Missions: I Can’t Believe I Was Soooo Blind
Our first church was in Balaton, Minnesota (population: 753). Balaton stands in a sleepy rural intersection in southwestern Minnesota, between Ruthton, Tyler, and Walnut Grove. Yes, the Walnut Grove of Little House on the Prairie fame. Our church was nestled between corn fields, the home of an older woman who raised chickens, and a cattle farm. Having grown up in Los Angeles—with a wife who grew up in Boulder, Colorado—Balaton was a bit of a cross-cultural experience for both of us. And yet, cross-cultural was something that was not even on our conscious radar screen yet.
For example, on one occasion, a leader’s wife asked me why I didn’t include missionaries in my pastoral prayers on Sunday mornings. I remember being befuddled by her question; I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. It had never occurred to me before. I was a brand new rookie out of seminary with sermons to preach, a board to lead, sinners to confront, and a church to grow. What did missions have to do with that? I was trying desperately to breathe some life into a one-hundred-year-old Swedish congregation—didn’t that qualify as “missions”? Still, I tried to incorporate her suggestion, more out of appeasement than anything else. My only experience with missions to that point had been in a single class in college, and in my home church where I grew up. Missionaries seemed like kind-hearted people with fascinating trinkets from distant lands, dressed in hopelessly outdated clothing. In short: not cool. It never even crossed my mind that they were doing something really relevant.
Fast forward to three years later, when we were extended an invitation to lead a congregation in Midland, Michigan, in May of 1990. The ministry context in Midland could hardly be more different than Balaton. Midland contains the international corporate offices for Dow Chemical and Dow Corning corporations. It also houses many of their research facilities. As such, Midland is overrun with folks with college, graduate, and doctoral degrees. This wasn’t Kansas anymore!
I will never forget our initial interview at Midland because, once again, I felt the uncomfortable glare of the “missions spotlight.” The missions committee asked about my vision for world missions (which was still pretty much non-existent). I remember fumbling for words, lapsing into seminary lingo, and eventually offering something about our “youth being a mission field.” I shudder now at my naiveté. Needless to say, the committee was not very impressed. Yet, in God’s providence, we ended up getting the call to come to the church anyway. Unfortunately, the chairman of the missions committee was apparently so discouraged by my vision that he chose to leave the church once we arrived. I still didn’t get it.
Somehow I had missed the central theme of the Bible: that God intends to become famous among all peoples of the world. How had I missed this? Perhaps it was my fault, perhaps it was the fault of my education—I really do not know. After all, as Eckhard Schnabel points out in his magisterial work, Early Christian Mission, the mission component is virtually non-existent in most New Testament theologies since the days of F.C. Bauer. This would also include biographies of Paul and studies on Pauline theology (conservative and otherwise) over the past two hundred years. He writes, “The missionary activity of the early church is banished to incidental remarks even in commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles or in studies of Luke’s theology. It is thus hardly surprising that Paul’s missionary work is almost completely ignored in popular descriptions of Paul’s life” (Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission vol 1, IVP, 2004, p. 6).
Nonetheless, I began to preach and lead in Midland (my two dominant spiritual gifts), and in the kindness and sovereignty of God, the church body began to grow. Our entire church campus was wedged onto a half-acre in a residential neighborhood. We had no church sign, stained glass windows that were patched up with duct tape, and cheap folding chairs that were remarkably uncomfortable. Yet, for four years, we slowly inched forward in attendance. Then everything changed in August of 1994.
Earlier that spring, I was invited to go on a two-week mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Since I had never been anywhere outside the U.S., except for Canada, I decided to go along. I thought it would be an interesting experience, but little did I know what God had in store for me. Now granted, the D.R. is not a location that could be classified as an extreme mission trip (as might Iraq, the Sudan, or India), but it was my first exposure to third-world believers in poverty conditions—and it changed me from the inside out. As I worshiped, fellowshipped, and worked alongside these precious people, I remember coming home and standing in my garage thinking, “My garage is larger than most of the tin homes that I spent time in.” It had a profound impact on my soul. God was beginning to open my eyes a bit. Still, I came home and continued to preach and lead in much the same way as I always had, and missions slowly fell into the background of my thinking.
