Rekindling the zeal for missions in our churches.

Antioch was filled with believers who were fully engaged in God’s mission. Its church in the book of Acts is often pointed to as the model for us all, but what was so special about this church, and how is it a model for us?

In the last issue of the ACTS13 newsletter an article was published about the link between the church and missions and the characteristics of a missional church. The article ended with this question: how can we all be like this?

In ths article I would like to propose an answer.

What that question wants to say is: “how can we be like the believers in Antioch who were fully engaged in God’s mission?” To answer this question, perhaps we first need to understand the answer to a different question: what could be the reason that I am not like the believers in Antioch? The all-important ‘why’ question.

Perhaps a bit of church history can help us out here. How was this church in Antioch? The first churches, like the one in Antioch, were fully engaged in missions. Or so it seemed, because according to Roland Allen in his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, spreading the gospel was not so much seen as a task of the church but the natural thing to do for the first followers of Jesus. We nowhere read that Paul, or any of the other apostles for that matter, were urging the believers to continue to evangelize. It was an unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church who were simply thrilled with their new found joy and could not keep that secret.

Out of those first churches grew a church organization with a structure of dioceses and parishes led by bishops and priests, the Church that we now know as the Catholic Church.

Out of those first churches also grew a structure for the mission of the Church to go into the world to make disciples: the missionary orders like for example the Jesuits or the Missionaries of charity founded by Mother Theresa. The missionary orders went all over the world, establishing schools, hospitals and other initiatives that were meant to help the population in their needs and simultaneously present a Christian witness to them. Until today the (Catholic) Church provides the workers and the funds for the missionary orders and through the work of the orders new believers are added to the Church and new churches are established. Although we see many things differently from the Catholic Church we have to acknowledge that they have always had a structure for missions.

When the reformation started in the early sixteenth century, the Protestant Church was formed. Literature indicates that the reformers focused on the creation of an organizational structure for the Protestant Church but unfortunately never worked on an integrated structure for the mission of the Church. They also did not develop a strong and balanced theology on the work of the Holy Spirit. It was only after William Carey had written his book on the need for Worldwide Missions (“Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens”) in 1792 that mission organizations came into being, outside of the Protestant churches. These organizations used a business model of acquiring people and funds that enabled them to do their work.

Another unfortunate development was that as the time passed by, both the Catholic and protestant Church became more and more institutionalized and neglected to teach the discipleship of every believer and a life of following Jesus as Lord.

These are in short the main reasons why we and our churches are so different from the church in Antioch when it comes to taking the gospel to the unreached. The Protestant Church became disconnected with its mission and has developed into two separate structures: the Church and the mission organizations. That is not to say that the Protestant Church is not involved in missions. On the contrary, many protestant missionaries have been, and are being sent out, usually through mission organizations partnering with protestant churches. However, the two are not integrated and until today this has not changed much. This is the reason why mission organizations can have the feeling that they have to constantly ‘pull’ at the churches for their support, for workers and for finances. In other words, they feel they have to mobilize the church for missions.

How then can we return with our church to that first zeal for spreading the gospel as demonstrated by the church in Antioch? What is needed?

Here is a suggestion, beginning with a question:  What kind of teaching do I receive in my church? Have I learned how to become, and be, a good Christian? Or have I learned to become and be a follower of Jesus?

The people in Antioch had very little of the scriptures at their disposal. Even less of Bible study materials, concordances, commentaries and theological training. What they did have was a decision to follow Jesus and His teachings that were being passed on to them. And they simply followed that. They looked at Jesus.

Let us do that also for a moment and ask ourselves this question:

What then was so incredibly life changing in Jesus’ teaching?

Could it be His teaching on the Kingdom of God that was near? This was a very central theme in Jesus teaching. He began His ministry with preaching about the Kingdom of God and later He sent the twelve apostles, and later again, the 72 disciples, on a mission to preach exactly that: the Kingdom of God is near.  When this theme was so important to Jesus, should we not ask ourselves why this was so important to Him?

The Kingdom that Jesus taught is easily misunderstood because we tend to associate the word kingdom with a territory, a country. But what Jesus meant was that the reign, the leading, the guidance of God was near. Where does God reign? Not in this world, because Jesus tells us that Satan is the ruler, the prince of this world (John 12:30). Does God not reign in the hearts of those that make Him the King of their lives, in your heart, in my heart?

Then indeed the kingdom of God is near. His reign is in my heart. He leads me, gives me gifts of the spirit and leads me to be a blessing to others. That is, when I make Him my King, hear His voice and follow His leading. And is that not exactly what Paul meant in Galatians 2:20 when he says “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”? Thus ‘entering into the Kingdom of God’ means giving up our autonomy and subjecting all aspects of our life to the leading of Jesus. Indeed it is often easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for us to surrender our own will and ambitions to Gods guidance. But when we do, we will have a very different life with Jesus and we will experience His presence, not just read about it. Could the Kingdom of God be what makes our faith relevant to our lives, what puts the thrill of following Jesus back in our everyday lives?

Could this be an answer to the question how can we all be like this? And could this not bring back our zeal to go out and tell others, our zeal to be involved in missions?

What do you think?

Albert, ACTS13 , The Netherlands

* Previous article referred to