Ellison Research asks and answers the question, “How involved are U.S. protestant churches in evangelism and community outreach?” The report offered a few surprises. The good news, 97% of churches reported having done something in the past year that was specifically for the purpose of evangelism. Not so good is that 40% of pastors lack a strong interest in increasing community outreach. It seems to this missionary that without engaging the community, we are left preaching to the choir. Ellison noted that at least half of all churches reported insufficient volunteers as an obstacle to evangelistic community ministries. These findings are a little dated but provide remarkable insight. I don’t know any pastors who would argue that churches should NOT be committed to and directly involved in mission work.
Mission work should be a natural for any church. Why? Because the church is God’s chosen vessel, called, gifted, and charged with the task of spreading the saving gospel of Jesus Christ among all humanity. That job description demands missional priority, planning, and participation.
We spend a good bit of time discussing how missions is done, and well we should. How much time do we spend thinking about the why of missions? There are undeniable scriptural pointers that guide missional direction and thinking. The two most notables are the famous passages known as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Acts 1:8 mandate. These prominent passages are pivotal and authoritative in any discussion about the “why” of missions.
May I direct our thoughts to examples of God acting as missionary? God, pre-existent, was physically present to encounter original sin and to provide His sacrificial cover for sin (Genesis 1-3.) God also acted as a missional God in sending prophets, priests, and kings as His messengers. God was acting missionally when the ultimate foreign mission trip was taken. Jesus acted gracefully, submitting himself to become an earthly “missionary” to deliver God’s personal, interactive message of salvation to sinful mankind.
I am not suggesting that God is or was a missionary. He was not and He is not! He is God! My point is simply that God acted missionally. His examples inform our missional thought. We can learn much, for instance, as we examine the practice of Jesus among men and especially His methods for preparing His disciples to carry on after His crucifixion and departure from earthly ministry.
JESUS PREPARES HIS MISSIONARIES
“And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach.”
1. JESUS CALLED ORDINARY MEN
Jesus invited ordinary men to follow Him. Scriptures indicate that it was Jesus’ practice to be out among the people. He was there to teach, preach, heal, touch, and interact. The crowds increased as His notoriety spread among the people. The crowd that followed Him from village to village got larger day by day. But it was the twelve, that select band of men, He invited to follow Him. They became His inner circle. He became their Master. They became His disciples.
Jesus invited, called, them to follow Him. The twelve are distinguished from the “crowd of followers” by the personal call of Jesus and by their willingness to obediently follow. Luke 9:57-62 indicates that Jesus invited others who were unwilling to follow.
His call is immediate as indicated by the instantaneous responses of the twelve. His call is primary since it demanded changing people, places, and things. His call is supreme trumping any mortal call or duty. Jesus clarified the permanence of His call in Luke 9:55-62 when He states,
“No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (v62). He indicates the priority of His call when He states, “Let the dead bury their dead” (v.60). He declares the demanding nature of His call as He tells potential followers, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (58).
The twelve are the ones in whom He personally invested enormous amounts of personal capital in time, attention, and commitment. We know that He experienced a huge amount of frustration. Such is the nature of both making and becoming disciples!
2. JESUS CREATED DISCIPLES FROM ORDINARY MEN
Jesus invited ordinary men to follow Him. But those who accepted His call began an immediate and amazing journey of discovery! The twelve learned much about themselves along the way. But in the process, they came to know Jesus in a very deep, personal, and transformational way. They came to know Him for who He is, the Son of God.
Discipleship, on the giving end and on the receiving end, is hard work. Discipleship takes time, willingness, effort, and commitment. Disciples cease to be ordinary men. Ordinary men look back from the plow. Ordinary men sell their loyalty for a few pieces of silver. Ordinary men cower and are timid in the shadow of the steeple. Ordinary men fear the world, the devil, the present, and the future. Ordinary men have weak faith that is not up to the wear and tear of daily life. Ordinary men are not up to the missional tasks and demands of the church. Ordinary men cannot be relied upon for the basics… to faithfully attend church, to pray for the work of the church, to financially support the work of the church. Yet Jesus sought out His followers from among the ordinary and how completely ordinary they seemed at times! He still seeks out ordinary people to become His followers and His disciples.
