Over the past decade, John Piper’s categorical way of thinking about international missions and the local church has invigorated countless people. Originating from Bethlehem Baptist Church’s “Driving Convictions Behind Foreign Missions,” the decisive paradigm places one of three roles on every Christian when it comes to missions.
- Goers: those “who cross a culture to plant the church where it isn’t.”
- Senders: those “agitating, fundraising, giving, praying, and supporting those who go.”
- Disobedient: those “who don’t even think about it and don’t care about it” (ibid.).
I am grateful Piper clarified and specified international missions involvement in this way. I believe it allowed many to see that everyone has a role to play in the Great Commission. It has also been one of the best attempts I’ve ever known to affirm sending as noble, vital, and meaningful. And it expresses the biting reality that uninvolved Christians are actually disobedient to Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations.
But I also believe there’s a better way to think about this. You and your fellow church members are more than senders, goers, or disobedient. Here’s why.
Every Christian Is Sent
We love to say that God is a “missionary God.” But that’s limited by our pragmatism. More broadly we could say that God is a loving, outgoing God. His love is richly shared from eternity past among Father, Son, and Spirit (John 17:24). From his loving, overflowing nature, God sent. The Father sent the Son, the Father and Son sent the Spirit, and the Father, Son, and Spirit send the church.
So I believe we can more aptly say that God is a sending God. That means every single one of his sons and daughters, by the image of God that they bear, are sent ones. Sent ones aren’t limited to those who cross cultural and linguistic barriers to proclaim the gospel. All of us are sent on God’s mission, yoked with the Great Commission (Matt. 5:14; 2 Cor. 5:20).
Missions Is More Than Practice—It’s Also Identity
In the world of international missions, we tend to be rather pragmatic. We aren’t just desperate to talk about getting the gospel to those who haven’t heard. We actually want to get it there—yesterday.
We want action. The Bible commands it. The lost need it. And so we are drawn to practical categories such as goers, senders, and disobedient. But as my former professor Bruce Ware boomed with a slap to the lectern, “There is no such thing as ‘practical theology’—all theology is practical if you really believe it!”
Skipping ahead to the practice of international missions misses the powerful theological-missiological identity of every Christian. Our historical limitations on sending may have more to do with the failure to cultivate the sent identity of every Christian than the failure to provide more avenues, funds, or training.
Emphasizing Practice over Identity Limits the Mission
Ignoring, or at least downplaying, international missions identity leads each Christian to focus mainly on their deeds (or lack thereof). While there are certainly biblical grounds for true faith being expressed by action (John 14:15; Eph. 2:10, James 1:22), the New Testament never separates what we do for God from what God does for us.
The truths and implications of the gospel inform and empower our obedience to Christ. Focusing primarily on our deeds in regard to international missions can be crippling. For those who aren’t missionaries, even the appearance of their lack of deeds can be guilt-inducing enough to distance them not only from the Great Commission, but from God himself. For those who are missionaries, the temptation to admire their surplus of deeds, even subtly, can lead to pride that alienates them from others as well as the delights of the gospel.