“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:36-37)
What do a potential missionary and the royal official in John 4 have in common?
In John 4 we read about a royal official who came to Jesus, begging him to come and heal his son who was close to dying. Instead of coming with him and healing his son, he just said, “You can go, your son will live.”
And this royal official simply “took Jesus at his word and left.”
Conventional wisdom would say that the father of the dying child was acting foolishly. People would have seen or heard that Jesus healed people by touching them. That’s just how it was done. He should have persisted, should have brought Jesus right to his house and secured the opportunity to have him put his hand on his son.
Instead, the royal official just left and walked away towards his son’s impending death. He had literally nothing to go on except for Jesus’ word that he will be ok.
Those wanting to leave their normal life and pursue a life of making Jesus know among the unreached face a similar challenge of faith.
Conventional wisdom says that you can’t just give up all these important things in life and expect everything to turn out ok. Everyone has to work really hard to secure things for their future. You can’t just walk away and expect them to be taken care of for you. I mean really, who’s ever seen that happen!?
“You need to have a paycheck to make sure you can provide for yourself and your family. How will you pay the bills? How will you save for retirement? Think about your future.”
“What if this doesn’t work out and you have to come back home? What do you have to ‘fall back on’. How will you make a living?”
“So-and-so is such a good man/woman of God. And you’re not getting any younger. If you walk away now how will you ever find someone to marry? Do you want to be a weird old lonely person??”
“You don’t have lots of ministry experience and haven’t even led anyone to Christ. What makes you think you sure you can just go over there and expect those people from a different religion to believe?”
“If you leave, who will take care of the people around you, who will reach them? Don’t you see that God needs you to be a light right here?”
“You have such an effective ministry in your home church here. Can’t you see that this is a very valuable gifting that you need to steward?”
“I heard that when people go overseas to these dark places, they can easily slip into heresy, and even teach others incorrect things. Shouldn’t you stay home and get more schooling, at least a masters in theology perhaps?”
“You get such joy from your current profession. This is who God’s made you to be, and he gives you satisfaction in your work. Won’t you shrivel up and die without it?”
Walking away from these things with no foreseeable guarantee for the future is kind of like the royal official walking away from the healer and just going back to his helpless, dying son. It seems irresponsible. It seems crazy.
But Jesus still tells us that we can go, we can let go, and we live and be ok.
“I tell you the truth … no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields (think sources of income/investments) for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age … and in the age to come, eternal life.” Mark 10:29-30
“Whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Mark 8:35
Every time you get out to spend some time with the lost people, it is important work.
It might feel like nothing much is happening. Maybe there wasn’t a really fantastic opportunity to share, or maybe your interactions were pretty awkward. “Is this really worth my time?” You might be asking.
Really, it is. There’s so much important stuff going on.
You’re reminded of Jesus’ heart for the people.
I constantly forget about lost people, and my heart constantly grows cold and apathetic. I find I need almost daily contact with them to keep my heart soft and keep my life and calling in perspective. Even if it’s just hearing one story from one person and getting a tiny hint of Jesus’ empathy and compassion for them, that’s priceless.
You’re getting a chance to hear and interact with the Father
God is very interested in reaching the lost, and if you put yourself out among them, you might hear or feel his prompting towards someone who is particularly in need of a witness. Moments like these are really special. It’s like being a little kid who gets to go to work with his dad.
You’re learning the language and culture
It may seem insignificant to have them slowly explain another joke, or learn one or two words you didn’t know before. But this is really crucial stuff. Bit by bit, you’re breaking down the wall between you so that you can understand them, clearly show them Christ, and eventually teach them to trust and follow him.
You’re learning to communicate his love and truth in a whole new channel of language and culture, and this takes looooots of time. You’re building a new life to be constantly used by him in witness, and even the most mundane and seemingly unspiritual interactions are important building blocks towards this goal.
You’re being a witness
Jesus sent his disciples out to be witnesses of him, to be people who told people who Jesus was and all that happened. And now this job gets handed down to us. The hugeness of this is beyond what we can fathom. After all, these words we carry from him can have an eternal impact.
I’ve been amazed to see how just a few words from a gospel worker can totally ruin someone’s life. I met someone who started his journey to faith because one foreigner (who he thought was crazy) simply smiled and answered a quick question about knowing he’s going to heaven. I also heard about someone who found some believers and wanted to give his life to Christ. He explained that 20 years ago he had one conversation with a couple of foreigners on the street, and God had never left him alone ever since.
