This is the second post (part 1) in a 3-part series by Tim Keesee on the role of American missionaries in the 21st century. He is the author of Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World's Difficult Places.
Illustrations from the Cupboard
When the King said, “This is what My Kingdom is like,” two of his illustrations—stunningly simple and accessible—seemed to be taken from the corner of a cupboard.
A mustard seed and a pinch of leaven (Matthew 13:31-33) underscore that the Kingdom of Heaven is all about expansion. That expansion can be surprising, in the same way that the tiniest seed grows to become the centerpiece of the garden.
The gospel can also work quietly, like leaven—penetrating, unrelenting, transforming—as the boundaries of Christ’s Kingdom extend to more and more hearts by those who are also permeated with its power.
This is really what missionary statesman Samuel Zwemer was describing when he wrote more than a century ago, “The kingdoms and governments of this world have frontiers, which must not be crossed, but the gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier. It never has been kept within bounds.”
Who’s the Greatest?
The boundlessness of the gospel of the Kingdom is even more evident in our day. There was a time when missions was mostly from the West to the rest, but a shift has been underway for some time. As Christ is ransoming men and women from all nations, so He is sending them out to all nations. How do goers and senders from the churches of America relate to this globalization of missions?
An answer that truly embraces the change and leverages it for greater gospel impact is by no means an easy one. Organizations and budgets are often capable of only Titanic-like turns. And the stereotype of the American missionary, who arrives on the field as the hero to the huddled masses, is a caricature with, sadly, a few too many real-world examples.
However, some words of caution and clarity (because being a critic can be so smugly comforting). Many Americans do not go with a smarter-than-thou attitude. If some do go that way, it’s not long before the humility of the gospel (and the humiliation of not being able to form a complete sentence in the language of the people they had all the answers for) knocks them off their pedestal and they start being useful. Also, attitudes of pride and self-righteousness are not confined to Christians from the United States. Such sin is stubbornly, and not surprisingly, cross-cultural.
The point isn’t that the greatest Christians are over there rather than over here. Sometimes we sound like another set of disciples, arguing about who is the greatest—when, actually, Christ is the greatest. And in every land he is saving, calling, and enabling cross-bearers to take risks to advance his Kingdom. To borrow Jim Collin’s bus analogy, since we aren’t in the driver’s seat of the gospel Greyhound, which seats do we take to be most effective?
Here are two ways we can be part of what our great King is doing in the world:
Christ said, “I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Across the centuries, across oceans, across continents, across every cultural, religious, and ethnic barrier, he has kept his promise. The past history of missions since Acts 1:8 and the present headlines of gospel advance worldwide all serve to build our confidence in the gospel.
As the Kingdom choir continues to grow in strength and numbers, our joy also increases because our worthy Lamb’s fame is rising like the sun! As Paul said in 2 Corinthians, “As grace extends to more and more people, it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
So let’s begin with praise. Get a globe, a map app, or a thirty-one day calendar of the 10/40 Window Region. Pray for the persecuted church, but also rejoice in the success of Jesus's mission. Connecting places and people with gospel advance is just one more way to lift up our eyes and “see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35).
Often when I hear about “partnering with nationals,” the “nationals” (also known as “brothers and sisters”) are mostly enablers for accomplishing our mission—whether church planting or running a training center. And, because of the significant differences in the cost of living between a foreigner and a local, these arrangements are also couched in financial terms as a way to get “more bang for the buck.”
But gospel partnership isn’t about outsourcing. It’s a reflection of the gospel itself—how we need each other in the way that the parts of the body need each other (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Paul underscored this truth in Philippians, from the opening verses with its joyful prison prayer (“because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now”) to the closing lines of the letter, the power of partnership is bound up in the gospel itself. The humility, joy, prayer, and side-by-side labor flowing out of pursuing Christ fuels more and more gospel advance.
If you’re a sender—pastor, missions committee member, or just someone passionate about global missions—ask hard questions about whether your missions commitments reflect genuine gospel partnerships on the field. If the answer is “not really,” then do something even harder—work for change.
If you’re a goer and local believers are already present, listen, learn, serve, and seek to fuel their success.
Read Part 3.
Tim Keesee is the founder and executive director of Frontline Missions International, which for the past 20 years has served to advance the gospel in some of the world’s most difficult places. He has traveled to 80 countries, reporting on the church from the former Iron Curtain countries to war-torn Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is the executive producer of the popular DVD documentary series, Dispatches from the Front, and the author of Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World's Difficult Places (excerpt).