Of Temporals and Spirituals

Stan Self

Stan Self

By Stan Self –

For the better part of the last 13 years I have spent much of my time assisting local churches in the United States in discovering and advancing their unique missional calling. More than 90 percent of those churches have been United Methodist. In the process, one of the things I have found most surprising is that for most local churches it is easier to engage in God’s mission abroad than in their own backyard.

When referring to God’s mission, I am talking about his redemptive, transforming, kingdom-bringing action offered to all humanity. It was this mission Jesus was speaking of when he said to his followers in John 20:21, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Though often used interchangeably, there is a distinction between “mission,” as in God’s mission, and “missions.” Missions is what we do as Christ-followers to share the Good News of Jesus among people who have not, as yet, become Christ-followers. In other words, missions is what we do when we join God’s mission.

We certainly understand this when we either go or support missions in other parts of the world. There is an expectation of building relationships, sharing the Good News, and discipling people in a closer walk with the Lord. We may engage in a variety of acts of mercy, compassion, and justice to minster to the whole person, but we never omit the Gospel component. That is why the slogan for The Mission Society’s Agrimissions team is, “First the bread – Then the Bread of Life!” That is why Mary Kay Jackson will demonstrate the use of a new water filter system in a village in Ghana and then deliver a message on Jesus the Living Water.

Yet when we look at how missions is done within our own communities, we find an amazing lack of personalization, witnessing, and discipleship. For example, this week we talked to a missions team member of a local church who told us of having a soup kitchen ministry for a number of years. Although many of the people being served have been coming for quite some time, those serving had not developed enough of a relationship to even know their names. I often refer to this as doing missions with tongs.

The most telling example comes from a church at which we had completed a Global Outreach Weekend. In the room where we met, the youth had placed representations of 17 local ministries in which the church was involved. During the wrap-up, the senior pastor confessed, “Do you see these ministries around the room? Jesus is not in one of them, but that is going to change.”

I am not sure why we are so reticent to proclaim the Good News on our home turf. Perhaps we have taken to heart the quote alleged to have been given by St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Actually, St. Francis never said this, but it is a nice little faux quote that is often used as cover to relieve us of having to do more overt witnessing. I suspect it is more likely that the church has done a poor job of discipling its members. Discipleship in most churches takes the form of studies. The next step following the completion of one of these studies is another study. Unlike Jesus and Paul who spent much of their time making disciple-makers, churches seem intent on making study-takers. The result is that most of our church members are very uncomfortable talking about Jesus outside the comfort of church or home.

That needs to change. In matters of local missions, we would do well to take to heart the words of John Wesley recorded in his journal on Monday, November 25, 1760: “I visited as many as I could of the sick. How much better is it, when it can be done, to carry relief to the poor, than to send it! and that both for our own sake and theirs. For theirs, as it is so much more comfortable to them, and as we may then assist them in spirituals as well as temporals; and for our own, as it is far more apt to soften our heart, and to make us naturally care for each other.”

Wesley saw the need to care for the near-term needs of people and for their need 100 years and beyond. So as we go into our local communities we should be ministering to the temporals, but not leave the spirituals undone.

Stan Self is Senior Director of Church Ministry at The Mission Society. 

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