Forrest McPhail, BJU Alumnus
Let’s talk about some more misunderstandings that affect our view of poverty.
Who is our paradigm for cross-cultural missions—Jesus or Paul?
Some see Jesus as the ultimate example of how to fulfill the Great Commission. Others argue that Paul is the primary example. Does it matter?
While the Son of God made flesh is our perfect example of righteousness, His ministry lifestyle is not the paradigm for cross-cultural missionaries in the Church Age. Jesus never left Israel and focused on the Jews. His teaching ministry was attended continually with signs and miracles. Before His death and resurrection, He chose and trained men whom He would later commission with the task of making disciples among all nations.
The Holy Spirit was poured out in Acts 2. After this, and on through the rest of the NT, we see the first sixty years of the Great Commission. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is our God-given example of a cross-cultural servant of the Gospel. The nature of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the unfolding of biblical revelation naturally lead us to consider Paul and his co-laborers for a model of how to “do missions.”
There is no conflict between the ministries of Jesus and Paul. Jesus and Paul ministered under different circumstances for different purposes.
A Closer Look at Poverty: What is it? What is the church to do about it?
A casual look at most missions literature today would reveal that many professed Christians believe that relieving world poverty and helping people achieve a higher standard of living is central to the task of the Church. The vast number of aid organizations, many with Christian roots, exist to promote upward mobility, economic development, and justice in foreign governments. The lion’s share of resources used towards “mission” are used for these purposes.
A simple question that is often left unasked is, what is poverty? When the Bible speaks of poverty, it is not describing people on government support, people with less, those in less developed contexts, or those unable to achieve middle class economic status. Those who are poor in Scripture are those that who do not have clothing, food, or shelter. They are people that cannot survive without emergency aid given to them by others. Search the Scriptures, and you will see that this is so.
What places and circumstances require such aid in today’s world? Those in refugee camps, in war zones, and suffering from recent devastating natural disasters are the kinds of people that need our attention. There are also individuals in our lives that we may meet in real need and genuine poverty.
The love of God commands us to reach out and help those around us. Righteousness means mercy and compassion. Yes, as individuals, we must be generous.
Missionaries today are not bound by Scripture to double as social justice agents or charity organization professionals. These means may be necessary at times, and may even meet a timely need, but these are the exception, not the rule.
Factor #7 A consistent spiritual focus of ministry can be difficult to maintain.
Keeping the Gospel clear among the poor
We can obscure the focus of ministry when we sweeten the call for repentance and faith with any material benefit for those that answer. Many among the world’s relatively poor profess Christianity in order to get a better deal in this life. Some of that is just human nature—being sinners, none of us desire the truth of the Gospel apart from saving grace. However, when aid work and charity programs are combined with evangelism, often the result around the world is large numbers of public professions with little enduring fruit.
If we are to use compassion ministries in conjunction with cross-cultural ministry, it must be done in a way that guards the Gospel and discourages false faith. Too often our love for visible success and desire for eternal fruit through our short-term efforts clouds our minds from reality. Those cross-cultural laborers who know the language and culture are best equipped to understand how best to use aid in ways that encourage true faith. Methods that confuse the hearers or encourage them to false faith are unworthy means for giving the Gospel message.
The Local Church: guarding spiritual relationships amid relative poverty
We can blur the focus of our ministry when we are confused about our role. Church planters/disciple-makers in the New Testament were not aid organization managers who wielded power and influence through their funding from overseas. Nor were they employers of those that they led to Christ. They were servants of the Gospel whose primary identity was that of being teachers of the Word of God. They were either financially independent of those with whom they served, as Paul, or dependent upon those they served, as Peter. There are no examples in the NT of church planters or spiritual leaders acting as financial patrons of the people that they served.
The norm for pastors in Scripture is that local congregations help provide for their pastors materially as he provides for them spiritually. This is true for cross-cultural laborers and traveling evangelists in the NT as well. But what has happened in modern times among cross-cultural missionaries is that they are not merely independently supported as Paul was (by his own hands and by love offerings), but they also become financial patrons to those whom they serve.
