What is the Missional Life?
Welcome to my neighborhood. Here’s what it looks like:
- the lady ringing up my order at Panera Bread who is a lesbian;
- the neighbor with everything that life seems to offer—the big house, the Lexus, the beautiful wife, the straight-A kids;
- the guy next to me in the gym who is committing adultery and destroying the lives of himself and his family;
- the guy who works in the bike shop with whom I am pursuing a friendship;
- Phyllis, the 78-year-old woman who just lost her husband of 54 years.
Keep looking and you’ll find just about everyone. The atheist. The mocker. The scoffer. The intellectual. The ignorant. These are people that need Jesus. These are the people that I have been called to reach. They are my mission field.
What does your mission field look like? I’m sure the faces are different, but the state of their soul before God is not.
Pastor, God has called you to more than just the people in your church. He wants to mobilize you and your people to reach another people. The people next door. Your little culture.
Many Christians have been giving a lot of attention to places like the "10/40 window," for which we should praise God. We should also keep praying that the Lord would send more workers into overseas harvest fields. But in our own post-Christian society in America there is an emerging unreached people-group. They’re not in a foreign country. They live right down the street.
Sometimes I think the most unreached people-group in the world are the ones next door.
The primary mission field for most of us is not far away, it’s in the routine of our daily lives. God doesn’t save us to be passive spectators. He saves us and then sends us out into the world to tell other people about Jesus. Each of us is called to play a part in God’s mission to save sinners—the same sinners we meet on a daily basis.
God’s kingdom—his inbreaking, redemptive rule—is advancing all around us. Paul says in Colossians 1, "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (vv. 13-14). What an incredible picture. God is doing the work of transferring people from the clutches of Satan and this world into a new kingdom. His kingdom.
Don’t you want to be involved in that? God invites you and your church to be involved in this glorious process of bringing people into his kingdom. We get to play a small part in what God is doing. How? By living like missionaries who are sent by God. We are not just going, we are sent.
We don’t just go to the gym. We don’t just go to Panera Bread, or the bike store, or the neighborhood barbeque. We don’t just go to work or the classroom. We don’t even just go home for Christmas. Thinking missionally changes our perspective. It reminds us that God, the sovereign ruler of this world, sends us to each of these places. He sends all those who belong to him into this world to help usher people from darkness to his kingdom of light.
Our job as pastors is to help our church members see that God has a heart for the non-Christians all around them, and that his divine hand has brought these non-Christians directly into their every-day communities with this purpose of mission. Sunday’s are assuredly for hearing the preached word and caring for one another. But Sundays should also be sending days for the church—a day to remember that the mission is not over, that we are being "sent" as missionaries into the world to reveal God’s glorious kingdom.
So how do we teach the members of our churches to be effective missionaries? God instructs us in Colossians 4 that we must teach our people to pray, to live, and to talk.
Continue steadfastly in prayer being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time pray also for us that God may open to us a door for the word to declare the mystery of Christ on account of which I am in prison that I may make it clear which is how I ought to speak. Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Col. 4:2-6).
First, we must teach our churches to pray. Paul says in verse 2 that our prayers should be steadfast and watchful. God wants us to understand that our communion with him through prayer is the key to mission work. In other words, effective evangelism begins with diligent, watchful prayer. God wants us to talk to him before we go out in the world and talk about him.
Paul then transitions from this teaching on prayer to asking for prayer. Specifically, he asks the Colossian church to "pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ." Paul is in prison, but he does not ask them to pray that the prison door be opened so that he could be released. No, he asks for the door of opportunity to be opened so that he can tell of the mystery of Christ. Paul basically says, "I might be in jail, but the word can never be imprisoned. Christ must be preached—even in jail. So please pray that, as I reach out to these people in this jail, the door of their hearts would be opened."
Do you see what vision for God’s kingdom and mission can do? It takes jail time and turns it into opportunity! Paul loved being a part of the kingdom, because he loved the King. And he was so radically changed by salvation that he was more concerned about the life and eternal destiny of the jailer holding the key to his jail cell than about getting out of jail himself!
