Let the Nations Be Glad!


The Supremacy of God in Missions

John, we recently had our national conference on the theme of missions. The title was “Finish the Mission: Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged”. And there, we talked briefly about the missionary call. Some of the feedback we heard was that folks got helped there. I thought that may be a good place for us to start this Q&A time because we’ve been hearing about missions for two hours in the seminar. God may be stirring in hearts. How would you help those wrestling with a missionary call?

Romans 15:20 says, “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named . . .” There’s a unique calling. He didn’t expect that from Timothy or most of the people. Something was in him, right? And that’s what you’re trying to figure out, at least I am. With every phase of my life, I’m asking, “Is there something new, something unique that is God’s burden for me to do?” You can call it a calling, or you can call it whatever you want to call it. It’s in you, and it’s your holy ambition. So I want to know how did Paul get this?

Of course the immediate answer is, well, he got knocked off his donkey on the road to Damascus. That’s how he got it. And we wish that would happen to us. But that’s not what he says. This is why it’s really relevant to you. I think this will help you. Listen. He says:

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 as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand” (Romans 15:20–21).

Paul traces his holy ambition not to the Damascus road experience, which really surprises me. I mean, if there ever was a call, it was God talking to him from heaven on the Damascus road, where he says, “I will show him how much he must suffer as he takes the gospel to the Gentiles.” But here he says, “My holy ambition is flowing from Isaiah 52:15.” Here’s the conclusion personally that I draw from that. I think Paul’s life was guided by, yes, some unique encounters with Jesus, but also by immersing himself in the Bible. And the Bible just took him when he got to this verse. It just took him. When he read “Those who have never been told will see, and those who have never heard will understand,” he said, “That’s me.” And so, when he had a chance to write about his holy ambition, that’s what he wrote about.

I think that’s the way it works for a lot of people. I’m just commending that to you. Live in the Bible, read World Magazine and missionary biographies, and go to missions conferences and listen. But pray, “God, take me. Grab me.” And it might be that you become a pastor of a local church, or you might be a school teacher, or it might be something else. Who knows what it might be? But I think this is the place you’re going to hear the voice of God. If you go out in the woods and close your Bible and don’t read this, you’re probably going to hear another voice and call it a calling. But if you stay here, let God make this personal. And I just frankly think there is a subjective dimension to this that you can’t quantify. If somebody said, “Well, how do you know that verse really applies to you?” In the end, you can’t prove it. If a verse won’t let you go, say a verse relating to frontier missions — you sleep and you wake up thinking about it, you go a month and you don’t think about it, and it comes back to you, and in two years it just keeps coming back — you probably should pay attention to that.

And yet, you couldn’t prove it. You couldn’t prove that that was God. Eventually you know. Eventually you discern, “Okay, that part of the Bible is my mandate.” It just seems to me that’s the way Paul thought. I read from Romans 15:20–21. There’s lots more to say about the call, about prayer, about the body of Christ, about gifts, and about needs in the world. I’ve got a whole little paradigm, but that, to me, might be the most helpful thing to say right now.

Here’s a question that came in that relates to that. Did you ever consider going as a long-term, cross-cultural missionary? Why didn’t you go?

Well, I hope it wasn’t disobedience, but I’ll let the Lord decide, in the end, about my motives. We don’t know our hearts perfectly. So, the answer is yes, I did. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say yes, because I’ve preached a missions sermon every year from 1983 to 2011, at least one between those years, and almost every time I say to the people, “Every time this rolls around, I reassess whether I can stay here.” If there are 10 men holding a log at one end and one man holding a log at the other end, where should you grab hold of the log? That’s the argument. The needs around the world are simply extraordinary. Why am I preaching in this church-dense Twin Cities where there are probably 1,200 evangelical churches for all these well-educated Americans? And the answer I have is that I think my gifts and my passions lend me to being a mobilizer, equipper, and inspirer, rather than a solitary goer and doer. And that could be wimping out there. It could be justifying something. And another thing is that I’ve never had any text take me like that to be a goer. I’m married to a woman who, in a minute, would go. I won’t have that excuse someday.