Sometimes we can be tempted to belittle these chances to say something about him, thinking that they can’t make that much of a difference. We can feel like we’re just dropping a few tiny seeds into giant rocks, and they’ll never sprout. But just one of these seeds has the power to crack and uproot the world’s biggest mountain, leaving a massive orchard in its place.
If you go out and you didn’t get to say anything about him that day, just getting out there and wasting your time for Jesus is a beautiful act of worship. If you were wandering the streets and parks for six hours, aching for some opportunity to let someone know about who Jesus really was, that’s beautiful and it must please the Father’s heart.
Others around you (even leaders) might look down on your attempts to simply get out there and be a witness. They might even rebuke you like the people rebuked the woman anointing Jesus in Luke 14:
“Why this waste of your time? You could have used all that time for something more effective! You should have done ‘x’ or ‘y’!”
To which Jesus might say:
“Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Getting the good news to the darkest places on earth is like playing hockey.
Talking to people in a foreign language and culture is a bit like learning to skate on ice. At first, it feels extremely weird and difficult. People wave their arms, flop around and fall.
Just like skating, getting comfortable in these environments takes a lot of time and practice. It takes a lot of falling, bruises, and frustrations. But it’s also a lot of fun.
The missionary, like the hockey player, has to get on the ice, day after day, and put in the time it takes to be able to move around freely. He has to do drills and exercises (ie. language study). He has and spend time skating and playing with other people (ie. talking with locals).
While most people are happy keeping busy with normal life on dry ground, the hockey player has to sacrifice massive amounts of time and other pursuits to really get comfortable on the ice. As one athlete said, “You have to constantly say no to other things, and yes to your sport.”
The missionary, like the hockey player, is also learning to work with other people, to face constantly changing circumstances and get creative and improvise plays to get to get a shot at the net.
The hearts of unreached people, like the nets in hockey, are fiercely guarded. Before you even get close to them there are lines of defenders. They’re doing their best to block or knock down any opponent with a puck. There’s an entire team of well-coordinated opposition working to stop any kind of advance.
When skating towards the unreached with the puck of the gospel there can be all kinds of opposition. There’s religious fanaticism, suspicion of foreigners, and the everyday troubles that can arise when living abroad. There’s also distraction, doubt, and discouragement that seeks to dissuade down the gospel worker’s own heart from the game. Day after day the task can seem impossible. “Man they’ve got some good defense! How are we possibly gonna get the puck near the net today… it’s hopeless.”
But the missionary, like the hockey player, is spurred on by some indescribable hunger for the game. He feeds off the morale of his teammates, and lunges forward toward the impossible. He weaves through defenders, looks for open lines, and stays on his feet even in the face of big disappointments and crushing hits. He darts in and out of different openings and is always listening to the voice of his coach, the Holy Spirit.
Of course, the missionary can’t continually stay on the ice in the heat of the game. Every now and then he pops out to sit on the bench, catch his breath and rest. But he’s constantly getting back out there, throwing himself in the thick of it, helping his team and hoping for a shot on net.
Then, every now and then, something magical happens. Circumstances line up, and the missionary finds himself sitting in a room full of people with a with 1 or 2 open and curious hearts. Conversation turns into a testimony about Jesus, and there’s an open line past all the usual religious and cultural defenses.
Like a shot in the top corner of a hockey net, the missionary is able to deliver a few words about the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and people really get it. The gospel puck whizzes past the defenders and hits the heartstrings of a people who’ve never heard it before. The goal light goes off. The worker, the team, and the fans watching and praying all feel something like this:
There’s a lot that us missionaries can learn from jazz musicians about learning language. After all, they devote their lives to learning, repeating, interacting, improvising and expressing themselves with music and people. We sort of do the same, with language and people. And actually, our brains treat musical improvisation just like language.
Learning to naturally share our heart in a new language is a formidable task. And so is learning to improvise over a fast and complicated jazz tune. What can we learn from jazz giants who have learned to express themselves beautifully and fluently?
Charlie Parker, the legendary sax player said:
“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget about all that (stuff) and just play.”
