Speaker Panel: David Platt, Michael Ramsden, Michael Oh, Ed Stetzer, John Piper
Desiring God 2011 National Conference
Finish the Mission: For the Joy of All Peoples
This message appears as a chapter in Finish the Mission: Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged.
The following is a lightly edited transcription of a panel discussion held on September 24, 2011, at the Desiring God National Conference, where the chapters of this book were originally delivered. David Mathis’s questions are in italics.
How would you counsel someone wrestling through a possible missionary call? To what extent are there natural and supernatural factors that come into play as one would sense a missionary call to the nations?
Michael Oh: On one level, I believe that missions is not something that God invites us into. It’s what we were saved for. And inasmuch as you are a Christian, you are called to that endeavor. But I do want to make a distinction between who is a missionary and who is not — who is a sender, who is a go-er. And toward that end, in terms of what it means to be one who goes, again, I think the first layer of missionary response or pursuit of that call is really the response of obedience. It flows from a passionate vision to see the name of Jesus Christ lifted high. And pursuing that call obediently and just hoping that God won’t stop you in some way through your pastor or through circumstance or others and that God might just graciously, mercifully allow you to actually make it to the field, which is just such a hard thing to actually do. But I really do believe that it starts on the level of obedience and a passion for the things that God is passionate about.
David Platt: I would echo all of that and foundationally the missionary command that should supersede all of our lives. And in this sense I’d certainly understand and embrace much of what’s being said in the distinction between go-er and sender. At the same time, I want to say to every member of our church that you’re a go-er in the sense that you are going and making disciples. And we’re doing this in all nations together. The question is where we’re going and how long we’re staying there. But we’re all going in a very real sense.
Even those who will stay in Birmingham, I want us to make disciples in Birmingham with a view toward disciples’ being made among the Arundo in North Africa. And I think about one brother who’s here from our church who is making disciples in Birmingham. So he’s still living there, but a couple from his small group is now leading one of our church planting teams among this dangerous, unreached people group in North Africa. And so he has been a part of making disciples in Birmingham, going in that sense that is then affecting unreached people.
So that’s what I mean when I say we’re all to be involved in going, in some sense, to unreached peoples, because that’s our end goal altogether. So there is the command, and then the call springs from that. And then it becomes an every-nation-to-every-nation thing such that everybody and every nation together, as followers of Christ, do this together.
And that he will. I’m always encouraged. And when we have folks that are praying, Is God calling me now to go and live somewhere else? I always encourage them, Just remember: the Lord wants his will and mission and purpose to be accomplished in your life more than you do. And as you abide in him, as you are totally surrendered to him, he will lead and guide and direct your steps.
You go through the obedience of what God puts in front of you day by day by day by day. And trust that he is going to lead and guide those steps in a way that will make his glory known in wonderfully creative ways. I love watching the Lord take those that are obedient to that command and just play that out in so many different callings to so many different places in so many different ways.
Ed Stetzer: I have nothing to add but that there’s a fundamental identification with being a believer, and that is we are sent. John 20:21 says, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” But there are different ways that we’re sent. We’re all sent. There’s a sent-ness that all believers are sent on mission. All believers are called to the ministry. We use these terms and we’ve got this special distinction.
We say that, well, I was called to the ministry at a certain time. I’ll often say between my junior and senior year in college. But 1 Peter 4:10 would say that each one has received a special gift. Use it to minister to one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. So I’m called to the ministry at my conversion. I’m sent on mission at my conversion. But then there are differences in where and among whom. And I think that’s the distinction we would make.
I would say, Michael, since I think a good panel has a little bit of tension on it, I would say I would differ in one sense. I like the idea. I think we can look to the Great Commission and see the finishing of the task among the nations as a primary priority. But I don’t like the emphasis on “get to the field.” I would say that we’re all in the field. The question has to be, to what field has God called us? And is it to the Pokot in Africa, the Quechua of the highlands of Peru or is it to Birmingham, Alabama.
So the nuance that I would make is that sent-ness is universal to the believer. We’re all sent. The question is, Where and among whom are we sent to live, minister, send, and serve?
John Piper: Real practically, you do have to make some choices. And here’s something that I just think God does over and over. Paul says in Romans 15, “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation. But . . .” And then he quotes Isaiah. “‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’ This is the reason why I so often have been hindered in coming to you.”
Now here’s my take on his understanding of that text in his life. He says that verse describes my life. That’s why I do what I do. Well, no. He got knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus. That’s why he does what he does. But, in fact, God takes the Bible and, with all the other things that happen to us, he burns a portion of it into you like he does nobody else. So one of the ways it gets specific — like deciding what field or when or at what age or whether I go to school — is you’re reading your Bible and something happens. This verse takes you. It just takes you. You can’t leave it. You try to leave it; it won’t leave you. And so it’s portions of the Scripture rooting in your soul and then over time being inescapable so that you can’t leave it.
Very concretely, my departure from academia into the pastorate was the clearest decision I had to make, because most all the other decisions were made for me, it seemed like, but that one I really made. I really made that decision. I stayed up till one o’clock in the morning and I decided, and I was cornered by Romans 9. “I will be proclaimed not just analyzed.” And I said okay. Okay. It took six years incrementally going, going, going, and then it just was like a strangle hold on me. And I just think God will do that for you. He will cause some portion of the Word to grip you, and it will be a decisive moment in your life.
