“…[Y]ou will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” — Acts 1.8b [NET]
And thus, many foolhardy attempts were undertaken throughout the post-apostolic era to ostensibly fulfill Great Commission 2.0–but in reality were little more than fruitless exercises in self-fulfilling prophecy.
Good news merits sharing. The Christian message is supposed to be good news, hence gospel. And the Christian message merits sharing, because our lives in community with God through Christ are supposed to be full of good fruit, the likes of which Paul refers to in Galatians. Sharing the gospel is missionary work, and missionary work is sharing the gospel. None of this is supposed to be an exercise in bigotry, unfair judgment, sin casting or otherwise dismantling other cultures, only to replace those cultures with a cheap knock-off of the original.
This is but one reason I am fundamentally opposed to Christian missions as currently constituted and understood. And I haven’t yet touched the main thrust of this post.
Great Commission 1.0 is found in the synoptic gospels, at the end of each. Essentially, Jesus charges the disciples–and most tend to extrapolate it out to include the reading audience, because, gee golly willikers, the text absolutely, positively, unquestionably MUST have some form of application to the reader–to go share the gospel with the all the world. It’s a nice notion and, on a certain level, I’m perfectly ok with it. That said, I must insist that this verse in Acts 1 shapes and clarifies the original charge, and it is in the light of Acts 1, Great Commission 2.0, that we must evaluate how we are doing our job as those who partake in the heritage of Christian faith.
Frankly, we’re doing a pretty crappy job.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” When ‘power’ got redefined to mean ‘snotty religious cliques without any real sense of religious conviction or social skills’ is beyond me, but I don’t see much in the Western Church that gives me any real sense of potency. In fact, the self-enslavement to the Sunday morning routine and the apparent need to be cool and likable are two tell-tale signs that we are powerless, rather than powerful. No, I’m not calling for some kind of pentecostal revival, and no, I’m not asking us to demand that we call sin sin from our pulpits; the former is typically self-gratification and the latter is typically victim blaming and counter-productive.
The power of the Holy Spirit is largely that of simply learning to speak the language and to be savvy enough to let the Spirit do the Spirit’s work, rather than forcing the issue and being awkward in a futile attempt to be all things to all people. In being present with the world, we learn the pain and struggle of others, we identify with that hurt and alienation and offer reconciliation and healing. People don’t need to be reminded that they’ve failed, they need to be reminded that God still loves them in spite of their failures. In that respect, we Christians could well stand to sit in front of John 3.16 until it sinks in that the point isn’t everlasting life, but that God loves us, even if we are fantastically and pathetically failing in our core responsibility as believers. Remember that Jesus spoke these words to a religious person, not to a ‘heathen’. Ultimately, what’s the difference? With all the clamoring Christians have about secular culture and secular this and Godless that, we forget that, without grace extended and available to all creation, we are all Godless, secular and alienated. There is no distinction between a hurting world’s activities and the Church’s activities, without God’s presence, they are all equally worthless. With God’s compassion for all the world, they are all equally loved, and our task becomes much more clear and much less prick-like.
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem.” Here is the crux of the problem: we in the West love to focus on the ‘all nations’ emphasis of the Great Commission. In the minds of most American Christians, the point is to share the gospel with all the world, with the implication that home is good. Last I checked, Jerusalem was broken then and is broken now, a couple thousand years after the fact. America, too, is broken (and broke. I digress.) Only the naive can claim that the Great Commission, in either form, focuses on faraway places, especially when our churches are, by and large, dysfunctional and wretched examples of executing a business plan, much less a worthy example of Christian transformation.
The truth of the matter is that, without taking care of business here at home, we have no business sending anyone anywhere. The fact that we do so is indicative of our greater interest in our hopes of escaping this life–Matthew 24, probably later editing–than in fulfilling any commission. So much of what we treat as sacred and religious is really vulgar and profane and empty ritual, even down to the way we read the Bible. If we want to spread the gospel, we’re better off scattering seed across the street and down the block, rather than using the church as a silo and sending tons of the stuff several time zones away. We are first to transform our world before we are to transform the world, or else we only sow the seeds of eventual destruction.
Let’s be even more frank about this flawed state of affairs: it’s sexy to send missionaries to Africa or South America. It’s exciting to show footage of orphanages in Central America and it was daring and exciting to send missionaries beyond the Iron Curtain (as it is to have missionaries in present day China and Iran, as we currently do.) It’s even thrilling to do work with people with addictions and our insipid–patent pending–”Downtown Syndrome”, the awwww-inducing anecdotes of working with the down and out–typically the homeless, drugged-out or prostitutes, or, in going for the cycle, the homeless, druggie prostitute, in some mythical downtown. Has anyone actually been to a downtown? Have you seen the prices of rent in most downtowns? Do you see what most people look like in a major downtown area? It’s not The Cross and the Switchblade anymore, folks! Urban renewal has left us in the dust!
But to send someone as a missionary to a college campus? To do sacrificial work in the suburbs? The response is typical, and I’ve mentioned it before, while I was trying to do work on a college campus. The conversations would typically look like this:
Pompadoured minister with a bad tie: “So, brother, where do you minister?”
Me: “I’m actually doing campus ministry at [university x].”
PMBT: “Oh, with what church?”
Me: “I’m a campus missionary with [organization x].”
PMBT: “Oh, we have a great college and career ministry at our church. Why aren’t you with a church?”
Me: “Well, I’d love to partner with you so that we can be an effective presence on the campus full-time.”
PMBT: “We have a college and career ministry already. We’ll be praying for you, brother. Which church are you with, again?”
In missiology (yes, there is an academic field now for this type of thing), the mission station model of outreach is very much frowned upon, where a church is built and all the ministry is filtered through that building. It’s outdated, minimally-impactful and ultimately insensitive to the local culture. Yet, what are we doing? Planting churches, expanding facilities and having big-draw events. Local culture in America has passed us by and the best we can do is hope an Easter musical is going to bump our numbers and make sure our worship leaders have skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses. Wait, what?
Christ commanded us to be witnesses to Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then the rest of the world. To be a witness to the work of Christ requires interaction with and presence in the world around us. Perhaps we should be more basic: to be a witness to the work of Christ requires us to allow Christ to do work in us in the first place.
Our absence from the world is not making us holier or more sanctified. It is making us like the one who buries the talent and waits for the return of the employer, blindly thinking our fate is going to somehow be different from his.
We are not fulfilling the Great Commission by going all over the world. In neglecting our neighborhoods, our cities and our ZIP codes, we are the Great Omission.