Ask-a-Missiologist: Rodney Calfee on "Why Do We Need More and Better Missions Writers?"

This article is by Rodney Calfee, the Content leader for the IMB and writer, trainer, and consultant for The Upstream Collective

It’s been said that everyone’s a writer. On one hand, it’s true. The world has changed, and communication with it, in some cases drug kicking and screaming The way we communicate now—through email, texts, various forms of messaging, and social platforms—demands that all who utilize these methods of communication are, by default, writers.

On the other hand, writer seems a really strong descriptor for most who utilize our common tools of—particularly digital—communication. Beloved (by grammar nerds like myself the world over), trusted grammar rules have been thoughtlessly abandoned for the sake of character count. Creative verbal imagery has been replaced by GIFs and memes, so the brutal work of “painting a picture through words” is—like an early morning fog pursued by hastening sunlight—quickly dissipating (see what I did there?).

The artistry of language is languishing in our communication, and we need new champions to take up the cause. Words shape people and cultures and create movement. They breed understanding that fuels activity. The opposite is also true in that, as Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “[t]he limits of [our] language mean the limits of [our] world.”

Masters of language are the arbiters of truth that challenge, sometimes irreverently, the ills of society and offer better solutions. Shakespeare, Plato, the Apostle Paul—they all addressed concerns with contemporary audiences, but their words continue to impact readers centuries later. The difference now is the medium through which they reach their readers, many of whom encounter Shakespearean memes and Pauline theology scrolling through their Facebook and Instagram feeds.

A similar dilemma faces people who want to communicate to the church regarding her role in missions. The audience exists, but the attention span very nearly does not, and the medium for communication is changing at a break-neck pace. If we want to encourage and equip the church for missions, then we need more and better writers to embrace the current medium for communication—without necessarily abandoning the former—anticipate future changes in it, and drive the conversation. Here are three reasons why:

Words Inspire

In The Fault in Our Stars, author John Green posited in regards to the power of written words that, “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” Though there is only one Book about which this is actually true, his sentiment has merit. Especially in the missions world.

Ask people involved in missions what inspired them to engage, and most will mention a specific book or sermon as at least a large part of their inspiration—words that struck and unsettled them and opened their eyes to things previously unseen. People often become evangelists, of sorts, for the books that moved them toward missionary engagement, trumpeting their merits to all with listening ears.

If we understand the power of words in Scripture, though, that sort of thing is to be expected. The universe was created through words (Genesis 1, Hebrews 11:3), our words hold the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21), and they can either tear down or build up (Proverbs 12:6). In fact, John spoke of Jesus in his Gospel as the Word who took on flesh—the One who, by his own life, communicated to the broken world who God is (John 1:1-18). Our ability to understand the nature of God, the person of Jesus, and the effectual work of the gospel to redeem is understood through the illumination of the truth of Scripture—God’s Word(s)—by the Holy Spirit.

Written words, whether in novel form, blog format, a social media post, or anything in between have the innate ability to reflect the divine power of words to reveal truth, develop character and wisdom, and prepare hearts and minds to live into a calling. They communicate stories, and stories inspire people toward action. Thus, we need more and better writers to inspire through their words.

Words Equip

Inspiration is but a foundation; it does not a good missionary make. Much more is needed, especially considering the changing landscape of missions. The last decade or so has seen a deep desire emerge within churches for more frontline involvement in international sending. The reemergence, or reaffirmation, as it were, of the idea that the local church is the sending agency has begun to permeate anew many churches and sending agencies alike. But the reality is that many churches are simply lost when it comes to putting feet to that desire. Many don’t even know where to start.   

They need training. They need practical resources. They need someone to help them learn the ins-and-outs of securing visas, renting international property, developing strategy for different contexts, training leaders, planning for the first time they lose someone on the field, etc. They need faithful men and women to equip them to send well.

Similarly, the missions enterprise has begun to rethink what it is to be a missionary. Recognition that the limited number of full-time Christian workers we can effectively employ is simply not enough has catalyzed a shift in thinking. For that and myriad other reasons, people are beginning to explore the opportunities in front of them to study abroad, take their businesses overseas, find jobs within their fields somewhere around the world, or spend their retirements among unreached peoples far from the golf courses they once thought would play host to their sunset years. Most of these people will not be seminary trained, so other methods of equipping will be necessary. Thus, we need more and better missions writers to pen equipping texts for those who will be sent in new and exciting ways. 

Words, Artistically Combined,  are Powerful. And Beautiful. 

Everyone has his own favorite quote or two—a brilliant line from C.S. Lewis or playful banter from J.R.R. Tolkien or a gloriously fashioned excerpt from a favorite sermon—all three of which have been known to press people toward the service of the Kingdom. The thing that has drawn us to those quotes, however, is not merely their meanings, but that deep, powerful truth has been artistically ingrained within beautifully intriguing language. Reading the words drew the reader at some point into a double take, in the same manner that a song or painting or photograph has gripped your very soul.

Therefore, we not only need more writers, we need better writers. God has gifted people with various talents, and those talents are meant to be honed for his own glory. We need writers who are actively engaging in their roles within God’s mission and communicating truths about missions to the church in thoughtful, creative, beautiful ways. We need people to think creatively about how to do so within constantly changing mediums and see those changes as new opportunities to communicate, not obstacles to be overcome. We need more and better writing, in general—books, articles, poetry, tweets, letters, emails, Facebook posts, memes—all as an offering to the Lord and a gift to Christ’s church that help to lead her on mission.