Before we dive into this little essay, one I've titled “Why and How We Reach the World: A Brief Theology of Missions," I want to begin with this reminder: evangelism and missions are not the same thing. Evangelism is sharing the gospel with those around you – at work, at play, in your neighborhood, on a cross-country flight…in your family. Missions, however, is when you cross cultural and linguistic barriers to establish a gospel presence among a people with inadequate or non-existent access to the gospel.
Both evangelism and missions are the responsibility of every Christian. As an example, in Acts 8, when persecution scatters the church in Jerusalem, every Christian flees sharing the gospel. And, as we have seen often in Ps 67, we have the privilege of knowing God’s presence so that others may know God’s salvation.
While every Christian has a responsibility to share the gospel locally (evangelism), every Christian also has a responsibility to be part of fulfilling God’s mission in the world – by praying, giving, and going. The God who saved us has a global mission. He is saving a people for Himself out of every tribe, tongue, language, and nation.
We do missions because Jesus has saved us to send us. Now, we cannot all physically go, but we all have a part in going. As Jesus says in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” He sends us for the same purpose for which He came, “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), so that God might be glorified, worshipped, known, and enjoyed in all the earth. As John Piper has now famously said, “missions exists b/c [there are places and people] where worship does not.”
The Joshua Project says, “A people group is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” Of the nearly 11,500 people groups in the world, approximately 6,700 of them have little to no gospel witness. That is more than 3 billion people spread across 6,700 different people groups with little to no access to the gospel. Can you think of a problem in the world that remotely compares to this problem?
In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, while we do not know when He will return, we do not have to wait to experience His power. He promises, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
Christians are lacking God’s power today because so many Christians have forgotten what God’s power is for.
Christians have been told God gives us power for us, because He wants us to be comfortable, to have everything we’ve always wanted… Now, I just returned from a vacation, and it was very nice (thank you), but if I think Jesus saved me so my entire life can be a vacation where I eat too many Oreos and drink too many Cokes, I’ve missed it, and I will miss out on the power of God in my life. God gives us His power to mortify sin in our lives and stay united in hot pursuit of His mission in the world (if you marriage is stale, your work life is blah, your parenting is off – recalibrate it to the mission of God, and watch God work).
We are meant to live in God’s power and that happens when we pursue God’s mission.
As a reminder, God’s mission for us is encapsulated in the Great Commission which is Christ’s command to the church in every generation to make disciples of all nations. In Matt 28:19–20, Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Now, I need to offer a quick caveat: consistency in missions flows from a desire to worship God. All of life – our work life, married life, parenting life, coaching life, social life, and church life -- is to be lived to the glory of God. To do missions, we must do it for His glory.
So, our mission is not just missions. It is first and foremost worship. But if we are really worshiping and encountering God, we will have to be involved in His mission of making disciples and equipping others for the work of the ministry (Eph 4), and the work of the ministry that Paul has in view is the work of making disciples.
Now, I want you to notice something very important. According to Matt 28, to make disciples, there must be baptism, and there must be teaching. For there to be ongoing authoritative teaching, there must be leaders identified and trained who can communicate the gospel among their own people. For there to be biblical accountability and mutual encouragement to fulfill the “one-anothers” of the Christian life, there must be other people with whom to do life together.
In other words, disciples are made in local churches. You cannot become a disciple without a local church. That is where you live in accountability to other Christians, serve one another, confess sins to one another, forgive one another, forebear with one another, pray together, sing together...
So, how do you make disciples in places where few or no churches exist? To answer this, I want you to recall what Paul says at the close of his 3rd missionary journey in Rom 15:19. He writes these words, “From Jerusalem to Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.”
This is astounding. In a territory approximately the size of New England, Paul, traveling by foot and boat, has fully preached the gospel?! He does not mean every human in the region had heard the gospel but that enough churches had been established to cover the entire territory with the message of the gospel.
Paul did not measure his success by the number of decisions made for Christ but by the accessibility of the gospel to people throughout the region. Once Paul had “fully preached” in one region, he was ready to move to the next.
This means success in missions is planting faithful local churches in places and among peoples where few exist.
For churches that exist where the gospel is readily available, a Biblical missions strategy will prioritize planting churches in places where lost people have few opportunities to hear the gospel. As Akin writes, “Those who are committed to the Great Commission rightly focus on the ‘outer edges’ of lostness where the gospel witness is faith or nonexistent. And, we understand that our divine assignment is not to make converts but to make disciples” (Akin, I Am Going, 37).
At North Roanoke, we long to see the whole world filled with enough biblically-faithful churches to get the gospel shared among the 3+ billion people in the 6,700 people groups who have little to no access to the gospel so Christ will have the worship He is due from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).
