How much of missions is missions? A wakeup call...

A very wise, experienced missions leader made a shocking, offhand comment.

“About 80% of missions isn’t really missions.”

He explained that there are few missionaries who go somewhere where there’s little or no believers, preach the gospel and do pioneer work, or start from scratch. Most are going to places where there are a bunch of existing believers and seeing how they can ‘come alongside,’ ‘partner with,’ or ‘facilitate’ them.

When we dig a little deeper, we can see that things are actually much more serious than we might think.

Many people would assume that ‘missions’ involves going overseas to spread the gospel in parts of the world that need to hear about Jesus. Or, as Paul put it,

“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand’” (Romans 15:20-21)

But is that what most missionaries are doing?

Well, it turns out that only 3% of missionaries go to the unreached.

Only 3% of missionaries are going to places where there is little or no established gospel witness. The majority are going to places that have Christians all over the place, and many are going to places that are more Christian than their own home countries.

Only 3% of missionaries actually go to the places where Jesus is unheard of.

But of those 3% going to these “unreached” places, how many are living with an ambition to preach Christ to people who don’t know him? There seems to be only a minority that actually focuses on sharing the gospel with the lost and making new disciples. Probably the majority are involved in training, teaching, re-organizing, or funding the little clumps of existing believers in these areas.

How many of these few missionaries are living with Paul’s Romans 15:20 ambition to avoid building on others’ work and to tell the gospel to people who haven’t heard about Jesus? Maybe 20% of that 3%? Maybe %0.6 of the worldwide missionary force? Maybe 1 in every 150 missionaries?

Many missionaries are going to places where they can plug-into existing church ministries and teach, facilitate, or set-up funding/partnerships etc. They’re not looking to avoid building on someone else’s foundation. Even in cities where there might be only 10-20 believers, many will focus on seeking these believers out and then seeing how they can re-organize them and become their pastor or trainer.

But is this really what the missionary heartbeat should be all about?

Being a missionary should be about seeking to be a witness in the places and people groups where people don’t get to hear about Jesus at all. Being a missionary should be about laying down our lives to let dying souls know the way to life. Being a missionary should not be about finding little bits of the church, and then trying to exert our own leadership and influence on them. Being a missionary should not be about imposing western financial patronage on existing believers or communities. Being a missionary should be about planting the gospel and making disciples, not about planting our church structures. (Or, as is more in vogue these days, our human blueprints for movements…)

Not all of missions work is driven by the same ambition that Paul described in Romans 15:20. It might be international or cross-cultural, but it often has nothing to do with Romans 15:20.

So, is it any wonder that many Christians and churches aren’t interested in missions and missionaries? Is it any wonder that so few young people are pursuing a career in missions? Is it any wonder that people who try this kind of missions decide it’s ‘not for them?’

Maybe people have a bad taste in their mouth because the missions they’ve tasted wasn’t missions. It was something else.

Often what people have seen and experienced in the name of “missions” wasn’t Christ’s push to get his witnesses to new places and to seek and save the lost. It was just church ministry or building programs in different places.

Sadly, a lot of “missions” is not taking the gospel to new places but taking Western ideas, structures, and money to existing believers. No wonder that doesn’t wet our appetites and stir our spirits.

Perhaps the word “missions” has been overused and watered down. Perhaps people don’t even know what it means. Perhaps we need a new word all together, a new job description people can rally to.

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