Continuing on that practical note, what counsel would you have for someone who says God is uprooting him for world missions and asks, Where do I go from here? What does it look like from today, having made that decision to go, to getting to that new field and living sent in that new place?
Michael Ramsden: Not long after I became a Christian there was a very particular moment where I was confronted with the gospel and the reality of Christ, and I knew I had to surrender to him. And I went to my first Bible study four days later having read through the New Testament twice. I was halfway through the Old Testament. And we had this most amazing Bible study, and at the end they said, “If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?” And I said, “I want him to make me an evangelist. So if I could ask him one thing, that’s what it would be. So would you pray that for me?”
Now the reason why I’m saying that was that six years later I’m coming to the end of my doctoral research, which was on something called “systemic risk to financial markets,” which I’m sure will be fascinating for all of you, for me to go into great depth at this point. And that was in ’96. Yeah, ’95/’96. And I was feeling pretty depressed because the conclusion of my research was that there was going to be a big collapse of the Western financial system. And I’ve had a lot of invitations from banks recently. And this guy Ravi Zacharias rang me up, and he said, “We think God’s calling you to this kind of ministry. And if that’s right, then would you like to join us?” Now you would think, given the first part of the story I shared with you, I would say this is an obvious decision and the answer’s yes. It was not an easy decision.
Now my wife, who, generally speaking, is far more godly and righteous and holier than I am — she felt the answer to this was very simple. But for me it threw me into a tailspin. And I know. I spoke to countless leaders. Everywhere I went, I asked. I talked with people. I asked them to pray with me. And four months later I was preaching at a conference in Eastern Europe. I’d gone as a delegate and somehow got roped into preaching.
One person said to me, “What are you thinking of doing next?” And I said, “Actually I have this big wrestle. Either I could go into banking or I could go into academia, or I’ve got this other offer on the table. I don’t know which one to do.” And I said, “It’s not a question of obedience. If God would just send me a Post-It note — Dear Michael, do this — leave it on the fridge, and when I woke up in the morning, then that’s it.” And they just said, “Well, we really need Christians in banking. So our suggestion is, you’re very young. You’re only twenty-five. Why don’t you say no to this offer and . . .”
So that morning I talked with the person and I thought, Okay, that makes a lot of sense. That’s what I’ll do. I didn’t tell anyone what I was going to do. I went into my room later that day and I ran a bath and I got into it, and I broke down into tears and I cried for three hours. I don’t know if you’ve ever cried to the point where you’ve run out of tears. It’s actually very, very painful. But I just couldn’t stop myself crying, and all I knew was that day I had made the single worst decision of my whole life. In other words, I got it wrong. And God instantly basically said That’s not the right answer. Why don’t you try again. And the words “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” took on a totally different meaning for me at that point.
And so I think the advice I would give is there’s something that happens in the process of wrestling with that kind of decision, no matter where it is, whatever the field may be, whatever it may look like, and you must wrestle with the Lord in prayer. You must, I say, wrestle with godly people around you in prayer. Because there will come a time where you will either be tempted away from that calling or you will become hard.
And if you don’t at that point know exactly what it is that you should be doing, the temptation will be to walk away. And that’s why I think actually there are so few evangelists in the field, because times when, I think, it gets hard, they think there’s something easier to do, and they go and do something else. So whatever that calling is, I will say you must wrestle with it. I was four years into doing what I’m doing, and I met with this financial group. And they said, “Michael, we’re really interested in your research. We’ll pay you thirty thousand dollars a day if you’ll come and work for us.”
Now that’s the kind of money that gets you to rethink your calling. And, yeah, I mean at that point I was making barely thirty thousand dollars a year. So thirty thousand dollars a day seemed . . . that was a significant pay rise. So I went home and I told my wife. I said, “Anna, I met with this group.” And I had my deputy in the ministry with me at this lunchtime routine. And I said, “Here’s the offer. What do you think?” So we started praying about it. And I think we prayed for twenty seconds and then we both fell about laughing. And we just stopped praying, and I said I know I’m not called to this. I’m called to what I’m doing now.
It’s going to be hard. No matter where God has called you, no matter where he’s placed you, there’s going to be a time where it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be difficult, and the temptation will be to walk away, or you’ll be tempted by something else. And at that point you also need to know the certainty to what you have been called, that you’re in obedience to God. And so I think you have to go through that wrestling process.
So don’t expect it to be easy. I think it’s very rarely easy. I think there’s that moment where you have to know that actually this is what it is and this is what it means. Now he may change that in ten years’ time. That’s fine. I think it needs to be clear. And I think so many of us drift into things. Now my belief in the sovereignty of God is such that I think God’s more interested in getting us to the right place than we are in obeying him. But there is a difference between being in the right place and knowing you’re in the right place, and being in the right place and not knowing you’re in the right place. And if you’re in the right place and you don’t know you’re in the right place, the danger is you’ll end up somewhere else.
