How to do missions

Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes. Wherever you go, stay in the same house until you leave town. And if a town refuses to welcome you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.” Luke 9:3-5 NLT

Don’t take any money with you, nor a traveler’s bag, nor an extra pair of sandals. And don’t stop to greet anyone on the road.
“Whenever you enter someone’s home, first say, ‘May God’s peace be on this house.’ If those who live there are peaceful, the blessing will stand; if they are not, the blessing will return to you. Don’t move around from home to home. Stay in one place, eating and drinking what they provide. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve their pay.
“If you enter a town and it welcomes you, eat whatever is set before you. Heal the sick, and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near you now.’ But if a town refuses to welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate. And know this—the Kingdom of God is near!’ I assure you, even wicked Sodom will be better off than such a town on judgment day. Luke 10:4-12 NLT

How are we to interpret these verses? Jesus is sending his disciples out on a journey. He tells them not to prepare and not to take anything with them. It is the exact opposite of the boy scout motto, “Be prepared.” “Do not be self sufficient,” Jesus says, “but be dependent.” He doesn’t even say be dependent on God to provide, which would sound much more spiritual. He says be dependent on the people in the places to which you go. Stay with them, eat their food, accept their hospitality. If they don’t offer you their hospitality just move on, but make sure you let them know how close they were to the Kingdom of God, and that their refusal to listen is their loss.

It is hard to literally apply this teaching to our modern situation. What is Jesus getting at? Is he saying that we should head off with nothing, and just expect things to happen? Travelling without money or a bag is difficult. When we arrive somewhere should we really simply go to the first house, knock on a door and ask for a place to stay, and something to eat? Maybe in a village in first century Israel, but in the 21st century global village we live in?

Although these travel instructions may have been relevant and possible for his immediate disciples, I believe that Jesus is teaching a universal and timeless principle here, which we can also gain from. I believe he is saying simply this: avoid an “us and them” mentality. Don’t attack from your fortress, then retreat to your hiding place. Be there amongst the people. Be vulnerable. Be dependent. Accept the hospitality that is offered, and if none is offered, leave and go on to the next town.

This is of course incredibly threatening, frightening. Most of us prefer to operate from a position of security, of power, of superiority. We don’t like being vulnerable. It is one thing to function like this amongst friends of our own language and culture, but amongst strangers, people who are not like us, people who don’t know us, it is even harder. Difficult or not, the instruction is there. When we go to people with the message and demonstration of the kingdom we need to live amongst the people to whom we are sent, not set ourselves up apart from them or independent. If living amongst them is not possible because they reject us, we are to move on.

Looking at the history of Christian missions it is easy to see that Jesus’ followers have not always followed this instruction. If we look at the nineteenth century alone, which some would see as the golden age of missions, we see that often missionaries lived quite separately from the people with whom they were attempting to share the message of the kingdom. They were largely independent, creating their own little enclaves of western culture and language, so called “mission stations,” and then reaching out from there. It gave them a place of security and familiarity to which they could retreat from their labors, where they could feel safe. But it separated them from the people, made them different, exclusive, and in the minds of some, “better” or superior. They were more like agents of the British (or German or Dutch or French) Empire than messengers of the Kingdom of Heaven. The local people were often brought into the mission stations as servants, making them the ones who were dependent and vulnerable: the opposite arrangement to what Jesus was suggesting.

There were thankfully exceptions to this model, though they were sometimes treated with scepticism. One of the greatest missionaries of those times was Hudson Taylor, who bucked the trend. He said that the key to people’s hearts was to live amongst them, eat their food, wear their clothes, speak their language. He is remembered as one of the greatest and most fruitful missionaries of that age.

Perhaps Jesus’ words to his disciples can best be applied to modern missions thinking in simply this way: cross the culture, and preach from the context of relationship with the people you are going to, not from a position of power or superiority, but of vulnerability and dependence. In short, make friends first. If such friendship is not offered, move on to somewhere else, where you are accepted and where you are given a voice. But don’t preach the gospel unless you are given permission by the people to whom you go. Your job is not to bible bash anyone, or to try to force them to change. It is simply to share with them good news. If they don’t want it, then take it to someone who does.

If this all sounds a bit pathetic, a bit like groveling or begging, the words of Jesus at the conclusion of his commission provide an interesting balance, though they sound harsh. He says quite simply that if we are rejected, we should leave, but not without making it quite clear to the rejecting people that they are missing something of great price, that they are crazy to pass up this opportunity. He says,

But if a town refuses to welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate. And know this—the Kingdom of God is near!’ I assure you, even wicked Sodom will be better off than such a town on judgment day.

We have a great message, goood news, to share. We do not need to be ashamed of ourselves, since we are friends of God, nor our message, since it is God’s blueprint for a better world. We go with the authority and power of God. If people reject us, they are shooting themselves in the foot, they are crazy. But it is their right and we do not have to remain, begging them to listen to us and accept us. Perhaps as we walk away they will see the mistake they have made and call us back to hear the good news. But if not, they have only themselves to blame.

It is easy to see mission in terms of going overseas or crossing borders. But our mission field does not have to be remote from where we are right now. It can be our workplace, or our sports club, our school or social group, or our neighborhood. It is simply a place of relationships with people who have not heard the message. If there are no places like that in our lives, perhaps Jesus is saying to us that we need to find some and go to them.

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