apostle Paul and his companions tried to go to Bithynia on one of their carefully planned mission journeys, “… the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” (Acts 16:7, NASB). Later, Paul had a vision of someone standing and appealing to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9b, NASB).

“What usually happens when our plans don’t come to fruition as envisioned is we double the effort, work harder and plow forward, insisting at all costs we be permitted into Phrygia and Bithynia,” Muse observes. “After all, Asia needs the Gospel and we know that it is just Satan that is standing in our way! But Paul didn’t blame Satan for not having been allowed to go to these places and do what he had planned. He understood it was Jesus who was calling the shots.”

Planning is good. Biblical, even. Just remember who calls the shots.