The missional church in the United States is not missional enough. The local focus of mission is shortsighted. If we only make disciples who make disciples in our cities, thousands of unengaged, un-discipled peoples of the earth will not hear the gospel. To be sure, many ethnic groups are migrating to cities, which brings some of the nations right into the neighborhood. However, there remain many ethnic groups that do not migrate to Western cities. Western churches must send missionaries, not only across the street, but also across the world.

The State of Global Mission

Shockingly, 80 percent of deployed missionaries go to already evangelized areas. Consider these staggering statistics:

  • Roughly 30 percent of the global population is unevangelized and largely untargeted by so-called missional churches.
  • This amounts to about 1.6 billion people not hearing the gospel in 38 different nations. [1]
  • There are still at least 13,000 unreached people groups and millions of people who have not heard a first proclamation of the gospel. [2]

Thousands more do not have the Scriptures in their language. Add to that the incalculable corruption in many nations that fosters poverty, disease, crime, sex trafficking, and so on. Other frontiers of mission must not be lost in the missional movement of the West. We need churches that will be missional both locally and globally.

What if I’m in a Small Church?

The global task of mission can sound overwhelming to small churches and church plants. It is challenging enough get individualistic, consumer-oriented, image-conscious Christians on mission in America. In small churches, a tiny band of committed people does everything from (and in plants, from scratch!). The small church pastor wears multiple hats of pastor, apostle, counselor, strategist, small group leader, and much more.

Naturally, the immediate mission field is more pressing than the distant mission field. These leaders should be commended for attempting to fulfill part of the global mission of the church at a local level. They love their neighbor, transition consumers to missionaries, and build a church all at the same time, which is incredibly demanding. But because this task is so great, and resources are so small, engaging our global neighbor is almost unthinkable!

Four Phases of Progressive Global Mission

In my church-planting experience, I found it necessary to adopt a progressive approach to global mission. It is unreasonable to expect a small group to adopt an unreached people group in the Middle East or to support a missionary when they can’t even support their pastor’s salary. So how can a small church be globally minded?

Looking back, I now see four phases to our progressive approach to global mission. I have also noticed other churches follow a similar progression. The first phase was exposure. Early on we deliberately introduced the church to the global mission. We began at the core team phase by meeting missionaries, visiting Burmese refugees, and praying about the needs of the global church. We took a rather generic, shotgun approach.

The second phase was experimentation. As we grew, we tried out international student ministry, presented unreached peoples needs through sermons, and planned short-term, exploratory mission trips. We also focused more funding on global mission, still unsure where it would lead.

The third phase was decentralization. In addition to our missionary equipping for local mission, we wanted our church to support missionaries in other countries. As our missional communities multiplied, we created Adopt-a-Missionary profiles so they could pick a missionary to support. We encouraged each community to consider adopting a missionary whom they could support financially, relationally, and prayerfully. To this day, some missional communities don’t participate; others are very active. We’re okay with that because we’re slowly growing into keeping the global in missional, while remaining focused on our immediate mission in Austin. Decentralization is an important part of becoming globally minded because it puts local missionaries face-to-face with global missionaries (sometimes through Skype). This decentralization helped us introduce global mission the basic level of church. It got it down to the level of DNA.

The fourth phase was strategic partnership. We forged a partnership with indigenous pastors in Uganda and took three trips over three years to learn and serve the Ugandan church. We also mobilized the whole church through Uganda Sundays, prayer cards, and updates. We looked for a strategic partnership, moved forward, then celebrated at home each time a team returned. To recap, the four phases were exposure, experimentation, decentralization, and strategic partnership.

We still have a long way to go. We are about to send our first long-term missionary to Hong Kong, where we hope to formalize a strategic partnership. Are we a top ten global mission church? No way. Are we getting global into missional? Slowly. Does our church understand missional is both local and global? I believe so. But if we rely on “phases of progressive global mission,” we are doomed to failure. We’re doomed because we neglect the motivation for mission. Why should we participate in the global mission of the church? How does our part fit into the larger, sweeping history of mission?

Advance and Retreat of the Church

Church historian Kenneth Latourette (1884-1963) noted that the church has a history of advance and retreat, what he called “the pulsations in the life of Christianity.” Lautorette points out that the history of the church is a history of oscillating influence, spreading the gospel across the globe over the centuries. This has resulted in new expressions of the Christian faith over time and across cultures. It is amazing to consider the diversity and uniqueness of the gospel throughout space and time among the peoples of history! Today, expressions of the gospel are exploding in Africa and Asia.

These new expressions of Christian faith are more than intriguing. They are, in fact, an expansion of God’s glory. You might think that God’s glory un-expandable and already complete. Not according to Jonathan Edwards. In The History of Redemption, Edwards argues that God’s glory is incomplete:

God looks on the communication of himself, and the emanation of the infinite glory and good that are in himself to belong to the fullness and completeness of himself, as though he were not in his most complete and glorious state without it. Thus the church of Christ is called the fullness of Christ: as though he were not in his complete state without her.

God’s glory in an incomplete state? His glory is not full? Sounds awfully unorthodox. What is Edwards saying?

Full Expression of God’s Glory

If Edwards is correct, the full expression of God’s glory can only be completed through the history of redemption. The history of redemption cannot be completed until “the end has come,” and the end will not come until “the gospel of the kingdom has been preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt 24:14). God’s glory is expanded when the gospel is translated into the many cultures of the world, entering new ethnicities, idioms, and habits. It will take the breadth of history to display the diversity of God’s glory through the advance of the church.

However, the church also retreats. Our passion for mission wanes. Even with the resurgence of missional ecclesiology, we fail in sharing and showing the gospel in our own cultures. Clearly, the missional church is not enough, not only in its scope of mission, but also in its motivation for mission. When the motivation of the church is mission, we are destined to retreat, tire out, and fail. What, then, should we do? Throw up our arms in surrender and blend fully into our cultures with the hope of missional memory loss?

We need a greater, more captivating motivation than “missional church.” When the motivation for mission is mission, people will revert to consumerism. However, if our missional endeavors are motivated by something greater, more certain, than our oscillating passion for the advance of the gospel, then there is hope. If the history of redemption will not come to a close until God’s glory has been completed, then the assurance of mission starts and ends, not with the church, but with God! God’s commitment to his own glorious expansion throughout space and time is the hope of the world. The hope of mission is not the church; it is Jesus committed to ushering his full, redemptive reign over all space and time, including every people.

As we bring missional failure and success to the feet of Jesus, we will be increasingly motivated for mission by his mercy and his might. We need to be increasingly captivated by the expanding glory and beauty of Christ among the nations. Missional church is not enough. We need Jesus’ insistence on the spread of his redemption throughout history for his glory. We need his commitment to his complete glory breaking into history to complete the display of the riches of his grace.

In order to keep the global in missional, we must linger on God more than mission. We need the very same gospel we seek to advance in order to advance it. We need Jesus to carry us into the depths of God’s character, beauty, and excellence where our imagination will be captivated and our affections thrilled. From this place of awe the mission of the church will advance and God’s glory will be completed among the nations.

[1] Statistical data taken from David Barrett and Todd Johnson, World Christian Trends: Global Diagram 34 (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2001). See also: http://www.gordonconwell.edu/

[2] Todd Johnson and Peter Crossing, “Priority Peoples: A Customized Approach,” Mission Frontiers Jan-Feb, 2005.