Throwback Thursday: Is the Age of the Great Commission Over
I wrote this almost ten years ago for publication in a magazine. It never got published, but it seems worth bringing back again.
What’s my favourite Bible passage? Thirty years ago as a new Christian full of enthusiasm for what God had done in my life, it was Psalm 40. A few years later when, together with my wife and young children, I was living in an isolated African village, Joshua 1:9 “do not be terrified… for the LORD your God will be with you” became incredibly precious. These days as a trainer and equipper, I find Paul’s charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2 is what gets me out of bed in the mornings. Over the years, God has spoken to me in different ways as my situation changed. But it’s not just for me; He’s done the same for the Church as a whole.
In the early church, the drive for mission and expansion came from Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”. If God had broken down religious, ethnic and cultural barriers then his people had to do the same thing and reach out into the world. In the age of discovery as European nations opened up trade routes to other parts of the world, the watchword was Luke 14:23 “compel them to come in”. History tells us that sometimes the compelling was far too compulsory!
For the last two hundred years or so, the Great Commission of Matthew 28 has been the driving force for the missionary movement (especially in the Protestant world). “GO! and make disciples…” echoes from pulpits and missionary books around the world and the term ‘Great Commission’ has come to be used as a sign of authentic Christian life. “I’m a Great Commission Christian”. But, has our situation moved on and is God saying something else to us at this point in our history?
When the modern missionary movement started, Matthew 28 was a radical, counter-cultural call to arms. For the most part, the church was self-absorbed and indifferent to the fate of people worldwide (“when God chooses to save the heathen, He will do so without your help or mine”). The call to Go and make disciples wasn’t popular; it meant changing the way things were done. And, of course, people had to go. There were very few Christians outside of Europe and the colonies and to travel long distances to reach people.
The missionary movement was amazingly successful. There are now believers all over the world and many of the former mission fields now have far more Christians than the old sending countries. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty of mission work to do (including in many former ‘Christian’ countries), but things today are not what they were two hundred years ago.
Just the simple idea of ‘going’ has now become very complex. At one time, a cross-cultural missionary got on a boat and disappeared to the other side of the world for years at a time. These days, we can reach the rest of the world without anyone even going as far as Heathrow. Sponsorship and partnership schemes allow Western churches to make a huge impact for the Kingdom around the world. We can reach hidden groups, where traditional missionaries could never work simply by opening Overseas Students’ cafés in British cities. What does going mean today?
The Great Commission is composed of active verbs; ‘go, baptize, teach’. This is very appealing to Westerners at the start of the 21 Century. We like doing things and we are very good at planning and organizing activities. Would you believe that there are about fifty new plans for world evangelism produced every year? The Great Commission is far from complete, but it has become comfortable; it is no longer counter-cultural. We can plan and organize mission strategies, we cando stuff – that’s what we are good at. Yet, at the same time, world Christians such as Brother Yun comment that Western Christians seem dry and struggle with the intense times of prayer and teaching that are part of the life of the World church. I recall with some embarrassment the end of a three day retreat in Africa where one local leader stood up and said that at last he was sure that missionaries were Christians! He’d always understood that missionaries knew a lot about the Bible and could help organize and run churches, but he hadn’t been at all convinced by the depth of their personal spiritual walk.
At this point in history we don’t need a call to mission that tells us to do things. We still need a call to mission, but we need one which upsets our presuppositions and gives a call to radical discipleship – the way the Great Commission did 200 years ago, or the call to unity in Galatians did for the early church.
As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. John 20:21
A number of mission scholars have suggested that these words (especially when combined with the following verse, where Jesus breaths on his disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit) are the counter-cultural call to mission which we need today.
This passage puts God right back at the centre of mission. The Father sends Jesus and Jesus sends the Church (empowered by the Spirit). As a missionary, I’ve been sent out by a church to work for a mission organization. However, this verse reminds us that all Christians are sent out by Jesus – just as he was sent by the Father. This doesn’t mean that the Church and mission aren’t important, but it does put them in their proper place, and puts God right in the centre of things. This passage also helps to get rid of the concept of the professional missionary. Though it is common enough to say that we are all missionaries, there is still the lingering feeling that those who have gone are in a special class. John 20 takes the focus off ‘people going’ and places it on ‘Jesus sending’ – and he sends every one of us.
Jesus was sent out in the power of the Spirit – and he sends us out in the same way. Mission which is not Spirit breathed will struggle for effectiveness. The best training and organization count for little if God’s people don’t show evidence of the work of the Spirit in their lives and ministries.
God sent Jesus in humility, to serve and finally to sacrifice himself. Likewise, we should expect humility, service and sacrifice to be part of our lives as He sends us out. This sits very uneasily with some of the quasi-military rhetoric about marching and capturing and so on which is part of the current church scene. Our call is to be humble servants, not conquering heroes (and churches need to be prepared to support humble servants and not expect every prayer letter to be full of success stories).
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Spirit-filled, self-sacrificing, Great Commission missionaries. It is the stories of people like Jim Elliot that first kindled my interest. But our generation does not need a call to do things – we need a call to be like Jesus.