Empowering the people
Okay, I’ll just cut to the chase, and in this case it’s a confession: I was a “long term missionary” in Vietnam for nine years; I participated in and led lots of short-term trips as a teen and as a youth leader; I’m now in the grand position of overseeing outreach and missions at Island ECC. And the honest truth is this: with all of that “experience,” I think I’m only just starting to get it. It’s only been quite recently that I think I’ve got a grasp on this missions thing. Not the trips, not the organizations and not the work and projects (although those are all part of it). I mean the bigger picture, Missions, with a capital M; missiology, even, to use a fancier term.
A big part of that understanding has come from the fact that the words we use can limit our understanding. They can put blinders on us so that we only focus on what’s in front of us while we miss the bigger picture around us. The saying, “We don’t speak language; language speaks us,” comes to mind. The words we choose and use have a great influence on how we see and interpret reality. A word is like a window and our outlook and view are affected by its size (also by the color of glass and direction too, if you want to stretch the analogy). One starting point is the term “missionary,” a good and classic word for someone sent out to do spiritual work in a certain place, usually in a different culture from one’s own. As we know, today there are many places in the world where we simply can’t enter as missionaries. Yet many people still go to the same places and with the same purpose, but under a different heading or title, like tentmaker, evangelistic language teacher, bi-vocational pastor and others. Hopefully, here, I can introduce some new word-windows that can encompass classic and traditional terms, but that can also open our eyes to more possibilities within a bigger world.
It has only been fairly recently that I’ve had a major shift in my perspective on missions to the one I hold now: that missions—or more specifically why we do missions—is not just a stand alone, isolated thing we do, whether it’s compartmentalized as a short-term trip we take or an either/or long-term career choice we make. Missions is part of an all-encompassing calling, an even grander narrative, and that is to help reveal and restore the kingdom of God. I could spend the rest of this article (and more) defining this, but for now, let me define God’s kingdom as the rule and reign of God on earth. God’s kingdom is something that was created in perfection in Eden and was lost when man sinned. The recovery and restoration process began with Christ’s atoning work on the cross and continues through us as his followers. When we think of the Great Commission and why we go, we often think of John 3:16, but a verse that has helped me understand missions within the context of God’s kingdom is Colossians 1:19 & 20: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Christ), and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” Christ’s work of reconciliation is to restore all things —people, societies, culture, cities—to what they were meant to be in God’s original design. And for a glimpse of that design, check out Isaiah 65:17–25. Later, I hope you’ll see how this is a pretty significant shift.
My search for the kingdom began because I lacked answers. During the second half of our time in Vietnam, we helped launch Glocal Ventures Inc. (GVI), an organization that hosted, facilitated and consulted for short term outreach teams. We were officially registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO) that was doing community development work to improve lives in urban and rural areas, and we were transparent with the (socialist) government about our Christian identity and Christian volunteers. We therefore didn’t have an overt evangelistic, pastoral training or church planting strategy, and so I often had to answer questions about our purpose and relevance. That led me to writings about “kingdom development” models, which were driven by Christian organizations that were doing community development. Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “Community development with a focus on God’s kingdom is a tangible way of making Christ known in this fallen world. We are not just helping people to have better food, housing and clothing, but in a greater sense we are pointing them to the abundant life that is God’s plan for all people … Kingdom development and our efforts at addressing the deepest needs of people is a foreshadowing and even an attempt at what life is really meant to be and will be in an eternity spent with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Jeffrey Palmer, Kingdom Communities: Koinonea as If It Really Mattered).
That quote was when I began to see possibilities as many missions-related things fit within the kingdom perspective. Evangelism and personal salvation were still key strategies but they no longer had to be the singular purpose of a missions strategy. In “The Next Christians,” Gabe Lyons writes: “Christ’s death and Resurrection were not only meant to save people from something. He wanted to save Christians to something … Christ’s redemptive work is not the end or even the goal of our stories; redemption is the beginning of our participation in God’s work of restoration in our lives and in the world.” The kingdom perspective doesn’t just count the number of personal decisions or conversions as the measure of success. It looks beyond discipleship to the individuals allowing the kingdom of God within them to blossom, joining with others to form kingdom-minded communities in which societal change is a reflection of personal transformations.
In thinking about things from a kingdom perspective, it also helps to think in terms of disciples as the change agent rather than missionaries. I like this because when we think the “where” of where we’re called, the term “mission field” can be limiting, even if we’re talking about global missions! The term can carry a mystique or an air of exclusivity where only those who are “the most” can go: the most gifted, the most spiritual, the most obedient. But it can also relegate those who don’t or can’t go to a lower position, when it fact it’s more about hearing different callings. Since the kingdom of God is incarnate within each disciple, wherever he or she is becomes a redemption opportunity; that place becomes their missional field, be it their workplace, their classroom, their family or simply their sphere of influence.
If and when disciples begin transforming their surroundings, it’s not hard to see how the whole of society begins to change. Christ-followers come from all sectors of society. So instead of only trying to bring people into the church, the church can release people back to their environments and equip them to be change agents and ushers of God’s kingdom in boardrooms, doctor’s offices, sales floors and seminar rooms. Exchanging the term “missions” for “kingdom” allows a lot more people to get involved in God’s transforming work. In fact, it changes the playing field from just “there” to everywhere, and in doing so, it calls on everyone to participate.
Article by Sherman Chau
With permission from IGO Global Outreach, Island Evangelical Community Church, Hong Kong.
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