I am watching over my word to perform it.
John Piper and Tom Steller, 1996
Bethlehem’s Commitment to Missions
We were recently struck with how comparatively few people are here today who were here when the driving convictions of our church in missions were being formulated. Probably fewer than 10% of Bethlehem’s present congregation were here in 1983 when the Battle Cry of Christian Hedonism was sounded, and a few more in 1984 when the first Missions in the Manse was held, a few more when “90 by 90” was conceived and achieved, and a few more when the Maninka were adopted and the prayer goal of “2000 by 2000” was resolved in 1990. But most of you are newer than that, and even members of long standing can use refresher courses from time to time.
Bethlehem had a vision for missions long before we came in 1980. Ola Hanson went out and planted the church among the Kachin in Burma over 100 years ago. In the mid-40s when the Baptist General Conference was forging its own missions agency, the members of Bethlehem and Pastor Sjolund were in the thick of it.
But the period of missions we know best is the last 16 years. It would be good to review it so that God’s mercy and the force of our convictions will be seen. They say words are cheap; show us your check book and we will know your values. So consider the checkbook of Bethlehem for a moment.
In 1981, the missions budget was $62,270 and was 22% of the over-all budget. In 1996, the missions budget is seven times as large—$439,661—and is 32% of the budget. To give this a sharper point, keep in mind that during the same period the percentage of the budget devoted to staff compensation has dropped from 52% to 46%. In other words, comparatively, we are doing more in missions for less outlay at home, and that is good.
But there is another statistic that probably shows even more clearly the transformation of values among us. In 1981, the average missions gift per week of each Sunday morning attendee was $2.50. Today it is $8.90. In other words, the annual missions budget divided by the average weekly Sunday attendance divided by 52 has increased 356% in the last 15 years.
But even more astounding than the checkbook is the fact that the church has sent over 600 of its people into short-term and long-term foreign missions or other Christian ministries. To give up one’s sons and daughters (and parents and grandparents!) involves a values transformation of huge proportions. In other words, the reality here is not so much about growth in dollars or people; the reality is about altered values. New priorities.
Many of us believe that the end of our debt for the new sanctuary is ushering us into another period of remarkable growth in missions at Bethlehem. This was a crucial aim behind the building project of the early nineties which we called “S.P.A.N. the Nineties” (Spreading Praise to All the Nations); and it was a crucial aim behind the debt elimination campaign we called Freeing the Future. The purpose for building and strengthening the home front has been to help us be a launching pad into the neighborhoods and into the nations with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.
What Drives This Vision?
So the question should be asked. What is the vision fueling this amazing commitment to missions among the people at Bethlehem? What convictions drive the missions engine of this church?
There are at least 14 convictions that have driven our commitment in recent years. The leadership knows them and loves them. They shape all we do. If you are a part of Bethlehem, you need to know them too. May the Lord cause them to capture your heart and fill you with fresh zeal for the greatest cause in the world. There are only three kinds of Christians when it comes to world missions: zealous goers, zealous senders, and disobedient. May God deliver us from disobedience!
CONVICTION #1—GOD’S GOAL IN CREATION AND REDEMPTION IS A MISSIONARY GOAL BECAUSE OUR GOD IS A MISSIONARY GOD.
God created man and woman to fill the earth as his image-bearers (Genesis 1:26–28). He created us for his glory (Isaiah 43:7)—not to gain more glory for himself but to invite people from every tribe and tongue and nation into the enjoyment of his glory. God is perfectly glorious and self-sufficient in the fellowship of the Trinity. So he had no need for people to praise him, but he had a profound desire to share his glory and joy with a redeemed people. God’s desire to bless all the nations to the praise of his glory is the golden thread weaving its way through the Scriptures and the history of redemption. Jesus Christ himself in his self emptying and in his identification with sinful humanity to the point of his substitutionary death on the cross is the perfect manifestation of the missionary heart of God.
CONVICTION #2—GOD IS PASSIONATELY COMMITTED TO HIS FAME. GOD’S ULTIMATE GOAL IS THAT HIS NAME BE KNOWN AND PRAISED BY ALL THE PEOPLES OF THE EARTH.
