The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.
—Emil Brunner, The Word and the World
I stood up with tears of joy and thanksgiving, feeling the depth of the love God had had for me before I even knew the God who saves. I sat among retired missionaries who served 10, 20, and even 30 or more years. Inexplicably, my heart leapt each time a missionary stood to share the story of being sent out from the Reformed Church in America to Taiwan. I soon realized why, when I stood up to introduce myself as a missionary also sent out from the Reformed Church in America to Thailand.
Standing, I realized that the mission work of these missionaries in Taiwan—the sowing of the seed, the watering of the plants, and the harvesting of the crop—through all of God’s sovereign grace, was mission work that would bear fruit in a Taiwanese congregation in Elmhurst, Queens. I came to faith in Christ through the English ministries of a then-25-year-old Taiwanese congregation that had revitalized a dying 270-year-old Dutch Reformed Church, the Reformed Church of Newtown.
I was amazed to see the connection and the mystery of mission work. My spiritual heritage, as far as I can go back now, finds its roots in the mission work in Taiwan. The Taiwanese people who came to faith, who were discipled by these missionaries, who would migrate to New York City, formed a new ethnic congregation and grew to minister to a new generation of Asian Americans. From a Buddhist family background, I came to Christ through this ministry and was baptized at this church and grew and served this church for over ten years before our transition to Thailand for missions.
What if these missionaries did not faithfully go to Taiwan, heeding their call from God? “What if” might not be the right question to ask. Rather, I marvel at how good God was, is, and always will be to call missionaries to a foreign land, leaving behind the familiar and comfortable, learning a new language and culture, falling in love with its people, and serving with all their heart to see people know and follow Christ. These missionaries to Taiwan could never know or predict how their work would bear fruit in others, like me, in New York City, where many others too would be called to the mission field decades later to different countries and contexts.
Discovering this part of my spiritual and missional story, I am seeing how my own mission work must grow in areas of patience and long suffering; in areas of leadership development and pastoral discipleship; in areas of helping my supporting churches grow in their awareness and ministry of discipleship and missions.
As I reflect on my spiritual journey and how God led me to a church and denomination with a great mission history, I realize how central mission is to the existence of the church. Here are five questions for North American churches to ponder about their relationship with mission work:
1. Which nations does your church have a heart for?
Remember Jesus’s words in Matthew 28:18-20? “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (emphasis mine).
How is your church interacting with these words, with an emphasis on “all nations”? What nation(s) might God be giving your church or its leadership a burden to focus prayer and resources toward, thus connecting to God’s heart for the nations?
2. How is your church praying for other nations?
How often and with what depth is your church praying and focusing on those contexts or nations where there is very little Christian presence? How can you facilitate and invite other local congregations in your area to pray together for lost people in other nations? How can you be listening to God’s voice in directing your church’s ministry focus?
3. How is your church developing leaders?
Many times, mission is practiced and embodied as an opportunity for churches to help the poor, oppressed, and the needy far and near. Though this is very important, how can your church also interact through mission to emphasize leadership development in other nations as well as coming alongside churches in those nations to help them grow in faithfulness and impact in their own contexts? Without local leaders, good work cannot be continued when our presence fades or resources run low. How is your church developing leaders locally so you can help develop leaders globally?
4. Who in your church are senders and who are goers?
It has been said that there are two types of Christians: senders and goers. Senders pray, give sacrificially, and equips missionaries for work in other contexts. Goers are called elsewhere, they prepare and equip themselves, and they leave a familiar context in order to disciple people who have not heard the gospel. How can your church’s discipleship programs help people in the congregation discern and identify a calling to be either a sender or a goer? How would this help your church to be more outward facing?
5. How can your church create genuine global partnerships?
With North American Christianity rapidly decreasing, what would it look like for your congregation to begin innovating and renewing the church by ministering, inviting, and partnering with ethnic churches in your area? What might it look like for your church to have a long view of mission work where you invite mission and church partners overseas to be an integral part of leading your local congregation? What if the “other” becomes a new and exciting chapter in your church’s story? Our tendency is to focus on the things we may lose right now and not look at how much can be gained in the long term.
In his book The Word and the World, Emil Brunner writes, “The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.” It is prophetic cry to remind the church in every place that it exists. What does your church exist for? What does your church burn for?
May mission locally and globally be the responding exclamation of all our churches.