If the Lord ever says, “I did mean for you to go one time when you were considering this, and you missed it,” it won’t be Noël’s fault. The story I love to tell back when I was discouraged, probably when Brad was here in the early 1980s, is that I was so bummed out one Sunday after church. I went home, sat down at the dining room table while I was still living in Tom Stellar’s house, and I was putting my head in my hands. Noël was in the bedroom right off to the side. I said, “I think I’m going to go to Africa.” That’s how discouraged I was after one Sunday morning, and she called from the bedroom, “Tell me when to pack.”

What a woman. That’s great. Here’s a little aside here. Marry the right person, okay? If you’re going to give your life to missions, you better marry a radical person. What was the question again? Oh, yes, have I ever considered a missions call? Yes, I try to consider it.The Sunday after this Sunday I’m preaching on missions. I’m going to sit with Jesus and my open Bible on Friday in a week and come up with a word for this church on missions. And, as I do it, my conscience is going to say, “So, how are you going to respond to this message? You’re 65, you’re going to be done here in a few years. What are you going to do? Is this the season?” So I try and, to my dying day, I hope I keep honest with the Lord and say, “Anywhere, in any capacity, I want to be available.”

Here’s a couple questions that relate to stirring up a passion in a local church. One is from the side of a leader, and one is from the side of the layperson: “How do you awaken a passion for global frontier missions amongst an apathetic American church?” Let’s take that from the layperson’s side. And then one of our DG employees writes, “I hear from pastors often who don’t know how to encourage missions at their churches. What would you recommend they do?”

I have one main thing to say, and that is trying to stir up carnal people with a little view of God to have a big view of missions is impossible. So the strategy is not mainly to talk about missions. If you want to get a church eventually able to lay its life down for missions, or to love those who do lay their lives down and get behind them and send them and do a short-term work and do local ministries in a radical way — if that’s the people you want, the long term strategy (maybe 5-10 years here) is to build a biblical theology into people so that their view of God changes. That’s the issue. It’s how big, massive, and glorious is your God?

If you read biographies about men and women who have laid down their lives — and I’m not just talking about the famous bigwigs, but single women, the Gladys Aylward types and the Amy Carmichael types — you see that they had a massive view of God. They believed he could do whatever he wanted, and he would take care of them. They thought, “I’m going to serve this great God.” But if you have a little teeny God and you’re central in his affections and blah blah blah, what’s to build on? So, my answer is that the way to get people fired up about missions is not to preach missions to a small-God people, but to take years to help them fall in love with this Book by showing them treasure after treasure, week after week, spreading a banquet from this Book so that they just can’t get enough of the Book. And then, show them who’s at the center of this Book. Show them that he’s really explosively big and he is uncontainable and he will blow your categories again and again. You do that until people just their God just gets so big. Then when you suggest that he might care about the whole universe and the whole world and he has a plan, and it all makes sense.

I’ll tell you another little conviction I have about this strategy. People ask me, “What if you’re in an Arminian church, or a church that doesn’t really believe in the doctrines of grace?” I say, don’t fight that battle at the front end. Be faithful to this Word. Get people to fall in love with this Book. Help them to trust. Get them to trust you. You believe the Book more than you believe any system of theology. And then, just keep showing them how big God is. And when their God gets big enough, all the doctrinal pieces just start to fall into place, including all those controversial doctrines. They will think, “Well, yeah. That is what he is.” And so, they may not understand it all, but that’s all over the Bible. But if you go at each one of those things, just picking and poking, it won’t work. So it’s the same principle. Pastors should, I think, stand in the pulpit over and over again, feed delicious meals to their people, and then show them that the center of all those meals is a magnificent God.

