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07 February 2019

Jesus gave every Christian a mission.

And missionaries are the only ones who follow through.

MISSIONARY 'mɪ.ʃə.nɛ.ri noun. Person sent on a religious assignment, namely to spread Christianity in another place.

Jesus ordered his students to tell the whole world about his kingdom, and go make him more students. Mt 28.19-20 By πάντα τὰ ἔθνη/pánta ta éthni, every ethnicity (KJV “all the nations”), our Lord really did mean everyone. So Christians obediently have.

Well, some of us. Most of us don’t bother.

Because we tell ourselves that’s a specialized job. One for people who’ve to have a God-experience: Jesus personally spoke to them, or appeared to them, and made us one of his apostles. Only then can we go to other lands and tell the locals about Jesus.

Meanwhile we pray the Moses Prayer…

Exodus 4.13 NLT
But Moses again pleaded, “Lord, please! Send anyone else.”

…and avoid anything where Jesus might show up, where we can no longer avoid him or explain him away, where he might actually tell us to obey him already. ’Cause the commission to tell the world about his kingdom isn’t just for apostles. It’s for every Christian. EVERY. CHRISTIAN. And if we’re not doing it, we’ve no business calling ourselves Christian.

But because the bulk of Christians aren’t doing it, we have a designation for Christians who actually obey Jesus: Missionary. This is the tiny minority who obey Jesus.

Most of us do it a little here, a little there. We go on a missions trip for a week or two, pitch in at another church, and use that church as a base from which we can go into the nearby communities and share Jesus. You know, like Barnabas and Paul and their teams did in Acts. It doesn‘t have to be in a foreign country; y’notice Paul doesn’t appear to have ever left the Roman Empire. But there’s something about foreign visitors which really gets the locals’ attention. So by all means take advantage of this interesting trait in human nature, and go share Jesus in some foreign countries.

Some Christians do these mission trips as a career. They travel the world, visiting country after country, connecting with local churches everywhere—or if there isn’t one, helping to get one off the ground. Again, like Barnabas and Paul in Acts.

Some travel to only one country, and plant a church there. Weirdly, we tend to call them “missionaries,” and the folks who do the Barnabas/Paul type stuff “traveling evangelists.” Not that the church planters aren’t just as much missionaries! And not that Jesus doesn’t frequently send people to do exactly as they’re doing. He gives Christians all sorts of specific missions.

But the general mission he gave to every Christian, the one we call the Great Commission, is this one:

Matthew 28.18-20 KWL
18 Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “Every power in heaven and earth is given to me!
19 So go disciple every people-group:
Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
20 and teach them to stick to everything I’ve commanded you.
And look, I’m with you every day—till this age is over.”

Have we got to every people-group yet? No? Then let’s get cracking.

Jesus commands us to go.

Preachers sure do like to quote this scripture:

Acts 1.8 KWL
“Instead you’ll all receive power: The Holy Spirit will come upon you.
You’ll be my witnesses in both Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria—as far as the end of the world.”

Why’s this? Because they’re trying to get people to share Jesus with their neighbors. And they use this proof text to claim it starts with our neighbors. Supposedly Jesus’s game plan for evangelism works like yea:

  1. OUR HOMETOWN, represented by Jerusalem, which is where the apostles were.
  2. OUR HOMELAND, represented by Judea, Jerusalem’s province.
  3. THE NEXT LAND OVER, represented by Samaria, the province between Judea and the Galilee.
  4. THE END OF THE WORLD, the rest of the planet.

So for this reason, missions to other countries and states take third priority. First we gotta make an effort towards our neighbors. If we suck at sharing Jesus with our hometown, why on earth should we figure we’d do any better with strangers in a strange land?

Three big problems with this interpretation. Two from bible, the other from experience.

First of all, Jerusalem was not the apostles’ hometown. Judea was not the apostles’ homeland. Every single one of them (except Judas Iscariot, who died the same weekend Jesus had), was from the Galilee. Two provinces away. Jesus himself is from Nazareth, remember? After he got raptured a few verses down, how’d the men in white address the apostles again?

Acts 1.11 KWL
The men in white also said, “Men of Galilee, why stand here looking at the sky?
This Jesus who was raptured from you into the sky like this,
is who you’ll see come from the sky in the same way he left!”

These ἄνδρες Γαλιλαῖοι/ánthres Galiléï, “men of Galilee,” were not sent back to their homeland, and if they ever did, Acts doesn‘t tell of it. Didn’t need to; both Jesus and they had already proclaimed his kingdom there. Now they went where Jesus told ’em to: Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the world. Paul might’ve only traveled the Roman Empire, but tradition has it the Twelve really did go everywhere.

Second, Jesus tried sharing the gospel with his homeland. How’d he do again?

Matthew 13.53-58 KWL
53 When Jesus finished these parables, this happened:
He left there, 54 went to his homeland, and taught in their synagogue.
Thus they were astounded and said, “How’d this wisdom and powers get to this man?
55 “Isn’t this the handyman’s son?”
“Isn’t his mother called Mary, and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas?
56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? So where’d he get all these things?”
57 The people were tripped up by him.
Jesus told them, “A prophet isn’t worthless—unless he’s in his homeland or home.”
58 Jesus didn’t do many acts of power there because of their unbelief.

You’d think Jesus would be the best evangelist ever. I think he still is. But there’s no reaching some people, and the people of your homeland aren’t always ready to be reached. Especially if they don’t think much of you—and when we first start to share Jesus with others, we’re often new believers, immature Christians, still making tons of mistakes, still suffering from startling character defects. You know Jesus’s kids surely did. Yet even with the best character, like Jesus has, people will still presume, “Nah, we know you…” and you won’t get as far as you imagine.

