The world today seems an increasingly dangerous place, with natural disasters and political conflict compelling many in the Western world to stay close to home. The isolationism bred by this natural preference for safety makes the biographies of our predecessors in mission seem exotic and otherworldly. The missions project—going to the other in the name of Jesus at great personal cost—has never in our lifetime seemed more out of step with the mood of the age. In more and more churches, the noble calling to reach the world by sending our best and brightest into danger and the unknown is now little more than a faded and tattered flag, waved feebly by a dying minority of the congregation’s oldest members. Global missions has become an embarrassment, an awkward obligation that just doesn’t fit our church’s brand.
And yet God and his word have not changed, nor is he surprised by the pain and evil in our world. The Bible consistently reminds us that following Jesus involves sharing in his suffering—often times the very opposite of safety.1 The great commission still stands, and so churches cannot ignore our obligation to go into all the world. What would it take to remove the stigma and to embrace our global calling for this era? How can we grow and mature our churches, so that missions ceases to be an embarrassment, instead becoming a source of vitality and renewal for both the church and the world?
My family has been privileged to serve as overseas Christian workers for nearly three decades, personally witnessing the marginalization of missions in many of the churches from North America and around the world that have partnered with us in our China ministry. Coming from a wide range of cultures and church traditions, these churches vary in both the nature and degree of their participation in our work. Some fellowships have been blessed, and some have been a blessing; others have been steadily withdrawing from God’s mission to the rest of the world.
Those churches that have managed to maintain their commitment to the great commission are set apart by several habits and practices they hold in common. Whether you are an overseas worker looking to help your supporting churches be more involved in missions, or a Western church leader struggling to talk about global missions alongside the latest in worship music and videography, answering “yes!” to the following four questions can help churches recover their passion for God’s whole world.
1. Is global missions integrated throughout all of church life?
Too often, churches treat missions as if it is just another special interest group in the church. Much like the church basketball league, or the women’s sewing group, missions is seen as an optional activity that we organize for those who are interested. Even the annual “Missions Week” programs of the previous century were often just a brief, public recognition of what was a niche aspect of church life. These sporadic presentations tended to reduce missions to exciting stories and exotic tourist destinations, functioning primarily to entertain and secondarily to justify budgeted expenses. The healthiest churches, by contrast, manage to integrate missions throughout all of church life.
While they may employ particular sermons or events from time to time to highlight different aspects of Christian missions, these churches will engage with missions organically throughout the year and in all areas of church life. Bible teaching, prayer meetings, Sunday morning worship, the arts, compassion ministry, small groups and children’s Sunday School will naturally and frequently include missions, presenting it as a normal part of Christian life. Its importance, its place in scripture, the many ways believers can and should participate—all this and more will be addressed regularly, alongside news from and concern for the women, men, and children from the congregation who are serving beyond the church walls. Mission in these churches is not an add-on program, but an integral part of church life.
2. Is the whole congregation intentionally learning from the world Christian community?
The exoticism with which Western churches have traditionally treated missions encourages believers at home to look down on Christians from the rest of the world with a sense of superiority or at best pity, while at the same time viewing cross-cultural workers sent out from their community as “super Christians.” This ignores the biblical truth that we are all equal in God’s eyes, and that we will spend eternity serving the Lord alongside our brothers and sisters from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
A healthy church missions program equips believers in the present for that eternal reality, bringing the testimonies and wisdom of the global church to our doorstep. Long-time China worker Finn Torjesen describes cross-cultural workers as red blood cells, carrying life-giving oxygen to the different parts of the body as they travel around God’s world.2 Regardless of their nationality, overseas Christian workers provide churches with opportunities to benefit from the wisdom and experience of Christians around the globe. These lessons “from over there” can help us more faithfully witness for Christ in our own communities, and provide much needed perspective on faithful Christian living in today’s world. Humility is key to both establishing this kind of exchange and to realizing its benefits, and the blessings from this expanded exposure to the world church will only grow over time.
