Our day is one of instant gratification. The slogan “Your way, right away” has seeped beyond fast food into most of our thinking. Whether it’s advancing technology or the general zeitgeist of our times, instant gratification affects the church as well.
As a pastor who has lived in the United Arab Emirates for four years, I’ve become familiar with different missions organizations, movements, and philosophies. What’s generally true across the board is a deep desire to see the gospel go forward and Jesus Christ made known. What concerns me is the way speed and quickness get elevated as virtues and dominate missions thinking.
The gospel is eternally serious business, inextricably tied to the glory of God and the destinies of real people. Given the stakes, there has been a good and right recovery of the urgent task to see the gospel go to the world’s hardest places and least-reached peoples. And yet if we’re not careful, I fear we will wrongly identify urgency with speed, failing to remember that a task can be urgent and yet demand a slow, methodical approach that thinks in years and decades instead of days and months.
Simply put, the church desperately needs to recover categories for both urgency and patience in missions. Spreading the gospel is urgent, but it demands men and women with the patience to commit to God’s means in order to accomplish God’s ends.
Pictures of Urgent Patience
While God can use his servants to speed the gospel forward, far more often the gospel seems to root slowly and start small. As those who’ve been taught not to despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10), we should be careful that our approach to missions is more concerned with being faithful than fast.
When the first Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson landed in Burma in his mid-20s, he hoped for a church of 100 Burmese believers by the time of his death. After a full decade of ministry, the membership of the church reached 18—a far cry from the insatiable hunger for numerical results characterizing many missions discussions today. While the Lord gave Judson the privilege of seeing more fruit as years passed, Judson’s sense of urgency is precisely why he went patiently about the work of careful evangelism and discipleship, all within the context of a faithful church. The urgency of what he was doing, combined with Burma’s tremendous need, caused Judson to be patient as he trusted God’s means to bring about God-centered—not human-centered—ends.
The apostle Paul too, through his own life and teaching, instructs us how to unite urgency and patience. No one has poured out his life to advance the gospel more than he did. And yet precisely because the mission was urgent, Paul was concerned for the patient work of seeing the church rightly formed and led. Rather than moving on carelessly, Paul left Titus in Crete to put what remained in order (Titus 1:15). After Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Derbe, instead of taking a quick route back, they traveled the longer route through Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch to “strengthen the souls of the disciples” and “appoint elders in every church” (Acts 14:20–23). These were cities where they’d been persecuted. The decision likely didn’t make sense on paper.
Among other things, Paul’s priorities teach us this: The urgency of the mission requires patience to ensure that the integrity of the mission is not undermined. Undermined by what? Any method that sacrifices faithfulness on the altar of fast, or pastoral care on the altar of impressive numbers.
Jesus cautioned against the allure and deception of immediacy. In his well-known parable, he warned that the seed of the gospel would fall on different types of soils, some of which would appear receptive. But persecution, troubles, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the worries of life would choke it out (Mark 4:17–18).
And Paul, because he believed Jesus’s teaching about the heart, didn’t leave newly reborn, Spirit-indwelt Christians to fend for themselves once it appeared the gospel had taken root. He labored to ensure faithful, biblically structured churches led by biblically sound pastors were raised up and left behind. From the Corinthians to the Galatians to the young pastor Timothy, Paul stayed engaged because he knew a missions strategy driven by immediacy would yield bad fruit in the long run—and would undermine the very gospel witness he sought to advance in the first place. He also knew patiently cultivating healthy churches with maturing disciples would have the added benefit of exposing bad soil and cultivating good soil, which would only further strengthen the gospel’s witness.
If our missions strategies don’t have gears for both urgency and patience, we risk elevating our wisdom above the One who warned against trusting immediate appearances when it comes to spiritual fruit. For the Christian, the old adage “time will tell” still rings true.
Healthy Ecclesiology Is Missional
We have a great gospel to proclaim to a needy world. But if we’re not careful, we will undermine its spread. If we don’t trust that God knows best how to protect and display his gospel—through sound churches pastored by men who, in appropriate ways in their contexts and settings, aren’t novices (1 Tim. 3:6)—then we will stunt true growth.
Paul returned to those young churches in dangerous cities because he knew the gospel must be protected and displayed for the long haul. As a result, he gave careful attention to the local church as the enduring institution. Biblical urgency demands willingness to exercise biblical patience so that, as the gospel advances, the world can look at an ordinary church and, by grace, see a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).