These twelve ordinary men became His disciples. So what turned these ordinary men into first-generation/first century missionaries? Matthew 16:17-19 provides the answer. These twelve were discipled. We cannot know everything that means. We know that these twelve ordinary men followed Jesus very closely for about three years. Scripture offers no account of what their daily routine might have been. But scripture gives the impression that the disciples were together, with Jesus, day in and day out for extended periods of time. Given such depth of exposure, they came to know Jesus very well. It is reasonable to think that they went most places together. Surely they traveled as a band of men. They were committed to Jesus’ lead exclusively since they each walked away from family, business, and hometowns.
During the course of three years these men were changed from the inside out. Change happened gradually over time. Change came systematically as they watched, listened, followed, and absorbed everything that Jesus said and did. They heard Him teach and preach. They saw Him act and react to the world, to children, to crowds, to authorities, to the poor, the rich, the outcasts, the sick, the disabled, and the religious. They experienced personally His care and concern for themselves and in some cases their families. They saw Him worship. They saw His confrontations. The twelve witnessed miracles. They survived by His provision. They heard and saw Him pray. They watched Him face every challenge of life and they watched Him face death. These twelve ordinary men became disciples as they became positively unswervingly clear about who Jesus is. This is a good working definition of discipleship. Jesus asked the ultimate discipleship question and it remains a good one…
“When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying , Whom do men say that I the Son of man am ? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?” MAT9:13-15.
These questions and answers tell us that disciples must KNOW who Jesus, must know who He is NOT, and must also know what others think about Jesus. The same demand is required of the contemporary missionary.
3. JESUS SENT OUT DISCIPLES
Ordinary men were called and ordinary men were discipled but ordinary men were never sent out. Jesus only sent out disciples. We see the same principle in the Old Testament with Moses, Joseph, and David. We see it also in the call, life, and service of the Apostle Paul. The greatest servants were discipled- prepared over a considerable period of time- for service. This is God’s special work within those He calls. Discipleship was demanded in the lives of the twelve.
Then and only then, in God’s time, were they sent out. Without His preparation and empowering (discipleship) we are not up to the task of evangelizing our world. Only after discipleship is one able to function as a successful missionary. The actions of these men were determined by what they knew about Jesus. What they believed determined what they did. The process of discipleship is what prepared them for their specific task.
The same truths must guide our missional efforts today. Are we clear about our Leader? Do we really know who He really is? Do we know that He is Lord? If we do, then we must take seriously His parting command to go into all the world and preach the gospel. When we do that, we become missional, we become missionary.
Lord, I would follow, but-
First, I would see what means that wondrous call
That peals so sweetly through Life’s rainbow hall,
That thrills my heart with quivering golden chords,
And fills my soul with joys seraphical.
Lord, I would follow, but-
First, I would leave things straight before I go,-
Collect my dues, and pay the debts I owe;
Lest when I’m gone, and none is here to tend,
Time’s ruthless hand my garnering o’erthrow.
Lord, I would follow, but-
First, I would see the end of this high road
That stretches straight before me, fair and broad;
So clear the way I cannot go astray,
It surely leads me equally to God.
Lord, I would follow, yea,-
Follow I will,- but first so much there is
That claims me in life’s vast emergencies,-
Wrongs to be righted, great things to be done;
Shall I neglect these vital urgencies?
Who answers Christ’s insistent call
Must give himself, his life, his all,
Without one backward look.
Who sets his hand unto the plow,
And glances back with anxious brow,
His calling hath mistook.
Christ claims him wholly for His own;
He must be Christ’s, and Christ’s alone.
John Oxenham, 1852-1941