Paul believed that he was sent. Rome didn’t put him in jail. God did. Why? Because God wanted his kingdom to be revealed in a Roman prison. To Paul, this was opportunity.
What can we learn? Effective mission work begins with appealing to the King for opportunities to tell people about his kingdom and the gospel that makes a relationship with him possible. We must model and teach our people that effective mission work begins with faith-filled prayers and petitions for opportunities. Every day that we wake up and go to work or go to the gym is an opportunity to share the gospel. So encourage your people to pray for opportunities in their lives.
But this point needs a warning label underneath it: enter at your own risk. If you pray for opportunities, they will happen. And often they will happen at the most awkward, inconvenient moments. Remember, Paul received his opportunity in jail. So teach your people that often it may be the very circumstances that are inconvenient and interruptions to their normal lives that are the opportunities that God is giving them to share his gospel! So teach your people to be watchful.
Around the time I began wrestling with the concept of mission and kingdom and praying diligently for opportunities, a friend named Andrew and I were driving across the country. We tried getting into Rocky Mountain National Park to go camping, but God decided to send ten inches of snow—even though it was June.
So we holed up for the night in Grand Lake, Colorado. We were dead tired, we were starving, and the only place open was…the Saloon. I kid you not: the Saloon. When Andrew and I walked through the double doors it felt like the record player scratched to a stop. Everybody turned to look at us, and I think they knew that we were not from around those parts.
Andrew and I hurried over to the corner, doing our best not to make eye contact. Near us was a group of about six people. They probably had twenty shot glasses on their table (that means they were drunk). And they were toasting, one shot at a time. One of the gentleman toasted, "To Jesus Christ, and to Satan, his brother."
I had prayed that morning for an opportunity to share the gospel. But this was not what I had in mind.
I looked at Andrew and said, "You know what? I have no clue what to do. I just know that he toasted Jesus and Satan, and I know that I just prayed about an opportunity this morning." I had a tract in my pocket, so I walked over. "Hey, how are you?" I said, making as little eye contact as possible. "You know, I heard you toast Jesus, and this is about Jesus. You might want to read it. I’ll be over there. If you have any questions, come on over."
I hurried back to our table, almost jumped into my chair, and started shoveling food into my mouth so that we could exit as quickly as possible. But sure enough, Kevin—the guy—and his girlfriend came over, and we started talking about Jesus. Kevin was belligerent, angry, and aggressive. But his girlfriend was open. She asked sincere questions about Jesus.
God used my prayers from that morning! He sent two idiots to Colorado, made it snow in Rocky Mountain National Park in June so that we couldn’t camp, led us to a saloon, and created an opportunity for us to tell this lady about Jesus. We got to pray with her that night as she professed Jesus. We left that saloon in awe.
So teach and model such prayer for your congregation. Start in private and let your public prayers be an overflow of that private passion for mission. Then publicly share stories of how God answered those prayers in your own life. Share stories of your failures and stories of God’s powerful work. As you share, the faith of others will be inspired, and they will step out in their mission to reach the world next door.
TEACH THEM TO LIVE
Second, we must teach our people how to live. Remember this: effective missionaries live distinct lives among a specific culture of people. God tells us, "Conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders, making the best use of the time."
There’s a huge assumption in this passage: that you and I live among people who don’t know Jesus (the outsiders). What is Paul implicitly telling us to do? Be where the non-Christians are. Go to where those on the outside of the family of God are. Be missionaries to them. Live where they live. Be friends with them.
Think about it for a moment. What kind of missionary would go to a foreign city, find a place to live, find a source of income, find where to buy food, maybe find a hobby and a wife, and then kick back and enjoy his surroundings, never befriending the locals. We wouldn’t call him a missionary. We’d call him a resident.
Some of us have lost the fact that all of us are missionaries, and we have taken up residency.