David Platt: I’m just thinking about all that wonderful process that God has ordained. Like he could, obviously, show it to you right now exactly what all this should look like, but he likely won’t because there’s a sanctifying process in the middle of it. So not to walk through that process alone but to walk through that process alongside a local church and a community of brothers and sisters and, ideally, elders or pastors who are helping shepherd you through that process and helping you think through what this is so you don’t have to decide this on your own. That’s part of the church. I mean that’s part of the beauty of Acts 13.
So worship and fast and pray with the church and with elders and leaders in the church and let them be a part of this process. And the Lord will use them to help guide those steps and direct those steps. That local church component, just like we heard last night, is just fundamental in this process and in sending you out and then supporting. I’m not just talking financially but in so many different ways that that’s just key.
Michael Oh: Sometimes it is like John mentioned — a Scripture that burns in your heart. I think for me it was really “Love your enemies.” And that was a clear kind of defining, clarifying Scripture for me to understand whether I should be going to China or Japan. And prior to that, however, it was just really a logical process. I knew . . . my wife and I knew. We needed — we were compelled — to be somewhere in the 10/40 Window. We wanted to be among the unreached, and there was a very logical process. Sometimes we can get paralyzed because we don’t have that Sticky from God. And we sometimes can over-spiritualize a decision for future ministry and can kind of miss out on just the parts of humanity that God has given us. Like our logic and research, learning, and community to make decisions that are really not that hard.
I mean, there’s one missionary for every five hundred thousand Muslims in the world. That’s a no-brainer. You should consider, for any of you feeling some call to mission, you should consider the Muslims. You should be compelled logically and in heart to consider the Muslims. And you should be compelled to pray for them, to be involved in some way no matter what your personal involvement will be. And for us it was kind of a narrowing-down process: the unreached 10/40 Window, feeling a call to Asia in terms of our backgrounds, and then crystallizing down to Japan. But I think even without that we could have ended up in Japan. And yeah, I’d just encourage you not to be paralyzed but to just move forward with all that God has given you, and use your minds. Use logic. And move forward as long as your conscience does not stop you or your leaders, and move forward with freedom in the gospel, freedom in the sovereignty of God, and he will lead. He will guide.
It might be helpful for some who aren’t familiar with the vocabulary of missions if we ticked off a few key terms and had you give a brief definition or a sense of how those are being used. We’re talking about nations, plural, and peoples, plural. What do we have in mind with that term?
David Platt: There are an estimated seventeen thousand people groups that Joshua Project and others — based on missiological, anthropological, and ethni-graphic research — identify as groups of people with common cultural language characteristics. So obviously when we see ethnic nations and peoples in Scripture, even nations in Matthew 28:19, this is obviously not going to be referring to nations as we would picture nations today. The United States of America, believe it or not, did not exist when Jesus said that, along with many other nations.
And so when we see nations, it’s talking about ethno-linguistic groups, groups that share these, and so this is where a variety of scholars have really helped clarify what these different peoples, who these different peoples are, and spread out. So India is one country, but people groups are everything — different languages, different culture characteristics. And those people groups are spread throughout the country. And they’re here. They’re here in the Twin Cities. You’ve got different people groups spread out throughout North America as well.
We talk about unreached and unengaged peoples. What do we mean by those categories?
David Platt: Unreached would be, on a whole, less than two percent evangelical Christian, and that’s usually how unreached is defined. And so there’s not a sustainable gospel presence, a large enough sustainable gospel presence really, in a people group for the access of the gospel. And that’s key. When we talk unreached, what we’re talking about is access, because I’ve heard people say, “Well, my neighbor’s unreached in Birmingham.” Well, they mean lost. Unreached doesn’t mean lost; unreached means limited access, very little access. Just to put it practically, if you’re born into an unreached people group, the likelihood is you would be born, you would live, and you would die without ever hearing the gospel. That’s how it plays out. So that would be unreached.
Unengaged would be . . . you’ve got a people group that’s not only unreached but there is no one intentionally targeting that people group to reach them with the gospel. And so you’ve got around three thousand, I think, people groups that would be unengaged and unreached.
What is “the 10/40 Window”?
Michael Oh: That would be ten degrees north latitude to forty degrees north latitude. Stretching from the East, Japan, China, Southeast Asia into North Africa and the Middle East where you have upwards of 95 percent of the unreached people groups of the world, where you have the greatest poverty in the world, and where you also tend to see the greatest persecution of the Christian church as well. And it’s also an area where you have really some of the least engaged peoples and the least mission investment in terms of human and also financial resources.
What is “the Global South”?
Michael Ramsden: The globe is in two hemispheres. You have the northern bit, and then you have the southern bit. Again, some of these guys know this better than me, but it can be used in a variety of differ-ent ways. But the context in which you’re most likely to come across it is the fact that the growth of the Christian faith and the spread of the church has been remarkable in terms of how it has shifted from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere. That’s been one of the remarkable stories. Even one of the leading books in this field was actually published through the Oxford University Press, just looking at that fact that now actually the church is that strong in these parts of the world now. Is there something more technical that I should add to that?
