Stacey and I got to know a very kind missionary when we first went to Cameroon on a vision trip. He allowed us to stay with him while we were in the capital, spent hours talking to us about his plans, and helped us a lot with our paperwork. As I got to know Shawn I learned that he had some learning disabilities. It took him a bit longer to get through college than average. But he finished. Somewhere along the way he decided to pursue the life of a missionary, leaving behind his family and their family business. It took him a bit longer to raise support than average. But Shawn was persistent, hard working, and he never gave up. And after many years of preparation, and planning, and support raising, and training, the Lord brought Shawn to Cameroon to work as the field administrator. We met him, I think, around a year into his first term and he really was thriving. Life is more challenging in Cameroon, but he rose to the challenge. And then, a few months later, Shawn died of respiratory complications.
Being that you, my reader, probably did not know Shawn, after a brief moment of shock and a little sorrow, what you probably are thinking (at least if you are an American) is: “What a waste! Why in the world would God allow this man to spend YEARS of his life and thousands of dollars of supporters’ money to do less than two years of ministry in Cameroon?” There is an underlying concern in these questions that finds its way into a lot of American conversations about missionary work: efficiency. When I hear people in America talking about missions, they are often looking for the most cost-effective, time-effective, efficient way to do missions. This has led some to reject the sending out of Western missionaries altogether. And why? Because there is literally no more expensive way to reach people of other nations than to send an American family. For us to go to live among another culture, we need years of preparation, language learning, etc. We have to figure out how to live in a country in which we have basically no experience. And we often are far more concerned with health and comfort than any other nationality.
So, why would we do it? Why would we send Americans to do the work of missions at all? There are a lot of answers, but here is one: GOD IS NOT CONCERNED WITH EFFICIENCY!
This is a big claim, but I believe I can make a biblical case for it. There are three things I notice in the Great Commission that leads me to this belief:
1. He called us to go
Jesus told us (first his disciples and through them us) to GO. I know, I know, it’s a participle. But read HERE if you need some persuasion that he actually was telling us to go. Jesus told the disciples to go to: “Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus told Jews to go to Samaria! The Jews did not have the best relationship with the Samaritans, in fact generally speaking Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews. But Jesus didn’t say that they should try to connect with the Samaritan woman and see if they could fund her to reach out to her own people. He told them to go to Samaria. This is not the most efficient strategy, but it was the one that he chose.
But he did not only tell them to go to Samaria…
2. He called us to go to all nations
Jesus actually told us that we should go to all nations. John Piper says the following:
“God’s call for missions in Scripture cannot be defined in terms of crossing cultures to maximize the total number of individuals saved. Rather, God’s will for missions is that every people group be reached with the testimony of Christ and that a people be called out for his name from all the nations” (Piper 2010: 179).
Piper uses an illustration, for another purpose, of two ships that are sinking. A rescue team comes to the first ship and begins to save people out of the water. In doing so, they look afar and see the other ship sinking and hear the cries of the drowning. Though compassion and love would no doubt cause deep anguish in the hearts of the rescuers, there is no reason for the to stop saving the first ship’s passengers to move on to the second. From the perspective of efficiency, they would probably save more if they stayed at the first wreck rather than losing some people while they travelled to the second. In fact, I believe that rescuers are trained to save as many as they can, and would likely stay at the first wreck until they thought it would be more efficient to move onto the second.
But this is not how Jesus called us to minister. From the perspective of efficiency, it makes more sense to work with those whom you are most alike. It makes more sense to minister in your heart language. It makes more sense to stay somewhere where you can fund yourself, rather than having to rely on the funds of other Christians. Simply, it is more efficient to stay than to go. Following the method of using us to spread the message, the most efficient way I can think of is this:
- Work and minister in America to Americans.
- Bring people both saved and unsaved to America.
- Evangelize them, disciple them, send them back to their countries.
But this is not how Jesus called us to minister. He called us to go to all nations. He called us to go to places where they speak other languages. He called us to go to places that we cannot even get to without a few thousand dollars in plane tickets. He called us to go to places where we would die (and many have) unless we took malaria medicine EVERYDAY. And he called us to go not knowing the day of our own death. But don’t miss something very important…
3. He called us
The whole method is inefficient. God is all powerful, has no lack of resources, and is all wise. And who did he choose to take the Gospel to the nations? He chose soft meaty creatures that have no protective shell and can die when an insect bites them. He chose people that stop learning language really well at the age of 18. He chose people who can’t even get along well enough with one another to stay on the field (the number one reason missionaries leave the field is conflict with other missionaries). He chose me.Can you think of a more efficient way to do this? I can. I have always thought it would be amazing if every tree grew with the Gospel written in its wood. You peel off a layer, Gospel in Chinese. Another layer, Gospel in French. Another layer: Bakoum. Every tree, in the whole world. Could you imagine. It would be so wonderfully efficient. But this is not how Jesus called us to minster. He did not send a call out to every tree, or fish, or even angel. Jesus sent us. When I look at Shawn’s life, I do not see a waste. I do not see a mistake. What I see is beautiful inefficient obedience. I see faithfulness that I envy and a final impact still to be fully known. And I think that if we look at such faithfulness and we think it is a waste, we have a long way to go. I don’t believe that God cares about our efficiency. Before you yell at me, I don’t think we should be wasteful. I don’t think we should spend money and time recklessly. Jesus honored the servant that took the money from his master and increased it five-fold (Matthew 25:14-30). I think it is good to strategize and plan, but never at the cost of obedience. If our strategy and planning and desire for efficiency drive us to ignoring the plain command of God, we need to rethink our priorities. Jesus said to his disciples:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Stacey and I have spent the last 13 years preparing to translate the Bible. We have studied the Bible, linguistics, French, Bakoum, and linguistics again. We are planning to begin the actual translation project in August. We know what book we want to start with (John), we know how we want to translate (faithfully and with much study and prayer), we know where we want to translate, and we know that we could die tomorrow. And if I die tomorrow, I pray you will not wonder why the waste. I pray you will not try to measure my efficiency, wondering if all that money and time could have been better spent. But I pray you will ask: was he faithful? Was he about his father’s work? And if the answer is yes, I pray that you will trust God to use my efforts the way he wants, for his glory.