Church leaders often ask us how they can help their people become more directly involved in healthy missionary sending. Usually, they seem to be asking for a quick fix—an easy-to-implement formula or five easy steps. Most churches see themselves as being well on their way to missionary sending. “We’re a missions-minded church!” they say, right before listing the total dollar amount they’ve given to international missions.
We are extremely thankful for all of the churches who support the global missions effort. But moving a church from “missions-minded” to missionary requires more than just a renewed emphasis or a well-planned sermon series.
The biggest obstacle to a church truly owning their part in God’s mission is a mistaken sense of citizenship. Missionaries to foreign lands understand quite well (and quickly) that ministry among different peoples requires a profound change in the way the missionary sees things. They learn the language in order to communicate, they study culture in order to relate, they build relationships in order to love. This sort of immersion is fundamental to making disciples and planting Christ’s church among a people. Without it, the way of Jesus remains just another imperialistic foreign religion.
We Are Outsiders
Being a church on mission means applying missionary thinking to the everyday life of the body. This begins with recognizing our status as outsiders. The writers of the New Testament seem to have taken for granted that Christians would always be operating from the fringes of society. Peter reminds the recipients of his first epistle that they are strangers and visitors: “Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that in a case where they speak against you as those who do what is evil, they will, by observing your good works, glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11–12 HCSB).
For a church, being outsiders means giving up expectations (delusions?) of unearned social credibility, common morality, or programmatic attractional ministry. A church is missional when it actively and intentionally goes out into its surrounding community and engages people in redemptive relationships on the culture’s terms. The result of this ongoing activity is a truly indigenous church that is continually translating the gospel into the local context in word and deed.
What prevents churches from full missionary involvement is their inability to see themselves as foreigners (“strangers,” or “aliens”). When you live in the town you grew up in, when your best friends are the ones you’ve known since elementary school, when you don’t have an accent, and everyone around you looks just like you, it’s difficult to see yourself as an outsider. When you have your own space (building, campus, etc.), when you enjoy favor with the government, when your neighbors automatically modify their behavior to conform to your values when they’re in your presence, it’s hard to be convinced that you don’t belong.
But God’s people are necessarily outsiders.
By grace, we are saved into God’s kingdom. Upon salvation, we are called out of darkness into his light. Our citizenship is transferred from the earthly place where we were born to the heavenly place where Christ is King. Our ongoing presence on earth means that we are now sent as ambassadors—representatives of Jesus to the unbelieving societies we live among. Through the process, our physical location may not have changed, but our orientation certainly has.
As God’s people, we are outsiders.
“Only the church that sees itself as alien can truly be on God’s mission.”
When you’re an outsider in your own culture, you’re careful about being too comfortable in it. You immerse yourself into human cultures in order to influence the people who are still slaves to it. You watch movies, eat food, play games, attend parties, and read books—all for the sake of living and proclaiming the good news to all people. Not that there isn’t much to enjoy (there is!), but we enjoy this life because of our relationship with God, not because of our relationship with this world.
When the church sees itself as foreign, its perspective will change. It will rethink its methodologies, its public relations, and its structure. It will lose its sense of entitlement and its claim to rights. It will stop assuming or pursuing home-court advantage. It will not overestimate its ability to influence people or speak into culture, and it will rely fully on the God who sends us to also maintain us.
Only the church that sees itself as alien can truly be on God’s mission.
When pastors ask how they can lead their people to faithful participation in God’s mission, we don’t give them a turnkey solution. Instead, we encourage them to remind their people that in Christ, they’re not from around here anymore. When God’s people recognize their status as outsiders, they can begin to rightly approach his mission as foreigners who must steward well the short time they have here.
Learning to Be Outsiders
Mission trips are the best way that I know of to teach people what it means to be an outsider. When you don’t look like or talk like anyone else on the street, you can begin to understand the concept. Attempt to bridge the culture and language divide by deliberately reaching out and connecting with people, and you’ve begun to understand the posture we must take even at home where we might not be in the obvious minority. If you want your church members to embrace their place on the margins of society, take them on mission trips.
Another great way to instill an outsider’s mentality in disciples is to celebrate fellowship with Christians from other backgrounds. Worshiping alongside people from other cultures and languages helps underscore the fact that in Christ, we have more in common with Chinese Christians than we do with the unbelievers living next door. This reminds us that we are strangers and pilgrims, just passing through.
Ultimately, our model for mission is Christ himself, who willingly left his place at the Father’s right hand in order to become a stranger and pilgrim in human history. When those who thought they had known him rejected him, Jesus reminded his followers that a prophet is not welcome in his hometown. So it is with God’s people on mission. We’re outsiders no matter where we go. So we deliberately do what we can to minimize the differences between us and those we live among in order to best proclaim the gospel and demonstrate Christ’s kingdom.