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.