What about the layman or the pastor who has been awakened to a big God and his global purposes, how do they, then, stay awakened? And here’s one question: How do I care about the nations when I’m just trying to keep my head above water and raise my kids and work on the marriage?

That’s really good. I like that question. The assumption is, I think, that you need to have a lot of resources emotionally first, and then you can manage the weight of the world or the weight of missions. There is another way to look at it, and I got this from Jay Campbell White, the head of the Lay Missionary Movement in the early 1900s. He argued that one of the reasons we are bogged down and discouraged in our vocations and our families and marriages and whatnot is because our hearts have shriveled up, and we don’t have a global mission. It’s paradoxical. It’s not as if you say, “Oh, and I have to divest myself of all these other good things in order to be Atlas and hold the world up.” It’s not like that. If you have a God who’s big enough, and then you see his purpose and you find a way to be plugged into that, there’s an energy flowing this way from that, not just this way to hold all that up. So, that’s one thing.

But I don’t want to be naive. There are seasons in life, chapters. I needed to make this plain for Noël, and I want moms especially to feel this. There are seasons in life, okay? There’s a diaper season, and it may last for 12 years. You go through 10,000 diapers a year, and she may say, “Will this ever be over?” She needs to love that season and realize it’s a season. Babies don’t stay in diapers. They get worse. But every season has unique challenges. And I would just say there are probably some seasons where you’re not going to every missions committee meeting. You’re just not, okay? You love it, you support it, you send your check, and you pray, but you’re not all there because it’s a season. You may have this disabled child, or your marriage may be really stressful this year because the husband is traveling so much, or whatever. And everybody can just relax and say, “All right, in this season I have to attend to this. But it doesn’t mean I’ve lost all my passion.” It will change. I mean, I just would love to talk to all of you personally about how we were talking about this in our small group Thursday morning. We were talking about marriage issues.

You get into situations where you feel hopeless, and you’ll never be happy again. You think it can’t get any better and it can only get worse. And we need to say to people like that, “Believe God. With man, it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” When you get through seasons like that, you wake up a year later or two years later and say, “He did it.” And it’s the same thing with missions. So that question of multiple burdens in life touches me. Some people might say, “Piper is going to put the world on my shoulders.”

Can you touch on the importance of discipleship in the Great Commission?

That’s very important. Jesus says, “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing . . .” (Matthew 28:18–20). It sounds like that first part means to take a person who’s not a disciple, that is, not a Christian, and make them one. Some people use the word “disciple” to refer to a mature Christian. They think there is a convert, a disciple, and a disciple-maker. That’s a bad paradigm. So, in this verse, you have non-Christian nations, and you want them to become disciples of Jesus. There is conversion and baptism. That’s the first part. And then he says, “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . .” The reason I wrote my book All That Jesus Commanded was to explain the second half of the Great Commission. I just kept looking at it saying, I’m supposed to teach all that Jesus commanded to all these converts — all of it. I’m saying that’s huge. It’s huge. He says, “All that I commanded you . . .”

So, I took a five-month sabbatical in Cambridge, England, and I collected all the imperatives in the Gospels. And there are about 500 of them. I took five months to distill them into a book, and the whole point of that book is to help missionaries do the second half of the Great Commission. Don’t just get them converted, baptized, and then get onto a new thing. But teach them everything he commanded. He commands, “Love your enemies,” and, “Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” and, “Stay married,” and things like that. He commands hundreds of things in the Gospels, and I bent my brain trying to figure out how I could do that. I put them in 50 chapters. So, it’s huge.

What I read in Operation World and what I read in the Bible, is that this is the crying need. So maybe I was too hard on Timothy-type missionaries. I didn’t mean to be hard. I believe in what leadership training guys are doing here in partnering with churches overseas who are newer in the sense of a century old instead of 2,000 years old, or whatever. They are newer and thin in terms of resources with regard to books and training and teachers. They want to figure out how to do it so that it can be done. That’s just huge. I mean, if I didn’t believe in discipleship, what in the world would I be doing here? I’m just preaching to people who know the Bible and are at church every Sunday.

