Recently I was tasked to write an article together with my friend on mission. It was a post-trip reflection having returned from Northern Thailand. Here it is:
The Mission of God and the Church
Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church’s (PSPC) first trip into Thailand for short-term missions was back in 2009. Since then, we have been sending teams on an annual basis, working with 3 different organisations. However, our best-fit partner so far has been Ban Klang Baptist Church (BKBC). We have engaged them to bring the Gospel to the hill-tribe people of Northern Thailand for 5 years running and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The years of partnership has been a reminder of many things. One of which is that the gospel of Jesus Christ not only unites the visible church but it also brings salvation to those who believe (Rom 1:16). Yet in all the five years spent working with BKBC, two questions lurk at the back of all our minds – how does all of this make sense of the mission of God and how can PSPC be more involved in God’s mission?
The answer I suspect lies in our understanding of how we are to understand the term mission. Chris Wright in his magnum opus The Mission of God expresses his concern in equivocating God’s mission with evangelism. To be clear, he does affirm that evangelism is part of God’s mission. But that is different from saying that God’s singular mission is evangelism. If mission belongs to God, then it is at least apparent that God does more than evangelise. He cares for the land and all created things so much so that part of man’s responsibility was to be a steward over God’s creation. Mission properly understood must then refer to all that God is doing and wants to do in bringing about His care and redemption for all creation. Seen in this light, any ministry within PSPC must acknowledge two things. 1) World evangelisation is part of the mission of the church only because it is also part of the mission of God. 2) A holistic model for the church’s participation in God’s mission must also include care for creation.
1) World evangelisation is part of the mission of the church only because it is also part of the mission of God.
A right theology of mission informs us that the church does not invent her own mission. Rather the church participates in the ongoing mission of God. While the way in which the execution of missions is contextualized or innovated, mission itself isn’t. To quote Wright, “Mission is not ours; mission is God’s…it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world.” This means that all of missions are participative in nature because it is the church participating in God’s redemptive plan. In a similar manner, the Chiang Rai ministry joins in partnership with local churches so that we can collectively take part in God’s mission. Yet this partnership with local churches isn’t random or blind. One of the criteria that had to be considered was whether the church shared the passion and mission of world evangelization as well. It was humbling and inspiring to meet the pastor of BKBC, who shared that deep desire to see the Gospel preached in the whole of Northern Thailand. Since Pastor Li began his ministry some 25 years ago, he has spared no effort to bring the good news to hill-tribe people, sometimes travelling 6 hours on foot alone to get to villages hidden deep in the mountains. On top of all these, his ability to speak multiple languages including Mandarin made partnership and communication between us very ideal. His dedication in carrying out God’s mission has greatly encouraged us to also do our best for God in this area. This common understanding of world evangelization between PSPC and BKBC reminds us of the common goal that we have. But it also brings comfort and boldness in our attempt at outreach. If mission ultimately belongs to God, then there should be no fear that God’s mission can fail. A good example would be that of Pastor Li’s initial ‘fruitless’ ministry. In this world of instant results, we keep looking for things that give us an indication of success in the short term, forgetting that God’s work belongs to Him and is for the long term. When Pastor Li started his work in Ban Klang, his faithful service to the Lord only bore its first fruits 12 years in. If mission originates from us, then by what criterion do we assess whether a mission is successful or not? In the case of Pastor Li, it would have been easy to conclude that the mission was a failure if one looked entirely at numbers in the early years. But precisely because mission does not belong to us but to God, we can go in faith and wait upon the Lord knowing that mission belonging to Him can never fail.
2) A holistic model for the church’s participation in God’s mission must also include care for creation
I recall one instance when I was at the back of the pick-up truck in Chiang Rai. One of the youths after drinking his drink threw the bottle out of the truck. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. It doesn’t take long for anyone to realise that there is a lack of care for the environment as you walk along the pavements in Thailand. Why is this so? My guess is that this is due to a neglect in teaching members that God cares for more than just human beings. If the earth is indeed the LORD’s (Psalm 24), do we not have a duty to look after it and treat it with care? Yet in our push for evangelization, there may be times where we have been guilty of neglecting the other aspects that God has called us to do, namely look after creation. With this in view, perhaps we can also say that cross cultural overseas missions like Chiang Rai is but a small part of God’s mission. There is another side of God’s mission which is often overlooked that actually takes place in the marketplace. I am of course referring to all the Christians who are out there working and striving hard to reach out to colleagues and through their work, serve the common good. That surely counts as taking part in God’s mission of caring for creation as well. I do not of course mean to diminish the sense of urgency in which we are called to bring the gospel to those who have not heard. But I do think it is important for us to start seeing our various vocations as contributing to God’s mission and thereby using our time at work more intentionally.
As we begin this new year on the theme of “Reaching Out, Transforming Lives”, we must collectively adopt the missionary identity that we called to take on. This missionary identity must begin not with the goal of transforming lives but on first having a transformed life. As someone once said “a missionary isn’t someone who crosses the sea but someone who sees the cross.” Perhaps the move we need to make as a church in fulfilling this theme is to collectively pray and ask that the Holy Spirit may stir in us a deep seated appreciation of the old rugged cross. It is there that we come to a greater awareness of the church’s missionary identity as well.