by Alan Leese
Long before Jesus sent the Holy Spirit and propelled the early church out into the world on mission, he modelled what God’s mission should look like in practice. In over a quarter of a century of Christian mission, in various cultures, I have observed that the closer to Jesus’ model we stick, the more authentic, fruitful and honouring to God we are. When the church, and mission agencies drift away from Jesus’ model, things start to go wrong.
In chapter 9 of his gospel, Matthew gives us a summary of Jesus’ missionary model.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’ (vv35-38) NIV.
These few verses contain enough for a whole book, but in this short article, I’d like to draw your attention to three essential things: Jesus’ Mindset for Mission, his Mandate for Mission and his Motive for mission.
Jesus’ Mindset for Mission
“All” and “every” are complete, exhaustive terms. Yet Matthew insists that Jesus went to “all” the towns and villages, and healed “every” disease (v35). There was nothing half-hearted, timid, or semi-committed in the way that Jesus approached mission. He didn’t limit his service to the places that were pleasant to be in, while avoiding the harder villages, or places where he might not be so welcomed. Jesus went to every place where people were loved by God. And that means everywhere.
Why did Jesus work so comprehensively? The answer seems to be that he was convinced that God’s work didn’t lack potential, but lacked workers. In fact, it was the acute labour shortage in mission that he specifically instructed the disciples to pray about:
The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. (v37-8)
That verse features frequently in the prayer update that I write for our mission, Novi Most International. Here’s the reason: about 7 years ago Novi Most had 12 workers in Mostar, now there are only 2 of us. There aren’t any fewer spiritual or practical needs – but there are fewer workers.
We need to recapture the “all” and the “every” of Jesus’ missionary mindset.
Jesus’ Mandate for Mission
What did Jesus do when he went to all these places? What was he there for? The text describes him as both teaching and healing (v35). That is to say, that he went to meet both the people’s spiritual and physical needs. They needed both to encounter Jesus in his proclamation of the word of God, and in his practical demonstration of the love of God.
The same is true for us.
In my years on the mission field, I have observed many people who have struggled to keep this Jesus-like balance. Some seek only to proclaim God’s word, to explain the ‘four spiritual laws’ and recite the “sinner’s prayer”. At the other extreme are those who limit their action to relief, medical or educational work – and serve the people in practical ways. Sometimes, ironically the latter do so under the banner of ‘holistic-mission’, but without the proclamation of the gospel; without helping people to get into a good relationship with God, mission is not ‘holistic’ at all!
Proclaiming and explaining the gospel is absolutely central to Christian mission. A person’s relationship with God is the pivotal part of their life. However, though essential, proclamation alone is not enough. Jesus went on to demonstrate the love of God, and so must we. Our job is not to correct Jesus, but to imitate him!
Jesus’ Motive for Mission
We’ve seen where Jesus served, and what he did when he got there. Perhaps the most important question though is what drove him. What motivated him to teach, preach, heal, and travel?
Matthew provides us with a short, brilliant explanation:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (v36)
In Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 years after the civil-war, we are still in a post-war situation. While the UK was considered to be in postwar recovery from 1945 to 1955 (or thereabouts), Mostar is still wounded. The society is divided on racial and religious grounds, the infrastructure has been damaged, the economy is faltering and people are leaving in significant numbers. The evangelical churches here are few and not huge.
What does Jesus think when he looks at this country? I believe that he hasn’t changed, and that he still brims over with compassion for my friends and neighbours here. In Jesus’ mission, people are not statistics for us to count as ‘ministry success stories’. People do not exist for us in order to have successful ministry projects. No. God has deep compassion for people, and calls us to do the same. That’s why we have to be willing to serve and bless people, even if they have no intention of responding to our message or helping us in any way. Presumably, if Jesus healed ‘every’ disease, amongst that number will be people who didn’t follow him, but simply received his compassion.
Mission work goes horribly wrong, looks ugly and is inauthentic, if we try and do Jesus work, but lack his motivation. Jesus had genuine compassion and so must we.
These three aspects of the way in which Jesus worked don’t only relate to cross-cultural mission. They are of course, relevant if you are serving a people group with different customs, culture, language and religion. However, they are equally true for the mission that every Christian is on, every day.
Jesus’ missionary mindset means that if you find yourself working in retail, medicine, local government, business, education – or whatever, you are in the frontline of mission. As a Christian you carry the Holy Spirit, the presence of God and the word of God with you wherever you go.
Likewise Jesus’ missionary mandate is yours too, seeking to share his love with everyone, and take every opportunity to speak or serve.
Jesus’ missionary motivation must be ours too, having real compassion for the people around us. God wants us to be Christlike, the world sees straight through phonies.
The thing about God’s mission is that it doesn’t lack potential. It’s the workers who are few. God calls us all to be workers who will go everywhere, serve in word and deed, motivated by genuine compassion.
serves with Novi Most International in Mostar, in Bosnia & Herzegovina. He was formerly a youth worker for churches in England and Scotland.