You mentioned the commands, and commands that seem to be intention at times. In response to ministry burnout, there’s been a focus on taking care of our families, but have we swung too far the other way?

Yes, some have, I think. It’s really hard to get this right. Whoever doesn’t care for his family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8). And Jesus says that unless you hate your wife, your children, your brother, and your sister, you cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:26). There you have your Biblical antitheses. So you must care for your family or you’re worse than unbeliever, and you must behave in some ways that look like you hate your family. And practically, that would mean things like a couple coming to me and saying, “We believe we should go, but Mom is probably not going to live another three years with cancer. Should we go?” And, of course, that’s not an easy question. I asked, “Is she cared for? Are there people who could help? Are you essential here?” They say, “Yes, she’s cared for. It would just be hard. It would be really hard for her and hard for us.” And they went.

Now, some people would say, “You hate her. If you loved her, you’d stay. You hate her.” I think that’s what Jesus means when he says, “Unless you hate your mother and your father . . .” He doesn’t mean you hate them; he means that you look like you hate them from the perspective of worldly people who don’t have your understanding of your values and your categories. But getting this balance right in the ministry is very difficult.

Here, I think I’d appeal to seasons, in part. There are going to be seasons. There might be seasons in a month, or seasons in a week. But overall, a wife and children need to feel treasured, not just inconvenient to your ministry. And they need to be nurtured. That’s what the Bible says. You nurture a wife, and you nurture your children. And the wife has her responsibilities in that, as well. So everybody needs to know the other person and then find the pattern that works for that family.

The problem is I think we tend to generalize. We take one person’s situation and say that’s the way everybody should be. But it just can’t work that way. Jobs are not the same, wives and husbands are not the same, kids are not the same, and seasons in life are not the same. So, all things considered in the Bible, if you took all the pieces, I think the Bible would lean towards the reality that kingdom issues are first, and then family and business issues and all that stuff.

What do you think is the cause for the imbalance of the ratio of women to men doing cross-cultural missions?

Well, the situation seems to be something like this. There are married people, and that’s men and women. They go together. And then, there are single people, and some are men and some are women, like half. Single men don’t tend to go into missions. In fact, single men don’t tend to go to church. Look for a church with a lot of 40 year old single men. You won’t find it, right? They either get married or disappear. So, if they’re disappearing from the church, they’re not going to be going into missions either. Whereas, women tend to hang around longer in church, for whatever reason, and, therefore, they’re more ready or willing to go.

I don’t know what that is. Rather than figuring it out in terms of cause, I’d rather just work like crazy to fix it, which means preach and lead in such a way as to make men not leave the church. I’m really thrilled and thankful that the newer, Young-Restless-Reformed types are putting a high premium on encouraging men to be godly men. Our pastor’s conference in January is going to be devoted to this very thing. It’s called “Building Men.”

There are ways that the church has come to feel effeminate to men, so they drift away. They look at and say, “No, I don’t think this is a place for men. This is a place for women.” And I strongly do not want to communicate that. I want Christianity to feel very masculine, a kind of masculinity that women feel really safe around. There’s a strength that can be abusive and manipulative and coercive, and there’s a strength that is loving and protective and causes women to walk into it and feel like, “I could be safe around these kinds of men. They love Jesus like crazy, but they’re men.” That’s the feeling I’d like a church to have, so that it’s led by men and it’s prominently men and they are madly in love with their wives. And single women feel honored and respected. But I don’t know the answer to the question of why males, as they grow older and unmarried, go off like that and women don’t tend to go off as much like that. I don’t know. Tell me afterwards if you know the answer to that.

So let’s say there are a greater number of single women in missions than men. What, then, is the place of women in missions? And that’s assuming a complementarian view.