What happens when spiritual leaders become financial patrons, and believers they lead become their clients? People follow their leader because of the authority, status and power that he/she wields because of financial influence. The people do not give generously and fulfill their ministries apart from their patron’s immediate support. The people do not learn to support their own pastors as commanded by God. Servant leadership is almost impossible.
The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
This one thing can sharpen the focus of our ministry: the only thing required of God’s people in any given place to fulfill the Great Commission is to proclaim the Gospel through the enabling power of the Spirit. If we teach or exemplify through our ministry methodology that anything else is necessary to accomplish the task of making disciples, we render most Christians in this world incapable of obeying Christ!
Many cross-cultural missionaries lack faith in the power of God’s Spirit. They trust instead in a plethora of programs, buildings, and social aid. The national believers assume that if they too want to serve Christ and plant churches, they will need massive capital in order to do the same! The more complicated and expensive our methods on the field, the more we handicap the faith of the people we are striving to teach to obey Christ. The more simple our methods, the more reproducible they are, which encourages the faith of the people. Methods matter profoundly because of what they communicate about our faith in the power of God’s Spirit.
Factor #8 Changing times can obscure unchanging needs.
Avoid getting sidetracked from a primary need
Compassion ministries have their place and are current expressions of God’s love and mercy. People in this generation are far more interested in these types of ministries than past generations were, and that is just fine. But who fulfills these ministries, how they do so, when, and how these affect local bodies of believers on the field need to be grappled with. Compassion ministries must not be allowed to distract God’s people from the primary need of making disciples.
The 1 Corinthians 9 principle
Cross-cultural missionaries who are willing to labor for the Lord Jesus on pioneer fields must embrace the 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 principle: “I must be all things to all men with all discipline of body and spirit that I might win some.” This spirit is contrary to the spirit of our day.
Men and women are needed who are committed to labor for the Gospel who possess the spirit of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9. These will lay down their personal rights and embrace a life of discipline for Jesus’ sake. They will not insist on privileges or comforts. They will sacrifice and do hard things like conquer languages and understand and adapt to other cultures in order to preach Christ.
Missionaries may have to be creative and tolerate extra pressures in order to live where Christ is not named. They might have to be bi-vocational. They might have to endure the continual strain of imminent expulsion or imprisonment. But they will do this out of love for Jesus Christ. They will discipline their bodies and spirits by God’s grace and pursue His glory among the nations.
A return to biblical priorities and simplicity in cross-cultural missions would clarify the Gospel, empower believers for ministry, free up resources, promote reproducible methods of evangelism and training, and, above all, bring more glory to Jesus Christ whose name we proclaim.
Meet the challenges and share in the blessings!
Forrest McPhail, BJU Alumnus
Making disciples cross-culturally is a tremendous privilege, one that requires serious commitment and focus. What we are considering in these posts is no mere academic exercise.
Last time we covered 2 of 8 factors that contribute to the challenges faced by most cross-cultural missionaries, especially those laboring in more pioneer contexts. Here are a few more:
Factor #3 Intense discipleship requires dealing with sin
First generation Believers
Most converts in a pioneer setting will be first generation believers. Understanding and believing the Gospel message is the first major step. Following that, all believers in Jesus Christ are on the path of “renewing our minds” so that our lives can increasingly reflect our Creator (Eph. 4:20-24). Most of the young believers we are teaching have just begun to walk on the road of the knowledge of God. There is a huge difference between them and those who come to faith with a Christian background. Everything about the Christian life and the local church is new and foreign. It is radical to them. The Christian conscience must be built with the help of the Word and the Holy Spirit. The missionary needs much love and patience as he shepherds.
