Christ’s Call to “Go”
Pastoring is challenging for a number of reasons, not the least of which is managing the variety of tasks essential to church leadership. Sometimes, it seems as if there is too much to get done and not enough time to do it. When pastors feel this way, they must inevitably prioritize different aspects of ministry and must delegate to others or allow these tasks to fall by the wayside. I often see pastors choosing to step away from international missions in favor of local ministry or domestic church planting. While I absolutely believe that local ministry and outreach, as well as domestic church planting, are all worthy of pastoral attention, I believe that local pastors benefit greatly from choosing to participate in international missions, particularly in contexts that are culturally quite different from their own.
After all, Jesus commanded the disciples to be witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. In each instance, He said “and,” not “or.” It seems Jesus wants us to care about our own cities and also about people on the other side of the world rather than simply choosing one group to care about.
I’ve been some sort of pastor for almost three decades at this point in my career, and I’ve come to believe that there are at least four reasons that pastors ought to care about international missions in addition to domestic church planting and ministry.
1. It reinforces the mission.
The Bible is explicit: Heaven will be diverse. When John gets a vision of the heavenly throne room in the book of Revelation, he sees people from every group: “After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands” (7:9). I’m always struck by John’s vision because the specificity of each tribe and ethnicity is not erased by eternity. We still see skin color. We still hear languages. Why would the Lord choose to preserve those things into eternity?
I can only assume God gives this sort of vision to John because He wants us to see just how much He loves the nations.
When I travel to another nation with a different culture and language, I am reminded of the heart of God. When I worship with churches in Kenya, I may not understand everything taking place. But there is something that happens in my heart when I see my Kenyan brothers and sisters dancing in a line and my Turkana brothers jumping in praise and when I hear congregants exclaim “Bwana Asifiwe!” Each time I see these men and women in worship, I am reminded how much larger the church is than my little piece of the kingdom where I pastor.
I have had similar experiences in South America, in Central America, in Europe, and in the Middle East. Each time I worship with my brothers and sisters in other places, I remember just how big my God is and how big His heart is for the nations.
If you want your heart to be rekindled for ministry and for the church, leave your city and go to another culture.
2. It clarifies theology.
Each time I leave my own cultural context, I am reminded how many of our discussions are rooted in local issues and discussions that are particular to our own perspectives. For example, in a local ministry context, I may find that many people are talking about whether or not God exists or the age of the Earth, and as a result, I may spend a great deal of time working on philosophical apologetics or scientific overlap with theology. However, when I leave the United States, I find that many of the questions that are central to teaching the gospel locally are quite different in another country or culture.
In the United States, I’ve not had many conversations about the Trinity with those who are not already believers. But in Muslim contexts, I’ve found that the Trinity is one of the primary questions preventing people from coming to faith. Imams use the doctrine of the Trinity to point out how Christianity must be false since God is one. They argue that Christians are essentially tri-theists. One of my mentors has often pointed out that the more we leave our own contexts, the clearer we get in our theology. We are able to see the things we include that are not necessary; we are also able to see things that are absolutely necessary which we might not consider.
When I step outside of my own city, I am forced to think about things that I may have avoided or simply not needed to consider. As a result, I become a better theologian and—by extension—a better pastor.
3. It strengthens preaching.
There are few experiences more humbling than preaching with a translator, particularly if you have not done so often or recently. I was unaware of how many idiosyncrasies, figures of speech, and vernacular I included in my preaching until I preached with a translator. They regularly had to pause and ask me to clarify what I was attempting to communicate so that they could then put it in clear wording for the congregation. As a result, I realized how much of what I do on Sunday mornings is culturally situated but could often be omitted in order to include more important items in the sermon.
When I preach to an international audience, I am forced to cut extraneous matter and get straight to the heart of the matter. And when I am forced to do that, I realize just how much “fluff” I can often include in a sermon without realizing it.
I will confess that I have varying degrees of success when editing my sermon to only include what is necessary, but when I am at my best, I am able to think about my brothers and sisters who speak another language and work to make each minute—even each sentence—matter more for those who are giving their time to listen.
The more I travel and speak outside of the United States, the more I am reminded of the timelessness and power of the gospel. Regarding preaching, Charles Spurgeon once said, “And my dear brother, your business is when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ.” When I travel and preach internationally, I am reminded that the best thing I can preach, always, is Christ. If I get away from Jesus, I have lost the plot.
Jesus transcends all culture, for His grace and gospel know no bounds.
4. It builds the church.
I have hosted and taught any number of evangelism trainings over the years. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember some or all of them: “Evangelism Explosion,” “FAITH,” “The Bridge to Life,” “Becoming a Contagious Christian,” and “Three Circles.” (I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting as well.) I love watching people understand the power of telling both the story of Jesus and of their own faith story.
But I have yet to find any evangelism training class as effective as international missions. I honestly can’t explain it, but when people travel to another culture to serve and in that serving share their faith, they are more passionate about returning and sharing their faith back home. Perhaps this goes back to the first reason: Their hearts are enlarged for the mission. Perhaps it is because they are able to share their faith in a place where they feel less pressure. Or perhaps it is simply because the Lord created us to be people who live on mission.
Whatever the case, when we serve and share the good news of Jesus in a place outside of our nation, we find the rewards all around.
Published January 22, 2024