In my conversations with Pastor Andres in Puerto Rico, he estimated there are 25 doctrinally-sound churches on the entire island. That is 25 churches to share the gospel and reach 3 million people. Helping plant a church in Carolina, Puerto Rico is a part of a biblically-faithful missions strategy.
This is why we strongly support the International Mission Board. Every Sunday, a portion of our church’s giving goes directly to support trained, international-church planters serving among some of the least-reached people groups in the world. These people are learning new languages, new customs, new musical styles, new climates, and new foods because Christ has made them new and given them a burden to take the light of Christ into the darkest darkness. As missionary Jon Falconer wrote, “I have but one candle of life to burn, and I would rather burn out in a land filled with darkness than in a land flooded with light.”
Now, not all of us will be called to go as international church planters (although many more of us should be), but we all have a responsibility to be senders. We all should long for the day when Isaiah’s vision is fulfilled and it is declared in all the earth, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa 6:3). This is why we give. It is why we pray, it is why we send, and it is why I am asking God to raise up some from this church to go not just on a short term trip but to a desperately lost people group for a lifetime.
All of this is, of course, costly. For the people that God raises up to go, it will likely require a sacrifice in your comforts. For the people who remain, sending is also costly. God sent His only begotten Son and calls us all reflect His generosity toward us by give generously for the sake of His mission in the world. We may call it a sacrifice, but I agree with C. T. Studd (1860–1931), a missionary to China, India, Sudan, and the Belgian Congo who said, “If Jesus Christ be God, and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.”
If we meet our budget this year, the IMB will receive either directly or through our support of the CP, a little more than $36,000. Also, this year, we developed a way to help members of our church go on short-term trips and be directly involved in the work of helping to plant thriving churches where few exist. This is an exciting time to be at North Roanoke - we just saw 17 people take their first-ever cross-cultural missions trip!
Sustained progress in pursuing a Biblical-missions strategy requires generous giving. I am grateful for a church that seeks to treasure Christ before and above all other treasurers. This is why we give, by the way; Christ is infinitely greater than what we give, and when we give, we remind our hearts of this truth.
Now, you may be wondering (no one has said this to me…but, perhaps the thought has crossed your mind), “Why don’t we just keep that missions money for ourselves?” Wouldn’t that solve a lot of problems? We could hire an executive pastor, or we could eliminate the debt, renovate the sanctuary, or… The list is never-ending. And, that is partly the point. If we delay pursuing the Great Commission because of our immediate needs, we will never get meaningfully involved in God’s mission, and God's mission, the building of Christ's Kingdom through the progress of the gospel deep into our lives and out into the world is why we are here!
When I was growing up, I was told there were 6 billion people on the planet. Today, there are 7.7 billion; soon there will be 8 billion. According to Paul, we owe them the gospel. Paul says in Rom 1:14, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” If you belong to Christ, you owe your life to the lost by striving to get them the gospel – Greeks and barbarians, patriots and punks, Muslims and Mormons, Ivy League and blue collar, Middle Eastern and Middle American.
As those who have received the gospel we are under divine obligation to give our lives to the cause of getting the gospel to others.
Our needs always seem greater to us than the ones we do not have to confront. But what the world desperately needs is the gospel because people in the world are lost, enemies of God, dead in their trespasses and sins, glorying in what God says in shameful and headed for the eternal fire unless they hear the gospel.
While I was serving at Southeastern Seminary, President Danny Akin returned from a mission trip in Southeast Asia and shared the following story:
“One evening my driver turned down a street that I was totally unprepared for. Suddenly, on both sides of the road, for at least a half of a mile, hundreds and hundreds of prostitutes lined the sidewalks. Some could not have been more than 11 or 12. They were dressed in seductive uniforms similar to what you would see in a private junior high or high school. The faces of these little girls and women I will never forget. Sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness were etched across their countenance. Smiles, if there was one, seemed forced, lacking any sense of genuineness. Later, I was informed that most of these girls and women had been deceived and basically kidnapped. Sex-slave traders prey on ignorant and unsuspecting parents, especially in rural areas, promising a better life for their children in the big cities. As I looked into these tragic faces, it hit me. Somewhere they have a mom and a dad. Do they have any idea what has happened to their precious daughters? I was overcome with a sense of sorrow and despair I have seldom experienced.”
That moment changed our President, our seminary, and me. There is only one thing that can radically, fundamentally change the reality I just described and the pain it has produced – the gospel.
There is only one salvation that will cleanse, heal, and restore in all the ways that are needed. We must not be ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). We must get the gospel to the world because the world so desperately needs to hear God’s good news and to be saved. Salvation is becoming spiritually alive. Ephesians 2 tells us that without the Holy Spirit changing us at the root, making us alive through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are “dead in our trespasses and sins.” But, there is power, Paul says, in the message of the gospel that leads to salvation, because it is the message of the cross of Christ, as foolish as it sounds to spiritually-dead ears, that God uses to awaken dead hearts and make them new.