More explicitly, Paul tells us to live wisely toward outsiders so as to make good use of the time. That means living a distinctly different life. I think Paul is applying Colossians 1:10—"Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord fully pleasing to him"—to evangelism. In other words, as we live our lives in relationship with people who do not know Jesus, the world should get a glimpse of Jesus and his character from the way we live. Our people should know that they are billboards for Christ—billboards that reveal how worthy Christ is. That he is worthy of all of our life.
When a person who does not know Jesus scratches the surface of our life and witnesses our actions, our motives, our decisions, as well as how we handle our money, our time, our energy, our pleasure, and, most importantly of all, our sin, that person should be struck by how glorious Jesus is and how amazing the salvation he offers is. A transformed life through the Spirit’s power is one of the most strategic and effective tools for evangelism. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, self-control—all of these things will provoke outsiders. A joyful Christian walking through testing and trial will provoke people who are watching.
Does your church understand this? Do they understand why obedience and the fruit of the Spirit are so important? Obedience is not about winning points. It’s about looking like Jesus and imitating him. And as pastors this must start first with our own lives. Does your church understand how holiness has a greater end than just an "abundant" life? A holy life is God’s proof to a dying world that his kingdom really exists and living in his kingdom through Christ is far more satisfying than any life this world has to offer.
"Okay," you ask, "So, what about being relevant?" The topic of cultural relevance is thrown around a lot these days, and I am glad it is. It’s an important conversation to have when it comes to our mission. We need to know our surrounding area and the people that inhabit it, so that we can understand what conversations they’re having, and what conversations we should have with them.
But relevance is a packaging for truth. It is important, but it is certainly not as essential as the truth itself. The truth is essential.
Not only that, godliness and the fruit of the Spirit are far more important than "being relevant." Honestly, it’s easy to be relevant in our culture. Get a tattoo, get a nose ring, wear tight pants, and listen to the band Coldplay. Okay, great! Now you’re ready for the mission. You’re relevant and everybody around you is going to get saved, right?
Tight pants and a nose ring don’t compare to the power of the Spirit. If you own a Coldplay t-shirt and have a nose ring, that’s great. We need all kinds of people working in the kingdom, and I mean that sincerely. It’s very important not to moralize our preferences when it comes to appearance. It can turn people off to the gospel very quickly. But we do need to emphasize in our churches where the power resides for evangelism. It’s not the package, it’s the truth inside the package. It’s not the clothes that give us power, it’s the changed life that has been radically altered by Jesus.
We need to keep what is primary, primary. When those things that are secondary start pushing out what is primary in evangelism, danger is near. The emphasis should never be more on the shell and the packaging than on the message itself.
I love packaging. I really do. I still have the box from the iPod I got three years ago. It’s a brilliant piece of packaging: Smooth lines. Simple graphics. Pieces that fit perfectly together. Secret compartments. I could play with it for hours.
Packaging is great. But if the unbelievers around you open the package and see nothing different inside then there’s a problem. Your life has compromised the mission. Jesus Christ died on a cross so that what is on the inside of the package would be radically different.
If an unbeliever gets to know you—opens the package—and finds love, joy and humility, it will open up a whole new world for them. That’s relevant. As you talk to them about the grace of Jesus Christ as shown on the cross and how his grace changed you; and as you talk to them about what you were, about your anger, your pride, and how those things manifested themselves in your life; and as they get to know the real you changed by Jesus, grace will become amazing to them.
Teach your church that missionaries live distinct lives in a specific culture.
TEACH THEM TO TALK
We pray, we live, and thirdly, we talk. "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person."
How can you be an effective and relevant missionary? Simple. Have conversations with unbelievers. Share your life with them. And in time share the gospel of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross with them. And make sure when you share you speak so that they can understand.
A few years ago, I was talking on the phone with my uncle, whom I love, but who does not yet know Jesus. We were talking about my dad, and I said to my uncle, "You know, my dad is so relational and relatable." There was silence on the other end of the phone. Then I heard my uncle say, "What the heck does that mean? Did you just say ‘relational and relatable’?" I responded, "Oh, that’s bad pastor talk. I’m sorry. You know I’ve got that pastor hat on sometimes." And I asked him to correct me every time I talk like that.