Obviously, one important aspect of discipleship is helping believers understand God’s commands in order to make decisions that please Jesus Christ. We must believe that the Holy Spirit will help them apply the Gospel to their culture. Only in this way can missionaries equip the believers to serve God effectively. It takes time. There are no shortcuts.
This means we must rely upon the believers to apply Scripture to the many events of life. Weddings, funerals, house-warming parties, baby dedications—all provide excellent opportunities for exercising discernment. We must enable them to apply Scripture to how they interact with the many religious and community events that are going on around them. This is discipleship.
Loving Church Discipline
In church planting, it is crucial that loving church discipline be understood and implemented when necessary, from the beginning of the ministry. The NT everywhere demands that God’s people “perform deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:16-21). Church discipline is an essential doctrine of church life that helps to clarify the Gospel.
Should we put off the exercise of church discipline until the church is mature? Absolutely not, for God commands church discipline to be lovingly administered. It has everything to do with laying a solid foundation of the Gospel. Where loving church discipline is not understood and applied, the foundation of the Gospel quickly erodes.
One of the purposes of church discipline is to emphasize community, unity, and the family identity of members of the local church. This is something that missionaries must think through carefully before heading to the field.
Factor #4: Believers face profound isolation and persecution
In the countries where the most unreached peoples live today, religion is integrated into society at an intense level. This would be true for many Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and even some Catholic cultures. When a believer in Jesus Christ repents and turns to God from idols to serve the Living and True God, he/she is often choosing to become largely isolated from the community.
Because religion is so pervasive and integrated into community events, there are many things that the new believer now cannot participate in while being faithful to Jesus Christ. In these contexts, it is important to teach God’s people how to involve themselves in the community and show the love of Christ in every way that they can, both for their own sake as well as for their testimony.
Persecution is usually in addition to social isolation. Cross-cultural missionaries serving in places where persecution is more common and severe need to have a thoroughly biblical theology of suffering and persecution (1 Peter). In order to reach people in these contexts, we need to be willing and ready to suffer as well.
Factor #5: Maintaining New Testament simplicity is crucial for church life.
Once baptized, how are believers to function as a local church? What is the cross-cultural missionary to “plant”? The early church provides us with the “ecclesiastical minimum” (J.D. Payne), activities that provide the basic foundation for local church life and ministry.
What are those basic local church community activities that are essential and non-negotiable for new believers? Acts 2:42 gives to us four main activities that occupied the spiritual life of the newly founded church in Jerusalem. I like to refer to these as the Four Pillars of the Local Church. These activities are exemplified throughout Acts and the Epistles. These can be duplicated anywhere that the church can be found in the world, regardless of circumstances:
If these four activities are taught and followed, that local body of believers is giving glory to its Savior. Such local churches will pursue the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Such bodies of believers will mature and take on new aspects of body life and ministry that are appropriate to their context later. Our role as church planters, as disciple-makers, is to teach new believers to understand these four activities as foundational body life in Christ.
When missionaries go beyond this NT simplicity and demand that young churches act like mature churches back home, often their efforts are premature and result in serious dependence upon the foreign missionary.
Factor #6: Misapplications of Bible Truth regarding poverty abound.
How we understand the matter of social justice and how it relates to the Church of Jesus Christ will affect how we perceive ourselves as His cross-cultural servants. It will affect what we think our role is on the field when our host culture is relatively poor. It will guide how we teach the local church to be a light in the world. It is important that we understand poverty biblically, as well as what the Gospel messenger’s responsibilities are regarding poverty.
The Priority of Apostolic Example: How Binding is it? Does it matter?
Apostolic example is what we find the apostles and early church doing as we read Acts and onward through Revelation. Apostolic example includes both what the Gospel laborers did, as well as what they did not do. God’s Spirit recorded for us much from the first sixty years of the Church. What is recorded is significant. It provides for us a methodology for how to obey Jesus Christ by fulfilling the Great Commission.
