Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

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receptivity
Photo by Paz Arando on Unsplash

Should we go to the most receptive?

As a young missionary candidate about 40 years ago, I considered various countries as possible destinations for my future ministry. One of the main criteria I used was receptivity. I wanted to go to a place where the church was growing rapidly. I was attracted to the harvest. In a harvest field, I reasoned, there would be a greater need for training of national workers, which was the area of missions I was most interested in. So, I chose the Philippines and the lowland work among Roman Catholics in particular.

Experiencing the harvest

Given that I was still in my early 20’s when I arrived in the Philippines, I realized that I first needed some experience and credibility before I could begin training others. My wife and I enjoyed ten years of wonderfully fruitful years in church planting and training in the Philippines. We were part of the harvest. The Filipino people are amazingly hospitable and very receptive to the Gospel. The evangelical churches were growing so quickly that within a few years, I realized that the percentage of evangelicals in this country was going to surpass the percentage of evangelicals in my home country of Canada. I also came to understand that the Filipino church in the lowlands soon might not need expatriate trainers like myself.

In this journey, I came to understand the urgency and importance of going to those that are least reached. But it also became apparent to me that those who were least-reached were also most often the people groups that were not as receptive to the Gospel, at least not initially. It would not be as rewarding or fulfilling to serve in the places where the harvest had not yet begun. Working in places where there is limited receptivity can be very wearying and discouraging. Although our next ten years of serving in Far East Russia were also fulfilling in many ways, I experienced discouragement and a loss of heart there that was quite different from what I experienced in the Philippines.

running well
Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

Finishing Well: Running Your Leg of the Race

Let’s continue thinking about finishing well in a ministry assignment. In our last blog post, we talked about receiving the baton well. So now we are running our leg of the race. We are now fully engaged in our ministry assignment. Furthermore, we have a working knowledge of our host language and culture. Yes, we will want to continue to grow in these areas as we serve. But it is now our turn to run well with the baton we have been given.

How we run our leg of the race will significantly impact finishing well. Of course, we want our ministry to further the progress of the gospel. We want to make a contribution to the contextualization of the gospel in our host culture, building on the progress of those who served before us. In the New Testament, Paul and the author of Hebrews use the race analogy to describe ministry and the Christian life. At the end of Paul’s life, he writes, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7). So, what gave him a sense of finishing well? I see four ways we can run like Paul to finish well.

We Run with a Clear Purpose

Paul’s life was guided by a clear purpose. We see this in passages such as Acts 20:24, 1 Corinthians 9:23, and Philippians 3:14. In Acts 20:24 he describes his life as “my course” (the same word translated in 2 Timothy 4:7 as “race”). Notably, Paul identifies his purpose as completing his God-given work of faithfully “testifying to the gospel of the grace of God.” This goal drives him forward.1 1 Cor 9:23, Phil 3:14 He is focused on the prize awaiting him at the finish line. Eckhard Schnabel writes in his commentary on Acts,

Firm grip on the Gospel
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Finishing Well: Keeping a Firm Grip on the Gospel

In the first post in this series on finishing well, I compared a ministry assignment to a leg of a relay race. I also pointed to the baton as a distinguishing feature of a relay race. Furthermore, I identified the baton as the gospel in our ministry race. The gospel is the distinguishing feature of our ministry.1 While Tom Steffen does not identify the baton as the gospel in his book, Passing the Baton, he does devote a whole chapter to “Presenting an Accurate Gospel.” (p 127-141 in the 1993 version of the book.) As relay runners must keep a firm grip on the baton, so also church-planters must keep a firm grip on the gospel. This is no less true for administrative assignments in mission organizations.

What is the Gospel?

This may seem like an unnecessary question. Yet, when we read the definitions of the gospel from Christian websites, confusion is evident.2Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel?, 2010. p 18-20. In a similar way, J. Mack Stiles warns of assuming and confusing the gospel and cultural Christianity.3 J. Mack Stiles, The Marks of the Messenger, IVP, 2010, p 37-47. It is critical to the race before us that we know what the gospel is.

