Imitate Me: Missionary Methods of Sinners and Saints, Part One

THIS ARTICLE IS BY ANDY JANSEN, AN UPSTREAM INTERN FOCUSING ON CONTENT MANAGEMENT

I had the privilege of watching a couple missionaries work recently. They implemented a lot of popular trends in current missions practice. They were cautious to go out in a pair, they graciously accepted hospitality, and, most importantly, they were sure to only go into the homes of persons of peace. They spoke a lot about relying on the Holy Spirit and never debated. They refused to use bait and switch tactics and instead presented their message in a straightforward manner. They storied through visually appealing tracts, which experts had ironed out for them, and one of the missionaries was even teaching the other how to present well and handle tricky questions. They had a brilliant follow-up system, ensuring that the message could be fully understood and digested over multiple sittings. Everything they did was so impeccable; their missionary methods were like a finely tuned instrument.

There was only one problem: they were Mormons.

You Can't Fake It Till You Make It

There’s no easy way to say this – it’s disconcerting that other religions can create convincing counterfeits of Christian missionary methods. Jesus warned us that this would happen. He said not all who say “Lord, Lord” and cast out demons aim to honor him (Matthew 7:21-23). But how can we be sure that our own methods honor Christ?

The reality is that our methodology cannot be boiled down to pragmatism, something just anyone can do. While we want to be wise, it won’t do to trust in our own power. We know that the gospel is God’s power (Romans 1:16), yet if we think it’s within our ability to tweak a perfectly winsome method for sharing the gospel, we have lost sight of the miracle of faith. We hinder the Spirit from effectively using us when we turn matters of wisdom into laws and rely on doing things “right” instead of following the Spirit’s lead.

Putting Everything In Context

Hermeneutics or basic principles of biblical interpretation play a vital role in understanding Scripture properly. Our interpretation determines whether we understand a passage to be communicating an essential requirement versus principles we glean to be practical yet nonessential. In other words we have to distinguish biblical description (narratives with particular contexts) from biblical prescription (clear commands and axioms).

Consider Luke 10, from which we take concepts like the "person of peace," now fairly standardized for missions practice. We like to employ this concept as well as going out in pairs and accepting hospitality, yet we do not like to consider, “Carry no money-bag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road” (verse 4). Why do we try to form methods from some parts but not others? If we try to force this text into the form of a prescriptive command, we are ignoring its particular context.

The context of this event in Luke took place during the intertestamental period of Jesus’ ministry in which the Jews, God’s covenant people at that time, ought to have been expecting the coming Messiah. Compare this passage to a similar account in which Jesus told his disciples to ignore Gentiles and Samaritans and go directly “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). Jesus was preparing his ministry toward those who already claimed to believe in God’s promises.

Between this story in Luke and the numerous times in which Paul reenacted a similar prophetic ministry to the Jews (Acts 13:45-51; 18:5,6; 19:8-10; 28:28), the primary lesson is not about what we should do but what God did. Paul uses these events to argue for a theodicy, a justification of God’s goodness and sovereignty. There is a dilemma in light of the Jews’ apparent rejection of the gospel and the mysterious plan of God hidden for ages – the Gentiles are citizens and coheirs of God’s kingdom. How can God be good and turn his attention from the Jews to all nations? Paul argues, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have” (Romans 10:17,18).

What does all this mean? Are we not allowed to glean principles like the "person of peace" from passages like Luke 10? Sure, we can seek wisdom in forming strategies to reach the lost, but if we turn wisdom into rules, we can easily cross over the line into legalism. Because the Spirit is the true worker, he will use our gospel efforts, even if we have mixed motives.

I have personally found myself at times trying to ease a kind of false missionary guilt when trusting in methods is easier than trusting God. This is especially true when I don't see ministry success in numbers that we all crave. At those times, I am not believing the same gospel I am telling others to believe. It's deceptively simple to add unauthorized prescriptions to God's word, leaving a backdoor to excuse ourselves, but the end result is soul-crushing.

Don't Cut Corners

What is really different between us and Mormons? Not to overstate the obvious, but we don’t preach the same message. If you take away all of the common factors of our methodology, our message is the hope to which we cling. This tells me something.

It tells me that our theology matters in mission. Our message – our full message – must always take precedent over our methodology. What we win them with is what we will win them to.

We also must place trust in God above our methods. We are indwelt by the Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead. As we seek wise strategies and flex our creativity to win some by any means possible, we must ask God to work before all else. We ask the Spirit to work in others. We ask the Spirit to fill us in power. We depend on God and employ all of our thinking and gifts to communicate the message well.

 

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