As an American formed with Western cultural values, I am familiar with the tendency to prize my autonomy and self-fulfillment. I instinctively think, “I should be able to do whatever I want to make myself happy as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.”
Our churches struggle with these cultural tendencies as well. So when American churches send out missionaries, we carry these deep affections for autonomy and self-fulfillment with us.
That’s why the Serge mission statement—which is a liturgical maxim of sorts for our organization—begins with “Laying down our lives.”
Laying down our lives means we go out of a desire to be freed from our obsession with self(-ish?) fulfillment, with an expectation that we will suffer. When we do this, we aren’t just being obedient to the way of Christ, we are modeling to others the upside-down nature of the Kingdom and the mission of the Church to bring that Kingdom to earth.
As I reflect on that reality, I think of three distinct groups that need to see us laying down our lives together for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
In the church especially, the family is a sacred cow. I have spent many hours talking with people who have a heart to go, but who have parents or adult children who are bitterly resisting the idea. These family members believe, as their culture has taught them, that they are entitled to the first fruits of their family’s love. So the suffering of separation is confusing, hurtful, and deeply countercultural.
But, by going, we live out the words of Jesus: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me. If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me” (Matt. 10:34-39, The Message).
By following God’s invitation to international mission work, we extend an invitation to our adult children and parents to find more happiness in Jesus than in the comfort of family. This is a hard truth to give justice to in a blog post, but it is the truth. I’ve seen many families grow beautifully through the process of freely releasing their loved ones to go.
This Sunday, I was able to pray with a group of 30 people in our church of 200-some adults as we commissioned the group to go and plant a new church in our city. Our pastor wisely noted before the prayer that Jesus assumes that growth will happen through loss. We have to live out of an assumption of abundance. We have more in Christ than we need, so we can give away the best people we have. The temptation is to live out of scarcity—for every church to hold onto its people with a clenched fist. This temptation has grown as many Christians feel ourselves slipping further from the centers of power in American life.
In going, we love our church into a refreshing dependence on God and out of a false confidence in the resources of the American church. We also love our church by broadening the perspective—or perhaps, in some cases, changing the perspective. No one church is the center of the story of God’s Kingdom. Through going to other places and working with brothers and sisters from other cultures, we help our own sending church to grow in its knowledge of the world and its ability to love the “stranger” in its local community. Paradoxically, by going out from our church, we bring more of the world into our church and help it grow into a fuller reflection of the Kingdom.
In our current day, Americans are not the best candidates for cross-cultural ministry. As mentioned above, we tend to be selfish and individualistic. We are also part of a dominant global culture. Historically, Americans have presented ourselves to the world as the heroes chosen to save it. That attitude is getting harder to defend. In an era of church scandal, the American church does not seem to be full of heroes, while other places in the world are the seat of spiritual revival. Plus, in some of the least-reached places in the world, Americans are not very well thought of. In short, we are about as good a candidate to reach the world as Paul was to reach the Romans. Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). In other words, Paul was marginal and antagonistic to the Roman world.
Paul was an unlikely candidate to evangelize the Roman Empire. His missionary journeys were often marked with mistakes, setbacks, and suffering. Nevertheless, God used Paul in spite of his many weaknesses. Paul’s weakness made God’s grace and power obvious for the world to see.
God can use us, too. We live at a time when our world needs to see broken, discouraged Americans struggling to love and doing it faithfully. Now is a unique time to love our families, our churches, and the world as weak Americans who struggle on as vessels of Christ’s grace and power.
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