Coming or Going? Dimensions of Discipleship, Part 3: Mission

We have been working through a series on three dimensions of discipleship–worship, community, and mission. Today’s post will focus on mission. When I use the term mission I mean our mandate to live out and proclaim the Gospel to our neighbors and all nations in word and action. In my opinion we in church-world have reduced our mission to an evangelistic presentation devoid of context or relational integrity. I want to be very careful here to be respectful of my evangelist friends. There are men in my life that clearly have a supernatural gift to sit across the table from someone they just met and within the course of just a few minutes they can clearly explain the gospel resulting in that person committing his life to Christ. I praise God for how He chooses to use such people.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Nonetheless, I believe we have missed a key element of our mission, the essence of which is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:8: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (ESV). Note the two things Paul says he and his companions gave the Thessalonians: the Gospel of God and their own selves or lives. I don’t think Baptists in particular have any trouble with intellectual acceptance of the first part of the verse. We know we are supposed to give the Gospel. I have heard sermons on that topic all of my life. I have preached sermons on that topic. I have been trained to give the Gospel and been obedient to share my faith. The first half of verse 2 is the “ought to” part of the passage. But the second half of that verse grips me. Paul invested more than just the telling of a message to the people. He invested his own life in them. The context of chapter 2 indicates that he invested his life in their lives at the risk of personal peril. Technically, Paul did not plant a church in Thessalonica. Paul planted the Gospel and his own life in Thessalonica for season and a church emerged.

I believe our paradigm for church planting and church growth is often backwards. Our mission, we have been led to believe, is to get people to church so that they can hear the gospel. This misunderstanding of mission leads us to plan attractive, professional, stage-driven environments where the best communicator gives the message. This is not the pattern seen in Scripture. Nor is this pattern reproducible in most of the world. Again, I want to speak out of respect for churches that God is blessing who use such an attraction-type model. But if we are not careful, we can falsely communicate that the everyday Christian is not qualified to share his faith, only the polished preacher is. That is an unintended consequence of the attractional church model. I recently heard missional thinker Dennis Pethers talk about the crisis of the church in America. He said that the crisis is not that people aren’t coming to church. The crisis is that people in the church aren’t going out and sharing what they know. The prevailing thinking in my denomination over the last two decades has been the former crisis–plateaued and declining churches. Since we think that is the crisis we change church service styles or times and look to programmatic tweaks to get people to come to church. But Pethers is right! The crisis is not that people aren’t coming to church. That is the result of the real crisis. The real crisis is that people are not living on mission. We are not living as missionaries in our neighborhoods and work places.

To live as a missionary means we seek to present the Gospel on the turf of those who need to hear the Gospel. It means we contextualize our approach to the message so that those who are far from God will listen. It means we get messy in serving those who are broken. We need to look no further than Jesus to see the true example of living like a missionary. Jesus was sent from the Father out of His home to come to earth and take on flesh to live among those He came to die for. We call this the incarnation. In similar fashion, we are sent out of our comfort zones to live among the people who need to hear the life-changing message of the Gospel. That is also an incarnation. A foundational verse for this concept is the commissioning of the disciples in John 20:21 where Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me even so I am sending you” (ESV). We are to live the Gospel and tell the Gospel to those who we live with every day.

Living the Gospel is more difficult than simply inviting someone to church! Let’s be honest about the likelihood of people who are broken and far from God ever coming to your church and feeling comfortable. Whether or not your church is friendly or inviting, most people who have no church background are skeptical or intimidated by the idea of coming to a Sunday service. I think that a plan of getting people to an event or service to hear the Gospel is incomplete. It is a plan that will reach those with some familiarity with church, but it won’t reach the growing majority of people even in the Southern U.S. who have no concept of church other than the negative view they get from the media or a bad experience. God’s plan is not for them to come, but for us to go! In On the Verge, Alan Hirsch states it best, “If we persist with the current status quo, we are in effect asking the nonbeliever to do all the cross-cultural work in coming to church! Remember, we are the sent ones–not them.”

The disciple’s mission is to go and make disciples. It is to live as one sent by Jesus as a missionary to everyone in one’s sphere of influence and even beyond to the ends of the earth.

So, how can you be on mission? I suggest you start with prayer. Ask the Father to open your eyes to those around you and to give you a heart for them like His heart for them. Then get to know those He puts on your heart. Give them your own self, just like Paul did for the Thessalonians. Do the things that are a part of your everyday rhythm and invite your friends and neighbors to do it with you. Move your evening gatherings from the back porch to the front porch. Attend neighborhood events. Live your life authentically before a watching world.

The most fulfilling thing you can do as a Christ follower is to pursue this kind of mission. Are they coming or are you going? If you are in Christ, you were made for this.