Does missions bore you? I know, you feel naughty just thinking it. But can’t the topic sometimes feel abstract, distant, even personally irrelevant? Regardless of whether you’re energized by it, missions is a matter of unspeakable significance.
I corresponded with Zane Pratt, dean of Southern Seminary’s Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism, about his own missions experience, two popular misconceptions, practical advice for churches, and more.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background in missions?
My call to missions came in 1979, right after I graduated from Duke University. I went with friends to hear Dr. Helen Roseveare, a medical missionary to Zaire, and I heard about unreached people groups for the first time that night. God convicted me that I couldn’t forever remain in the United States, which had such an abundance of gospel witness, when so much of the world had none at all.
At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary I came under the teaching of J. Christy Wilson, a 22-year veteran of Christian work in Afghanistan. I learned my love for Muslims and commitment to Central Asia from him. In fact, I made my first overseas trip with him as well, traveling to Pakistan to work with Afghan refugees. After graduating from Gordon-Conwell I planted a church in Massachusetts, gave direction to the seminary’s overseas missions practicum, and met and married my wife. We were appointed for overseas service in 1991 and spent 20 years working in Central Asia. Both our kids were born and raised in that part of the world. We returned to the United States in 2011 to teach at Southern Seminary, but our sense of call hasn’t changed. Even now, we only remain in the States to raise up and train a new generation of overseas workers.
What do you perceive to be the most common misconception among evangelicals about the place and purpose of missions in Scripture?
The most common misconception about the place of missions in Scripture is the idea that mission is somehow optional, or simply one among many items on the church’s agenda. But mission is actually one of the glues holding together the grand narrative of Scripture, and it’s central to the agenda of the church. The most common misconception about the purpose of missions in Scripture is the idea that mission is simply anything useful the church does outside its own walls. It’s certainly true Christ’s disciples seek to obey everything he commanded, including loving our neighbor as ourselves and being zealous for good works. However, the point of the spear of the church’s mission is making disciples, which necessarily involves evangelism and church planting among those who’ve never heard the gospel. Where the gospel is not shared and disciples are not made, mission has not happened.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the mission of the church in recent years. What is the church’s mission in the world?
The church’s mission is to glorify God by making disciples from every people group on earth. That requires sharing the gospel, translating Scripture, establishing churches, teaching and training new believers, and training church leaders. Those new disciples will love their neighbors and be zealous for good works. However, evangelism and disciplemaking are the non-negotiable center of the local church’s mission.
What practical steps can local churches take to become more missions-minded and missions-effective?
First, churches should incorporate specific, globally focused, missionary prayer into every aspect of church life. Second, pastors and teachers should be sensitive to the missional nature of Scripture, and should preach and teach missions whenever they encounter it in the text—not just on special “mission emphasis” occasions. Third, churches should engage in personal relationships with field workers and aim to be an integral part of their ministries and a consistent blessing to their lives. Fourth, churches should go overseas in partnership with their adopted missionaries to do things genuinely useful to the field worker, all the while maintaining a posture of humility that recognizes the missionary knows the context on the ground better than anyone in America. Finally, churches should seek to become full-time, long-term strategic partners in the work.