We Christians need to learn how to communicate. Sometimes what works in our church doesn’t necessarily translate out there, as with terms like "relational and relatable." When that happens, we can just look at our non-Christian friends and say, "I’m sorry. That’s just Christian talk, here’s what I mean . . ."
But that does not mean that we accept the culture’s language in its entirety. There are certain elements that need to be rejected outright. Someone once told me that he curses around unbelievers because it makes non-Christians feel more comfortable. Now I’m grateful for this man’s evangelistic zeal. But cursing around non-Christians is not right, because Scripture clearly tells us, "Let no unwholesome speech come out of our mouth." Our lives and words must be distinct from the culture around us.
At times, I become concerned when the whole thrust of our churches’ teaching on evangelism is "be bold." I am all for being bold. Sharing your life and Jesus with unbelievers takes boldness. But in our desire to be bold, we can sometimes be arrogant. Scripture teaches us to be bold and to be humble. Every time you speak to an unbeliever, concentrate on how you say things. Concentrate on your attitude and your motive. Let the words you speak be marked by a humble—not arrogant—orthodoxy. Remember our motive needs to match our message.
Paul also says to let our conversations be seasoned with salt. Do you know what "salty" means? It means "witty and full of life." Let your conversations with unbelievers be witty and full of life. Let your joy come forth, so that they can see it.
There’s a young man in our church named Mike. He is one of the most joy-filled missionaries I know. One day Mike was supposed to lead an evangelistic Bible study at a local college campus. But when he entered the room he had reserved, there were about eight gamers sitting around. Gamers are the types who like to wear black—black trench coats, black eye makeup, black fingernails, black everything.
Mike walked in, and said in a friendly tone, "Hey guys, it’s our turn. Can I have the room?"
In response, a tall man in a trench coat screamed, "No!" He ripped his shirt open and bared his chest, and his girlfriend came over and stuck a pin in his chest.
Then he stood up, looked at Mike and said, "I wanna eat your soul." (I’m not exaggerating; this really happened.)
Here was Mike’s Spirit-led salty remark: "Well, don’t fill up on soul, because we’ve got plenty of free pizza."
Immediately, the man’s buddies started falling over themselves with laughter. That salty remark defused a scary situation. And the gamers? They all stayed for the Bible study.
Why does Jesus want our conversations to be salty and gracious? Because most of the time God intends for us to be seed-sowers rather than reapers. And God wants every encounter with one of his children to be a moment where that unbeliever experiences grace and wit and joy. So let’s do the next Christian a favor and not ruin it for them by being arrogant.
There was a young lady named Colleen that I and a number of other from our church were reaching out to at Starbucks. She didn’t know Jesus, but she loved to be a part of our campus planning meetings. I would say to her, "Colleen, come on over and tell us what we Christians are doing wrong. We need your input. We’re just trying to save you anyway."
And she loved it. She loved the people, and she loved hanging out with us. We got involved in her life. We gave her money to participate in an AIDS walk. It was a genuine friendship. But eventually she moved away to New York. I didn’t see her get saved, and it broke my heart.
Three years later, I was greeting people at the door of our church, and I saw Colleen walk in. Previously, she would never have set foot in a church. But there she was walking toward me with a huge smile and tears in her eyes. She was 8 months pregnant and unmarried.
She said, "Eric, I’ve heard that it takes a person 85 times to hear the gospel before they’re saved. Well, it took 86 for me. Thank you for telling me about Jesus."
I didn’t lead Colleen to the Lord, but I was part of it. One more person transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. Amazing grace.
Whether your church is in Dallas, Texas or Sydney, Australia, Philly or New York, La Paz or Orlando, God has strategically placed you and the members of your church in that place. He has radically converted you and called you to be missionaries. Why? Because he wants his kingdom to be revealed, he wants the lost to be saved. And your church gets to play a part in it. What a mission!