21 February, 2013 Steve Palframan
It’s nearly 40°C and I’m sitting in a cafe in Tirana, Albania, when a guy walks in wearing a thick woollen shirt, beige trousers and open-toed sandals with socks. In a country with an infant church and fewer than 15,000 Bible-believing Christians I thought to myself, “this bearded gentleman has to be a missionary”. Sure enough he proceeded to get his Bible out and chat to his friends about importing Christian literature. It was exciting to eavesdrop on their conversation – but all the time part of me was dying inside. Sadly this was not because of a moral awakening about the evils of eavesdropping (that came much later); rather, because it occurred to me that world mission was no longer cool. There was a day when it was: when one-way tickets and overcoats were picked up by the strong and the brave, who with great fanfare headed out to new places, taking the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. Now, though, it’s the preserve of church committees who sit around processing the mysterious call of God on misfitting young graduates with an eye for exploring the world.
Granted, I’m generalising; it’s not all bad and there are plenty of good examples of Gospel-hearted sacrifice and lifelong commitments to cross-cultural missions, but I do have a point. Typically, our churches consider the ‘calling to mission’ work to belong to individuals who come to leaders for financial and prayer support once they’ve already successfully made it through an agency’s selection process. As common as that approach is - and, to be honest, it’s been mine for a long time - it’s a long way from the corporate missions calling of the New Testament.
Preaching through 1 Thessalonians recently I’ve been struck again at how this young fledgling church had connections with churches in other parts of the world. They were cited as imitating the churches (2:14), being an example to believers in other churches (1:7) and all the time news of their progress was filtering round bringing encouragement to others and to them (1:8, 3:6-7). Somehow this new church understood right from day one that they were part of something global and their joy and responsibility did not stop at the parish boundary. In other words, every member of the Thessalonian church sat on the missionary committee – because they were all called to global missions.
Let’s be clear: this was more than being ‘missional’. It wasn’t simply that the church understood that mission started at home; that the mission field wasn’t something you travelled to, but was something you lived on. They got that - they probably blogged about it too - but that wasn’t the end of it because they weren’t just missional. They were also ‘missionarial’ as the gospel of Christ not only brought them into the local expression of the family of God (aka the local church) it also appointed them into the global family business. Now somewhere along the line we’ve lost that, and global missions has become an uncool side interest for people with chips on their shoulders and socks on their sandalled feet.
So the question is how do we get our parochial churches to see their global calling?
How do we help the average Joe in the pew to see that their missionary responsibility extends to Calcutta and Cyprus as well as to Coventry and Cardiff?
There’s no magic solution to that, because what we’re really talking about is a culture change rather than a programme amendment or a Missions Sunday and the thing with culture changes is that they don’t happen fast. That said, here are a few suggestions...
1. Change the way you talk about missions in church
If we only talk about world mission on Mission Sundays or in reference to a few individuals that have been sent, the danger is that global mission doesn’t seem as important as it really is. In reality it’s difficult to apply the Bible faithfully to our congregations without talking regularly about the needs of the church worldwide. Practically speaking, this means ‘Operation World’ is on my desk next to the Bible commentary when I’m preparing to preach, and prayer meetings always include a world focus.
2. Connect to churches and not just individuals
For us, as a young church plant in Liverpool, we inevitably started from scratch without a missions noticeboard or any past mission heroes in the church directory. In an effort to get global missions into the DNA of the church right from the beginning, we joined the Radstock Network. Radstock is a missions agency with a difference. It’s not there to select and send individuals, but rather to network churches together for mission. Radstock helps churches connect with churches in other parts of the world to see how together they might pray, give and support one another in our shared calling to reach the world with the gospel of Christ.
The beauty of church connections (regardless of whether they carry the Radstock badge) is that they outlast pastors and individuals and provide a home for the care and support of individuals who set out to live cross-culturally. Alongside those pragmatic benefits it strikes me too that it’s a better reflection of what’s going on in the New Testament where global mission was church centred, as churches gave to churches and planted other churches were there were no churches.
3. Encourage your leaders to travel - include it in the missions giving budget
Church cultures are inevitably (and rightly) driven by the leaders. If your church leaders have no exposure to the worldwide church then it’s going to be difficult for them to get anyone else interested. Realising this led to a change in church policy for us when we portioned off a small – but not insignificant – section of our missions giving for travel, enabling leaders to go and meet with churches and bring back first-hand reports of gospel work in other parts of the world. This has been so valuable to the life of our church and we hope it has laid the way for future visits by a wider group of people in the church. We hope this in turn will lead to people going long-term to join and to help start churches in other parts of the world.
4. Send your best and stop waiting around for a mysterious calling
If the calling to world mission belongs to the whole church, then it becomes the job of the church to call individuals to contribute to that in the most helpful way. This means leaders in the church need to be looking for ways of sending people to places where they can make a useful contribution to world mission. In reality this will always mean sending people we don’t want to lose into places they would not otherwise have gone - but that is, after all, exactly how all gospel ministry goes forward.
1 See the story of Howard Guinness heading out to Canada in the 1920s.
2 I concede that that is a made up word but so is ‘missional’ so I think that’s okay! The idea being that we’re not simply to think “I don’t have to go anywhere to be a missionary” which, although correct, is damaging in its limitations. Really, we need to think “Mission needs to happen everywhere and I’m part of it”.