In Romans 9:17, Paul says that God’s goal in redeeming Israel is “that [his] name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” In Isaiah 66:19, God promised that he would send messengers “to the coastlands afar off that have not heard my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations.” We believe that the central command of world missions is Isaiah 12:4, “Make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted.”
The apostle Paul said that his ministry as a missionary was “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of [Christ’s] name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5). The apostle John said that missionaries are those who “have set out for the sake of the name” (3 John 7). James, the Lord’s brother, described missions as God’s “visiting the nations to take out of them a people for his name” (Acts 15:14). Jesus described missionaries as those who “leave houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake” (Matthew 19:29).
CONVICTION #3—WORSHIP IS THE FUEL AND THE GOAL OF MISSIONS.
Back in the mid-80s God drove home to many of us that a God-centered theology must be a missionary theology. If you say that you love the glory of God, the test of your authenticity is whether you love the spread of that glory among all the peoples of the world. Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. God’s passion is to be known and honored and worshipped among all the peoples. To worship him is to share that passion for his supremacy among the nations. In heaven there will be no missions; only worship. Gathered around the throne will be worshipers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 7:7). Thus the goal of missions will have been accomplished. But until that is the case, true worshipers who have tasted the goodness of the Lord will not be content until they have invited the nations to join them in the feast.
Worship is an expansive and a contagious joy, and thus it becomes the fuel for missions. A shared joy is a doubled joy. Gladness in God will produce in us the same yearnings felt by the psalmist, “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Psalm 67:3–4). Our hearts’ desire is to join Jesus and the Father in their pursuit of true worshipers (John 4:23).
CONVICTION #4—GOD’S PASSION TO BE KNOWN AND PRAISED BY ALL THE PEOPLES OF THE EARTH IS NOT SELFISH, BUT LOVING.
God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the ultimately loving act. And the reason is easy to see. The one and only Reality in the universe that can fully and eternally satisfy the human heart is the glory of God—the beauty of all that God is for us in Jesus. Therefore, God would not be loving unless he upholds and displays and magnifies that glory for our everlasting enjoyment. If God were to forsake or dishonor or disregard the infinite worth of his own glory, he would be unloving in the same way that a husband is unloving who commits suicide.
Perhaps the best way to see that God’s passion for his fame is an expression of his love is to notice that God’s mercy is the pinnacle of his glory. This is what he wants to be honored for above all else. You can see this in Romans 15:9 where Paul says that the reason Christ came into the world was so “that the nations might glorify God for his mercy.”
Do you see how the convictions already mentioned come together in that little phrase: “glorify God for his mercy”? God gets the glory; we get the mercy. God is praised; we are saved. God gets the honor; we get the joy. God is glorified for his fullness; we are satisfied with his mercy.
So to sum up our convictions so far, there are two basic problems in the universe: God is profaned and people are perishing. God will not suffer his name to be dishonored indefinitely, but will act mightily to vindicate his name and glorify himself among the nations. God has planned a way to do this by saving the perishing through the death of his Son, Jesus, and making them a worshipping people who enjoy his glory. In the sacrifice of his own Son for the sake of the nations, God reveals the pinnacle of his glory—his mercy. So the salvation of the nations and the glorification of God happen together in missions. They are not at odds. It is a loving thing for God to pursue his glory like this.
CONVICTION #5—GOD’S PURPOSE TO BE PRAISED AMONG ALL THE NATIONS CANNOT FAIL. IT IS AN ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN PROMISE. IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN.
When Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, he gave it a massive foundation of certainty. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore . . . ” In other words, nothing can stop him: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
There are four reasons we can be absolutely sure that the mission of God will triumph in the world. First, the word of Jesus is more sure than the heavens and the earth (Matthew 24:35). Second, the ransom has already been paid for all God’s elect, and God did not spill the blood of his Son in vain (Revelation 5:9). Third, the glory of God is at stake and in the end he will not share his glory with another (Isaiah 48:9–11). Fourth, God is sovereign and can do all things and no purpose of his can be thwarted (Job 42:2).
