What is it really like on the mission field? What is it that a missionary actually does (or should do) on the mission field? Sometimes we have a mistaken idea of missionary life. We might think missionary families are surrounded by wild animals or are in danger from hostile tribes. This is not usually the case but… We were in language school in Kenya in preparation to go to Tanzania for a church planting assignment. Midway through the term, each family would take a trip to the Kenya coast to practice their Swahili where the language is spoken better. In East Africa there are very few roadside hotels, so often if a stop is necessary, missionaries will overnight at a game park. Our children were small then (5 and 2 1/2) so we halted to spend the night at Voi Safari Lodge. We watched from the top of the hill overlooking a vast plain as a pride of 14 lions were trying to make a kill on about 500 Cape Buffalo. The lions charged the buffalo but were rebuffed at every turn. They were not successful and remained hungry.
Voi Safari Lodge is perched on top a hill that overlooks a pond. That evening after supper I noticed a path leading from the restaurant at the lodge to a “photo blind” carved out of a cave in the rocks. We walked down the trail about seventy-five yards into a passageway, down a flight of stairs to a landing and then to another flight of stairs where we entered a large room. There we looked unseen from a large picture window at a small watering hole where many animals had come to drink. We watched as Cape Buffalo, giraffe, zebra, several kinds of gazelle warily drank from the pond. All of a sudden we heard a blood-curdling roar and the animals disappeared. We had expected other tourists to join us but this had not happened. Instead we were alone. I decided that it was time for our family to go back to our rooms. As we ascended the steps, at the first landing I saw through a barred window the head of the largest lion I'd ever seen. Then I heard another roar and there were footsteps above my head. When we reached the exit door of the photo blind, I realized the lions were all around us and we were trapped inside. Furthermore, the door to the photo blind would not close all the way and I knew it was only a matter of time before the 14 lions charged the door and entered. Therefore, I called for help to the lodge above, but nobody came. Then we prayed and I tried something, which in retrospect was probably not a very good idea. I banged the door as loudly as I could and then I stepped outside and ran up the hill as fast as possible.
It happened to be the exact day that sprinter Carl Lewis won the 100 meter dash in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics but he could not have caught me. I was motivated. You never know how fast you can run until you think a lion might be chasing you. When I reached the top of the hill, somewhat surprised I had not been eaten, I told the startled desk clerk, “My family is trapped by lions in the photo blind.” He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, “I'll go down and help you with your family.” I replied, “I'll follow you.” About half-way down the hillside, his eyes became as big as saucers and said, “Twendeni” which in Swahili means, ‘let's go’ or ‘let's get out of here.’ He had seen lions waiting for us, crouching on the trail. We ran back to the lodge where the desk clerk called the Kenya soldiers who came with machine guns and dressed in battle fatigues, rescuing our family from our lion's den. After we were back in our rooms and had put the children to bed, the desk clerk called Kathy and I over and said, “Look!” The lions had returned to the mouth of the cave. We knew God had supernaturally protected us almost as miraculously as He did Daniel in the Lion's Den.
We did not return to Voi Safari Lodge for 13 years. My daughter Bethany was in the first grade in 1984. Now she was a senior in high school. I noticed the lodge had made some improvements. They had constructed walls along the trail from the lodge restaurant to the photo blind so visitors would not be exposed to wild animals. I asked if there was anyone still employed there who worked at the lodge 13 years previously. There were two men who fit this description and one of them came and spoke with me. I asked, “Have you ever had any trouble with lions and the guests?” He replied, “Only once.” Then he looked at me closely and said, “You're the one.”
This seldom happens on the mission field but since fleeing from lions is not the experience of most missionaries today, what do missionaries do? What is their role in these modern times? If you commit your life to serve in missions what could you expect on the field? How do you know if you are called? These are all questions I would like to address.
1. What is a Missionary?
Let's look at Acts 13:1-4 and see where the first missionaries came from as we search for our first clue. The missionary movement began in a local church. F.F. Bruce translates this passage; “Antioch, in the local church there, there were pastors and teachers.” This seems to be the most vibrant church in the 1st century – the first church plant outside of Jerusalem.
Antioch had some advantages. The city was the capitol of the Roman Imperial Province of Syria. Antioch was an important commercial center with a large Jewish population. After Stephen's persecution many disciples left Jerusalem for Antioch. At first they spoke to the Jews alone. Then some of the men from Cyprus and Cyrene began sharing with the Greeks. A large number believed and all Jerusalem heard of this. Barabbas was dispatched to Antioch by the Apostles and liked what he found. He sent for Saul of Tarsus, not far away, to come and help him.
The scriptures (Acts 11:26) tell us “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.”
