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Posts Tagged ‘John Paton’

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When there is so much work to be done ‘at home’ should we be sending out missionaries abroad? When our national churches – in Kenya or the UK or wherever we are – are struggling so much with false teaching and lukewarmness and have so few faithful Bible teachers and servant leaders, can we afford to be sending well-trained Christian workers to other countries? In an age of mass migration and refugee flows, when the world is coming to our doorstep (praise God) is there any need to send out missionaries? When sending people across borders is so costly and difficult and when there are still many neglected, functionally-unreached people in our own lands shouldn’t we just concentrate on shedding gospel light into dark corners close to home and de-emphasise ‘going’?

There is a lot of truth and wisdom and gospel-heartedness behind those questions. Undoubtedly there are huge needs and opportunities ‘at home’ and it will be right for many to stay and address those. It is also perfectly true, as many have said, that getting on a plane doesn’t make you a missionary; every follower of Christ is called to Great Commission obedience wherever they are and wherever they go (Mat. 28). And we also need to come to terms with the ways in which global demographics and dynamics are changing – mission from everywhere to everywhere – and root out the deep down ugly prejudice which sometimes makes us (me) anxious about that. And yes, it is often better and more cost effective to send funds to support gospel workers in their own countries rather than sending someone over there.

But here are four suggestions of why, while we want to be doing all those things, we still need to be sending out high quality gospel workers across borders:

These are the days of Elijah

In pastor Joshua D Jones’ strangely titled but extremely good book Elijah Men Eat Meat he draws multiple insightful parallels between our current post-post-modern age and the days of Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel. In one chapter he focuses on mission and notes the phenomenon of sound biblical churches with a good grip on the primacy of word ministry and a clear understanding of the mission of the church “to preach the gospel and make obedient disciples of Jesus throughout the nations…” who nonetheless

“…lose foreign mission as a focus because ‘we have so many problems here at home.’ Given all the spiritual darkness that we see in Israel, it would be easy to assume that God might put foreign mission on hold. Elijah has no shortage of work to do within his national boundaries. After all, there are plenty of fake prophets to combat and plenty of seduced hearts to turn. Yet, God sends Elijah to another nation to spend two years of his life witnessing to one pagan woman and her son. How does one even begin to evaluate whether that was a wise use of time and resources?”

It seems that the LORD is less concerned about strategy and efficiency and cost-benefit analysis than we are. He is driving an outgoing, expansive, generous, nation-reaching mission even in the worst of times. And he uses that mission to shame and rebuke and incite Israel and make them jealous (cf. Luke 4:26-29; 10:10-15; 20:16; 13:46-51; 28:28).

Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed (Proverbs 11:25)

John Paton, the great nineteenth century Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) gives testimonies of this in his classic autobiography. Before he went to the New Hebrides he was a much loved and much used pastor in the Scottish Reformed Presbyterian Church. Many in the church, including elders, tried to persuade him that he was far too valuable to the church in Scotland to risk throwing his life away in a mission to pagans who would probably eat him within hours of arrival (not an unfounded fear since the previous missions to the islands had ended in that way). As it was he was eventually used, after many many trials, to bring pretty much the whole island of Aniwa to the feet of Christ. But perhaps even more significant was the way that he galvanised the Presbyterian churches in Australia and Scotland for a long-term missionary concern for New Hebrides. A very large amount of money was raised from not particularly well off churches and tens if not hundreds of pastors left Scotland and Australia to join the missionary efforts in the South Pacific islands. And what went along with those sacrificial efforts towards foreign missions was a revival in the churches that were giving:

Nor did the dear old Church [Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland] thus cripple herself; on the contrary, her zeal for Missions accompanied, if not caused, unwonted prosperity at home. New waves of liberality passed over the heart of her people. Debts that had burdened many of the Churches and Manses were swept away. Additional Congregations were organized…

For it is a fixed point in the faith of every Missionary, that the more any Church or Congregation interests itself in the Heathen, the more will it be blessed and prospered at Home.

“One of the surest signs of life,” wrote the V.C.R. [an Australian Presbyterian periodical], “is the effort of a Church to spread the Gospel beyond its own bounds, and especially to send the knowledge of Jesus amongst the Heathen. The Missions to the Aborigines, to the Chinese in this Colony, and to the New Hebrides, came to this Church [Presbyterian Church in Australia] from God. In a great crisis of the New Hebrides, they sent one of their number to Australia for help, and his appeal was largely owned by the Head of the Church. The Children, and especially the Sabbath Scholars of the Presbyterian Churches, became alive with Missionary enthusiasm. Large sums were raised for a Mission Ship. The Congregations were roused to see their duty to God and their fellow-men beyond these Colonies, and a new Missionary Spirit took possession of the whole Church. …the Presbyterian Church in Victoria is largely blessed in her own spirit through the Missionary zeal awakened in her midst. Thus, there is that scattereth and yet increaseth; bringing out anew the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

That is paradoxical gospel logic. Foreign missions sending is not a zero sum game. There is a great blessing for sending churches.