The apostles were clearly righteous men who were personally full of good works and advocated that God’s people do the same. However, their good works were entirely limited to their personal generosity except for the case of raising funds for the church in Jerusalem. In that case, severe persecution, famine, and a serious need to display unity between Gentiles and Jews were the reasons for the collection. They did not set out to develop foreign countries, relieve world poverty, or live by a holistic paradigm of mission. This much is clear.
Kingdom confusion: What is the Gospel of the Kingdom?
Does the church find its role in the world by applying passages written for the nation of Israel and then applying it to the universal and local churches? Is the role of the Church to do everything we can to solve the world’s problems, particularly social justice issues? What does “preaching the kingdom” entail? Is the goal to extend kingdom influence and urge the unbelieving world to abide by God’s standards? Is making disciples to be inseparably married to social work and aid ministry? There is great confusion about this among God’s people.
The Great Commission is far simpler than many people today want to assume. The Great Commission is this: proclaim the message of the Gospel to all people for the purpose of making disciples for Jesus Christ. This simple understanding of the Great Commission is the biblical one, the one that God’s people in every circumstance and culture can obey regardless of their social privileges and material prosperity. Cross-cultural Gospel proclaimers must prepare to meet these challenges.
To be continued….
Forrest McPhail, BJU Alumnus
Landmines have been heavily used in this past century of warfare. Some countries today are still riddled with mines in remote areas, and news feeds regularly feature stories of the gruesome effects of these diabolical instruments of pain and suffering.
Landmines are not meant to kill. They are meant to maim, to handicap in such a way as to require immediate medical attention. The reasoning goes like this: if we can seriously maim an enemy soldier by taking off his arms or legs, the loss of blood will require one or two of his comrades to help him get to a medic or hospital to save his life. One landmine can then take 2-3 men off the field of battle.
What do landmines have to do with pioneer missions? In cross-cultural ministry, and especially in pioneer missions, we must be armed with knowledge before we begin our task. If we hastily begin ministry in ignorance of certain Bible truths and concepts, we can become guilty of unintentionally burying “missiological landmines” that hinder our efforts and handicap the spiritual growth of the churches we seek to serve.
Our family has served in Cambodia, Southeast Asia, since 2000. When we first arrived, Cambodia was still in post-war survival mode. Now, though still a relatively poor country especially in the rural areas, the country’s economy is booming. Cambodia shares a Folk Buddhist culture very similar to that of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Sri Lanka.
In 2014 I wrote a book called “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings” to help introduce God’s people to some truths that need serious discussion and prayerful study before they launch out into cross-cultural disciple-making in Jesus’ name. In June of 2018, the Lord gave me the privilege of becoming regional director for Asia/Australia/the Pacific for Gospel Fellowship Association Missions. Since then, we have been exposed to cross-cultural ministries in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. After what we have seen and heard on field after field, I am more convinced than ever of these truths.
In this blog series I would like to introduce eight factors that I believe contribute to the challenges facing most cross-cultural missionaries, especially those laboring in more pioneer contexts.
Factor #1: Preparatory work is foundational for evangelism.
Understand what people really believe
If we are to preach Christ and build a bridge from pagan unbelief to an understanding of the Gospel, we MUST understand what people believe. This is the starting point. I must understand what people believe generally in the culture in which I labor, as well as what individuals believe when I witness to them of Jesus. One of the hardest things for Christians to do, it seems, is to take the time to understand what a person believes before launching into the gospel.
In our context of Buddhist/animist Southeast Asia, we need to understand the major teachings of Buddhism and how they impact people’s daily lives and decisions. We need to know what they inherently understand when they hear words like “God”, “sin”, “heaven”, “eternal life”, “hell”, “grace”, etc. What does ancestor worship mean? What motivates them to perform these various rituals? What Gospel truths are more easily embraced, and which are strongly resisted because of their cultural bias? If we don’t take the time to make gaining such knowledge our priority, our evangelism and discipleship of them will be greatly hindered, largely ineffective.