Whenever you are called a Christian, you can thank the Church of Antioch. They so personified Christ they were called Christians. They were so committed they sent a financial gift to the mother church. It is no wonder they launched the modern missionary movement. Most who read these words may not become missionaries, but you can become missions-minded. When we started our first church in a Muslim, limited access country in N. Africa, it began as only a struggling congregation of twenty. I was driving through the Sahara Desert with my co-worker, Pastor Farouk. While passing a town of about 20,000, he said to me, “I have to go to these people, how will they hear about Jesus, unless I tell them?” Although a recent convert, Farouk had captured the spirit of Antioch. His impulse was to start more churches.
It is interesting the first missionaries came from among the church leadership. A recent arrival from the Jerusalem church, Barnabas, a noted man of faith was clearly the leader. He was a Levite from Cyprus but due to his character was called Barnabas, or son of encouragement. The second leader was Saul, a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, a fairly recent convert. Then there was Simeon who was called Niger. Simeon was a Jewish name while Niger meant dark complexion. Simeon may have been black, dark in complexion or both. Lucius was from Cyrene where Jews from this locale were first to speak to Gentiles about Christ (Acts 11:20). And then there was Manean who grew up with Herod the Tetrarch, the son of Herod the Great. Evidently Manean, whose name means ‘comforter’, was from a noble background.
McArthur says syntronhus can be translated ‘foster-brother’ and could refer to a boy of the same age brought up as a companion to a prince. Acts 13:1 says these five men were “prophets” and “teachers” in the church at Antioch. These leaders men were the church leaders and were fasting and praying to the Lord. Scripture nowhere commands believers to fast but assumes his followers will do so. As they were praying the Holy Spirit said “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” The root word for “set apart” is the idea of a boundary (TDNT, vol. 5, page 452). The idea is that the missionary has been given a sphere of influence. This is what a missionary is: One who is separated to operate in a certain sphere and set apart by God to do so. The word “call” comes from a technical legal term in Greek literature for bringing to judgment (TDNT, vol. 3., page 500-501).
How do you know if you are called to missions? I don't know but I believe you'll know. Adrian Rogers said, “I am more sure of my call to preach than I am of my own salvation, and I am sure of that.”
Let me tell you about my call to missions. Although I grew up in the in Tallahassee, Florida, I wanted to become a pastor in a pioneer area. So after completing Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, Kathy and I journeyed to the Western United States. I pastored in Monterey Park, California and Glendale, Arizona in the Phoenix area. My first church had about 100 in weekly worship attendance while the second church numbered about 450 in Sunday services. While in seminary I had never considered going to the mission field. Never once did it even cross my mind. However, I asked my youth director to just choose a week at Glorieta, the Baptist Conference Center in New Mexico. He chose foreign missions week. We met missionaries from all over the world and listened to a message by the Area Director from West Africa, John Mills. He said that 10% of the world's population receives 90% of the trained Christian workforce, while 90% of the world's population receives only 10% of the world's trained ministers. John Mills asked “is it possible that God is calling Christian workers to other parts of the world but some are not listening?” After the service Kathy asked me, “What did you think?” I asked her, “What did you think?” As we talked back and forth we realized that God had called us separately in that service to go to Tanzania and help the missionaries reach that country for Christ.
God called us but part of our call was, “Lord, I'm qualified.” I had completed seminary. I was serving as a pastor. We are still young (early 30's) and our two children were healthy. We turned over our lives over to the Lord in prayer. Therefore, if and when God calls you to the mission field, you need to go while you are young. Your health can change and your children's health might deteriorate. If God is calling you, you need to go. Do you know what's interesting to me? There were five people in the Antioch Church but God called 40% of them to go to the mission field. That is a pretty good ratio.
A question emerges, “Is there a missionary gift?” The Bible says the five leaders in the Antioch church were “prophets and teachers.” Paul, however, was also an Apostle. The others were not apostles, except for Barnabus who is called an apostle in Acts 4:14. Barnabas, however, seems like a mentor to Paul because in Acts 9:26-27, all were afraid of Saul due to his past life. Barnabas is the one who brought the new convert Saul to meet the Apostles. Of course, it's clear Paul was not yet recognized as an apostle yet, although this came to pass later. In the New Testament Paul calls himself as “an apostle out of time” (1 Corinthians 15:8) and Peter refers to Paul as someone who wrote scripture.
