Whenever pastors talk about missions, they will almost certainly talk about the Great Commission. Jesus gave this last command to His disciples before ascending into Heaven. In Acts 1:8, He says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” And in Matthew 28:19-20, He adds, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Growing up hearing this from pastors most of my life, I could tell early on how much they liked preaching this sermon. It was easy. They could recite Jesus’ command, tap their finger on the page, and then point that finger at the congregation. “You are all missionaries,” they’d say. I liked that. The phrase “a missionary in your own backyard” had a snappy ring to it. It lit a fire in me to raise money for faceless, starving children. Raising money from the neighbors up and down my street helped the children and let the block know that I loved Jesus. I truly was a missionary in my own backyard. Once, I even stood up with a Bible in my first grade class when my teacher had mentioned a certain crisis that existed in the world.
And then I got my ass kicked for five years. Although some of the kids in my school were pretty ruthless, I don’t think they were actively persecuting me for my beliefs. I get the feeling that I pissed something off in the spiritual realm.
The first part of Acts 1:8 should demand our attention. Jesus told His disciples not to spread the gospel until they had received power from the Holy Spirit. Some people have told me that Jesus said to because the signs and wonders brought by the Holy Spirit would make God’s power evident to people hearing the gospel. I suppose that’s true. Paul said in 1 Corinthians the signs were used to show the message through God’s power and not human wisdom. I think there’s something else to it, though. They needed His guidance.
In Acts 16, Paul and his companions are out on one of their missionary journeys. In verses 6 and 7, “They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” If people stopped to think about this, they might find it outrageous. “What? Didn’t God want the gospel preached there as well?” I think so, but through others and at a different time. The people in Galatia formed a pretty significant church. Paul’s letter to them may be one of my favorite epistles.
But this wasn’t the kind of mission trip where kids all wear the same T-shirts and build schools for impoverished communities. A lot people wanted to kill Paul and his buddies. Even in the cities he did visit, he faced riots and imprisonment and attempts on his life. But God miraculously saved him every time. Why? Because Paul went exactly where the Holy Spirit led him to go. He went into large, influential cities (cities, I should mention, that had more local authority to keep villagers from skewering the apostles) and shared the gospel to as many people as possible. This allowed others to share the gospel in turn with a common language and mutual history. “Hey Pete. Did you hear about that riot in town? You’ll never guess what this guy was saying to the people.” Voila! Ministry time. God put Paul in specific places to set other people in motion. His job wasn’t to save the whole world. I’d imagine that job would be very exhausting. And it would not have allowed more leadership to rise in the church. But people think that is their job. Save the whole world one backyard at a time.
For any of us who want to spread the gospel through full-time ministry (I wonder what “part-time ministry” means), we should consider this pattern. As we seek to do God’s work, we should listen for His voice and follow the direction He gives us. Otherwise we might take on burdens that are not ours and in turn place those burdens on our families and loved ones. I’m not saying that ministry never involves pain or sacrifice or hard choices that affect others. I mean to say we would do better to have God show us who to reach and then help them reach others. That way we don’t end up in Bithynia wondering why nobody’s listening or why those people over there are picking up heavy rocks.