People will not come to Christ unless someone proclaims to them, with words they can understand, the gospel. So, at North Roanoke, we are committed to reaching the world by supporting the work of planting thriving local churches in places where few exist because:
It is a blessing to serve Christ as your pastor as we give our all to the work of getting the gospel to the the ends of the earth. May God bless us and cause His face to shine upon us as we endeavor to reach the world all for the glory of King Jesus!
*Based upon a message given July 28, 2019.
We are meant to live in God’s power and that happens when we pursue God’s mission.
This coming Sunday, if the Lord should tarry and allow me to continue to have life and breath, I will turn 40 years old. The “big 4–0.” I remember celebrating my parents’ 40th birthdays, complete with a tombstone that read, “Over the hill.” And now, just moments later, I am 40.
Time and life are so quickly rushing toward eternity. Milestone birthdays lead me to reflect on the impact Christ has made in my life and the impact He has allowed me to have in the lives of others. My thirties were a good decade. I was able to disciple people, learn a new city, help put Southeastern Seminary on a stronger financial footing in the middle of one of the most severe and enduring economic downturns in our country’s history, help a church to die well and welcome a new church plant into their building which is now thriving, lead a neighbor to Christ after 8 years of prayer and effort, love and lead my own children to Jesus, grow more in the knowledge of God, serve my beautiful bride, and proclaim the gospel…a very good decade, and an incredibly blessed life.
But, something has been nagging at me since January when I went to a leadership training event for WinShape. One of the speakers asked, “What breaks your heart?”
It is a good question – a question I have not been able to get out of my mind. The answers just keep coming. So, here goes, here is what breaks my heart, and I pray, by God’s grace, that I will be able to help make a difference on some of these issues in however many more years the Lord gives me.
Issues in the church
• My heart is broken over how our culture and even some in the church view marriage. A good marriage is one in which both husband and wife give the other themselves in a Spirit-enabled selflessness that is rooted in being a team together for the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel to their children and grandchildren and to our neighbors and the nations. If your marriage is struggling under the weight of assumptions and expectations the world gives rather than thriving for the mission of God, pick up a copy of The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller and read it with your spouse.
• My heart also breaks when Christian families fail to prize the church more than anything else on earth. Now, you might wonder why I did not say Christ. And, there is a reason. Too often, people think it is possible to prize Christ and not prize a local church. The New Testament paints a very different picture. The way we pursue faithfulness to King Jesus is through a vital engagement with our brothers and sisters in the church – “the body of Christ.” To prize Christ, we must prize His church.
• A related reality that breaks my heart is when Christian parents put extracurricular activities before Christian identity. As a father and a former athlete, I understand the benefits of sports, clubs, and activities for our children. These opportunities also present a wonderful way to reach lost people with the gospel – if we deliberately think of them in that way and leverage them for the sake of Christ. However, the extracurricular must not overwhelm the essential. I have often experienced situations where children can learn the rules, players, and positions for a game, sport, club or association and “own it,” but they have very little grasp of the Scriptures by the time they graduate high school. If a child can learn basic addition and subtraction, s/he can memorize scripture. If he can pass 9th-grade English, he can study the bible for comprehension and life change. Children value what their parents value, and it breaks my heart when children do not have the opportunity to see that their parents value Jesus and living on mission for Him in community with other Christians more than anything else.
• My heart also breaks over the stronghold that the illusion of financial security has over many Christians. When consulting for a church about generous giving several years ago, a man approached me with a question several have asked me through the years, “Should I tithe on gross or net?” For him, the act of giving was not much different than it would have been for a Pharisee – making sure he "checked off the requirement" but not really understanding the spiritual purpose not of tithing but of generous and even sacrificial giving. So, I said, “Well, do you want Jesus to bless your net or gross?” He smiled really big and said, “I never thought of it like that.” Then I asked him the more serious questions: “What if what Jesus wants you to give sacrificially, so you can enlarge your capacity for enjoying His presence? What if the Bible shows we should go well beyond 10 percent as God blesses us? What if the consistent act of emptying yourself is God’s way of opening your heart to more of Him? What if true generosity is truly contagious, and it opens you up to a move of the Spirit in your life unlike anything you’ve known since you first trusted in Jesus. What if your heart follows what you are investing in, and, as you begin to invest in the Kingdom, your service and action naturally begin to follow God’s activity in the world more than the activity of the stock market?