The derivation of the word, Apostle, is quite interesting. Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) devotes no less than 47 pages to the word “apostle” and its derivatives. Kittel writes, “In the other period apostolos (apostle) is one of the special terms bound up with sea-faring, and more particularly with military expeditions. It is almost a technical political term in this sense….In the first instances this simply denotes the dispatch of a fleet (or army) on a military expedition….It then comes to be applied to the fleet itself and it thus acquires the meaning of a navel expedition. In this way it comes to be applied on the one side to a group of men sent out for a particular purpose, e.g., not merely to an army but to a band of colonists and their settlement and on the other to the commander of an expedition, e.g., the admiral.” (TDNT, page 07, Vol. I). The idea of the word “apostle” describes the leader of an expedition to conquer and colonize a hostile territory, an emissary and representative, but more than that, like an admiral devising ways to enter hostile territory for a military advance.
So, are missionaries apostles? The apostle must have had an “encounter with the risen Lord and reception of the commission from Him personally (TDNT, vol. I, p. 422).“ “With a personal encounter of the risen Lord, a personal commissioning by Him seems to be the only basis of the apostolate They also became missionaries and this form of this work was what really characterized their office.” (TDNT, vol. I, pg.431). In my opinion, a missionary is not an apostle but like Timothy, does missionary (apostolic) work.
Sometimes people are not sure about whether they want to be a missionary or what a missionary does. I was at an International Mission Board (IMB) trustee meeting at First Baptist Church, Del City, Oklahoma. At the evening dinner for the guest, the GA's (Girls in Action, a ministry of the Woman's Missionary Union) had prepared welcoming cards for the missionaries and IMB staff. This is what my card on my placemat said, “Dear Missionary, my name is Ashley. I'm glad you are here. When I grow up I want to either be a missionary or a chiropractor.” I do not think Ashley really knew what a missionary did. I would like to explore who a missionary is and what he or she missionary does on the mission field.
2. The Missionary Role
I think the missionary role can be best observed in Acts 19:1-10. Let me summarize verses 1-6. While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul went to Ephesus and discovered some disciples who were only acquainted with John's (the Baptist) baptism. Paul told them about Jesus, John's disciples believed and Paul baptized them. I would like to further explore Acts 19:7-10.
This passage shows the missionary reasoning and persuading. The word translated “reasoning” is the term diolegomai. We obtain our English words dialectic and dialogue from this term. It is mostly used to describe “converse” or “discuss” which includes answering questions and challenges (McArthur p. 173). The word translated “persuading” is difficult whereas the first word is customarily used for “philosophical dialogue, debate, or disputation.” The word Peitho is different. It means “to convince”, “to persuade successfully” (Homer), “entreat” in the sense “to seek to win men”, “to convince by argument” (McArthur p. 173).
The first word is the reasoned argument. The second term is the call to change one's mindto change to the opinion of the arguer. And we are commanded to do this BOLDY! Boldness was a hallmark of Apostolic preaching (Acts 4:29) and describes Paul's desire for his own ministry (Ephesians 6:19). This is the essence of the missionary task – to boldly reason and persuade.
Stu Butler, a missionary who worked for me when I directed IMB work in Brazil wrote the following in his February 2002 monthly report. “As the rain began to pour down, I noticed that the people were not leaving to take shelter. We have all been taught to get out of the rain, but on this particular night there was something worth staying in the rain for. It was the power of the cross being proclaimed in the middle of the devil's party. As the rain continued to fall, I noticed three men listening intently, their clothes now soaked. They were listening to open air preaching of the illustrated paint talk during Carnival [the Brazilian version of Mardi Gras] in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. The paint talk uses fluorescent paints under a black light to preach the message of Jesus and the solution He offers to those who will put their trust in Him. After the ten-minute presentation, there were still some fifteen people standing in the rain. I knew that sinners were about to be saved by grace and the Kingdom expanded. As the invitation was given I heard the man next to me and others pray to receive Christ. The new believers were able to gather under a provisional tarp to take shelter and receive a Bible Study and words of counsel. It was a time of rejoicing to realize that nothing can stop the preaching of the Gospel and people responding to it. On this occasion, the people had the good sense NOT to get out of the rain.”
A missionary reasons and persuades boldly in order to start churches. Acts 14:23 says “When they had appointed elders them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” We know Paul started churches because he appointed elders in every church. They also visited the churches they had planted. In Paul's second missionary journey in Acts 15:36 begins with the Apostle saying to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are.” Luke writes in Acts 15:41, “He was travelling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” So Paul started churches and strengthened them, but WHAT WAS HIS METHOD? Or at least what was one of his methods?
A missionary operates as a catalyst. Now why do I say that? Because the Scriptures says in two years ALL who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord. If there is a difference in being a pastor or church staff member in the USA and being a missionary overseas, it is here. A pastor or staff member wants to reach those in his church field, but a missionary's field consists of an entire city, a complete state, or an entire nation. The missionary desires to see multiple congregations started within his area of responsibility. How did Paul work as a catalyst?