3. Are children being raised to see missions as a normal part of Christian life?
Jesus praised the faith of children, and many cross-cultural workers can testify to the openness young people have to God’s calling. Strong missions churches will include missions as a key part of youth catechism, presenting the importance and value of cross-cultural or overseas service to even the youngest children in the congregation. This messaging broadens and deepens as the children age, with youth and young adults exposed to missions and actual cross-cultural workers in such a way that long-term missions service becomes a vocational choice every bit as achievable and honorable as doctor or lawyer. Adults throughout the church will need to show children that while everyone has a part in God’s mission to redeem the world, God still calls some people specifically to enter the costly and challenging vocation of cross-cultural missions.
Youth missions trips then function explicitly as educational and career exploration opportunities, with the focus placed on the value and importance of the work of the long-term cross-cultural workers rather than the “service” of the youth. At the same time, parents are also challenged to embrace the possibility of their own children serving some place dangerous or far away for a very long time. Rich opportunities for all members to enjoy personal interactions with actual cross-cultural workers is key to realizing this kind of community, allowing every generation in the church to view these workers as normal and valued members of the church. This necessarily requires a robust hospitality ministry to host and care for visiting cross-cultural workers and world Christians—often for longer periods of time with corresponding financial outlays.
4. Is prayer for missions and missions workers an organic part of church life?
Prayer for global missions forces a church to grow beyond asking for their own personal needs to praying for the big things that are central to what Jesus is doing on earth. Echoing the previous three questions, this is not the prayer of a half-dozen members of a missions committee meeting in a small room on Wednesday evenings. Churches that are on fire for missions will include cross-cultural workers and their specific needs regularly in their pastoral prayers and share missions prayer requests with small groups and Sunday schools—both youth and adult. Moreover, weekly prayer meetings will engage a sizable percentage of the church community, as women and men—including pastors, elders, deacons, and church staff—recognize the central importance of praying for the world alongside their more local requests.
Regularly presenting church members with not only requests from around the world but also with testimonies of how God has answered their prayers on behalf of these global brothers and sisters then draws God’s people into a deeper commitment to prayer. This growing participation in prayer is naturally encouraged in all areas of church life, as the power of prayer is constantly brought before the congregation through the teaching of God’s word and the testimony of the many women, men, and children whose service beyond the church walls is so dependent on the prayers of all God’s people. Prayer, including prayer for cross-cultural workers, is viewed by church members with excitement and anticipation.
Saying “yes!” to these four questions requires commitment and cooperation from church leaders and cross-cultural workers. Church leaders first need to learn to see missions as organic to their fellowship’s identity in this world; then they need courage and wisdom to bring change to their church in ways that build up rather than destroy. Cross-cultural workers need to recognize and embrace their role as messengers to their home churches, in many cases committing more time and energy to communicating well with their supporters back home. Neither of these shifts in habit are easy. However, as churches grow in the four areas above, both cross-cultural workers and churches will be blessed, finding new strength and joy together with which to show today’s world the gospel of Jesus.
Operation World —A website with ways to pray for countries and people groups around the world.
There are too many valuable books on missions to list here, but for a readable survey of missions in the Bible, see Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP Academic, 2006); and for a theological reflection on the practical implications of the Bible’s view of missions, see Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People (Zondervan, 2010).
Practical Ways to Integrate Global Missions at Your Church
- Point out biblical missions themes (the promise of blessing to all nations, God as the one who sends, etc.) in all sermons.
- Share up-to-date personal requests and answers at all church prayer meetings.
- Combine missions and all-church prayer meetings into one weekly event.
- Have pastors and elders (and cross-cultural workers!) attend weekly prayer meetings.
- Include prayer for cross-cultural workers in Sunday School programs—for adults and children.
- Reorient short-term mission trips around learning rather than service.
- Welcome cross-cultural workers and Christians from other countries to speak in worship services.
- Have overseas Christian workers address Sunday School classes—youth and adult—during their church visits.
- Offer the Kairos or Perspectives in World Mission course at your church, and encourage members to attend.
- Increase your hospitality capacity (home stays, hotel vouchers, a missions guest house) to enable overseas workers to visit the church for longer periods of time (weeks vs. a weekend).
- Increase church member interactions with cross-cultural workers outside of church, hosting them for meals or longer stays in their homes.
- Invite overseas Christian workers who are able to “visit” adult and youth Sunday school classes or home groups through video calls—not to report, but to introduce church members to God’s global church and his work around the world.
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