And that’s been my experience too. When I was a kid I had the darnedest time sharing Jesus with people. Mainly because I was a dirty hypocrite. I sucked at being a good person, much less a good Christian, and sharing Jesus with my friends occasionally had them respond, “Since when are you Christian?” I invited ’em to church anyway—I might’ve sucked at following Jesus, but maybe at church they’d meet someone better at it. That sometimes worked. (And totally counts as evangelism. You can do that much.)

However. Every so often my church’s youth group would go on one-week missions trips to Baja California. No, not the beaches; I wish. We went to tiny farming communities and helped out local Baptist churches’ Vacation Bible Schools. Taken out of your comfort zone, where you’re some strange foreign kid who gave up your Spring Break to serve in a poor community, where your Spanish sucks, where you really have to depend on the Holy Spirit to get things done, has a way of forcing you to realize it’s hardly your powers and abilities that leads people to Jesus: It’s the Spirit. And he does a way better job than I can.

I’m not at all saying we shouldn’t try to share Jesus with our friends and neighbors. Of course we should. But there’s just something in human psychology which makes people take strangers more seriously than the familiar. Familiarity can be ignored. So it often is.

What’s more, familiarity can be extremely intimidating to people who are new at sharing Jesus. Don’t just use my personal example: Let’s say your church tells you to go door-to-door to invite people to some church function. (Like a free movie, a Halloween party, an Easter message, or just outright sharing Jesus. Hey, it’s been known to happen.) Wanna tackle it with your neighbors? Or do you immediately squirm at the idea?

Now, how about doing the door-to-door thingy for another church, in a town 100 miles away, where nobody knows you? Actually, most Christians have no trouble whatsoever with that idea. Why is that? Again: Something in human psychology. Something Jesus deliberately tapped when he told his apostles to not go back to the Galilee and keep working on the neighbors, but go to Jerusalem and proclaim his kingdom to strangers. Because it’s easier to share Jesus with new people… and easier for them to accept the gospel from people they just met.

All the more reason to go!

The world is our mission field.

A number of churches like to put a little sign somewhere near the exits which reads, “You are entering the mission field,” or something like that. Now that you’re outside the support system your church oughta be, you got people to share Jesus with.

And again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t share Jesus with our neighbors. It’s just it’s not easy. Sometimes ’cause of irrational fears—what might they think, how might they react, will it alienate them? Are you worried they’re gonna think of you as the Christian weirdo on the block? Are you worried they already know you as the jerk who ran the leafblower at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, and don’t wanna hear about your religious theories?

Yeah, these are irrational fears. ’Cause I know I already have such neighbors. I know who some of the overt Christians are. I also got a Mormon family round the corner; they’re nice people, as Mormons usually are—and I know for a fact they’ve sent Mormon missionaries to my house to work on me. I also have Jehovah’s Witnesses on the next street, and every two months or so they canvass my neighborhood. I’ve no intention of going to their churches—I already have a church—but I admire that they share their gospels with me. It means they take their religion seriously. Wish Evangelicals did.

I hope you see this as a wake-up call about how you present yourself to your neighbors. But I still maintain it’s hard to share Jesus with our neighbors—which is why it’s best to take your newbies, and have ’em practice outside town. Take ’em on a mission. Take them to a city they’re not familiar with, have ’em stay there a few days, and spend those days sharing Jesus with strangers. Watch ’em come away with a whole different attitude about evangelism. They get bold. They get fearless. They come back all fired up.

When Jesus sicced his students on the Galilee, he likewise didn’t send them to their hometowns of Beit Sayid or Kfar Nahum; he pointed them to places they’d not been. The unfamiliar little towns dotting the Galilee; some populated by devout Pharisees, and others by irreligious Jews or pagan Syrian Greeks. They too came back all fired up.

Luke 10.17-20 KWL
17 The 72 students returned with joy, saying, “Master, even demons submitted to us in your name!”
18 Jesus told them, “I’m watching Satan fall like lightning from heaven!
19 Look, I give you the power to step on snakes and scorpions—
on every ability of the enemy, and nothing can harm you.
20 But about this: Don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you.
Rejoice that your names are written down in the heavens.”

Locals, who ordinarily won’t pay attention to some local evangelist, suddenly pay attention when a bunch of strange teenagers come to town to share something with ’em. Particularly foreigners with interesting accents.

And this is exactly why Jesus has us Christians travel far, far away, to unfamiliar countries and people-groups. Even though it’s far from cost-effective. Even though it’s impractical—locals should know the culture better, the language better, everything better, so why use strangers? But Jesus knows how humans think. He knows sometimes a stranger can get to people where locals just can’t.

This is why Christians do missions. Not just to spread Jesus everywhere, but so we can learn to spread Jesus anywhere. Once they’re really comfortable with sharing Jesus with unfamiliar people, it’s much easier to share him with familiar people. (Not that they’ll necessarily listen, but still.) So this “wise advice” that “we gotta get good at sharing Jesus in our hometowns before we tackle foreign lands”: It’s crap. Ignore it.

So the next time your church decides to reach out to the community (as you regularly should), here’s an idea: Contact one of your sister churches a town or two away, and swap evangelism teams. You go share Jesus with their town for their functions, and they come share Jesus with yours for your functions. See whether your outreaches aren’t a lot more effective.