Paul was in a strategic place. Ephesus's strategic position made her the “Treasure House of Asia” and the mother of materialism and ambition. The temple of Artemis or Diana was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 127 marble pillars rose 60 feet to support a gorgeous ceiling. Many of them inlaid with gold and rare gems. The temple was a huge canopy covering an area 425 feet in length and 200 feet in width, housing the image of Artemissupposed to have fallen from the stars (Hughes p. 254). Missionaries still employ this strategy today by going to a strategic locale.
Paul established a base of operations within the culture. Ancient Greece was a philosophical culture. If you wanted a hearing in the world of the First century you had to be a respected philosopher. Most commentators believe the School of Tyranus was local philosophical school and Tyranus was the nickname of the proprietor. Evidently he was sort of a tyrant, hence the name Tyranus. In the Mediterranean area many of the inhabitants took naps during the afternoon. Most commentators believe Paul taught from 1:00pm 4:00pm during the heat of the day after working in the morning making tents. Paul's ministry in the School of Tyranus equates to about 3,120 hours of lecture time if he preached for five hours a day, six days a week, for two years. Hughes (p. 24) says Ephesus was the watering hole for every kind of magician, clairvoyant and criminal. In addition, con artists, murderers, and perverts all found the climate agreeable. The city, Hughes says, was the dark castle of Asia Minor. To these Greeks, Paul became a Greek by teaching and persuading them about the Kingdom of God, not by adopting their sinful culture. Missionaries today establish a base in their host countries. Sometimes these are called “platforms”. A missionary has to be creative and see what fits the culture and the government restrictions. When I supervised missionaries in seven countries in North Africa and the Middle East, I employed multiple platforms to suit the country and the individual missionary. A missionary served as a relief worker in one country, a businessman in another, a teacher in another, a novelist in still another, and finally a medical worker in still another country.
The missionary works through others. How did all Asia hear the Gospel? Did Paul personally preach in every one of the cities of Asia? Not likely. There was no television, radio, DVD, Internet, cell phones, Skype or MP3 players. There was not even a printing press. HOW DID ALL OF ASIA HEAR THE GOSPEL IN TWO YEARS? – especially with Paul being stationed in Ephesus, teaching every day in the School of Tyranus. John McArthur writes, “Paul maintained this grueling schedule for two years with the result that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. Without, as far as it is known, ever leaving Ephesus. Paul through his commitment evangelized the entire province of Asia. During this time, the churches of Colossae and Hierapolis and probably also the 7 churches of Revelation 2-3 were formed. Paul's very effective strategy for evangelism was to preach the Word, make disciples and let them spread the Gospel. Spiritually reproducing Christians are at the heart of any successful method of evangelism (McArthur p. 174).”
I believe Paul worked through these 12 disciples to reach all of Asia, most likely modeled after Jesus's method of training His 12 disciples. This is what we strive to do in modern missions. The IMB has about 4,700 missionaries to distribute across the whole world. There are not enough missionaries for each missionary to work with one church. On the contrary, missionaries are asked to develop and disciple a team of national catalysts. To be a catalyst of catalysts, to exponentially multiply the work, this is the only way an entire city, state or nation can be reached.
This is especially true in pioneer missions work. When our family entered a limited access country in North Africa, my wife and I were the only Southern Baptist Missionaries in the entire country. The last IMB missionaries departed eight years prior to our arrival in 1991. What does one do upon arrival when there are no other missionaries in the country? This is what I did. Although I had not discovered the principle yet, I looked for some disciples to help me. Were there any believers among the 1.3 million members of the Z tribe? I found two. One I will call Faruk. He was a morose, sullen, and timid man living in the capital who had been won and discipled by another Christian group. The other was a former Islamic scholar who was blind. I am not even sure Eisa was Christian when I met him. I discipled him for 3 months and when I was sure he was a believer, I baptized him in a local river. I baptized Faruk a few months later in the ocean. I began with those two men. When Faruk journeyed to his tribal area he caught fire, changing into a different person. Faruk became a confident evangelist. Faruk won Ernest who became the best church planter on our team. With this nucleus a church was started. A co-worker located another disciple and a second church planting team was formed. Now there are over 200 congregations with over 2,000 believers in this closed, Muslim country. I am convinced that Biblical missiology and church planting is carried out this way and will work all over the world.
So what is it like on the mission field? What sort of activity should a missionary be involved in? The missionary movement began in a local church and the first missionaries came from local church leadership. In my opinion, there is no missionary gift nor or are there Apostles today, rather missionaries are called of God to do the work of the Apostles. A missionary persuades and reasons with boldness for the Gospel. This is his or her message. The method is being a catalyst not doing it all oneself but becoming a “force multiplier” or a catalyzer of catalysts.