The one thing I would say, though, in terms of praying for the Global South is a lot of it has yet to be invaded by secularism. So one of the reasons why the country and the groups that I go to the most in South Africa is because its universities have bought into the North-Hemisphere worldview and they suddenly found evangelism more difficult. Now it’s relatively easy to evangelize in South Africa compared to England. Okay. But if you compare South Africa to the rest of Africa it’s actually become much more difficult. So these terms may have to be redefined at some point, but at the moment that’s what we’re basically talking about, this huge explosive growth in that part of the world. Is there anything more technical you want?
What do we mean by “contextualization” and “the C-Scale”?
Michael Ramsden: This is very noncontroversial.
Ed Stetzer: Contextualization is two thousand years of mission history, and we have more failures than we do successes in the area of contextualization. Contextualization has got a very good reputation among people who understand missiology. Some who use the term differently tend to think it’s a terrible thing. But contextualization is not making the gospel palatable; it’s making the gospel understandable, and there’s an important distinction between the two. It’s not giving people what they want, tickling their ears, if you will. It’s not giving them what they want; it’s giving them the gospel in the way they can understand, comprehend, and respond by grace and through faith to the gospel.
And so the question is, How far do you go? Now, the C-1 through 6 Scale was written by an anonymous author who was talking about Muslim contextualization. But many have appropriated that to other settings as well. But there’s minimal contextualization, C-1, and it goes all the way till . . . C-6 is like a different category. It’s essentially secret or hidden believers. Whereas, C-5 would be the place where the contextualization is, well, to the point where many of us — my work’s in missiology — would probably see that as an over-contextualization. C-4 is where you’re using local indigenous forms, cultural context is shaping. And the reality is in many ways of ministry the how of missions is going to be shaped by the who, when, and where of culture. But the question is how many. So the question is, How far is too far? And good, godly, Bible loving people disagree on where that line is.
I will tell you historically the vast majority of errors have been made on the side of under-contextualization in cross-cultural mission. We have had more danger with obscurantism, which is the technical term for when we obscure the truth of the gospel from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes. But the danger is, on the other hand, if the one hand is obscurantism, the other danger is syncretism — I’m quoting Dean Gilliland’s book — but where we’re impacted by paganism in its multiplicity of forms, and we concoct another gospel, that’s not the gospel.
So the danger is if you don’t do contextualization you end up in obscurantism. If you do over-contextualization you end up in syncretism. And the attempt of the C-1 through do 6 Scale is to ask the question, Where is the sweet spot? Part of the challenge is that many of us want to sit back and sit out of the contextualization debate, and then say, oh, that’s too much. And I think we want indigenous peoples to wrestle with this.
I was just in Brazil last month teaching a seminar in missiology and church planting there. And the Presbyterians there were asking these very questions. And it is better for them to wrestle through with that, with the Word of God, in conversation with others and other cultures in context. But it’s very easy for us to sit back and say, well, no, you shouldn’t do this or should do that. Ultimately we want the Word of God to shape, for them to interact, for them to wrestle with the Word of God and live it out in their own context. And that becomes an indigenous church. We hope that an indigenous church, East or West, young or old, springs up and uses the — I’m paraphrasing here — uses the forms from where it is. Ultimately that’s what we want. And we all want that sweet spot where it’s contextualized but not over-contextualized. That’s what the scale is.
What is meant by the term insider movement?
Ed Stetzer: The insider movement is a debate, is a discussion, because an insider implies something, what inside what? Well, the phrase Muslim background believers is often used. But the insider movement would be the idea that you would stay inside of a Muslim context and thus be a follower of Isa, Jesus, be a follower of Isa within that. And the question then becomes, at what point do you break? I mean, you can’t believe Islam and simultaneously believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sin in our place and God raised him from the dead on the third day.
Earlier this year I wrote the story for Christianity Today on basically . . . I called it “Proselytization in a Multi-Faith World.” An odd title but I think evangelism is a uniquely Christian term. And my point in there is that, no, Islam and Christianity are not two paths to the same God. They’re not two ideas. The idea is different. And so at some point you have to recognize that difference. But with insider movements the desire is in the deep-seated — and I so appreciate the desire to reach people without Christ in Muslim communities — that the gospel in their view would be shaped inside that Muslim context. And so in some cases they’re still in the mosque, in the Muslim community, but at the same time they will be followers of Isa. And there are some pretty big theological, missiological debates about that, for obvious reasons.
As I mentioned earlier, on the contextualization scale the questions relate. On a contextualization scale C-5 would be where the insider movements would tend to be. I would be one who would affirm C-4 con-textualization and recognize that the formation of new Christian communities, followers of The Way, who meet together as believers of Jesus Christ is part of the disciple-making process, and thus, I don’t end up in the C-5 with the insider movement approach.
Moving on from the terms now, with five complementarians here who see the equal dignity and worth of men and women in God’s image and differing in complementary roles for men and woman in the home and church, would you describe for us the very important place of single women in global missions?
John Piper: It’s a really relevant question because 50 percent of the married people are women. Start there. And then there are very few single men but lots of single women. So put those two statistics together, the number of women on the mission field is huge. Seventy-eight percent, something like that? And a young woman over there was asking me between sessions about that. And I said we might address it here. I think there are, you know, reasons for that. But I’m not going to answer the question of what the socio-cultural reasons for that might be, but, rather, what’s appropriate for them to do and what’s the role. What the Bible calls for is men to lead the church and lead the home. Men should be the elders in the church, and men should be the head of their home.
