In 1999, after four years of overseas life, we were exhausted. We had lived in three different countries, eleven different houses, and had children that were four and two years old. Because of Muslim traditions, Michelle had primarily remained in the house, we had both spent countless days in illness, and Michelle had complained of a pervasive spiritual darkness that she described as “choking.”
When we arrived back in America, I now suppose that we really should have been resting and healing, but I had been so accustomed to thinking and moving at a phrenetic pace that I just didn’t know how to turn it off. So, after just a few days I called the stateside office of our missionary sending agency and asked what exactly we were supposed to be doing in the US.
Hannah, the woman with whom I spoke, referred me to a department that arranges missionary speaking engagements. Incidentally, a few years later, as a middle-aged single woman, Hannah moved to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, learned the language, and began important work with women. After several years, she and her Afghan driver were taken hostage by a radical Muslim group and when ransom wasn’t paid for their release, they were killed. This may seem like a random side story, but I tell it to emphasize the contrast between the kind of Christians that I was used to working with and the kind of Christians that I found huddled away in American church buildings.
As the last century came to an end, mega-churches were on the rise in America, commonly hosting week-long missions conferences for their congregants. I signed up for as many of these conferences as I could, five conferences over two months, and began to think about the stories I should tell and about the theological points I needed to make. I had difficulty sleeping each night before the conferences as I laid awake writing sermons in my head.
I played memories of the past four years over and over in my mind and imagined crowds of Christians enthralled with the stories of all that God was doing. I imagined pastors changing the direction of their church towards missions. I imagined a snow-ball effect as a movement moved throughout American Christianity to garner their resources to fight in the battle to depose Satan from the throne that he has usurped.
The conferences themselves were enjoyable and encouraging, although I admit that I did have to look past the millions of dollars that had been spent to build the enormous buildings as well as the millions of dollars that I knew were spent each year on dozens of church staff members, insurance, maintenance and utility bills. One sleepless night overseas I had done the math to find that the missionaries there, and there had only been a handful of us, had less than two cents per person to reach the four million Muslims of that land. The people that were in those buildings had all heard the gospel countless times and, supposedly, were already assured a place in heaven. Part of my mind was pointing out that these Christians were spending God’s money on themselves, rather than on the hurting and the lost, and another part of my mind was telling me to not go down that path as it was best to not judge things that I knew so little about.
Many missionaries attended each conference, sometimes more than ten, and sometimes they wore the dress of their home countries, something I had not known about and had not prepared for. Each of us was given a booth in the lobby to put out maps, pictures, currency, and other objects that helped us explain what our people groups were like and in between meetings hundreds of Christians gathered in the halls going from booth to booth, asking us about peoples that we worked with. Almost no questions, though, were about the degree of lostness of our peoples or about what God was doing to establish the gospel among them. As a doctor, I was also disappointed that no one asked about the war, hunger, refugee crisis, or other needs of my beloved people group. I suppose they had no idea how to relate to such a state and weren’t even able to form questions.
I was able to speak with church pastors at just about every conference and they listened intently asking excellent questions about the work that we had been doing. When I spoke to Sunday School classes, as I met people at our booth, and when I spoke with pastors, I gave my contact information and emphasized the great need for more involvement from the American church.
Over the five conferences I spoke with thousands of people and contented myself with the thought that, if just ten percent of the Christians that I met followed through and contacted me, I would have hundreds of partners to carry on ministry to Muslims. I have to admit that the conferences themselves, seeing other missionaries, hearing their stories, and seeing the churches’ strong emphasis on missions, put me on an emotional high that always resulted in a let-down after it was all over, but I was so looking forward to the relationships that would be carried forward and to having actual partners, based in the United States, for the rest of my mission’s career. We had survived our first four years overseas with no outside help and I saw these conferences as the way to build the needed infrastructure for the future.
After weeks and then months of waiting to be contacted, though, I received no phone calls or emails from anyone except for the very few that offered their thanks for my coming to their conference. When I called the mission pastors and church leaders who had promised that they would follow up I was told that they were still working on a plan and that they would be in touch. I never heard from any of them again.
Perhaps the missionaries working in less difficult and dangerous places did get meaningful partnerships, I hope so, but I got absolutely no return on my investment and the others working with Muslim groups didn’t either. I didn’t mind giving up my time, that doesn’t belong to me anyway, but the passion that I poured out and the advocacy that I put forward on behalf of my people group were ignored. From my perspective, although I had been looking for ministry partners, it appeared that the church leaders had primarily been looking for a speaker to fill a slot in their programs. The purpose of the conferences was not to make disciples among all of the nations of the world nearly as much as it was to provide a mission’s experience for the church. For me, it was like having a high school pep rally and then have no game. Each of the five conferences were such a disappointment.