At the end of my little book, What’s the Difference?, I have two pages that list 80-100 ministries that women can do. Back when I wrote that book the controversies were much more violent than they are right now. I mean, you could get yourself hurt believing what I believe, women would be indignant and say, “Well, if we can’t be elders, what can we do?” What? So, I made a list of about 80 things, and lots of them relate to missions. Here’s the short answer. When I say that the Bible calls godly men to be the leaders in their home and the leaders in the church — let’s say those two things — I don’t mean that with regard to ministering to women and ministering to children. In general, women shouldn’t be leaders of men. They shouldn’t exercise a certain kind of leadership over men. Three-fourths of the world, at least, is women and children.

Probably three or four billion of those are lost. You can do anything you want with them. Is that big enough? I mean, that’s big. A woman can dream her heart out with regard to that three-fourths of the globe and just do whatever she wants. That may be an overstatement. You might help me contradict myself there. But all I mean is that the Bible really cares about the dynamic between men and women. It has nothing to do with a woman’s incompetency. A man’s headship in the home is not based on him being superiorly competent. I’ve said this to the BCS guys recently. The fact that God calls you to be the leader in your home has nothing to do with your superior competency.

You are not superior. She’s more competent than you in most ways. She’s probably smarter. She’s probably more well-read. She probably knows her Bible better. I mean, the list of things that wives are better at than husbands is long. This has nothing to do with competencies. This has to do with God’s created dynamic of what a man is and what a woman is in their gut with regard to the ballet of leadership and submission. So, when I think of my mother, and women in general, facing the world, I don’t think in terms of lesser competencies.

In fact, I just read an article the other day that said the only way Muslim women will be reached is by women. A man doesn’t get near a Muslim woman. So if they matter to Jesus infinitely, then we have to have female martyrs. And, probably, there are going to be a lot of single ones because, as soon as you’ve got a man tagging along, he’s a threat. Whereas, you’re not a threat as a woman until you start being successful. Then, you might get killed. That’s the kind of women we need.

There are a couple questions here related to Islam. This comes to mind with Islam because of the Somalis you mentioned here in town. What direction would you give us on this idea of crossing a culture without changing geography? What would you say about reaching Somalis here in the Twin Cities?

I suppose one of the biggest disappointments that I’ll go to my grave with is that over my 30-year tenure here, we’ve not been very fruitful with regard to Native Americans. The cultural barriers there are just massive. They’re all over. There are more urban Native Americans in this city than any other city in the country probably, and we’ve not been fruitful. There are stirrings right now, and if you’re here and you’re among those stirrings, I would lay down my life to help you be successful. If God’s calling you not to go anywhere but one quarter of a mile in that direction, I’d say that’s the highest calling in the world. What would it mean to the kingdom and to the glory of Jesus if there were a vital worshiping church of redeemed and rescued Native Americans in this city? There are little pockets, but that’s a huge disappointment.

And then, the list could go on, right? And they come through in waves. When I came here, we had 300 Laotians worshiping here, and then they all moved. There’s no big pocket of Laotians in the Twin Cities like there used to be. Now it’s Somalis and probably Ethiopians and a few others that I don’t even know about. And I’d rather not go to my grave with that regret added on top. And the answer, then, is we treat them just like a nation that needs missionaries. I mean, they need missionaries. I try to strike up conversations with them. I’ve got two guys that I talk to regularly. They know me and I know them. They’re evangelists and I’m an evangelist. They’re trying to win me over to the Quran. They carry it around. I carry my Bible around. We talk. But, I mean, will that go anywhere? I hope it can go somewhere.

But to have somebody who just figures out how to talk the language, live the culture, and just embed themselves there for the next 10 to 15 years and plant that church, that is holy ambition. That is like an unreached-people, cross-cultural, dangerous mission. I mean, we know from the news that the Taliban recruits here and takes bombers from Somalis in this neighborhood to go over to other places and train them. So we’re dealing with something here. This is a tough and risky place. So hear me when I talk about peoples and not geography. I really do mean that a Paul-type missionary would stay right here and give his life to the Somali people or the Native Americans.