The Gospel Holds the Bible Together

At the first conference of the Gospel Coalition in 2007, D. A. Carson made this observation in a message titled “What is the Gospel?”:

ministry as relay race

Finishing Well: Ministry as a Relay Race

I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about finishing well in the past several months. In part, this is because I turn 70 in November and will retire at the end of 2021. But I am also interested in this subject because SEND U has been asked to develop and find resources to help SEND missionaries finish well whether in a ministry assignment or at the end of a career. When reflecting on finishing well, I find it helpful to view ministry as a relay race. 1Tom Steffen’s book, Passing the Baton: Church Planting That Empowers also uses this analogy.

Over the next few months, I will be writing a series of blog posts on finishing well in ministry assignments as a leg in a relay race. In this series, I will be applying the analogy of a relay race to finishing well in a ministry assignment. Presently, I plan to write six more posts. This will be followed by a shorter series on finishing well at the end of a ministry career.

In this post, I want to sketch the analogy between ministry and a relay race.

Ministry as a Race

The apostle Paul describes his ministry as a race in a number of passages (Acts 20:24; 1 Corinthians 9:24-26; 2 Timothy 4:7). In the Acts and 2 Timothy passages, he uses the same word in the original language2 (the ESV translates it “course” in Acts and “race” in 2 Timothy). Interestingly, in both passages, he writes about finishing his course or race. In the former passage, he expresses his desire to finish his course and ministry well. In the latter, he expresses his confidence that he has finished his race well.

The Whole Christ: A review

The Whole Christ

I recently watched a breakout session from The Gospel Coalition 2021 National Conference (TGC21) discussing grace and works in the Christian life. Specifically, the question that was posed was “Does grace oppose hard work?”. However, the breakout session did not resolve the issue. Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters provides helpful guidance. Because these issues are vital for evangelism and discipleship, this book is an important resource for missionaries.

The Marrow Controversy

The historical background of Ferguson’s book is a debate in the Church of Scotland in the early 18th century. Now, the term “marrow” seems a bit strange to our ears today. Yet, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it described the seat of a person’s vitality and strength, the essence of a subject matter.1Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ, Crossway, 2016, p.22. The controversy acquired its name from Edward Fisher’s book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, written in 1645. As Tim Keller points out in the foreword, the author “does a good job of recounting the Marrow Controversy in an accessible and interesting way”2 (p. 11).

YouTube evangelism

YouTube Evangelism

God calls all of us to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5). As Gary Ridley points out in another blog post, this work is not just with non-believers. Nevertheless, those of us who are called to serve as cross-cultural workers look for opportunities to share the Gospel with those who have never heard this good news. Typically, we expect that we will do so through sharing the Gospel in one-on-one conversations with our friends and acquaintances. Sometimes, we have opportunities to present the good news in public events through sermons or testimonies. A few of us might use Gospel tracts or other printed literature. But rarely if ever did we envision that YouTube could be our best platform for evangelism.

Digital missions

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have become much more interested in “digital missions” – how to do mission work through the Internet. We continue to see the strategic importance of living among the people we serve and learning their language and culture (see my recent blog post on this topic). But when we have fewer face-to-face interactions because of social distancing and quarantines, we look for additional opportunities to multiply our outreach. One of our colleagues in Japan has figured out a way to use YouTube for evangelism. The following article first appeared on the SEND blog and is used by permission.

Partnership in the Gospel
Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

Follow-Up: Partnership in the Gospel

How does Paul follow-up with the church at Philippi? We have been asking this question in previous posts about Galatia, Thessalonica, and Corinth. Our source of information has been Paul’s letters to these churches. Today we will look at his letter to Philippi.

Philippians, a Friendship Letter

Many commentators have noted that Philippians has features common to friendship letters in the Greco-Roman world.1G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, Eerdmans: 2009, p6f. and Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT, 1995, p 2f. For instance, expressions of affection and terminology like “yoke-fellow” (Phil. 4:3) were common in letters between friends at that time. Yet the letter is more than just communication between friends. Gordon Fee writes:

But “hortatory letter of friendship” is only part of the story, and in many ways the least significant part of that. For in Paul’s hands everything turns into gospel, including both formal and material aspects of such a letter. Most significantly, friendship in particular is radically transformed from a two-way to a three-way bond – between him, the Philippians, and Christ. And obviously it is Christ who is the center and focus of everything. Paul’s and their friendship is predicated on their mutual “participation/partnership” in the gospel.2Gordon D. Fee, p 13.

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