The math of missions doesn’t add up.
True, statistics never tell the complete story. As a missions mobilizer for ABWE, I know there are multiple factors at play. But supposing the numbers really were that simple, why aren’t more churches sending? Where are all the missionaries? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit still say, “Set apart for me that guy (or gal) over there?” (see Acts 13:2)?
Are pastors to blame for failing to mobilize their congregations? After all, missions is the calling of the church and not of the parachurch only. One recent study revealed that 51 percent of churchgoers had never heard of the Great Commission, and another 25 percent knew it existed but couldn’t define it. Without a doubt, there is a theological famine in terms of many modern pulpits, as well as a crisis of low missional expectations from church members.
That said, no faithful pastor is against missions. Rallying more “missions people” to brow-beat tired shepherds, weighed down by the demands of domestic ministry, into shipping off more of their sheep as cross-cultural workers cannot solve the problem, and it isn’t the way of the One who calls us to cast off burdens (Matthew 11:28).
Another obstacle is a lack of resources. Not all churches can prepare a new missionary for culture shock, visa acquisition, or security challenges in closed countries. But that has never stopped the bride of Christ before. The church in Antioch had none of the expertise of a modern missions agency, yet in Acts 13 the Holy Spirit launched a movement through them that hasn’t stopped since. Now, with the conveniences of instant communication, air travel, and healthy missions organizations, it’s never been easier to send or go.
The heart of the problem is deeper than a lack of willingness or resources. It has to do with the very way we talk about missions itself.
“Go and Tell” Without Gospel
Be honest. Don’t you feel your blood pressure rise when you’re told to be “fully surrendered”? To leave everything and be “radical”? (Or, as a church I know used to say, to just “get out”!)
Who can meet that standard? Not me. I struggle enough already to simply love God and love my neighbor in normal, daily life. I am too much of a sinner to live a life that could ever be realistically described as “totally surrendered.” I am too ordinary.
I’m not denying that God calls us to be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) or to die to self (Luke 14:26-27). Following a crucified Christ is uncomfortable.
But when we talk about missions, we often put the guilt cart before the grace horse. Close your eyes and mentally browse all the missions sermons, books, and conference talks you’ve seen over the years. What words echo throughout all those messages? “Go.” “Share.” “Serve.” “Give.”
Yes, the Bible gives us marching orders. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19a, ESV). “How can they hear without someone to preach?” (Romans 10:14b, ESV). But these marching orders aren’t in a vacuum. The phrase “preach the gospel to every creature” didn’t descend from heaven all by itself, in 120-point font, emblazoned on a graphic tee with little flame accents representing hell-fire.
When the biblical writers issue the missionary call, it’s after they’ve basked in the freeness of forgiveness and the sovereignty of God in salvation. In Matthew, the Great Commission comes on the heels of a sweeping narrative of the redemptive life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In Romans 10, the appeal to go and preach is sandwiched inside a comprehensive treatment of God’s sovereignty (Romans 9-11), the capstone of Paul’s sweeping treatise on the gospel. The focus is on what God has done for His glory and our salvation decisively in Christ.
When we separate “go and tell” from the good news, we’ve taken the gospel and buried it under law.
What should we do instead?
Glory Before Guilt
It’s easy to tug at your church’s heartstrings with a statistic like 4.4 billion unreached. After all, godly guilt has its place. When we are apathetic, we need rebuke.
But if we are talking about the gospel in such a way that doesn’t ever make people want to go, we’re doing it wrong.
Guilt-oriented sloganeering strips the context of grace from the command to “go.” We treat people as though they were little messiahs expected to personally rescue a dying world. We lay burdens on people (Matthew 23:4) and wonder why they don’t leave our services stuffed with good news of great joy, ready to overflow.
We can’t just say “go” and forget to glory in the gospel that frees us to go. When we exult in salvation, we should prayerfully expect the Spirit in our midst to sweep us up in gratitude and wash us out past American shores.
Next time you preach on a missions passage, before firing Google up for the latest tear-jerking statistics, start with the gospel. Revel in it until it releases you from fear and invigorates your evangelistic impulse, until you can say with the Prophet Jeremiah, “There is in my heart… a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in” (Jeremiah 20:9, ESV).
Missions doesn’t always add up, but neither does the gospel. It doesn’t make sense that God would pour out wrath on His Son, redeem and adopt rebels, and make His riches ours by faith alone.
But then again, it’s not all about the math.