So then to extrapolate that onto the mission field would mean you look for roles corresponding to that. So I don’t think it would be appropriate for a woman to be an elder on the mission field. I don’t think it’s inap-propriate for her to fill all kinds of missionary roles that don’t involve her in the role of an elder. And I don’t think that would exclude evangelism, sharing her faith, and hundreds of other kinds of support roles. And so my guess is historically that the women who have, as singles especially, entered the mission force have been complementarians. They would have happily affirmed that when a church is formed here a man in this culture should take over, not that a woman in this culture should take over. And I would like to get behind that and try to make that happen.
And I’m sure that if a woman goes as a witness to her Lord, say as a nurse or as a teacher of English or just as an itinerant evangelist type, she’s going to have these borderline ambiguous experiences where I wonder if what I’m doing right now is an elder-like experience. Like sharing the gospel in this village with men and women. And I think at those moments we should cut that a lot of slack and seek to say demeanor and disposition and theological orientation at that moment will make a big difference in whether she crosses the line and to do something that the Bible would find disobedient. So that’s my take.
Michael Oh: In our city in Nagoya I would say the best missionary that I know, the most effective missionary that I know in Japan, is an older, single, female missionary, a wonderful, wonderful missionary and friend. And interestingly, the largest church in Nagoya was until recently led by a ninety-four-year-old female pastor. And one thing that I did say at Covenant Theological Seminary, when I was speaking there last year, is we can complain about what you may see as something that’s biblically wrong in terms of the role of women in missions, but if you believe so strongly in that, you go. You go. You fill that pulpit. You stand up. You act on that conviction, and you go. And do it in a way that would honor God. So I think that there are men and pastors and seminary-trained guys who need to step it up before you complain about a woman doing something else.
John Piper: Or at the same time.
Help us think about short-term missions. What are their value, limitations, and dangers?
David Platt: I’m a huge believer in short-term missions done right. There are many abuses of short-term missions. When you think about short-term missions, talking about a trip into another context, often-times that goes awry on one of two levels. Either sometimes short-term missions actually hurts the work of the gospel in the field, which is detrimental, not good. And oftentimes it leaves people unchanged. So the people who are going — they go on a trip and they come back and it’s been a nice trip, and they just kind of go on with their lives.
Both of those — that’s short-term missions done wrong. Short-term missions done right helps fuel long-term disciple making on a field. So that happens really through deep partnership with those who are serving alongside another context. So to have deep partnership with churches and ministry partners and mission partners who are doing long-term disciple making and have identified ways where a short-term team can help fuel a long-term disciple-making process can be hugely helpful for the spread of the gospel on the field.
And then it can be hugely helpful for those who are going. Part of our disciple-making process at Brook Hills, where I pastor, involves short-term missions. Short-term missions is a key component of our disciple making in Birmingham, because when I take a group of brothers overseas for a week or two, I can do more in their lives with the Word as they’re seeing the world and we’re serving alongside one another. I can do more in that week or two in their lives than I can in six months or a year sometimes in Birmingham where they’re just choked out by all the stuff. And so they see it. They’re changed. They’re transformed. Some of our most effective ministry in Birmingham has been birthed through short-term missions in other contexts.
And then what happens is we challenge. Every year we challenge every member of our church to pray about giving two percent of their lives that year. So we challenge everybody to really pray and consider giving 2 percent of their lives the next year, which works out to about one week of their life, and we say to that 2 percent you go somewhere else. Two percent will radically transform the other 98 percent of your life that you live here. And so this has been one of the single-most important factors in really changing the climate in our church, because I think it’s Word and world.
All the seeds that I hope week by week that I’m pouring into them with the Word, they just soak in deep when they get into the world, and they begin to say, Oh, it makes sense. And then what happens is people start coming back and they say, you know, I’d rather spend 98 percent of my time there and come back for a 2 percent trip here every once in a while. And so then short-term ends up fueling midterm and long-term missions. So that kind of mission is done right. And then people see, wow, my life really can be part of God’s global plan. And they begin to pray differently. They begin to give differently. Yeah. I think if we do it right, it can be an extremely helpful tool in the accomplishment of the Great Commission.
Ed Stetzer: I’m agreeing 100 percent. The key phrase is if we do it right. And you’ve done it right, and I appreciate so much what you guys are doing there in the Church at Brook Hills.
There is some research that tells us a lot of it’s not done right. It’s almost tourist missions. If you’re actually involved in a zip-line tour when you’re there on a mission trip, probably that’s a bad sign. Bob Priest, one of my co-faculty members at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has done some of the best research on this and really has talked about doing it right. And part of the challenge is to help make those connections, to make those priorities, to come under and serve those who are on the field. Not to come demanding or saying, “I’ve got a group that needs to sing.” You know, really, I don’t need you to do that. Here’s what I need you to do. But to say, “What can we do? How can we serve? How can we leave behind something positive?” But part of what we’re trying to do is leave behind some connections. That’s why short-term trips can often be a value.
One of the things I do in my ministry is intentionally go twice a year on short-term trips and partnership with the International Mission Board and something called the Upstream Collective. I bring pastors with me. And so we just returned from Central Asia. We’ve been to Taiwan, different places. I try to find pastors, maybe pastors here, church leaders here, who are not that engaged in God’s global mission. And we bring them. I said, we just returned from Central Asia. To go to places and meet. And now it’s been three months since we were in Central Asia.