In the September 16, 1996, issue of Christianity Today (p. 25) Steve Saint, whose dad, Nate Saint, was martyred in Ecuador in 1956 by the Auca Indians, wrote an article about new discoveries made about the tribal intrigue behind the slayings of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming. He wrote one of the most amazing sentences on the sovereignty of God we have ever read—especially when you hear it coming from the son of a slain missionary:
As [the killers] described their recollections it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it as that the Palm Beach killing took place at all; it is an anomaly that I cannot explain outside of divine intervention . (Italics added.)
There is only one explanation for why these five young men died and left a legacy that has inspired thousands. God intervened. This is the kind of sovereignty we mean when we say no one, absolutely no one, can frustrate the designs of God to fulfill his missionary plans for the nations. In the darkest moments of our pain, God is hiding his explosives behind enemy lines. Everything that happens in history will serve this purpose as expressed in Psalm 86:9,
All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
CONVICTION #6—ONLY IN GOD WILL OUR SOULS BE AT REST.
The one trans-cultural reality that unites every person of every culture is that God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:12). Every person has been created in the image of God and has the stamp of God on his innermost being. In our alienation from God there is a void that the nations try to fill in a multitude of God-less ways, but always come up empty. Only God can satisfy the soul with the depth and endurance of joy that we crave for. Thus the loving pursuit of missions is the glory of God in the eternal joy of the redeemed.
CONVICTION #7—DOMESTIC MINISTRIES ARE THE GOAL OF FRONTIER MISSIONS.
This conviction addresses the tension that develops in a mission-driven church between those who have a passion for ministering here to our own desperately needy culture, and the radical advocates of taking the gospel where they don’t even have access to the Source of any ministry at all.
By domestic ministries I mean all the ministries that we should do among the people in our own culture. For example, ministries relating to evangelism, poverty, medical care, unemployment, hunger, abortion, crisis pregnancy, runaway kids, pornography, family disintegration, child abuse, divorce, hygiene, education at all levels, drug abuse and alcoholism, environmental concerns, terrorism, prison reform, moral abuses in the media and business and politics, etc., etc.
Frontier missions, on the other hand, is the effort of the church to penetrate an unreached people group with the gospel and establish there an ongoing, indigenous, ministering church.
Now stop and think about that. What this means is that frontier missions is the exportation of the possibility and practice of domestic ministries in the name of Jesus to unreached people groups.
Why should there be tension between these two groups of people? The frontier people honor the domestic people by agreeing that their work is worth exporting. The domestic people honor the frontier people by insisting that what they export is worth doing here. A crucial training ground for frontier missions is on the home front engaging in domestic ministries.
CONVICTION #8—THE MISSIONARY TASK IS FOCUSED ON PEOPLES, NOT JUST INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE, AND IS THEREFORE FINISHABLE.
Many of us used to have the vague notion that missions was simply winning to Christ as many individuals as possible in other places. But now we have come to see that the unique task of missions, as opposed to evangelism, is to plant the church among people groups where it doesn’t exist.
Revelation 5:9 is a picture of how Christ’s death relates to missions: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals for thou wast slain and didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” When the church has been planted in all the people groups of the earth, and the elect have been gathered in from all the “tribes and tongues and nations,” then the Great Commission will be complete. Missions will be over. The task of missions is planting the church among all the peoples, not necessarily winning all the people.
CONVICTION #9—THE NEED OF THE HOUR IS FOR THOUSANDS OF NEW PAUL-TYPE MISSIONARIES, A FACT WHICH IS SOMETIMES OBSCURED BY THE QUANTITY OF TIMOTHY-TYPE MISSIONARIES.
Timothy left Lystra, his hometown (Acts 16:1), and became a church worker (a Timothy-type missionary) in a foreign place, Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3), which had its own elders (Acts 20:17) and outreach (Acts 19:10). This is the model of a Timothy-type missionary: going far away to do Christian work where the church is fairly well established. It has biblical precedent and it is a good thing to do, if God calls you.