Here’s how that applies to learning to talk to people in another language:
‘Master your instrument’
When we speak a language, our instrument is our mouth. (Along with our facial expressions and body language!) Just like a musician needs to learn the technique to get the right tones and notes out of their instrument, we need to learn how to make the different sounds a language requires, and change our mouth to get the right accent. In order to do this we train our muscles to do all kinds of little tasks.
‘Master the music’
Musicians learn which notes to play with which chords, as well as all kinds of rules/theory that comes along with that. They learn all kinds of songs, set phrases, and licks that they can pull out in different situations. This boils down to a huge amount of listening, exploring, memorizing, and practicing over a loooong time.
When we learn a language we learn (or sub-consciously absorb) all kinds of rules and patterns about how words stick together, what order they go in, and what goes with what. (aka grammar) We learn tons of vocubulary. We also learn set phrases, sentences and little patterns that other people use in speech and conversation. This too, takes a ridiculous amount of listening, exploring, memorizing, and practicing.
‘Then forget all that and just play!’
Eventually, you learn all this so well that it becomes second nature, and when you go to perform you’re not even thinking about the technique and rules anymore. That’s when you’re able to play, or speak, from the heart in a natural, unobstructed, and exciting way. This is the goal for musicians, and should be for us missionaries too. When we’re talking to somebody, we want to be fully present in the conversation, and not trying to remember some weird grammar rule.
In a foreign language it’s always a long journey to get to this point of speaking fluently without thinking. Thankfully, we can still relate to people, share good news, and be used profoundly by God even when we’re struggling with language and tripping over our words, trying to remember how to form a certain sentence. But let’s learn from these musicians and apply the same sort of serious time and effort to learn how to express ourselves (and God’s heart and word!) to the people we’re trying to reach.
Finally, here are some more thoughts on this quote from Chris Potter, another incredible sax player
So learn, learn, learn. Learn way more than you think you’re going to need in any given situation. Learn all kinds of vocabulary, grammer, sentences, and phrases. Practice them. Work on your accent. And then forget about all that and just go talk to people!
When I got to the camp I was eager to talk to give a seminar on missions to a bunch of youth at a weekend retreat. I was expecting them to be in high school, but it turned out they were actually much younger. They were just 11-12 years old. I immediately started thinking about how I might need to change my message, and I was a little disappointed they were so young. Would these kids really understand? Was this a waste of time?
But as soon as we started talking and I asked a few questions, my disappointment in the age of the group disappeared and I was really moved by their simple and beautiful desire to live for the Gospel.
This was an optional session they signed up for. They chose to come and learn about being a missionary instead of doing the ropes course, riding scooters, or a whole bunch of other fun activities. I asked them why they came here, and why they were interested in learning about the missionary life.
“I want to go help people who don’t have God.”
“I want to go tell people about God who don’t know God.”
They said it with such simplicity, and there was such a genuine concern and care for in their voices as they talked about other people in the world who don’t know Jesus. They really cared for those people they heard about far away. I started to tear up just listening to them.
Their childlike faith and simple answers seemed so different than what I would hear in similar conversations with university students or young professionals. As people get older, their thoughts get riddled with all kinds concerns, fears, goals, and plans that children simply don’t have. And as they look forward to the possibility of becoming a missionary, the road ahead looks cloudier and more confusing.
“Uhh… I’m just really trying to figure out, like, what opportunities there are with my profession, and how I can use that overseas… I mean, I really feel like I can engage more effectively that way… I dunno, maybe I’ll find a different job placement in the future? I need to save up more money now…”
It’s hard for educated, professional, grown-up people to look forward with a simple Romans 15:20-like ambition, because they’re often trying to maintain all these other expectations, desires, or responsibilities. A simple love for God and a concern for the lost can get choked out by all the grown-up desires and plans we develop. But kids don’t think like that. They just look out with one simple goal. “I need to go tell people about God.”
The kids understood the difficulties involved as well. They realized it would be hard to go far away from their families and give up things that they liked. “You might have to go somewhere where you can’t go horseback riding,” I suggested. As soon as one 11 year old girl heard this she put her hand on her chest, bowed her head, and let out a very cute “oh!” of sadness.
We can learn a lot from these kids that see things so clearly. We would do well to shed ourselves of all our sophisticated desires and plans, and look forward with their childlike simplicity and selflessness.
Jesus set a little child up as the ultimate model of a kingdom servant.
“He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matt 18:2-3)
If we want to follow Jesus, we need to get humble, simplify our ambitions, and live for Jesus like a kid.