Then in 1996, I went on a trip to central Russia with some leaders from our church. This was in preparation for “adopting” the Tatars as an unreached people group for our church. This was something that I did not really understand very well but chose to go along anyway, since I was the Senior Pastor. Once again, the trip had a significant impact on me. Although I came home claiming that I never wanted to visit Russia again (which I have done now on three more occasions), I did return with my DNA altered once again. From then on, I was a marked man. The next series of events are almost like a blur now and pummeled me like a man going down for the count. First, we had a speaker come in from Frontiers (Bob Sjogren), who spent an unforgettable Sunday morning opening my eyes to something I had missed for years: God’s passion to be famous among all nations. Then I began to read some of John Piper’s books; then my wife and I took the Perspectives course; then I began teaching in the Perspectives course! I also began to devour missionary biographies. From there, I went on a vision trip to Malaysia with our Missions Pastor. Later, our entire family spent a summer sabbatical in India working among orphans, prisoners, and lepers. Since then, I have been back to India to teach at a new seminary for B.Th. and M.Div. students. It was as if a whole new world had opened up before me. I could not believe that I had preached for almost ten years and failed to see it before. After my initial trip to Malaysia, my preaching began to change in significant ways. I repented for my failure to proclaim God’s passion to be famous. I set out to make fundamental adjustments in my approach to homiletics (more in a moment). I also began to change how I led as Senior Pastor.
After returning from the Malaysia trip, I was deeply infected with a passion for God’s fame and world missions. One evening, shortly after returning, I was sitting in an Elders meeting, finishing up a report about my trip, when I gradually realized that my Elders seemed a little bored by the whole thing. Their exteriors were gracious enough, but their non-verbals screamed out, “Enough already! Let’s get back to the real business of the church.” I quickly threw down the gauntlet and said, “You guys are bored. Okay, next year . . .” (I was making this up as I went.) “. . . Next year, I’m going to take you guys and your wives with me and my wife, and we’re heading to Malaysia!” I received some benign smiles and several friendly “No, thank you’s.” The meeting then droned on to other topics and finally ended.
Immediately, my wife and I went into action. We designed a leadership mission trip to Southeast Asia for the next year. We poured countless hours of time into planning the trip. Here was the initial criteria we came up with for the trip: 1) You had to be in a position of “influential leadership,” meaning you were either on staff, an Elder, a board head, a small church leader, a global team member, etc. 2) You had to be personally invited by us to go. 3) You had to have minimal missions experience. 4) You had to take your spouse.
The philosophy was simple: invest the most time on leaders who will have the greatest scope of influence on those around them. This was the method of Jesus, the method of multiplication. Since then, we have led several more leadership mission trips, and the fruit has been very rewarding. From those trips, we’ve had at least three families go to the mission field full-time.
So how has all of this affected my preaching?
In a word, “tremendously!” It’s not that I rushed home to add a token missions sermon once a year, something I had resisted even early on in my ministry. Now I wanted to help awaken our congregation to a vision of God’s heart for the nations. I wanted to help backfill a serious deficit that I felt accountable for. So I slowly began to change my entire preaching agenda. (I should add at this point that one of the most important ways to impact your preaching is to travel outside of the States, at least a couple of times if possible. These do not need to be elaborate trips. They just need to be strategic trips. If you have not done so, there is simply no substitute for walking among the lost in other lands. It does something profound to your heart, mind, and soul.)
1. I began to look for like-minded mentors in pastoral ministry. That is, pastors who had developed a passion for world missions, and had incorporated this into their preaching. Men like Stuart Briscoe, John Piper, Charles Simeon, and John Stott. All four of these men modeled where I wanted to take my own congregation. They seemed to ignite in their congregations a passion for advancing God’s fame among the least-reached peoples on the planet.
Charles Simeon is a classic example. Simeon, the long-time vicar of Trinity Church in Cambridge, had a great heart for missions. He was the spiritual father and mentor of Henry Martyn, the missionary to India who died in 1813 at the age of thirty-one. David Brown, another protégé of Simeon, conducted an orphanage in Calcutta. India had a peculiar attraction for Simeon. He referred to it as “my diocese” and “my province.” Being tied to his local ministry in Cambridge, he assisted others to go where he could not go. Using his connections with the East India Trading Company, Simeon was able to recommend candidates to serve as Anglican chaplains in India, such as the two mentioned above.
John Stott’s ministry in London’s All Soul’s Church has spanned a number of decades at this point. He is an ordained Anglican clergyman, a pastor at heart, a prolific author, conference speaker, and worldwide traveler. His leadership has been not only crucial for his own church, but also for significant evangelical endeavors such as the International Congresses on World Evangelization at Lusanne (1974) and Manila (1989). He has also been instrumental at the Urbana student conferences. Stott’s preaching, similar to Simeon’s (with whom he likes to compare himself) has a strong missions note to it. In fact, his article entitled, “The Living God is a Missionary God,” leads off the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement textbook.
