Three Reasons Why Long-Term Missions Can Never Be Replaced
By Joshua Paxton
In the high-tech and fast-passed world of today, we often find ourselves asking how can we accomplish things more quickly? How can we meet goals more quickly? How can we expand more quickly? Studies have shown that the current attention span of Generation Z is a mere 18 seconds. This is largely based on social media, in which a person will take an average of 18 seconds to decide if they are going to watch a video they see on Facebook.
Applied to the realm of missions, this mentality is shown in the ever increasing popularity of short-term mission trips. There are both positive and negative reasons for short-term missions. Most of the positives have to do with the effect it has on those going rather than those receiving and most of the negatives surround the lack of follow-up that is often missing. Whatever your feelings about short-term missions trips, what is painstakingly clear is that they will never serve as an alternative to long-term investment in the lives of others for the gospel. There is simply no substitute and no real shortcut to the ongoing work of spreading the gospel to the lost, making disciples, and establishing the church in all corners of the globe. What follows are three key principles for why we must continue to have a long-term focus in missions work.
Lasting Ministry is Relational
One key component to all ministry, whether it is missions or within the local church, is that, in order to be lasting, it must involve real relationship building. In Western Christianity, with our roots firmly planted in Greco-Roman culture and a conceptual thinking style, it is easy for us to view our faith as merely propositional. We accept the truth of the gospel message mentally and our discipleship processes and educational processes are focused primarily on learning more information. Enoch Wan, with the development of the “relational realism paradigm,” reminds us that “‘reality’ is primarily based on the ‘vertical relationship’ between God and the created order and secondarily the ‘horizontal relationship’ within the created order.” Essentially, God is relational. We see this demonstrated in the Trinity itself (Gen. 1:26); in the Garden (Gen. 1-3), through His self-identification (Ex 3:6); and His personal involvement with many throughout Scripture, Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:7, 22; 2:8), Noah (Gen. 6:13, 7:1), Abraham (Gen. 12:1ff), Moses (Ex. 3:4; Deut. 34:10) and Joshua (Josh. 1:1).
Redemption is not just the story of the payment that was made for our sins, it is also the restoration of a relationship that was lost between us and our heavenly Father. Nowhere is this perhaps clearer than 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Paul speaks of those who are “in Christ” as reconciled. The Greek word “katalla,xantoj” speaks to a restoration of relationship or a return to friendship. In Christ that which was once broken is now restored. Further on in this passage we read that those who have been reconciled are now entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation. That is, we who believe in Christ and have been restored to a right relationship with Him are now entrusted with the ‘message of reconciliation’ (the gospel) to a lost world, to call those who are not believers to be reconciled with their God. The language Paul uses is very strong, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20b). The relational implications are clear. If God seeks to have a real relationship with His created beings then we must seek relational ways of doing ministry. Only long-term investment in people and places can produce the lasting results that we seek in missions.
The late Nabeel Qureshi drove this point home in his work Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus in which he recounts his testimony of how he came to believe in Christ as Messiah. Qureshi tells the story of how he knew many Christians growing up in a high school in the United States. These well-meaning believers also tried to share the gospel with him. However, what was evident to him was that, as soon as he made it clear that he had no intention of converting to Christianity, these believers stopped trying to be his friends. Qureshi writes, “I had plenty of Christian acquaintances, and I’m sure they would have been my friends if I had become a Christian, but that kind of friendship is conditional.” Qureshi continues to illustrate the importance of relationships to effective evangelism. There is no substitute. Ultimately it was a college friend who was willing to invest in a real relationship with Qureshi that led him to belief in Christ.
Another key example of the importance of relationships is found in the church. The church is to be a relational community of believers, building one another up, encouraging one another, supporting each other as we await the Lord’s return. A fledgling church must see this relationship modeled to them in the lives of the believers who come to share the gospel with them. It is impossible to establish a long-term church without a long-term relational investment in people and only missionaries who commit to going to the field, learning the language and culture, and living life with the people can model this relationship to the new believers.
Language and Culture Learning Takes Time
It is commonly understood that a missionary needs to learn the language of the people he seeks to reach in order to share the gospel with them. What might not be so common is understanding the importance of learning the culture. Whether it applies to the postmodern context of Europe or the jungles of Papua New Guinea or South America, culture is the greatest barrier to the acceptance of the gospel. Over the past few years the missions endeavor has really been waking up to the importance of learning the culture of the people in order to accurately communicate the gospel.
While the elementary aspects of a culture, such as the observable behaviors, food, and some customs can be learned in a matter of weeks, to really communicate the gospel effectively requires understanding the values, worldviews, and underlying paradigms of the people. How do they see the world around them? How do they make decisions? Much like modern computers and smart phones, every culture has an operating system. That operating system will determine how they understand the message that is being presented to them. A simple example is how one cannot load an Apple based app onto an Android based smartphone. They are simply not compatible with one another. If you are communicating the gospel in the language of Apple and your audience only understand Android then the communication is lost.
[BLOCK QUOTE] “To really communicate the gospel effectively requires understanding the values, worldviews, and underlying paradigms of the people.”
Related is the simple reality that language is only understood in its cultural context. While Americans and the English may both technically speak the English language, much can be lost in translation because we do not use the same words for many concepts and items. Learning the culture and the language of the people in order to accurately communicate the gospel message takes time and investment with the people. It simply cannot occur without real long-term investment in building relationships, understanding their worldview and contextualizing the message in understandable ways.
Discipleship is the Goal, Not Conversion
Matthew 28:19-20 contains a command and it is not “go.” The command that we find in the oft called ‘Great Commission’ (the Great Commission is really a composite of five verses; Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-47; John 20:21; Acts 1:8) is to MAKE DISCIPLES. We know this because the Greek text presents it in the imperative mood. Making disciples is the end goal of all outreach and missions efforts, not conversions. Matthew 28 even further illustrates that these disciples are to be made by baptizing and teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded (which incidentally includes the command to make disciples).
For too long our outreach efforts have focused on getting unbelievers to say a sinners prayer or just come to church on Sunday and let the pastor ‘clean them.’ This was never the strategy of Paul and it should not be ours either. The spreading of the gospel takes real investment into the lives of others, it requires real relationships, real understanding of culture and real investment in other people. Discipleship takes time. It takes time to really pour into someone else’s life, to teach them and nurture them in the Christian walk and life. The church is full of converts who have given mental ascent to the reality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection but have gone no further. Much like the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers, we must continue to grow so that we may have solid food and not be consisting on mere milk (Heb. 5:12-14).
Producing true, lasting change in the lives of others through relational discipleship, in the appropriate cultural context, takes the long-term investment of skilled missionaries. Anything less is not worthy of the high calling we have received to be Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:11-21). This long-term investment in the lives of others requires that we continue to send and support God’s messengers with the only message of hope for a fallen world.
Joshua Paxton has been with Calvary University since 2012, first as Missionary in Residence and now as Director of the Burnham Center. Josh and his wife Amber have served with Avant Ministries, a Kansas City based mission agency since 2009. Josh still serves with Avant part-time in a recruitment role. His experience includes time in Italy, Poland, and Greece. His favorite classes to teach are Cultural Anthropology, Cross Cultural Communication, and Evangelism and Church Planting. He is still heavily involved in the Kansas City community in ministries to immigrants and refugees. To learn more about Calvary University and the Burnham Center for Global Engagement click http://www.calvary.edu/burnham-center-for-global-engagement