(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)
Five Clear Challenges:
As we fulfill our mission to the nations, we face many decisions, including the five following challenges. With a limited number of missionaries, to which parts of the globe do we send missionaries? It is our conviction that the majority of international missionaries should be sent to unreached and unengaged people groups, those who have little or no access to the gospel. As we mentioned above, there are vast stretches of the globe (Asia and Africa in particular) where there is no church capable of reaching its own people. Our churches must take the gospel to these people groups. As Jerry Rankin has argued, this does not mean that we discontinue our partnerships in the parts of Latin America or Sub-Saharan Africa where there are indigenous churches capable of reaching their own people, but it does mean that the majority of our resources should probably be directed toward the unreached and unengaged.
When we send our workers to the unreached and unengaged, what are we sending them to do? Should they primarily preach the gospel? Feed the hungry? Heal the sick? It is our belief that, ultimately, we are sending missionaries to make disciples by means of planting churches (and training indigenous church planters) that will preach the gospel, feed the hungry, and minister to the sick. It is these churches, and not primarily the missionaries, who will work out the implications of the gospel in all aspects of their society and culture: in their families, workplaces, and communities. God works primarily through his church; therefore, he would have us to extend his kingdom by means of his church.” We seek to plant churches whose immediate goal it is to plant other churches until there is a cascading chain of churches planting churches. Indeed, we hope to see churches planted within walking distance of every house in the world.
When we plant these churches, how will we ensure that we do so in a way that is biblical and appropriate to their respective contexts? How can we guarantee that we are not planting American churches on Iraqi, Nigerian, or Vietnamese soil? In brief, the answer lies at the intersection of three imperatives. First, we must preach the gospel and plant churches faithfully, in a way that conforms to the Scriptures. In a phrase, we seek to plant healthy, biblically-defined churches. Second, we must preach the gospel meaningfully, using words and categories and teaching styles that enable the hearer to understand the gospel in the same way that the preacher intends it. Third, we must preach the gospel and plant the church dialogically, in conversation with the host culture as national believers prayerfully seek to allow the gospel to critique the very language and categories of their own culture. If we will hold these three imperatives in tension, we have good reason to hope that the churches arising from native soil will be appropriate to their contexts.
In what ways may our American churches fulfill their calling to the nations? First and foremost, we must find ways to build the Great Commission into the DNA of our churches. Mission is not a “ministry” of the church; it is at the heart of who she is. This means that in our preaching and teaching ministries we need to trace the message of mission throughout the Scriptures and publicly invite our members to commit a summer or two years or even a lifetime working among the nations. In our community ministries, we need to reach out to the immigrants, foreign exchange students, and others, who live in our cities. In our mission ministries, we might work with the IMB to adopt an unreached people group as the church’s own, and then seek the guidance of the IMB’s seasoned workers on how to proceed in ministering to that people group.
In what way might our seminaries and colleges assist our churches in fulfilling our calling to the nations? They may do so by not divorcing theology from missiology and by not quarantining missiology to a lonely corner of the campus. Theology may be the “queen of the disciplines,” but it will be a distorted theology indeed if it is not forged in the fire of mission. We must be careful to teach the books of the Bible and the classical theological loci with reference to the biblical narrative and God’s missional character. In so doing, we will find ourselves teaching about God with reference to his missional heart. We will teach about the church in relation to her missional calling. We will teach about the end times in light of the ingathering of the nations. Some institutions will need to be careful not to allow their missions department and missions professors to be viewed as second class citizens. Others, however, must take care to ensure that their evangelistic zeal is buttressed by sturdy theology. In riveting theology to mission, we will produce students who can build and sustain Great Commission churches.
In Matthew 28:18-20, we are commanded to make disciples of all nations. If we are to “make disciples” of the nations, we must do so through the planting of churches, because discipleship can only be fully accomplished through the local church. For further biblical-theological treatment of the mandate and implementation of church planting, see John L. Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (Hancock, NH: Monadnock, 2003); Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962); and David Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).
This provides a natural opportunity for partnership between a local church, IMB missionaries, and national partners (unless there are not yet any national believers and churches). When an American church embarks upon mission trips without such a partnership, there are three potential pitfalls. First, the church will have limited insight on how to make their work fit within a broader long-term strategy. Second, the church often will find itself crafting the trips primarily according to what is best for the local church team rather than what is best for the people group to whom they are ministering. Third, the church will be tempted to focus too much on certain perceived needs of the nationals and, in so doing, create an unhealthy dependency upon the American church. For a church’s short term mission trips to be truly strategic, they must be part of a long-term field-based strategy in collaboration with missionaries and (if a national church exists) with seasoned national partners. George Robinson has addressed all three of these issues in Striking the Match: How God is Using Ordinary People to Change the World through Short-Term Missions (Franklin, TN: E3 Resources, 2008). Also, see Robert J. Priest, ed., Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing it Right! (Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2008).