I will be speaking at Missio Nexus next week in Orlando, FL. The theme is social transformation and the gospel, and they asked me to talk about some of the issues on the shadow side. You can still join us at Missio Nexus here.
As I was thinking about my topic, I wrote this article and thought I’d share it with you in three parts. This is Part 1.
We place a lot of value on someone’s last words before they pass into eternity. When someone places such value on a message that they commit their final moments with friends and family to communicating that message, it should cause us to weigh that message with reverence and sobriety. I often say that Jesus’ last words should be our first priority.
While Jesus remains very much alive and well, his final words to his followers are recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. Before ascending to the Father, Jesus looked at his disciples and, in his final moments with them before his future return, said, “[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 CEB).
Each of the Gospel accounts have their own version of what’s come to be known as the Great Commission.1 John 20:19f relates the sent and sending nature of Christ himself. Matthew 28:19f is known for its focus on the nations of the world. Luke 24:46–48 is gospel-oriented, focusing on the importance of repentance and faith in Christ, while Acts 1 speaks of the how the fruit of being filled with the Holy Spirit will result in witnesses globally.
Luke’s reminder of Jesus’ last words with which he sent out his followers on mission, not simply to their fellow Jews in the areas around Jerusalem, but to all the nations of the earth. That mantle of mission to the nations has been handed down from generation to generation, and it rests upon us today to faithfully steward.
As I argued in the book, “Finish the Mission,” evangelicals, especially in the Global North, appear to gravitate towards two distinct paths when discussing God’s mission. On one hand, there’s a tendency to follow the “sentness” path, focusing on the church’s role as sent and exploring the implications of being “missional” in this world. On the other hand, there’s the “nations” path, which highlights the church as the sender to various parts of the world, and among all peoples of the world.
Although these paths are not inherently contradictory, they often diverge in practice more frequently than not. Luke is clear that we are called to reach our own, to those who are near, and to all who are far off with the gospel of Jesus Christ, but there’s a shadow side to our Great Commission endeavors that requires a shift (like the theme of this year’s Missio Nexus gathering), to consider the social and transformational impact of our mission.
Illuminating the Shadow Side
We see in the New Testament two characteristics of the Church’s task of reaching the nations. First, we see mission itself in action—the Spirit sending out God’s people on mission, first following Pentecost, then the diaspora following the death of Stephen, and then again in the missionary journeys of the apostles.
But secondly, we also see a shadow side with which the Church has had to wrestle and contend since its infancy—the racial and ethnic tension that has accompanied the missionary expansion of the Church. If we’re to be faithful to the commission God has given us, we must be truthful about both.
While over the past 100 years we’ve made strides toward repenting of the sins of the past, the task of cultivating a flourishing multi-ethnic global Church that fosters dignity for people of every tribe and tongue is a never-ending enterprise in which we must always be engaged.
1 I’ve written a chapter in John Piper’s book “Finish the Mission” on the topic of the four commissions of Christ: Stetzer, E. (2013). “Reaching Our Neighbors and the Nations.” In J. Piper & D. Mathis (Eds.), Finish the Mission: Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged (pp. 56-72). Crossway.