I recently heard a story about from a friend who met a Muslim girl with a heartbreaking story.
The other day I was coming home from a long day. I was pretty tired and I was in a hurry to get home and make dinner. I walked quickly by a gypsy lady with a tiny baby begging for money and I threw a coin into her little cup. As I hurried past she made eye contact with me and the Lord prompted me, “What about her soul, you asked me to open your eyes to those around you!”
I turned around and walked back to her. I smiled and greeted her and then asked her how long she had been begging for. She was so surprised that someone would talk with her. She told about how she had run away from home as a 15 year old and gotten married. Her husband is now in prison and she is only 19 years old and left with a small baby with complicated health problems to feed and take care of. She was so sweet and warm and sincere. “You have many difficult things in your life, do you have hope for the future?” I asked her after she had shared her story.
She replied “I am trying to put my hope in God because I know that he is the only one who can help me, but I cannot have hope because I know that I am going to Hell. I want to stop sinning but I can’t. Every day I tell myself that I will stop but I can’t. Sometimes I have to sin in order to feed my baby. Someone told me that you can only repent from a sin 3 times and then God won’t forgive you anymore. I can’t repent because I have used up all my chances by now. I know we are all sinners–even those religious people you see on the street–but we just can’t stop. For us poor people it is worse because we are desperate. How can I have hope for myself? The only hope I have is God but there is no way he can forgive me anymore.”
I was able to share with her the amazing news that Jesus loves her personally so much that he chose to sacrifice his own life and died in her place so that her sins could be wiped clean and she could receive complete forgiveness from God.
How many millions are hungry and thirstry for forgiveness yet live, struggle, and die without the chance to hear about it once?
Reaching them is simple. We just need people who know Jesus to go, learn their language, and listen to God’s voice. Who will let go of their life and go?
“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 9:36-38)
When we head outside to share the good news, it can often seem impossible. We walk into some neighborhood, park, or shopping mall, and we can’t imagine how on earth we’re going to find anyone who will want to talk to us, let alone have a good conversation about Jesus.
Our minds quickly rack up a bunch of reasons why it won’t work today, at least not in this place. “There’s no-one out here today.” “I have no connections.” “I don’t have a good reason to be here, and people will be creeped out.” “I’m not feeling very good.” “I’d better just go home.”
But if we’re filled with a compassion and patience that comes from Jesus, we can push through all these natural feelings and persevere to see some supernatural, wonderful things.
It might take a few hours of wandering, praying, and failed attempts at chatting with strangers. Give it time. When you least expect it, one little interaction will lead to another, and you’ll find yourself somehow sitting with some lost person you just met, talking for hours about Jesus, our need for salvation, and the good news.
It’s always so surprising and thrilling to see how God opens these doors. I often go out tired and discouraged, thinking nothing will happen. But then, as surprising opportunities do open up to share the good news I come back invigorated, almost skipping with joy.
When we head out there, we realize that God is actually working with us to move people around and introduce us to the right people at the right time. In an unreached place where there’s only 1 believer for every 100,000, can you imagine how eager our Father is to help us get the word out?
I’ve been doing this for the last 8 years, and I’m constantly encouraged and reminded of this. And yet, after seeing him miraculously provide incredible evangelism opportunities day after day after day, it still often feels impossible when I head out my door. Most days, I still have to stir up my faith to get over all the overwhelming feelings of “nothing will happen today.”
The more we get out there and mix with the lost, the more we do learn about how to talk to people, where to find good conversations, and how the culture works. We do learn and grow and in some ways ‘get better’ and doing evangelism. But ultimately, this is not a work that we can plan or produce. It’s not a technique that we can master. It’s the Lord that connects and provides the platforms or tea tables for us to meet people. It’s the Lord that introduces us to hungry hearts. We just need to make ourselves available to be used, day after day.
Forget numbers, measurables, strategy, and techniques. There’s no pressure to perform. Just make sure you’re meeting with the Lord in prayer, and maintaining an open heart and listening ear. Then you can go out with a joyful expectation of seeing what the Lord can do with time you give to him.
Long-term, Jesus-representing, pioneer missionary work is a lot like taking a long hike. If we look at some snippets from this article on “Long-Distance Hiking 101” we can see just how real the similarities are.
“You don’t need to be an Olympic triathlete to do a long-distance hike. Just about anyone in good health with moderate fitness can hike a few hundred miles. One of the keys to a successful long-distance hike is being open and flexible enough to deal with whatever nature, or your own body, throws at you.”
Long term, pioneer missionaries are often not very ‘exceptional’ people. They’re not super disciplined, super tough, or super talented. But they are flexible. They don’t put their hopes and dreams in the circumstances they face, or in an earthly life they’re trying to set up, and so they keep a flexible attitude as life throws curves and challenges at them. They realize that the end goal is to get the message of Christ to people who haven’t hear yet, (ie. Romans 15:20) and they hold everything else in life with a very open hand.
