The work of the missionary has been a developing endeavor since the moment Jesus returned to Heaven. His parting words were,
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
– Matt 28.18-20
These are pretty direct and intense final words. Jesus came to the Earth to make disciples, and He has sent us out to be his mouthpieces in making more disciples. The second half of the New Testament documents the disciples’ ministry and Paul’s missionary efforts taking the Gospel to the world. The early Church grew organically as Christians were persecuted and forced to flee to new regions. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD, and organized Christianity began to flourish.
The modern missionary movement was sparked by William Carey around the turn of the 19th century and Christians began to develop a heart and conviction to take the Gospel to the world. Having no experience or predecessors to learn from, there was little understanding of cultural adaptation and early missions functioned by what we understand as “colonial missions”. White western missionaries sought to make the heathen civilized and westernized as they were converted. Steepled churches were built, hymns translated, coats, ties and shoes required for worship – even in cultures which had never worn shoes indoors or seen a tie. The intention was good, but the execution of taking Jesus to the world suffered by our institutions.
The world has dramatically changed with the development of technology and transportation. It was commonplace for early missionaries to pack their belongings into a coffin as they headed out on a ship for their host country. Now we can be almost anywhere in the world in two days or less – and at a relatively affordable cost. Because of this fact, we now consider a “career” missionary as someone who signs up for a three or four year term and then returns home for a year to reconnect, rest, and recharge. We also have developed a new phenomenon: the short-term mission trip. You can go “change the world” in two weeks.
But can I tell you a little secret? We are not changing the world in two week stints. Truth be told, most career missionaries are not seeing dramatic results in three or four years. Tragically, in fact, most of our short-term trips are causing more harm than good. Research is beginning to emerge about the impact of these mission trips that is startling at best. We send youth and adults to love on children in an orphanage in Africa for a few weeks – maybe even an entire summer for the really committed. How beautiful, we think! We will show these children the love of Jesus, run a VBS, and give lots of hugs. And then we come home with instagram pictures and facebook updates snuggling those poor children, but they are left in an orphanage with yet another source of love having abandoned them. Each new wave of love that comes through hugs them, brings a new set of clothing, and seems to care for them and then walks away. We are damaging these children. Not only that, but governments are seeing the benefit of having foreigners come in and thus they keep children in poverty and in orphanages when they could potentially be adopted.
Or how about building houses or schools? Let’s send our youth and unskilled to build a structure in a needy land! People who have no construction experience. People who know nothing about the host culture and actual needs on the ground. We will raise thousands upon thousands of dollars to put unskilled westerners on a plane, fly to the remote world, and build a structure of which they have no expertise. All the while there are perfectly skilled people who regularly build buildings in this foreign land. They know the construction style, they know where and how to buy supplies, and more importantly – most of them are looking for work! We are taking work away from people who want to work, developing a mindset of entitlement and laziness, and leaving the recipients with a sub-par structure.
Ok, ok, so we will be intentional about going and witnessing. True missions is sharing the Gospel with people, right? Yes! Absolutely! Jesus said,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
– Matt 16.26
If we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, build homes for the homeless, but ignore the Gospel – we have profited them nothing. Yes, we should seek the best way to meet physical needs, but only as we boldly and clearly proclaim the Gospel.
However, consider this: how long does it take to make a disciple? Jesus never instructed us to go out and preach the Gospel. He instructed us to go out and make disciples. Step one of making disciples is preaching the Gospel, but then we must invest blood, sweat and tears in discipleship. People in the third world or on the mission field do not magically or instantaneously know Scripture, how to fight sin, and how to apply the teachings of Jesus. They do not miraculously understand corporate worship, evangelism or differentiating between their previous religion/witchcraft and a God-honoring lifestyle. In fact, many of them do not even have the Bible in their language! Jesus Himself spent three years making his eleven disciples. Dare we think we can do so in two weeks?
I once was out in a Muslim country, and was in a relatively remote city. Everyone you met there was Muslim and they had pride in it, saying “To be from this city is to be Muslim”. There was a Chinese couple who had immigrated a few generations before and at some point in their life a short-term group of missionaries had come through this town, shared the Gospel with them and they “got saved”. Then the missionaries were gone. A few years later, some Jehovah’s Witnesses came through and found these flailing Christians and converted them. Deceived them. Led them to believe that yes, they do believe in Jesus…but that is not enough. There is “more”. Jesus warns us:
“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”
– Matt 12.43-45
It is infinitely more dangerous for someone to be deceived and trust in a false salvation, in a false version of Jesus, than to be practicing sorcery or following a false religion or atheism. False prophets and those who twist the Gospel are of all to be pitied most for their eternal state. And when we go in with no discipleship plan in place for someone who would believe, we are opening people up to have their houses swept and put in order only for a worse fate to become them.
On a much smaller note, let us consider the practicality and logistics of a preaching/teaching trip. How will you communicate? Do you speak the language? I can guarantee that if you do not speak the language, you do not speak the culture. What does that mean? It means that Christianity in China looks infinitely different than Christianity in Alabama. Scripture teaches us clearly about sin, but gives very little instruction about corporate worship. Is it Biblical to have Sunday School in small groups and then corporate worship in a big group? Or is that our tradition and habit? Is it Biblical to sing a few songs, then have preaching, then have a response time? Or is that cultural? Is it Biblical to go to a church building, dress up, wear shoes, and sit in chairs? Or is that what is comfortable for us?