We now have three of those churches already in partnerships to plant churches in some major urban centers in Central Asia, working with incarnational missionaries who are there, but also working with indigenous believers. That’s the kind of short-term missions trip I get passionate about, where it’s not just go in, have a little touristy thing, have a little fun, make ourselves feel good. But really . . . well, and Central Asia is a long-term commitment. They’re making a long-term commitment in a difficult field through short-term expressions along the way.
So I would just challenge you. If you haven’t done that, I’ll take you with me. And let’s go see some of these connections and make some of these partnerships, because those relationships can make bridges — churches partnering with churches.
How would you counsel a layperson who is on fire for global missions but part of a church that is not?
David Platt: First of all, my encouragement would be to pray for your pastor, elders, to not do anything that would . . . you don’t want to undermine the authority that God has put over you in a church. So that’s fundamental. I hope that would be a given, but I want to make sure that that’s clear.
The beauty, I think, of disciple making is that, and making disciples of all nations even, it’s a grassroots picture. You don’t have to have position or influence, so to speak, to make disciples. And so I would encourage you — and certainly be open; don’t be hiding anything — to take a few people around you and say, How can we together be involved in praying for the nations and giving to the nations and going to the nations? And explore some opportunities. Start looking out there. Researching. What are some ways where I might be able to go on a short-term missions trip? And you lead it; you organize it or tag along with somebody else, like Ed was just talking about, and to go, and to do that with just a couple of people.
And you think, Well, but I want the whole church to do this or that. But the Lord’s not entrusted you at this point with that responsibility. And so be faithful with the responsibility he has entrusted. He’s got people around you that you can mobilize for the spread of the gospel to unreached peoples. And so maximize that in a healthy submission to church leaders. But then my prayer is that as that passion begins to be infused to other brothers and sisters, that would result in some others beginning to mobilize others for missions. That would begin to infect a church in a really, really good way.
Michael Ramsden: It’s a complex picture. If your pastor hasn’t preached from the Bible, let’s say, I don’t know, the last year, you may want to consider how you fit within that. In North America, generally speaking, I imagine for most of you, you should be able to find a Bible-believing church where there is discipleship. So I agree with everything David said, I think, working on that assumption.
Now, I think what does happen, and it may be even true for some pastors who are here, that we do get jaded, tired. You can lose focus. And then in which case you can be this huge blessing that I think David’s talked about, by living in that kind of way and serving in that kind of way. And you just need to talk to any leader who’s been in any leadership of any Christian organization or ministry or church for any period of time. There comes a time when you’ve dealt with so many different complaints and issues and so on, if someone comes to you with the wrong heart and attitude you can read that into them. So the act of serving can be a huge blessing.
At the same time, you could be in a church where you feel eventually that you will be opposed because of that. And I know that’s unlikely in this particular group. But I’ve talked with university students, and one girl wanted to get together with two or three other girls in her church to pray for the people in their town that didn’t know Christ, and the vicar in this case, Anglican vicar, said, “Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt anyone if you gathered and prayed.” And then after a couple of months he decided he didn’t like the fact that they were praying and asked them to stop. In which case that’s probably time to leave. Is that okay? I don’t want to cause any problems.
David Platt: It’s okay with me. I was going to ask John a question along these lines. So we have people who come to Brook Hills from other churches in Birmingham. And I’m so against this flippant church hopping and shopping that is just this consumeristic picture in Birmingham when it comes to church. And so at the same time sometimes you get brothers and sisters who are coming who want to be sent long-term, and they don’t see that potential in the church. So at what point would you counsel someone to consider moving churches with this passion just burning and it not being reflected? How do you counsel somebody in that situation? What point do they say, okay, maybe I need to make a change in the local body that I’m a part of?
John Piper: If they’ve over time done everything else that’s been said here to awaken the church and the staff to a burden for missions and they’re getting the message, the prayer support, the financial support, the community support for you is not here, that’s serious enough biblical error and personal error to move and look for a place where you could find a base. I think that’s a noble reason for looking. But I’m assuming they’ve tried. They’ve tried to love the flock where they were, and part of that love would be to awaken them to, I’d like this to be my home, I’d like this to be my base. Would you care for me? Would you send me? I should think even churches not interested in missions would often rise to that challenge. If you’re our guy, our gal, you’re here and you’re asking us to be your base, your sending, it would be a pretty hard-hearted church to say no, we don’t believe in that. But it does happen, whether it’s blunt or not. And so, yeah, I think that’s serious enough to go.
Ed Stetzer: John, let me follow up with a question on that, if I could. So if a church is teaching, preaching, we’ve done some of these other things but they’re not having a passion for God’s global mission, not involved in missions cross-culturally around the world . . . Since you’ve started asking questions across the panel, which I didn’t know was allowed, I want to add one to that.