Related to Islam, what about Jesus coming to Muslims in dreams? Is that real? Is that real conversion? Isn’t that demotivating for missions?

I don’t know whether it demotivates or not. I think it deflects the way you pray. I’ve heard people pray, “Oh God, give them dreams. Oh God, give them dreams,” because they’ve heard stories that somebody had a dream. And there are different kinds of dreams. I’ve got no problem with somebody having a dream that a redheaded white guy shows up at his door with a book in his hand with a message they need. That’s a glorious dream because they’re going to get saved when the redhead with a white face knocks on the door with a book in his hand. They will think, “Whoa, I had a dream about you.” And then they believe in Jesus. That’s very different than having a dream of Jesus coming to them in their head, preaching the gospel to them that they’ve never heard of before, and believing it and being saved. I’m suspicious of that big time because of reasons I’ll give you tomorrow of why I think the gospel needs to be heard.

How shall they believe unless they hear? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? That’s a pretty significant argument in Romans 10:14–15. And it doesn’t say, “Well, they’ll hear because they’ll get dreams.” If it was that, the argument would be invalid. So let’s be careful when we think of dreams that we don’t think it’s replacing the biblical paradigm of how people get saved. People get saved by hearing the gospel preached. It says, “How shall they preach unless they are sent?” It doesn’t say, “Oh, they can preach in a dream when they’re not even there.” So I’m very suspicious of those stories where a person claims to hear the whole gospel for the first time in their head during a dream, and they got saved without any connection with the church. I just put a big question mark over that.

But as far as Cornelius-type dreams, I believe it. Cornelius had a dream where he heard, “Send to Peter and he has a message for you.” He thought, “Oh, okay.” Then there was a knock and there was a man down there who had a message from God for him. And it says in Acts 11:14 that it would be a message by which he would be saved. So Cornelius wasn’t saved at first. He had this relationship with God in some way, or with a god in some way, and God had mercy upon him and gave him a vision and said, “Go get the gospel and I’ll save you with it.”

I want that to happen. But I think we should pray biblically. I mean, we’ve been through a lot of phases in my life. There was a stage where people talked about “territorial spirits.” Man, oh man, was that red-hot in the late eighties. So what do you do to evangelize Argentina? You get a prayer walk, and you go down there and you walk circles around crying down the territorial spirits that are over Argentina that are keeping people from believing the gospel. You were supposed to pray against the territorial spirits and get victory and have Michael come in and defeat the territorial spirits, and all that was because of a verse in Daniel. I think, well, yeah, there are probably demons that are more or less assigned to places. But we have a teeny little place in the Bible that talks that way. But then you start to make it a program and you build missions around it and you do. But can we just stay at the center and pray the Bible?

Paul says, “[Pray for me] that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel . . .” He never says, “Please pray that I be protected from the territorial spirits over Corinth,” or anything like that. So that was a little wave. You don’t hear much about it any more today. And I think dreams are going to be a wave, and you get these waves. But if we stay close to the paradigm of the Book, then we won’t get swept around by all these waves that come rolling through.

We have one final question. It’s a little bit on the lighter side. They ask, “Pastor John, what happened to your usual document camera and transparencies?

I hope that question doesn’t mean they wish I would go back, but maybe it does. Maybe I will. We used to set up a camera, and I would put a transparency down, and I’d write on the transparency. When I knew I had to get this seminar ready, I said the other day to Josh and the other guys, “There just has to be a technology where I could produce this stuff on the screen and write on it too. Do I have to choose between just a boring PowerPoint and being able to write on the screen?” And they found it. This is an experiment to see whether it works. It’s a free program called Neu Annotate for the iPad. It’s an experiment. You can give me feedback when we’re done. See what you think.