Even more importantly, however, is our daily devotion to God. Are your personal spiritual disciplines at a level that would establish strong churches around the world? In countries where their current religion encompasses their entire lives, and Christians will be persecuted? Will a few seconds of prayer over meals, a once a week worship service and quiet times when we feel like it be an adequate replacement for the Muslim who goes to the mosque to pray five times a day? Are you a mature enough disciple to disciple someone like that?
The great-white-missionary, by in large, is enjoying traveling the world on other people’s dollar, and making himself look good by staying in uncomfortable situations. He is not fighting the causes of injustice and poverty. He is not investing the time and energy to learn the culture, preach the Gospel in a culturally understandable way, or help apply Scripture and Jesus to the culture to make disciples. He is making himself feel better by actually encouraging the cycles of poverty and damaging cultures by developing entitlement mentalities and not empowering nationals to thrive in their situations. And He is teasing people with an offer of eternal hope and leaving them without instruction or help to grow Spiritually and learn how to make disciples on their own.
I, personally, am almost embarrassed by the number of countries I have visited on so-called mission trips. Don’t ask me, it grieves me to remember. I was the great white missionary who hugged orphans and “built” homes. I was the well-meaning evangelist who preformed dramas about Jesus, sang on the street corner and preached the Gospel through a translator. But we can and must learn from these situations. Jesus has commanded us to go and make disciples. So the answer is not to give up or stop trying. The answer is to grow and do it well.
First of all, in order to make disciples, we must be disciples ourselves. If we have no personal spiritual disciples, we cannot teach others to have them. If we are not committed to Jesus and to the Church, we cannot teach others to be. If we are not fighting sin and growing Spiritually, we cannot encourage and instruct others how to do so either. In short: we need to understand discipleship in our own lives first.
Secondly, we must evaluate our Christianity and understand what is Biblical and what is cultural. We should never set food on a foreign land or engage in cross-cultural work until we understand that Jesus is about the ministry of redeeming cultures, not making everyone look the same. Asians do not have to wear shoes in their church buildings. Africans do not have to wear ties. The entire world does not have to sing European hymns. And most cultures do not function within strict time frames like westerners: their prayer meetings probably will go for many hours, people probably will show up late, and they might eat a full meal as the Lord’s Supper.
Thirdly, we must fully invest. Disciple-making is not a short-term project. There are many places and cultures in the world where there are still no Christians. Missionaries unanimously vote the most difficult work to be “from zero to one”. Why? Because we are outsiders trying to convince someone of something completely counter-cultural and foreign. Would you listen to a Nepalese immigrant who is trying to convince you to to convert to Hinduism through broken English? We Americans tend to find the novelty factor of foreign beliefs intriguing, so they would actually have a higher success rate than an American entering a completely Hindu society with no exposure to the outside world – one that considers their culture their identity.
Once that first convert has been made, or if you are engaging a culture that has any known believers, we must focus our energies on mobilizing the nationals to be the missionaries. An insider will always have more foundation on which to stand – if for no other reason than they fully understand their own culture and language. You will have infinitely more sway with your friends than a foreigner, and the same is true around the world. The more foreigners remain in the background, the more the church can be indigenous and take hold. This is why Paul refused to baptize people in Corinth. He had an excellent reputation, and in order to keep himself humble and to keep people from boasting or believing there to be an extra blessing by being baptized by an apostle, he taught the local believers to baptize their own (1 Cor 1.14ff).
Full investment means time. We must go and stay. Not everyone will go and stay. But those who do not go and stay should only go and assist those who can stay. Those people who are staying will be the ones who do the discipleship and follow up. They will have needs of short-termers. They may need English teachers to establish a VISA, they may need travel buddies for nationals to get out into remote areas (some countries do not allow free travel, but we can “hire” national Christians to be our “tour guides” – so we essentially get them into areas they cannot reach on their own). They may need encouragement because they have no teammates and are still looking for the first believer. The long-term missionaries will be able to tell you how they can utilize you and your group to further the ongoing ministry on the ground, and going out just to hang out with them and encourage them is absolutely a legitimate use of your time. Have you ever felt drained when you miss church one week? Imagine having no community, church or corporate Bible study for years on end.
Lastly, we must remember that missions is not about us. Ever. Period. If you are packing your bags for the “discipleship experience”, unpack them and send the money to a missionary on the field. Orphans, needy, and the un-reached are not tourist destinations. They are not there to facilitate your Spiritual growth and development. Their poverty does not exist to make you more thankful for your materialism and excess. Yes, going on any mission trip will forever change you. It will open your eyes, it will hopefully enhance your worldview and understanding of God, and it should give you a burden for lostness. But those are beautiful and secondary effects. To go out on mission is, by definition, to focus on serving God by serving and reaching out to others. It is being mindful of the fact that the people we encounter have no hope and we are seeking their salvation. It is about making disciples of others. Not ourselves.
There is a lost and dying world all around us, and Jesus has commanded us to make disciples of all of the nations. Let’s get busy about understanding what that means, and being obedient.