“You will get hot; you will get cold; you will get tired; you will get wet; you will get dirty; you will get lonely; you will get bitten by bugs; you may get sunburned; you may get rained on; you may get blisters; you may get hurt; you may get scared; you may cry. While that sounds like a lot of detractions, it is nothing to be ashamed of when it happens—and it will happen. Even the most ardent hikers get discouraged or break down from time to time.”
Long term workers do face massive difficulties, setbacks, frustrations, obstacles, and annoyances. They may also face extremely trying emotional times. There’s no way around this. It’s all part of the journey.
“Often, the hardest part of an extended journey is the first week or two. That’s when your legs are fresh (despite how many conditioning hikes you’ve taken), your pack is the heaviest and your end goal is a million miles away. But the only way you’re going to see that far-off wilderness is to put one foot in front of the other and do it.”
The hardest part of long-term missionary work is often the first year or two. That’s when you’re facing culture shock, you haven’t learned how to relate to people in a world so confusing and strange, and it seems like the end goal is million years away, or downright impossible.
But the only way you’re going to get to that ‘sweet spot’ of sharing the gospel with people who have never heard it and making disciples among the unreached, in their language, is by doing the hard work of surviving and learning one day after the next. You can only get there by learning a little bit more langauge, by spending a little more time in prayer or searching the word for encouragment, and by spending another awkward hour in the culture.
“You will quickly find that the panoramic views suddenly make your aches go away, that refreshing drinks from icy streams reenergize you when you’re tired and that freeze-dried stroganoff tastes really good when noshing in a high lake basin with sunset alpenglow lighting up the peaks around you.”
There are all kinds of wonderful surprises along the way, whether it’s seeing someone hear the gospel and believe it, seeing God do miracles, or just enjoying some good food with friends in some crazy restaurant you discovered on the road. But the most refreshing of all is the time you get to spend with Jesus, in prayer, as he encourages, strengthens, and loves you along the way.
“The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:11)
There is a lot of talk in missions about sending people to teach flourishing young churches, or about how the church in certain places may be growing but “needs more proper theological training” or “more professional teachers.” Roland Allen–the great missiologist whose advice is often quoted but seldom heeded–warned us of the danger in this line of thinking.
“When converts are taught from the very beginning that they receive to hand on, and when they practice this with the inevitable consequence that there is a great advance made, and when this is reported at home, it often results in our being stirred to send them men and money to establish institutions for their intellectual advancement and to supply them with ‘better trained’ teachers. Now this action, which is designed to encourage them and to help them, seems often to hinder them. They learn to receive, they learn to rely on paid and trained men. The more teachers they have, the less they feel the need for exerting themselves to teach others. That is perhaps quite natural, but it is disastrous.
This is what we should naturally expect. Nothing is so weakening as the habit of depending upon others for those things which we ought to supply for ourselves. Nothing more undermines the spirit which should express itself in spontaneous activity. How can a man propagate a religion which he cannot support, and which he cannot expect those whom he addresses to be able to support?
Now here it will be at once observed that the little group had organized itself and could maintain itself. Its members met for mutual comfort and support; they combined to provide themselves with such things as were necessary: they were directing all their own organized religious life, until the day that they invited the visit of that foreign trained pastor. Here was self-government from the very beginning. If only that self-government had not been destroyed by the foreign missionary … there is no reason in the nature of the case why they should not have continued as they had begun.
We ought never to send a mission agent to do what men on the spot are already doing spontaneously. If they cry to us for help, as they often do, we should give them help, but help which would support their position and assist their zeal, not supersede them and kill their zeal; help that should strengthen them as leaders, not make them subordinates. To supersede them is disastrous.
They see and learn the lesson that the spontaneous zeal of native Christians is deficient in some way. It obviously does not satisfy the white man and his paid native pastors: they do not trust it: they do not encourage it. It is better to get a paid teacher however young and poorly equipped than to have the most zealous unpaid volunteer, for the moment that the white man finds out what is going on he will certainly insist on sending one of his paid teachers.”
My friend walked into the cafe right when another student was getting all flustered because a bunch of short-term trips that he was trying to sign up for all fell through. While they were figuring out what he could do next, he dropped this bomb…
“Well, actually I want to be a long-term missionary, but I can’t because I’m not a doctor and I don’t know how to sing.”
What?! My friend responded in shock and disbelief.
The guy explained how growing up he always saw missionary teams visting from Guatemala come through his church. They would talk about their medical work, and sing during their presentations. For him, this was the picture of missionary work, and he couldn’t do it.
“All I know how to do is to disciple young guys, and I just love sharing the Gospel with people.” He continued, wallowing in his feelings of uselessness. “I’m so underqualified.”
My friend started excitedly telling him how he shouldn’t feel underqualified at all! Sharing the gospel with people and discipling newer believers was exactly what the job was all about. He was totally qualified, and perfect for the job. After this conversation, he ended up moving overseas and becoming a great long-term missionary.