So, John, I would wonder what if we have, as I think maybe we do often have in a theologically minded community, a lot of good teaching, perhaps strong expository preaching, perhaps even a desire to . . . and even with that church they’re involved in global missions — so they’re missions minded but they’re not living, engaging their community around them. So it’s a group of people who are, if you will, spiritual sponges. They sit, they soak, and they sour, but there’s no intentionality to engage the local community, the community around, what we sometimes call our Jerusalem. But I would use that word cautiously. Is that a point to be concerned? Or is it if you’re involved globally and you’ve got good Bible teaching, that’s all you need? Or do you need to live on mission locally as well? At what point does that become a need to reconsider?
John Piper: The reasoning there would be a little different, but they’re related. The reasoning there would be different because you don’t need the church’s financial support to be a faithful witness in your neighborhood. Where it might overlap is what you want to reach people for is to fold them into a body of Christ. And you want to fold them into a healthy body of Christ that has a burden for lost people. And then your question becomes, is this a place where they can be discipled? And if you conclude the lack of seriousness about the faith means, I don’t think I’d bring a baby believer here, then you’re in a similar kind of situation, I think.
It’s a great comfort that Jesus ends the Commission with the promise to be with us. As we close, is there a word of hope that you would have to help strengthen men and women serving in difficult missionary contexts, in particular cross-cultural situations?
John Piper: The story of John Paton brings tears to my eyes. Not just when he said good-bye to his dad. That’s a real tearjerker, if you have sons. But the story on Tanna when he had given, what, two or three years of his life to these savages, who ate the missionaries who were there just before him. And he gave it his best, and they mounted a move against him. And he’s fleeing for his life with several thousand natives chasing him in the New Hebrides. And the guy who’s, I think his name is Abraham, trying to help him escape said, “You go up this tree and I’ll divert them over there, and then you come down. You’ll get away to another island.” And he said, “I sat in that tree” — he’s telling the story now forty years later — “I sat in that tree, and I would not trade the sweetness of the fellowship of Jesus in the promise ‘I am with you to the end of the age.’”
And I just think whatever your situation, you can’t get much worse than that, I don’t think, is when you’re about to be killed and they’re just below you. If they look up, you’re dead. And you are experiencing the fellowship of the living Christ at such a level that forty years later you say I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Louie Giglio, if you lost your fellowship with Jesus, it could be he’s on his mission over here and you stayed here. So I really believe there are good Christian-hedonist reasons for being a missionary, mainly that God keeps his best wine in the cellar of suffering. I didn’t make that up. That’s from the Scottish guy, whatever his name is. And there’s plenty of suffering out there to go around for everybody.
But if you go into missions, God has given the go-ers . . . he’s given the go-ers — whether it’s local go-ers or far away go-ers — he’s given them the kind of assurances that I think he delights to sweeten the fellowship that he has with the go-ers because they’re doing something so close to his heart, and they come into crises where that particular promise “I got all authority” and “I’m going to be with you.” We experience that more deeply, more preciously, more sweetly, in the laying out of our lives for others than at any other time.
Ed Stetzer: It’s not just that Jesus promises his presence in Matthew 28. Every time Jesus gives in what we see the four major commissions, every time there’s a promise. In John 20:21 he speaks peace twice — not once but twice. “My peace be with you.” In Matthew 28 he gives the promise of his presence. In Luke 24:46–48 we see the ongoing presence, the peace there. And in Acts 1:8 he says the Spirit will come upon you and you will be witnesses. So there’s a recurring theme. We do not go alone. We do not go unempowered. We do not go without the grace and the understanding and the peace that passes all understanding. And I think then we understand why people can with such joy be on the top of a tree facing death, why people can with such joy be, as the Scripture says, sewn in half. Why? Because in the midst of that moment when we’re living on mission for the gospel we know that he is there, his peace is there, his Spirit is there. And that makes everything worthwhile.
David Platt: One of the things South Sudanese brothers and sisters have taught me through twenty years of civil war and persecution and having helicopter gun ships come through their villages and wives and daughters raped and all of this, to go to those brothers and sisters after twenty years of civil war and the words that continually come out of their mouths, they just continually say, “God is greater. Our God is greater.” And they smile just big Sudanese smiles when they say, “Our God is greater.” And so to say to those who would be in the circumstance, whether here or watching, greater is the One who is with you than the one who is in the world.
And we’ve got a couple that we sent out to this really difficult people group in North Africa. The last five couples that have gone to work in this assignment have all for very weird, strange reasons had to leave. They all experienced tragedy or different things. And so we knew that going in. And they experienced something weird over the last couple of weeks health wise, where they didn’t know what was going to happen. And just to say to them, Don’t forget the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
Michael Ramsden: Could I maybe add something a little different to the question? I think it may be related. It could well be that there are some of you who are here and your question is, Well, how can I be meaningfully involved? We sometimes talk about God plus one is a majority, and we use phrases like that, but it seems very abstract. And I would like to encourage you that no matter how small it may seem to you, what God is asking you to do, or however insignificant, you may have no idea what that may actually mean or come to.
Over the last few years I got to know a guy called John Bechtel, who used to be with the DeMoss Foundation. They used to do a lot of work into China. And he is in his late sixties, maybe early seventies now. They were involved in having the Bible broadcast at dictation speed into China after everybody was thrown out. As a matter of fact, his family was the last missionary family expelled from mainland China when everything came down. His father’s theological library was piled outside his study. They set fire to it.