But that’s not what Paul was called to do. His passion was to make God’s name known in all the unreached peoples of the world. He said that he made it his ambition “to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20). One of the most stunning things Paul ever said is in Romans 15:19, 23: “From Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ . . . I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” This stunned me, when I finally saw its implications.
No room for work between Jerusalem and northern Greece! His work there is done in spite of all the unbelievers that remain! He is now moving on to Spain. How could he say this? The answer is that he was a frontier missionary, not just a cross-cultural missionary. He was called to reach the unreached peoples, where there is no church to evangelize its own people.
What most Christians don’t know today is that there are probably ten times more Timothy-type missionaries in the world than there are Paul-type missionaries. And yet there are still thousands of people groups—especially Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and tribal peoples—who have no access to a gospel-preaching church in their own culture. Patrick Johnstone and others published in late 1996 a book entitled The Unreached Peoples (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 1996). In it the 2000 least reached people groups are listed on pages 102–111. This gives you an idea of the remaining urgent need for missionaries who are willing to cross language and culture for the fame of Christ and the salvation of the perishing.
Therefore, our prayer for Bethlehem is that we put a very high priority on raising up and sending frontier missionaries—Paul-type missionaries. Not that we diminish the sacrifice and preciousness of the Timothy-type missionaries, but that we realize what the utterly critical, uniquely missionary need is in the world, namely, there are thousands of people groups with no access to the saving knowledge of Jesus. Only Paul-type missionaries can reach them. That must be a huge priority for us. Without the gospel everything is in vain. A crucial role that the Timothy-type missionaries play is to raise up Paul-type missionaries among the peoples with whom they are working.
CONVICTION #10—IT IS THE JOYFUL DUTY AND THE AWESOME PRIVILEGE OF EVERY LOCAL CHURCH TO SEND OUT MISSIONARIES “IN A MANNER WORTHY OF GOD” (3 JOHN 6).
But before we can send them, we must grow them or identify the ones who have been “grown” elsewhere but whom God is calling us to send. According to 3 John 7–8 there is a biblical mandate that we ought to support missionaries—a certain kind of missionary—one who has gone out “for the sake of the name.” “For they went out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers with the truth.”
There is a big difference between a church that “has” missionaries (on the back of their bulletin or as a line item in their budget) and a church that “sends” missionaries. To send in a manner worthy of God is to so recognize the supreme importance of proclaiming the name of God in word and deed among the nations that we will do whatever we can to support those who go out for the sake of the name—spiritually, practically, emotionally, financially.
CONVICTION #11—WE ARE CALLED TO A WARTIME LIFESTYLE FOR THE SAKE OF GOING AND SENDING.
To send in a manner worthy of God and to go for the sake of the name, we must constantly fight the deception that we are living in peace time where we think that the luxury of self indulgence is the only power that can break the boredom. O may God open our eyes to what is at stake in the war raging between heaven and hell.
The spirit of the great missionary, Paul, must grip us more and more. “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). In wartime everything changes. The luxury liner, Queen Mary, became a troop carrier, and instead of bunks three high they were stacked seven high. Resources are allocated differently in wartime. And we are in a war far more devastating than World War II.
A wartime lifestyle presents itself not as a legalistic burden, but as a joyful acknowledgment that our resources aren’t entrusted to us for our own private pleasure but for the greater pleasure of stewarding them for the advancement of the kingdom of God (Acts 20:35; Matthews 6:33).
CONVICTION #12—PRAYER IS A WARTIME WALKIE-TALKIE NOT A DOMESTIC INTERCOM.
In wartime prayer takes on a different significance. It becomes a wartime walkie-talkie and no longer a domestic intercom. Jesus said to his disciples, "You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, in order that whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he may give to you” (John 15:16). Notice the amazing logic of this verse. He gave them a mission “in order that” the Father would have prayers to answer. This means that prayer is for mission. It is designed to advance the kingdom. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer begins by asking God to see to it that his name be hallowed and that his kingdom come.
