Michael Prest encourages the UK church to get out more!
World mission is not exactly having a heyday in the UK church.
Numbers coming forward for long-term mission are down and, as the church in the global south continues to grow, our own place in world mission often leaves us scratching our head.1
Let’s be honest, the world has moved on since Hudson Taylor got on a slow boat to China. If it’s not PC to talk about truth at home, then the idea of sharing our faith with those far away sounds ultra colonial. ‘Leave them in peace’, the world says. ‘OK’, we reply. And, after all, these days ‘the world is on our doorstep’, so let’s sit tight.
And then there’s the image problem. The UK church planting movement comes to us via Twitter, has a real sense of purpose and a multitude of ‘big name’ endorsements. Global mission all too often comes with a once-a-year rendition of ‘facing a task unfinished’ and a dusty missions noticeboard full of people that no-one has ever heard of.
OK, so all of that is a bit of a caricature, but you get the point. Often, by implication, we’re left thinking that sending people overseas is something we did in the past. Global mission can just be done at home. All of which means that our attempts to rally the troops to respond to the needs of the wider world often meet with quizzical looks. It’s all a bit passé.
Now don’t get me wrong; it’s great that local mission is high up on the agenda right now. It’s great to see so many being identified, equipped and set apart for new plants. It’s thrilling to see opportunities among international students and immigrant communities being identified and taken. You sense the ‘but’ coming, don’t you?
Preparing for the ‘but…’?
Praise God for a vibrant, roll-your-sleeves-up and-get-on-with-it movement of church planters in the UK today. With just 6% of Brits heading to church each weekend and at least 94% thinking the gospel has nothing to offer, there is an urgent and pressing need for many more to follow where they go. And… behind the gloss of being the focus of the current Christian media, praise God that so many leaders and their flocks – those who go and those who send – are willing to make the tough, costly decisions to break new ground and to be on mission here, in our own back yard.
Praise God too for the local, cross-cultural mission to the nations that God has brought to us. The opportunities are thrilling and the stories remarkable. In the years I was in ministry in the UK we baptised as many people from other nations as we did from our own. We met people that God had brought to the UK who would likely never hear the gospel in their home countries. And of course there are the non-student communities from around the world that God has placed us among. It’s tough work, yet praise God for the believers who are doing beautiful things for Jesus, loving those that society rejects, sharing the good news with those that society passes by. There is so much more to do.
And so there’s no need for a ‘but’. How could any believer mourn the progress of the gospel in the UK? Praise the Lord! Faithfulness in mission is not about getting on a plane. The big imperative of the Great Commission is to make disciples. The going and baptising and teaching obedience all focus on that, they’re not ends in themselves.
Where we’ve gone wrong
And perhaps that’s where we’ve gone wrong in our call to missions around the globe. Perhaps we’ve been too quick to emphasise the ‘going’ as the litmus test of obedience in mission. And maybe in turn, that’s why the term ‘mission’ overseas has become so blurred in our minds, being attached to anything and everything done by anyone and everyone who heads across the ocean, as if something magical happens as soon as we leave UK airspace.
If global mission is primarily about going, then we’ll talk about adventure, exciting cross-cultural experiences and crazy exploits with foreign cuisine. Now there’s nothing wrong with any of that, but here’s the thing – the next generation of Christians don’t need to go on a mission trip to experience jumping off a waterfall or updating their blog on the back of a rickety bus half way up a mountain. They can take on those challenges in all sorts of ways and many of them already have.
Making disciples worldwide
However, if world mission is primarily about making disciples, then yes, while we might get to jump off a waterfall and eat some crazy insects, we’ll primarily talk about serving, evangelism and discipleship.
On the surface, they don’t sound like inspiring strap-lines for a new mobilisation campaign and yet, as we come back to the Bible, we see that nothing could be more contemporary, nothing could be more relevant or urgent.
Because the wonderful stories of the growth of mission here in the UK are part of the bigger story of what Jesus is doing all around his world. He is seeing to it that the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is preached to all peoples, to the ends of the earth. This work, Jesus says, is as integral to salvation history as were his death and resurrection (Luke 24.44-49). And this work is to continue until the day he returns (Matthew 28.20).
All of that is certain, even before we look at the needs around the world, before we see the stats of those who have yet to hear and the stories of those who wait in darkness. And so, while making disciples is what we’re called to do, geography remains hugely important. To speak of global mission is not to speak of a tension between, or competition with, mission at home. We’re to make disciples in every nation, from every nation, to every nation.
Of course questions remain. How are we to work in a world that looks so different to the one in which we once exerted so much influence? How does the growth of the church in the global south change the way we approach our global task? Important questions, vital questions, but questions that must help clarify – not prevent – our engagement in the task that God has given his church until his Son comes again.2
So, what in the world are we doing? How are we doing at understanding and communicating the global, vital, promised work of Jesus in our world? How are we and our churches getting on when it comes to intentionally praying for the Lord to raise up workers for his harvest fields around the world? How are we doing at identifying, training, equipping and sending gospel workers overseas as well as round the corner?
Maybe it’s time to dust down that noticeboard. Jesus is at work and the gospel is on the move.
Michael Prest works with UFM in SE Asia and was formerly a minister at Beeston Free Church, Nottingham.
1 http://www.globalconnections.org.uk/mission-issues/article/uk-to-global-mission-research-2011 2 Such questions were raised helpfully at the recent Global Connections ‘Finding our Place’ conference.
Michael is helping to organise the first Local Church Global Mission conference, on Saturday 7 June 2014 in Nottingham. It aims to encourage churches to be active in identifying, training, sending and supporting workers for cross-cultural mission. Jonathan Lamb and Andy Paterson are the main speakers. The conference is being backed by nine organisations including FIEC, Affinity, Keswick Ministries and Crosslinks. Full details at www.localchurchglobalmission.org/details.