Over the past decade, John Piper’s categorical way of thinking about missions and the local church has invigorated countless people. Originating from Bethlehem Baptist Church’s “Driving Convictions Behind Foreign Missions,” the decisive paradigm places one of three roles on every Christian when it comes to missions.
- Goers: those “who cross a culture to plant the church where it isn’t.”
- Senders: those “agitating, fundraising, giving, praying, and supporting those who go.”
- Disobedient: those “who don’t even think about it and don’t care about it” (ibid.).
I am grateful Piper clarified and specified international missions involvement in this way. I believe it allowed many to see that everyone has a role to play in the Great Commission. It has also been one of the best attempts I’ve ever known to affirm sending as noble, vital, and meaningful. And it expresses the biting reality that uninvolved Christians are actually disobedient to Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations.
But I also believe there’s a better way to think about this. You and your fellow church members are more than senders, goers, or disobedient. Here’s why.
Every Christian Is Sent
We love to say that God is a “missionary God.” But that’s limited by our pragmatism. More broadly we could say that God is a loving, outgoing God. His love is richly shared from eternity past among Father, Son, and Spirit (John 17:24). From his loving, overflowing nature, God sent. The Father sent the Son, the Father and Son sent the Spirit, and the Father, Son, and Spirit send the church.
So I believe we can more aptly say that God is a sending God. That means every single one of his sons and daughters, by the image of God that they bear, are sent ones. Sent ones aren’t limited to those who cross cultural and linguistic barriers to proclaim the gospel. All of us are sent on God’s mission, yoked with the Great Commission (Matt. 5:14; 2 Cor. 5:20).
“I believe we can more aptly say that God is a sending God. That means that every single one of his sons and daughters, by the image of God that they bear, are sent ones.”
Missions Is More Than Practice—It’s Also Identity
In the world of international missions, we tend to be rather pragmatic. We aren’t just desperate to talk about getting the gospel to those who haven’t heard. We actually want to get it there—yesterday.
We want action. The Bible commands it. The lost need it. And so we are drawn to practical categories such as goers, senders, and disobedient. But as my former professor Bruce Ware boomed with a slap to the lectern, “There is no such thing as ‘practical theology’—all theology is practical if you really believe it!”
Skipping ahead to the practice of missions misses the powerful theological-missiological identity of every Christian. Our historical limitations on sending may have more to do with the failure to cultivate the sent identity of every Christian than the failure to provide more avenues, funds, or training.
Emphasizing Practice over Identity Limits the Mission
Ignoring, or at least downplaying, missions identity leads each Christian to focus mainly on their deeds (or lack thereof). While there are certainly biblical grounds for true faith being expressed by action (John 14:15; Eph. 2:10, James 1:22), the New Testament never separates what we do for God from what God does for us.
The truths and implications of the gospel inform and empower our obedience to Christ. Focusing primarily on our deeds in regard to international missions can be crippling. For those who aren’t missionaries, even the appearance of their lack of deeds can be guilt-inducing enough to distance them not only from the Great Commission, but from God himself. For those who are missionaries, the temptation to admire their surplus of deeds, even subtly, can lead to pride that alienates them from others as well as the delights of the gospel.
Being Disobedient Is More Than Just Being Disobedient
Disobeying the Great Commission isn’t just neglecting a command. It’s a denial of who we are in Christ. I am not saying that if you don’t actively share the gospel you’re probably not a Christian. I am saying, however, that if our identity as sent ones informs all of life, then “disobedience” reflects an identity crisis that needs discipleship and pastoral care.
Goers Are Not an Elite Band
When describing both goers and senders, Piper uses the term “an elite band.” He goes on to say in reference to goers, “I do love and esteem them highly.” While at the Cross Conference in 2013, I listened to an interview with Piper in which he noted the danger of overemphasizing goers above senders, but then went on to define goers only as frontier missionaries. He also then comparatively downplayed his own role in the church and called pastoral ministry “the back end of the Great Commission” while the crowd snickered at the pun.
Whether intentional or not, the message was clear to the college students sitting around me: traditional frontier goers are the true elite. This kind of communication lends itself toward a “culture of hierarchy and privilege,” as illustrated in Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission (p. 15). As much as I love “goers” and want to maintain my own admired status as one, I see how such categories create a caste system that immobilizes the church more than builds her up and sends her out.
We All Cross Cultural Boundaries
Unbeknownst to many of us, we all navigate a maze of culture and subculture. Every environment in which we exist has its own unique context and jargon, from our homes to our workplaces to our favorite coffee shops.
However, few of us have ever been trained to notice or interpret such differences. Therefore, in the church we assume our understanding of cultural context simply because we live in the neighborhood and speak the language. Cross-cultural training is only for “goers” rather than being a common part of every believer’s discipleship.
It is this “cultural distance [that] keeps ‘Unreached Peoples’ being names on a list instead of being our friends, coworkers, and neighbors” (Goodman). If, instead, all believers are sent ones and are already crossing some measure of cultural boundaries, then churches have the perfect setup to mobilize every member rather than only a select few.
“When sentness becomes a way of life, sending and going are simultaneously possible.”
Christians Can Both Send and Go
Although the sender-goer paradigm doesn’t preclude people from changing categories, it does infer fulfilling only one role at a time. When sentness becomes a way of life, sending and going are simultaneously possible. Church members can more easily move from having a global worldview to being a global Christian. They can champion those sent to other countries while also experiencing the same gospel advance in their own contexts.
Global sent ones can experience new depths of their own sentness while making disciples who will themselves be goers that carry the gospel even further. Furthermore, the relationships between global sent ones and local sent ones could likely be healthier and ongoing, full of mutual understanding and encouragement.
Perhaps this comes across as splitting hairs. Certainly it could be taken as unnecessary divisiveness or missiological commentary that means nothing to a world in desperate need. But if we fail to build upon the foundation of thought that has been given to us in God’s mission, then we will continue to approach a 2018 world with a 1994 perspective. And we may fail to marvel over our identity as sons and daughters of our sending God.
Zach Bradley is a former IMB missionary and current lead pastor at Antioch Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the director of content strategy at The Upstream Collective, authored The Sending Church Defined, and blogs at brokenmissiology.com.