All church leaders feel the tension. No matter how passionately we plea for our church members to be committed to the Great Commission, it seems to fall flat. The greatness of the Great Commission seems to be lost in the sea of a million other responsibilities we have in our busy age. Sound familiar? Has your church’s missions heartbeat flatlined? If so, you are not alone.
A casual reading of the New Testament epistles reveals a tendency among the early churches to grow complacent concerning the Great Commission. A misunderstanding of the gospel in Rome threatened to undermine their unity and mission. Corinth was dangerously close to emptying the gospel of its power by blending worldly wisdom with God’s and blurring the lines between themselves and the world. Philippi started well, but things got complicated when other issues crowded their focus. Two ladies in the congregation, once contending for the gospel, had become contentious with one another (Phil. 4:2–3).
Philippians is Paul’s most condensed letter aimed at raising the temperature of congregational zeal for the mission. The tensions that could’ve derailed Paul’s most engaged church still threaten us today.
Three facets of Paul’s approach to re-engage this congregation deserve our consideration as we aim to help our people put the “great” back into the Great Commission.
Plead with God before You Plead with Them
In our modern age, we easily turn to methods to fix a problem. We work hard at the trellis to fix the vine. But not Paul. He begins this letter to the Philippians on his knees, recognizing the health of the vine is God’s business.
The letter starts with thankfulness to God for his grace so evidently at work in the church, which turns toward intercession. He asked God to impart discernment to their ever-increasing love in order to please him (Phil. 1:9–11). The plague of mission drift must first be addressed here, pleading with God to shape our minds so we might be sent on mission.
“The plague of mission drift must first be addressed here, pleading with God to shape our minds so we might be sent on mission.”
God is the one who works in us to will and to work for his purpose (Phil. 2:13). Paul will plead with the ladies who’ve become contentious in chapter four, but not before pleading with God on their behalf. God alone holds the power to motivate us for the mission.
Put Wow before Woe
Jesus and the prophets employed the language of “woe” to issue their strongest rebukes. Paul employed similar tones at times as well. The Galatians flirting with another gospel deserved the sharpest words of correction. But Paul refrained from that tone in Philippi. Paul chose to rejoice, not rebuke.
Rebuke would’ve been out of place as he felt an enormous amount of affection for these saints that had stood by him in some of his most desperate times. God was clearly at work among them. As leaders of our churches, we often see what’s lacking, not what God is indeed doing. Gratitude, not criticism, was Paul’s starting place. Is it ours?
“A people not wowed by the good news of Christ won’t seek to woo others to embrace it. . . . Mission is the reflex of people rejoicing in Jesus.”
Paul chose to wow rather than issue the woe. A casual attitude about mission stems from a casual affection for Christ. Paul knew this, so he aimed at raising their adoration of Christ. “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21 ESV). Everything that rivaled Christ, Paul considered to be a loss in view of the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8b HCSB).
In 2:5–11, Paul chose not to merely say “Jesus was humble,” but instead, he slowed down, revealing the stages of Christ’s downward descent so that Philippian souls might be shocked at such a God. Revaluing Christ will correct a devaluing of mission.
I recently spent some time with a brother whose passion for the Great Commission never seems to wane. I wanted to learn from him how he sustains that passion, so I asked him. He simply said he thinks I don’t have an evangelism problem but a gospel one. I think Paul would agree. A people not wowed by the good news of Christ won’t seek to woo others to embrace it. Your extolling of Christ precedes your people extending Christ to others. Mission is the reflex of people rejoicing in Jesus.
Zeal for the Mission Is Both Taught and Caught
How do people change? What takes them from one level of engagement in the mission to another? Paul obviously valued the exchange of information that happens in teaching. It’s all over his letters. Truth shapes people. Being taught instigates change.
Emulation is another way to initiate transformation. People often need to see a new model. One peculiar facet of the teaching found in Philippians is its demonstrative nature. The bulk of this letter concerns examples to imitate. This letter functions like a YouTube clip.
YouTube clips, unlike dusty instruction manuals, help us see something in action. Paul recognized the inspiring ability of good models. He sought to be one for Philippi and to hold others up who were modeling it well (Phil. 4:9; 3:17). He recognized the contagious nature of good role models.
Example after example embodies the humility necessary to press forward for the progress of the gospel. They watch Timothy, who stands alone in how he puts the interests of others above his own (Phil. 2:19–24). Paul replayed that same ethic from a scene in the life of Epaphroditus, as he risked his life for Paul and was burdened, not that he was sick and nearly died, but that the congregation at Philippi might be worried about his sickness (Phil. 2:25–30).
Paul included one scene from his own life in chapter one when he made a choice. He esteemed the benefit that would come to them by him continuing to live over the better option for him personally of departing and being with Christ (Phil. 1:12–30). Replay after replay, the Philippians see the mindset that drives mission. It’s not about us. It’s about Christ and others. Sandwiched in the middle of the other examples in Philippians is the one example that outshines them all (Phil. 2:5–11).
“Recentering our congregational life on Jesus and his humility will resuscitate the heart behind mission by God’s grace.”
Good role models of mission go a long way to recapturing the greatness of the Great Commission among your people. There may be people in your midst you can highlight as an example of godliness, or biographical sketches can also have this effect. It would also be fitting to assess our own example to the flock. Are we someone from whom they can catch the mission? Does our life revolve around proclaiming Christ?
Recentering our congregational life on Jesus and his humility will resuscitate the heart behind mission by God’s grace. The cross has the functional power to transform a contentious people into those who contend together for the progress of the gospel. Paul lingered long over it, helping the believers see its striking peculiarities. We need to help our people linger long over the gospel so they might labor on for the gospel.
Greg Handley formerly lived in Central Asia and was a church planter and writer.