Such knowledge does not come primarily from reading books about religion, but by talking to the people you are trying to reach. Being a learner of culture and humbling seeking understanding is one major way to become friends with those you are trying to reach. It takes time and dedication.
Understand how to present the Gospel in context
Missionaries must take the time to understand what people really believe and then learn how to preach the Gospel to them accordingly. In cross-cultural ministry, this will usually require the discipline of learning the language of the people whom we seek to reach. Language learning is essential for those committed to pioneer missions. Those who know the language of the people will preach Christ much differently than those who do not. Why? Culture and language are inseparable. To really know people, you must speak their language.
Many who serve cross-culturally do not bother to learn the language, choosing instead to work through translators. Others try to work through English, arguing that some know it well. Some ministries, rather than have teachers learn major languages, force their students to learn English so that they might be taught God’s Word. The result? Many students “trained” in English do not really understand God’s Word as they are so limited by English.
What would happen if Christians--if our churches--heavily emphasized how wonderful the gift of language is to the Great Commission? What if thousands of Christian young men and women gave themselves to Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or Bahasa?
Understand the necessity of Creation in evangelism
What do the people that we are trying to reach believe about God? What assumptions do they have about Christianity’s God? Since most people in the world have no background in biblical Christianity, there is no better place to begin in our evangelism than Genesis 1:1. This is the foundational truth of the whole Bible message. Without it, the Gospel has no meaning. Even formerly “Christian” nations, which are now already secularized or rapidly becoming so, need the same emphasis.
In many pioneer areas, and with many unchurched people elsewhere, a strong emphasis must be given to Creation. Why? Creation teaches us who God is and who mankind is in relationship to God. The fall of mankind into sin teaches us the nature of sin and its consequences, of our need for salvation. Without the firm foundation of Creation and the Fall, there will be much confusion about the character of God, the nature of sin, and the meaning of life. Without this foundation, the Person of Jesus, His cross and resurrection, make no sense. Introducing people to God requires that we lay a Biblical foundation for who God is.
Factor #2: Guarding the Gospel is crucial.
The danger of syncretism
There are two default unbelieving responses to the Gospel: rejection and syncretism. Syncretism is the mixing of one faith/belief system with another. It is not an outright rejection of one belief system, but an acceptance of parts of each religion, thus creating a new one. Satan is masterful in encouraging sinful men to pick and choose parts of God’s revelation to believe or reject. Truth mixed with error in the name of Christianity is ever the way of the Devil. The danger of syncretism poses a serious threat everywhere the Gospel message goes, but it is especially damaging in pioneer contexts.
Rarely was Israel tempted to forsake Jehovah completely. Instead, they frequently sought to mix the worship of the LORD with the worship of false gods. This tendency is what God and His prophets continually spoke out against in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy is a book filled with such warnings.
In the New Testament, Jesus condemned both the Pharisees and the Sadducees for syncretism. One of the main themes in the Epistles is the danger of syncretism, especially that of the Judaizers who sought to mix OT law with NT Christianity. In the Pastoral Epistles, church leaders are called upon to guard the Gospel and rebuke those that contradict sound doctrine, even exercising church discipline on those that refuse to believe Gospel truths.
Unintentional encouragement of syncretism
Cross-cultural missionaries can unintentionally encourage syncretism among those that hear their teaching ministry. Impatience, driven by personal ambitions for the praise of men or success, leads some to pick unripe fruit, calling people to make decisions when they do not yet understand the Gospel message. The result is professed believers with a mixed bag of beliefs.
Another way missionaries can unintentionally encourage syncretism is by downplaying repentance. Instead of watching for true understanding and fruit of repentance among their hearers, missionaries sometimes assume that a knowledge of Gospel facts and verbal assent to them is enough to assume Biblical salvation. Warning: syncretists don’t repent. Instead, they agree to certain facts, and then add to and subtract from God’s truth. Syncretists often openly assent to Gospel facts while not believing on Jesus Christ according to the Gospel.
To be continued…
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.