Stay in missions long enough and you’ll hear the stories, accounts of faraway events. Somewhere, a missionary has discovered the Grail, the Promised Land, and the Ark of the Covenant all rolled into one. Yes: it’s a church planting movement.
I’ve been working in missions for about 10 years. I’ve seen the work in 5 countries among various people groups. I have yet to see, experience, or begin a church planting movement. In fact, from what I have heard, only people in certain far-off inaccessible parts of the world get to see this elusive goal; you know, places I’ll never get to see, like Asia and those rare countries that still have unicorns. And it begs the question:
The Company, as I call my employers, has a list of all the things typical in a church planting movement. This document extols the value of prayer, preaching, stuff like that. Duties are listed, characteristics explained. It’s great stuff, really. I think it shows amazing insight. The only problem is I’ve looked over the list and compared myself to what I’m reading. I’ve compared other more intelligent, more spiritual, more dedicated missionaries to what I see on the list. What I can’t figure out is this: does only Asia have really good missionaries who do all the right things, or are we doing it just as well as they do with different results?
And you, whether you’ve been in missions a short time or a long time, know the feeling of hearing others from around the globe absolutely gush about the results they are seeing. “Oh, and last week we baptized the entire province using only a gallon water that never ran out! This makes our 7th province this year, making a total of 68,670.2 square miles of pure Christianity! That’s about the size of your home state of Oklahoma, isn’t it? Tee-hee!”
You’re prompted to make comments like, “Wow, are you still walking on water, too? I’ll bet your corner of heaven is going to be really beautiful! Oh, and the water that never runs out? Please….that’s so Old Testament.” Instead, you sit there and think, “So what am I doing wrong?” An even worse feeling is, “What are you saying that I’m doing wrong?” You don’t begrudge others the rush of success, nor of the chance to see something amazing. You would just like to know why it doesn’t happen where you work.
Knowing that all individuals come to Christ at a different time and in different ways does not explain how entire towns can come to Christ. It does not rationalize why some countries grow strong national Christian leaders while other countries do not. It doesn’t help us grasp why we never get to walk into a town and have someone say, “Oh, we’ve been waiting for someone tell us about Him. Look everyone: the Prophecy was TRUE!”
All the venting and joking aside, let’s consider something that might actually be Biblical.
In Luke 7: 36-50 we find an account of Jesus visiting the home of Simon the Pharisee. To say that the Pharisees were staunch opponents to Jesus’ teachings would be a gross understatement. Nonetheless, Simon invited Jesus over to the house, though he failed to provide Jesus with the proper hospitality.
Along came an uninvited guest, a sinful woman known in the city for her unholy ways. In her own fashion, she provided the missing hospitality. As the woman served the Christ, the Pharisee began to doubt this Jesus person; a true holy man would not have allowed this spiritually filthy woman’s attention and ministrations to continue. In the Pharisee’s mind, Jesus should have shooed the woman away.
Knowing what was in the Pharisee’s heart, Jesus posited a theoretical situation in which two men were each forgiven a debt. One man owed a pittance while the other owed a fortune. Which man would appreciate his creditor’s actions the most? Simon the Pharisee answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the greater debt.” Jesus used the logic of this scenario to illustrate something vital: sinners who realize they have come to faith from a great distance are often more appreciative of His grace than those who feel as though they’ve always been pretty close to God.
Jesus applied this principle to individuals, and perhaps we can see it playing out even today. Former drug users, ex-prostitutes, and reformed convicts fill the ranks of lay and ordained ministers. This pattern repeats itself all over the globe, as many missionaries and pastors can confirm.
Suppose, though, we were to apply the pattern not to individuals, but to cultures.
Suppose we were to evaluate the relative distance between our Creator and various countries, cultures, and people groups. I realize we are all far away, but relative to each other, some groups have a greater understanding of Biblical matters than others. A predominantly Buddhist country, for example, will have farther to go than a largely Catholic nation will. A formerly communist people group will have institutional atheism blocking the way while other ethnic groups can boast having seminaries.
Where are these church planting movements? As best I can tell, the rapid advance of the Gospel happens in the Buddhist countries, in the places with engrained atheism, in places where no one has heard of Christ.
Could it be that, like individuals, those people groups and countries that have the furthest distance to cross in their journey towards Him are also those whose deep gratitude will lead them to become the boldest Christians around? Is it possible that the hardest task lies not in reaching the ignorant but instead in reaching those who know enough to think they know it all? Is this why church planting movements always seem to happen way over there?
What does this mean for that pastor in the most jaded Christian nation in history, the USA? Where does this leave me, working among nominal Catholics? How does this apply to my friends, who work in danger and yet see lives changed daily?
Where does this leave you?