He was a young boy at the time, and he got shipped over to Hong Kong, and they got physically thrown out of the country. And anyway, he was educated at that point, and he was desperate. John felt a strong call to go back into China. That was absolutely impossible. There was just no way in. They looked every way they could to get back in, and he began to look in Hong Kong. And the Lord laid it on his heart to start an orphanage. And because he’d been educated in England and obviously he was living in a former British colony — I guess we’re in a former British colony now — but anyway, he was living in a former British colony, and he suddenly realized that the governor of Hong Kong, they’d been in the same school together. So he thought, Well, this will be easy. I’ll go to the governor and we’ll share old school stories together. We’re in the same class for seven years. And then I’ll say, Hey, can you give me some land? I want to build an orphanage. So he had dinner with the governor, and then he said, “Hey, I want to do this.” And the governor said no. So he looked at various other avenues, and the answer was no.
And then he was walking through a certain part of Hong Kong, and he saw a school that had been built and it was closed. There was a for-sale sign outside. He thought, This is perfect. I could buy this. And he started writing around, again, to all the people he knew in Hong Kong. This is back in the sixties. He couldn’t really raise any money. No one was interested. An American friend of his was visiting and said, “Look. This is crazy. This seems like a perfect thing. Come to the States. We’ll arrange a preaching tour for you. And I’m sure you’ll get all the money that you will need to buy this building.”
And John prayed about it and he was sure that that was the right word. He went and he preached. He came to Hong Kong, and a month later he got a brown envelope. And he opened it up, and inside was another envelope with a letter from his friend. And his friend said, “John, out of all the churches you preached and everyone you went we’ve only received one gift.” Okay? And it’s in this one letter. And he opened up the letter, and it was a letter from a twelve-year-old girl, who’d been saving up her allowance and had finally saved one dollar. And she had written a small note saying, I would like to give this one dollar for the purchase of this orphanage, and signed her name, and that was it.
And John describes how he was utterly heartbroken. But as he prayed about it, he thought he would go to the caretaker of this building. And he went and he rang the bell, and the guy came to the iron gates and he said, “I would like you to pass this offer to the owners of this building for me to purchase it.” And handed this letter, this note from a twelve-year-old girl with a dollar bill in it. And the guy laughed at him and threw it out.
Now, if you know John he speaks fluent Mandarin and Cantonese. And so he let it be known in no uncertain terms that if the caretaker refused to pass on this legitimate offer to the owners of the building, he’ll take him to court for breach of contract law and in violation of the regulations concerning the sale of buildings in Hong Kong. So the caretaker said fine. A week later he gets contacted by the owners of the building. And they said, “We’ve read that little girl’s letter. And we are so touched we will agree to sell this building to you for one dollar.”
Twenty-five years later John was preaching in North America and he told this story, and a woman in her thirties at the end came up to the front and said, “I was that girl. That was my dollar I sent you.” And he ran back out into the car parking lot and tried to call as many people who had been leaving the sanctuary back in and introduced them to this woman who had been one of the illustrations in his sermon. Now that one dollar that she gave, that was everything she had. She gave everything. And she never knew the outcome of that story until later, because there was no address. There was just this handwritten letter with her name at the bottom. So the church took up a collection. I think they raised fifty thousand dollars, which was more than enough to buy her an air ticket to Hong Kong. So she went to Hong Kong and made a cash donation for an extension of that orphanage. One dollar.
So it may be if you’re sitting here and you’re feeling discouraged and you think, well, look, God is . . . it’s just such a little thing he’s given me, you may have no idea how when that’s placed into the hands of God what that may actually do and the effect that that may go on to have. And so I would urge you to give. I was astounded by the way the eight-and-a-half thousand dollars got the Arabic website for John Piper up. There’s a group of people in this room who need to write a check for eighty-five thousand dollars, because that project’s far too small and insignificant. I’m sure it should be fully funded by now at least four times over. So it should be eighty-five, and it should be much bigger than that. But I wish we could all learn from this girl and just give more generously.
You know, in England one of our pound coins has a picture of the queen on it? She’s our head of state. And if any of you want to end your mindless rebellion and rejoin the motherland, we’re happy to welcome you back. And in England we sometimes say we hold onto our pound coins so tightly we make the queen cry. So be generous with what you have. And you may be amazed what God will do with it. You may not know what he’s done with it until the other side of eternity, but he can use you in surprising ways.
John, would you close this panel in prayer?
John Piper: Father, we cast our bread on the water, and I pray that you would cause it to feed, and I pray that it would come back. And I pray, Oh God, that you would be doing among every person the unique work that you appointed for this conference. And it is unique. May none compare him- or herself with another. May they deal straight with you about what you might be doing in their lives financially, vocationally, in the family, in the church, in the soul. God, do extraordinary, Christ-exalting, church-strengthening, nations-reaching things. And now, Lord, give us the respite we need here in the next minutes and bring us back together here this evening. We pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.
More Messages from Desiring God 2011 National Conference
The Galactic God Who Invites Us Into His Glorious Plan (Louie Giglio)
Christ, Courage, and Finishing the Mission (Michael Ramsden)
The Church, the Neighborhood, and the Nations (Ed Stetzer)