Jesus’ last words to his disciples were to give them a mission.
“Go and make disciples of all nations,” he said. (Matt. 28:19
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” he said. (Acts 1:8
So that’s his assignment to us his followers. We call it “missions.” In a world looking for purpose and hope, Jesus’ is looking for followers who will embrace his original mission. It hasn’t changed.
We see Jesus preparing his followers for this mission early in his ministry. We see him first sending them out in Matthew 10 and then a second time in Luke 10. He sends them in groups of two with the assignment of meeting the felt needs of the people they encounter along the way.
I was speaking at a missions conference a number of years ago and the writer of a missions survey course called “Perspectives” was in the audience. He came up to me afterwards and said, “Matthew 10 was more about missions than it was about discipleship.”
I disagreed with him, “We don’t begin to see the Church moving out in power until the book of Acts. We have to learn tactical engagement before we begin to practice strategic action.”
He agreed to disagree.
My point was that Jesus knew that his followers needed to see the reality of God working through them before they began engaging in his strategy to reach the world. He sent them out on limited short-term missions experiences so that they could learn to partner with God, praying for others and seeing him come through. They needed to see that the Father is good and will provide everything needed before he sends us on a more strategic long-term missions assignment.
What I have learned in 40 years of ministry is that you begin following Jesus by first hearing the Master’s call to himself. This is the work of identity formation and personal discipleship. Like the disciples, we follow him and begin to experience freedom for ourselves before we offer it to others. And while the needs are great in our culture, they are no less urgent beyond our culture.
When we have walked in freedom for a while, Jesus asks us to help set others free. In Matthew 10, we see him saying the same thing he later says in Acts 1:8. Begin ministering to those within your own culture. Then reach out to those in proximity, then to those of another culture, and then ultimately to those who are far away.
This pattern continues to work in the modern world. For example, while the ministry I work with began by training young Americans, over the last several years, we have seen the greatest fruit in south Asia where over 1000 churches have been planted.
There is a heresy I hear from young people that “because we might make mistakes when we practice missions, we shouldn’t try. We shouldn’t go to those of another culture.” Another way of saying this is “volunteers need to be able to volunteer with excellence before they ever volunteer.”
We also hear the heresy that “motives must be perfect or you shouldn’t try to help.” This sounds good, but it isn’t what Jesus did. Jesus’ had nothing but messy followers. He had them for three years, sent them out to practice, and at the end, his most passionate follower (Peter), still failed the final exam. The reality is that all of us make mistakes when we learn anything. Missions is no different. Of course learning to function in another culture is going to be a messy challenge, but it is one Jesus would have us embrace.
Reading about Jesus’ disciples makes it easier. Were they afraid? Yes. Did they struggle with faith? Yes. Did they have a savior complex? Well, we know that two of his best, James and John did. (Matt 10:35-45
Jesus’ disciples were just as messy as so many young people today. But missions critics want to saddle young people with a standard they can never meet. Jesus didn’t ask for perfect motives or perfect execution. What he did do was train them by giving them experience. He gave them “all authority” and sent them out on mission.
Those of us who call ourselves Christ followers should do the same.