James warned about the misuse of prayer as a domestic intercom to call the butler for another pillow. He said, “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:2–3). Prayer is always kingdom oriented. Even when we pray for healing and for help, it is that that the kingdom purposes of God in the world may advance. Otherwise we have turned a wartime walkie-talkie into a domestic intercom. Let us pray with the apostle Paul, “that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified” (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
CONVICTION #13—OUR AIM IS NOT TO PERSUADE EVERYONE TO BECOME A MISSIONARY, BUT TO HELP EVERYONE BECOME A WORLD CHRISTIAN.
As we said earlier, there are only three kinds of people: goers, senders, and the disobedient. It’s not God’s will for everyone to be a “goer.” Only some are called to go out for the sake of the name to a foreign culture (e.g., Mark 5:18–19). Those who are not called to go out for the sake of the name are called to stay for the sake of the name, to be salt and light right where God has placed them, and to join others in sending those who are called to be cross-cultural missionaries.
In God’s eyes both the goers and the senders are crucial. There are no first and second class Christians in God’s hierarchy of values. Together the goers and the senders are “fellow-workers with the truth” (3 John 8). So whether you are a goer or a sender is a secondary issue. That your heart beats with God’s in his pursuit of worshipers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation is the primary issue. This is what it means to be a World Christian.
CONVICTION #14—GOD IS MOST GLORIFIED IN US WHEN WE ARE MOST SATISFIED IN HIM; AND OUR SATISFACTION IN HIM IS GREATEST WHEN IT EXPANDS TO EMBRACE OTHERS—EVEN WHEN THIS INVOLVES SUFFERING.
It is amazing how those who have suffered most in the missionary cause speak in the most lavish terms of the blessing and the joy of it all. Start with Jesus: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34–35). We save our lives by giving them away in the cause of the gospel. This is what Paul meant when he said, “This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). And, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
According to Paul suffering “completes what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). This is the way that the Great Commission will be completed. To suffer in this way means that our labors for the love of his name will include a personal presentation of his sufferings through our sufferings to those for whom he died.
Samuel Zwemer—after 50 years of missions labor (including the loss of two young children in North Africa)—said, “The sheer joy of it all comes back. Gladly would I do it all over again.” And both Hudson Taylor and David Livingstone, after lives of extraordinary hardship and loss, said, “I never made a sacrifice.”
When people who have suffered much speak like this, their God is magnified. If God can so satisfy their souls that even their sufferings are experienced as steps into deeper joy with him, then he must be far more wonderful than all that the earth has to offer. Psalm 63:3 must really be true: “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.”
A while back we had the opportunity to hear J. Oswald Sanders speak. His message touched deeply on suffering. He was 89 years old at the time and still traveling and speaking around the world. He had written a book a year since he turned 70! We mention that only to exult in the utter dedication of a life poured out for the gospel without thought of coasting in self-indulgence from 65 to the grave.
He told the story of an indigenous missionary who walked barefoot from village to village preaching the gospel in India. His hardships were many. After a long day of many miles and much discouragement he came to a certain village and tried to speak the gospel but was driven out of town and rejected. So he went to the edge of the village dejected and lay down under a tree and slept from exhaustion.
When he awoke, people were hovering over him, and the whole town was gathered around to hear him speak. The head man of the village explained that they came to look him over while he was sleeping. When they saw his blistered feet, they concluded that he must be a holy man, and that they had been evil to reject him. They were sorry and wanted to hear the message that he was willing to suffer so much to bring them.
So the evangelist filled up the afflictions of Jesus with his beautiful blistered feet.
These are our driving missions convictions at Bethlehem. If God opens your heart, you will see that there is no better way to live than in the wartime lifestyle that maximizes all you are and all you have for the sake of finishing the Great Commission. Because in this way God is magnified, we are satisfied, and the nations are loved.
When it comes to world missions, there are only three kinds of Christians: zealous goers, zealous senders, and disobedient. Which will you be? Please join us in “spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.”