Foreign missions can be a powerful means of personal growth for the missionary

God uses many means to grow his people – the primary means of grace of word and sacrament in the local church, the local community of God’s people, the nurture of a Christian parent (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15), marriage and parenting, affliction (2 Cor. 1:9) – but one other that he can use is cross-border mission. An African mission leader in a particular West African country told me that all the guys he knows who are continuing faithfully long term in gospel ministry have one thing in common – they have all been out of the country. That is what has grown in them the spiritual strength and godliness and perseverance for the long haul. This can work on a number of levels – here are six:

  • There is a particular challenge in leaving your home country and people group which forces the missionary to reassess the whole idea of ‘home’ and come to a greater experiential understanding of being an alien and stranger in this world.
  • There is a particular challenge in going into a foreign culture where you are reduced to the understanding and status of a child – unable to express yourself clearly, unable to do simple things without help, constantly making mistakes, unknown and un-respected. A humbling experience that can lead to a greater experiential understanding of being simply a little child in the kingdom of God.
  • There is a particular increase in risk and uncertainty which (hopefully) forces the missionary to rely on the Lord. In some countries the threat level and insecurity is far higher than the missionary’s birth country. I think of two Kenyan brothers who spent last year in countries with very high levels of persecution and threat towards Christians – they testify to how they had to learn new level of trust of God in life and in death. Even if the destination country is quite safe and secure by any objective measure, the missionary almost certainly doesn’t feel as safe and secure as in their homeland – they don’t know which streets are safe to walk, what the noises in the dark mean, who can be trusted, where to get help. And there is a particular vulnerability of legal status as a foreign national – you can always be deported. New battles with fear will need to be fought.
  • There is a particular exposure of sin. This happens in many crucibles that the Lord puts us in – workplace, marriage, parenting – but it is certainly true of cross-border mission that all the unique stresses and insecurities tend to be particularly effective means of revealing the depths of your own heart. A critical spirit or impatience or selfishness that might not have reared its head ‘at home’ comes out strongly in moments of transition and culture clash. We are exposed more clearly as the sinners we are.
  • There is a particular encounter with other ways of thinking and living, other expressions of Christian faith. You are forced to re-examine your own thinking and living and what is genuine Christianity. While living in your own culture your own culture is hard to see largely invisible to you. In some ways, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, reading old books from different times and worldviews can help but there is nothing quite like crossing borders and living in a different place that works to different rules and assumptions to help you see the things you thought were ‘obvious’. You are forced to do some hard thinking about whether you don’t like something because it is wrong or just because it is different. You are given the privilege of having a bit of distance on your own culture as well as a view into a different one and you can start (although you will still be trapped and blind in many ways) to appreciate and critique things in both. In this way your convictions about the really core, trans-cultural, vital things in your faith hopefully get clearer and firmer.
  • There is particular encounter with need. We can read of the unreached millions in Operation World but hearts are stirred by meeting actual people, no longer statistics but precious human souls, people with lives and families and desires and fears. Certainly, wherever we are there are needs all around us – physical and spiritual. But we get so used to the environment we grow up with that we start to filter them out. When we go to somewhere very different from our home country we often see the needs more strikingly and sometimes our very definition of need starts to be challenged. Things we thought we needed, we realise are not needs. Places we thought very needy in one way we realise, through going there, are actually very needy in a different way. I think of a Kenyan who went to the UK and realised that there were extremely spiritually needy people in a wealthy nation. I think of an American who came to Kenya and realised after some time that there was a bigger need than agricultural engineering.

Perhaps this is not the most important reason for foreign missions (all this focus on personal growth can get a bit me-centred) and neither is it an invariable rule (there are plenty of counter-cases of crossing cultures leading to personal hardening and de-sanctification – mission can lead to pride as much as to humility) but it is a genuine positive effect. As Peter found in Acts 10, missions can be just as much, if not more, about the change of the missionary’s heart as anyone else’s.

We need each other

The ideal for the global church is not independency but interdependeny. There will always need to be movement of Christians around the world. Like the circulation of the blood in the body – it is healthy for there to be a circulation of Christians around the body of the church. The weaker parts will need the help of the stronger parts and each part of the body will be simultaneously strong and weak in different ways – in courage, in carefulness, in theological resources, in financial resources, in mission-heartedness, in sacrificial love. The goal is mutual encouragement (Rom. 1:12).

And in the theological endeavour itself, as Amos Yong has observed, the global church has a lot of “resources… to contribute to the conversation” which are currently largely ignored. This is not to romanticise ‘minority theologies’ or to suggest that the Western tradition is always wrong or to go for a relativistic reader-centred view of truth. In fact the majority world will continue to have a huge amount to learn from the Reformation tradition for a long time to come. It’s simply to suggest that God doesn’t give any one part of the global church a monopoly on truth and insight, that the Spirit distributes his gifts across the whole church, across borders, and that we can learn a lot from the way different people in different cultures may be able to see certain aspects of the Word more clearly than we do.

Some mutual learning can happen at a distance (even online) but there is nothing like actually being with and alongside and living and working together in gospel ministry. Much glory goes to God and much growth occurs and much learning happens as people of different cultures interact together and serve churches together and go on mission teams together (BTW multi-cultural leadership and mission teams are an old idea – Acts 13:1-3; 16:1-5; Romans 16).

At the end of the day we will all have blindspots – moral, cultural, theological. We will need to remove our own logs and each other’s specs. And both seeing the logs and the specs can be greatly helped by crossing borders.

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