Everyone that I spoke to about the importance of missions for the church had agreed with me to my face, but no one, not even the many pastors who had agreed with me, made changes to re-orient their church to further engage in missions, and the overall experience just made me sad for them. I know that the conferences do help churches raise more money for missions and I occasionally hear a story of someone who was on the mission field because of a missions conference, but that wasn’t my experience. These conferences were my first significant church experience back in the U.S. and it appeared to me that the church wasn’t even trying to build up their members to be missionaries. They were just raising up hordes and hordes of American Christians.
Bottom Line: Humans are selfish by nature. Our innate pursuits are for security, comfort and pleasure. The church is made up of people with these same motivations.
Doing the work of God takes a 180 degree shift from that which is innate to us, to that which is spiritual. The thoughts and work of God do not come naturally, but having the mind of Christ and obeying the commands of Jesus are possible through the Spirit that we have inside of us.
Disciples and churches that do not make this shift are completely missing out on the joy of following Jesus and are perpetuating our state of occupation by demonic forces.
Preach it, brother!
That is so disheartening and such a let down. I will pray.
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Retaking Perspectives right now. Was struck by the thought yesterday that we are the children of the Reformation in this problem. They rejected the missions sodality of the monastic movement and began to focus on a strong local church. Even our strategies are called church planting movements. Less disciple making movements. Also I remember a talk in Memphis about the five types of leaders and how most pastors are shepherds “protecting” their flock and less evangelists or prophets with the burden of sending out. I remember that talk helping me some with perspective on why so few church leaders emphasized the sending. Sad to have such a broken church order though. Or so many unburdened disciples for the Great Commission.
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Thanks for this. Yes. I’ve also thought about the impact that the reformation had on global missions. But I think your point about church leaders is the primary issue right now. It isn’t completely their fault, because they are giving the church what it wants, but the most famous church leaders are public speakers/teachers. They tickle the ears of their audience rather than train them to reach the world.
Very eye opening Chuck. Makes me think about my preconceived ideas and look more to the Bible and God.
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Hi John. Yes. The best lesson that I learned overseas was to stop looking at American church culture and even missions culture for my answers. But the Bible has never let me down.
Good morning dear Brother! I agree with everything you are saying but what do I (you) do next to change this? I am guilty as charged. Hope you are feeling well and would love to catch up with you and Michelle some time. Still cherish our time with you in Jordan.
Uncanny timing, you posted this 2 days after I spoke at a medical missions conference. I didn’t agree fully at first as from the time at the conference I felt like it was so fruitful and had made contact with so many great medical students who really decided to follow Jesus no matter what, not what the world says about how they should be doctors. Sadly only a couple responded to my follow up emails. I had a list of conferences I had hoped to attend but am rethinking that. However, my walk with the Lord during medical school was hugely changed by attending CCHF and hearing Rick Donlon speak. So still a little bit on the fence 🙂 maybe it is worth it for the couple that could catch the vision…
So, the medical missions conferences are different. I was just telling the true story of my experience with the first five church-based missions conferences that I attended the first time we returned to the US. In those scenarios, the attendees of those conferences were those that gathered with those respective churches each week. The conference was just one more thing that they did, like having an annual summer revival event. My thinking is that, the attendees felt compelled to attend not because they were interested in really doing something for missions, but out of loyalty to the programs of their institutional churches.
Some conferences, though, like Urbana or the GMHC medical conference, are attended by people who traveled long distances and paid money to attend a conference that they hoped would propel them forward on the path that they are already pursuing for doing the will of God, whatever it is.
My conclusion, that I did not put in this blog, is that there is a very tiny percentage of Christians, in most churches, who want, with all of their hearts, to be real disciples and obey Jesus. They want their future to count for him and his kingdom. It is a rare thing, so rare, in fact, that I did not find a case of it in the five church-based missions conferences that I attended. After the conferences Michelle and I decided to not lament the thousands that didn’t respond, but to celebrate the one or two that did respond.
My solution is to broadcast as widely as possible that, if you are that kind of disciple, then you are not alone, although you may feel alone in your church. Then we need to direct each of them to Urbana, to GMHC, to inner-city missions mentoring programs, etc, to encourage them so that they don’t get sucked under by traditional American churchianity.