John Piper and Stuart Briscoe are two more practical mentors who have chosen to remain in a local ministry and yet use their pulpit, and writings, to have a world-wide impact. I’ve lost track of the number of pastors and missionaries who’ve told me how instrumental Piper’s books have been in their own spiritual development. My best friend in seminary, who now serves as a missionary in Bosnia, told me that Desiring God salvaged his ministry ten years ago.
2. I began to change how I preached about God. Cotton Mather, who ministered in New England 300 years ago, said, “The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher is to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men.” The goal and end of preaching, put simply, is the Glory of God. As I do sermon preparation each week, I have a burden to placard God before our church family! I have a burden to let our people see God for who He is. How desperately we need this! How urgently we need a sustaining vision of the dominion and rule of God. Everything around us seeks to elevate human beings and dethrone God. The church should be the one place where God’s supremacy is carefully and passionately displayed before His people on a weekly basis. In my experience, this changes everything for a congregation. It changes how they think about money, sex, marriage, missions, and parenting. If we want our people to have a heart for the nations, it must begin with God-exalting preaching—preaching that presents a passion and vision of a God who will spread His fame among all peoples of the world. The “god” of much Western preaching seems weak, watered down, and anemic. This is the deity that is splashed over much of Christian television and dwells in so much of our popular Christian literature. This is a false god, a diluted deity, and ultimately one that will undermine the missions endeavor on the home front. God must be preached in all of His splendor, ascendancy, supremacy, and majesty!
3. I began to change how I did pastoral prayer. I became much more intentional about praying for our workers overseas. I tried to include specifics about who they were (without compromising security issues) and what kinds of issues they were struggling with. We’ve progressed now to the point that we pray for different workers very Sunday. And when a worker and their family are at our church , we have them come up on stage while we pray for them.
4. I began to change how I preached about suffering. Prior to my awakening to missions, I had rarely touched on the subject of suffering. If I did, it was only to address a specific topic with a “how to” sermon (i.e., How to Overcome Depression, How to Cope with Anger, etc.). But as I began to travel a bit more and read missionary biographies, I began to see that suffering was not merely a price tag for spreading the gospel but was actually part of God’s ordained means to advance the gospel, especially among the least-reached peoples of the Earth. Stories of individuals like C.T. Studd, Henry Martyn, Amy Carmichael, Jonathan Goforth, Mary Slessor, Adoniram Judson, David Brainerd, and John Paton stoked my fires for preaching. Their sacrifices and willingness to endure hardships for Christ cannot but help inspire the feeblest among us. They remind me that my job is to paint an accurate picture of the Christian life for my people. I must remind our congregation that we are in a war, and that in a war, there are going to be casualties. There must be suffering and casualties! In fact, there can never be victory without fatalities. I have to remind them that the goal in a war is far different than the goal in peacetime. The objective in a war is not comfort and safety, but taking lost ground and crushing the enemy. As theologian Michael Novak explains, true faith says, “Let this be done, Lord, according to your will,” even if we don’t know what “this” might be.
5. I began to change how I used illustrations. If at all possible, I now regularly look for illustrations from someone or something on the mission field. This allows me to slowly “drip missions” into my congregation even when I’m preaching on topics that have nothing “officially” to do with missions. For example, I use stories from biographies I’ve read or from real-life situations I’ve encountered in my travels. When using the latter, I always try to be careful with confidential or security-sensitive material. If my people complain (as they sometimes do) that I am not focused enough in American culture, I gently remind them that we are only 5% of the world’s population—and the richest 5% at that. I try to point them to the Scriptures and especially to the words of Jesus in Luke 12:48, that to whom much is given, much will be required. I remind them of the financial and spiritual heritage that we have in America and the sacred obligation we have to the unmedicated, unfed, unevangelized millions who are suffering, dying, and going to Hell.
For any who have walked the streets of Calcutta, Bombay, Cagayan de Oro, Bangkok, or Santo Domingo, there doesn’t need to be much reminding that we live in a fairly unique Disneyland bubble here in the States. How vital that we remind our congregation of the rest of the world outside of our borders. We just aren’t wired to think about them naturally. It’s not that our own communities do not matter; quite to the contrary, at Midland Free we spend the vast majority of our financial resources within a 25-mile radius. That is why I like to call my preaching “glocalized preaching.” It starts with a focus in our own community but does not stop there. It continues outward to help our people see the desperate needs among the lost peoples of the world. And the needs are desperate indeed.