It’s so sad how people disqualify themselves from this apostolic gospel-carrying work that we call ‘missions’ because they have some strange idea of what it is. They might think they need to be medical professionals or business experts, teachers, “church planters,” theology professors or translators. And they often don’t feel capable of any of these intimidating human roles.
Often people see missionary presentations that are focused on the things that we do: the centers we build, the classes we teach, the businesses we run, the projects we started, etc. And people can be led to think that all these human activities are the focal point of the work. But really, the work is about laying down our lives and pointing people to Christ. It’s about walking by faith into new places, and watching God open doors to see his Son revealed.
I heard a very wise, experienced missions leader make 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/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.
If we dig a little deeper, we can see that he’s pointing to a huge discrepency in the missions world in general.
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)
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 the good news of 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.
Of that 3% going to the unreached, how many are going to the lost?
Many missionaries are going to places in unreached areas 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.
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?
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 and 3 letter acronyms…)
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.
In the missions world, we hear lots about certain countries being “closed” to the spread of the gospel. This can be extremely misleading.
When they say a country is “closed,” what they mean that you can’t apply for a visa to stay and be a “missionary.” Or it means that you can’t buy a building and start a foreign-led, foreign-funded church plant. (Which is probably not a good idea anyways…) But there are many other ways that you can go there and live for the gospel.
Many say that since these countries are “closed,” the only other alternative is to go there and set up a business, get a full time job, or to stay out and fund local workers. This often isn’t true either.
You can get into many ‘closed’ and unreached countries as a language student, for instance. Or, in some cases, you can simply get a long-term residence permit. You can work part-time teaching English. There are a lot of different options if you’re willing to throw yourself out there and be creative. You can spend years learning the language, and then spend almost all your time getting out there, drinking tea and sharing the gospel. I know, because I and many of my friends have done it.
You can meet people, share the gospel, make disciples of a few that believe, and Christ can build his church.
It’s misleading to say that these last few unreached countries can only be accessed by working professionals, doctors, and businessmen. I’ve spent years in these places with almost no qualifications. I knew another guy who worked for years in these regions, and he was a high-school dropout! (I’m not suggesting you do that, by the way…)
So, why aren’t people getting to these millions of unreached people in the darkest places?
Most of the time it’s not becasue we’re not educated, enough, not skilled enough, and not professional enough. I think most of the time it’s because we’re not dead enough.
In most cases people are not being held back from these places not becasue they don’t have the right profession or career. They’re being held back because they won’t let go of their profession or career. We need more people who crucified their skills and plans and said, “Ok, I’m done. All I know is I need to tell people about Jesus.” And then we can work from there…
It’s not that we need to be smarter, braver, more well-equipped, and more strategic. We need to be deader, smaller, and more surrendered.
There’s a huge push these days to get lots of education and professional skills so we can get into these “closed” places. But from what I’ve seen, this often ends up being counter-productive because people get stuck pursuing these long careers instead of giving up their dreams and diving into the open doors. Or, when they get on the field they can face the danger of becoming consumed with making their career work overseas.
It’s easy to over-estimate our need for qualifications or education to move into an live in these ‘closed’ courntries. I know I’ve done it. When we move in with faith, we are often surprised how little we need the credentials we thought were so essential. This is especially true when it comes to relating to the people on the ground. We don’t necessarily need some great profession, business, or service to be able to relate to people in these unreached places. We just need humility and love. We just need time to sit with them. The people in these parts are far more friendly and open than you can imagine.
I know I have made a lot of gross generalizations here. There are a select few countries that are really tough to get into, and I’m not saying that we never need any skills or qualifications to get into these places. What I am saying is that the need for these qualifications is often highly exaggerated.
The door is open much wider than we think. But there are few people willing to get rid of their camels and crawl through the needle’s eye.
People often assume that being a missionary is like being a family doctor with an office, regular patients, and an established practice.
They assume that you need to have a years of theological training, you need to have an established and visible church presence, and you need to have a regular set of people to work with.
But this is not how things look when someone goes to spread the gospel among unreached people, in places that have little or no Christian witness.
When we go to reach dying souls in the darkest parts of the world, we don’t go to some established place with many other hospitals and doctors. We don’t get to have a nice and respectable office or practice set up. We don’t get public recognition or respect.
We’re just seemingly ordinary people, sitting on the plane. But when the moment strikes we’re ready to get up and save a life when there’s no-one else to do it. We’re ready to tell people how they can be reconciled to God through Christ when they have no one else around who can answer their spiritual hunger.
When a doctor is sitting on a plane, he may not look or feel as productive or effective as his colleagues working on the ground in their established offices. But that does not mean that his job is any less crucial.
And remember, to be a this kind of ‘doctor’ sitting only a plane, you only need two things:
A living knowledge of Jesus
Patience to learn the people’s language
Who will leave their busy practices on the ground, let go of their patients and salaries, and dedicate themselves to getting up in the air with those that have no doctor?