His face went ghost white. He was terrified, and it was sort of the terrified face that says, “You just said what I know is true, but I didn’t think you would actually say it.” This man broke down, told me He was exceptionally wealthy, and said, “I knew I should be doing more. Thank you.” I can only imagine the joy he now experiences in leveraging his business for the glory of Jesus. Fortunately, he was only in his 30s, and he still has a full life ahead to grow in the grace of giving. In my personal experience and in my experience of working with people like the man I have described here, nothing short of revival occurs when we truly shed our tendency to worship money and learn the joy that comes from generous giving motivated by a desire to remain ever-dependent upon Christ.
• A final concern that breaks my heart is when people do not finish strong in the faith but falter once their children go to college. When the commitment of a couple to be at church is only “for the kids,” often neither the parents nor the kids endure in the faith. Children can see their parents’ faith was only something done at church, and parents default to a Christmas-and-Easter only sort of faith. At North Roanoke, we are praying and working to constantly improve how we reach children and students with the gospel and then train them to know, speak, and defend the gospel. But, it takes more than what the children and student ministries can offer on Sundays and Wednesdays. It also takes Christian parents or, in the case of students coming from non-Christian homes, strong and involved Christian mentors who will show kids how to live an authentic, Christian life for the glory of King Jesus – in the church, at college, in their career, in their future families, and on mission in the world.
Christian, if you are faltering in any of these areas, here’s some good news: as long as you have life and breath, it is not too late to get back in the race or to join the race for the first time if you have not yet truly surrendered your life to King Jesus.
Issues in the world
• The first thing that breaks my heart is lostness. Apart from saving faith in Christ, people will eternally suffer the just consequences for their sinful rebellion against God, and I long to see a move of God in our Valley in which people come to saving faith in Christ in droves. The lostness of our nation and of the world is also heartbreaking. My desire is that God would continue to raise up men and women from North Roanoke to take the gospel to the peoples of the world – especially people with little to no access to the gospel – nearly 2 billion of them!
• Another reality that breaks my heart is that sociologists in our country can predict with a high degree of accuracy how a child’s life will turn out based upon whether or not the child has a father in the home, whether or not someone reads to the child at an early age, household income, and a few other key variables. What further breaks my heart is that society has come to think “more money” is the solution. We have been throwing more money at generational poverty, illiteracy, and a host of other societal ills for over 50 years, and the results are very underwhelming. We should not be surprised. We cannot expect a public system of relief or intervention, a system that must not give the gospel or be grounded in the gospel, to address the heart issues that underlie so much of what is plaguing communities in our country. The answer must include an awakening of the church to these realities and a fundamental understanding that no publicly-funded program or initiative will really address the root problem. It may help kick the can down the road, but the problem will remain. We have decades of evidence that public funding is not working. A dream in my heart is that the church would take the same sociological data, apply it to the Roanoke Valley, identify children who are most at risk and provide free or significantly reduced-cost child care in a gospel-grounded environment to preschoolers – to get the gospel into their mind and hearts as early as possible, to send them school already knowing how to read, and to win the opportunity to lead their parents to Jesus in the process. I know we can give kids a real head start – the kind of head start that makes heads spin and makes them confront the truth that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation and also to motivation, meaning, purpose, better behavior, and better long-term educational outcomes. The gospel can break then chains of the statistical trends, and it will take a church or churches that are willing to spend resources in the Valley on “the least of these” in a systematic way over the long haul, trusting that God will take our crumbs (compared to what the government spends) and make an eternal difference in many lives and families. I would love to be able to look back 40 years from now and say we forever impacted the Valley by giving sacrificially and trusting that God could use early exposure to the gospel to forever change the lives of kids who were otherwise considered the most likely to fail. I can only imagine how frustrated Satan would be.
There are, of course, dozens if not hundreds of heart-breaking concerns in the world. A few more that come to mind right now:
• 58+ million abortions in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade and the moms that are represented in that number, many of whom desperately need the gospel which is the only hope they have for the guilt they bear and the depression they feel
• Parents of child(ren) with special needs who have very little time to focus on their marriage, church, etc.
• Lazy/uninvolved fathers
• The thousands of kids in foster systems across our country who need stable homes
• The marginalization, intimidation, and humiliation of Christians in the public square
• Senior adults and people with special needs who age and no longer have a parent to care for them (this one is near and dear to my wife)
• Basic ignorance in the world of the major contributions of Christians down the through the ages to the good of the world
• Sex trafficking on the rise in the U.S. and around the world
• The easy access to and pervasive use of pornography
• The opioid crisis
• And many more
How about you? What breaks your heart? What would you add to the list, and how might God lead you to leverage whatever years you have left to let Him use you to lead/serve/motivate His church to be a part of the solution?
We’ve got one shot. Let’s make it count for the glory of Christ and the good of all nations!