6. I began to change how I preached about theology. I began to stress that theology matters and that it matters a lot! In short, truth matters! It matters what we believe about God because it affects every aspect of our worldview. Our people must see how much their worldview matters and what is at stake. They must see that it matters what we believe about Christ, sin, depravity, and the human will, for these things determine our salvation and that of the unevangelized. It matters what we believe about the Bible’s authority because it will affect every aspect of our priorities. Theology (the study of God) is critical for any congregation that is serious about wanting to honor God and see His fame increase among the nations. This is why the Apostle Paul was so concerned about what was being taught in the Ephesian church. He issues a strong warning to Timothy about maintaining accurate theology. Sound doctrine must be sought after, guarded, and protected so that God can be savored and enjoyed among all peoples.
7. I began to change how I preached about money and possessions. I began to challenge my people to give to a bigger cause beyond our own ministry. In our church, we often say, “It’s not how large your gift is but how much sacrifice it involves that counts to God.” While I get criticized at times for being a bit too negative about money, I cannot help but feel compelled as I travel and walk the dark places of the world. Recently I was in Varanasi, India, one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism. As we walked down to the Ganges to watch people bathe and worship pagan deities, the darkness was oppressive. To see and experience such spiritual gloom cannot but change one’s approach to preaching. If it doesn’t, something is drastically wrong! Jesus spoke constantly about money, and His message was always to give more of it away. As C.S. Lewis puts is so well in Mere Christianity, the only safe rule when it comes to giving is to give more than you think you can afford to. And Lewis was a great example of this, giving away a vast majority of his own income to charity.
8. I began to change how I read. As I’ve said, I began to read more and more missionary biographies. Recently on a flight home from Japan, I read an entire biography on Lottie Moon, the gutsy missionary to China. I was challenged, encouraged, and motivated afresh—all at 35,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. Again and again, missionary biographies have stoked my spiritual fires when they are burning low. And it is not uncommon that the stories that I’ve encountered in these biographies have found their way into my sermons. Beyond biographies, I became more of a serious student of missiology. I found that reading the likes of Leslie Newbigin, Stephen Neill, E. Stanley Jones, Paul Hiebert, or Phil Parshall helped me to think more biblically and more strategically about world missions and evangelization. They helped me escape the cultural blinders that we are all prone to within our own context. They don’t always make me comfortable, and I certainly do not always agree with them, but they do help me to think more clearly and to be a better preacher.
9. I began to change how I challenged people. A few years ago, we came up with a vision to send twenty workers to the mission field by the year 2020. So far, we have fifteen people (including some singles) in the pipeline—heading to the field. Our missions department at our church has put together an incredible missionary candidate development program, and we are seeking to improve it all of the time. Without apology, I use the pulpit to cast vision for sending our best to the mission field. While we certainly hate to lose them, I believe that the kingdom is better off in the long run. I regularly tell our people (in our weekend services) that we are praying for some of them to “leave our church” and to head to the mission field. While it can be a cliché to say that we want to send our best, I think our track record demonstrates that we really believe it.
10. And yes, I even preach the occasional blatant, in-your-face missionary sermon! Once or twice a year, I succumb to temptation and roll out a classic missionary message. Sometimes it will be in conjunction with a missions weekend, and sometimes it just fills in between two series. Either way, for the Senior Pastor to preach a missions sermon is a vital ingredient in the life of a church that wants to be “glocalized” in it’s focus.
The Missions Bug
I want to close with one of my favorite “success stories” from our church. The first leadership team my wife I led to Malaysia, from our church, included one of my Elders and his wife. The Elder (I will call him “Bob”) had shown a particular resistance to going on the two-week trip. This was a challenge I could not ignore! For the next several months, I gently nudged and challenged my brother to consider going. (Bob is actually twenty years older than I am.) Unfortunately, every effort of mine was met with increasing resistance. Yet, his wife quietly encouraged us to keep working on him. Finally, one night at a fellowship dinner, this Elder walked up to me and said in a calm, weary voice, “Okay, you win. I’ll go.” I later learned that the Holy Spirit had done quite a job on him in the previous months leading up to his surrender.
The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey might say, is that Bob and his wife are now on their way to the mission field full-time to work among an unreached Muslim people group. He recently sent me a email thanking me for prodding him and for my passion for missions. He closed by saying, “Thanks for putting us in the position to get bit by the missions bug.” May God help more of us as preaching pastors to help our people get bit by the missions bug. Our church’s DNA will never be the same.
by Jay Childs, Senior Pastor