Yesterday I read an interesting article titled ‘4 misconceptions of the missionary call‘. The article sought to demystify what often passes as spiritual views on the call to overseas mission. The article argued that we are all called to mission. As such, the question isn’t whether we are called to mission but how am I best placed to answer the call to mission. The Great Commission is call enough for us all, the question is how can I best serve the kingdom in response to it? The article really is worth reading in full.
I was particularly struck by how the same arguments apply to serving in churches on mission in less salubrious, or ‘hard to reach’, parts of the UK. In particular, I found the following comment insightful:
4. You have to be adventurous in order to go into missions.
So, this is just a lie, I think from Satan, to keep more Christians from going out. This is the lie that says you have to enjoy poisonous snakes inside your house to become a missionary. No one likes poisonous snakes in their house. This lie says that you have to enjoy travelling to become a missionary. I don’t like travelling. I used to like travelling, but then I had kids. I don’t like the jungle. I don’t like the dirt. I don’t like hiking through the bush with a machete. You know what I like? Pavement. Air conditioning. Cheese. Having an ER that I can take my kids to. That’s what I like.
People tend to think that missionaries go because they somehow like to live in miserable places. This is just not true. Missionaries like comforts just as much as the next guy. But, the reality is that the unreached are generally unreached for a reason: they are usually the ones with the snakes, with the bugs, with the humidity. Even in Cameroon, when we were looking for a place to work, we were told that the languages by the beach were already taken.
There were two things that especially resonated with me. The first relates to a throwaway comment my Dad made to me years ago. When I was a young child, my parents had intended to become missionaries to Portugal. Despite having attended bible college with three children in tow, for whatever reason we never did wind up in Portugal. Nonetheless, we continued supporting a couple who were working in the North of the country in a pretty poverty-stricken area. I forget the context but remember my Dad saying how it was interesting that getting missionaries to head to the Algarve was always (unsurprisingly) easier than getting them to go to the poor areas in the North. My Dad’s comment immediately came to mind as I read the statement, ‘when we were looking for a place to work, we were told that the languages by the beach were already taken’. Such has it always been.
Second, the force of the argument carries over for ministry in hard to reach urban areas of the UK. Like the writer, it is often presumed that those who go to places like Oldham, Rochdale, Salford and West Bromwich must love living next door to drug addicts who drop needles for their kids to pick up. There can be an assumption that ministers in these places simply love living in tower blocks or on estates that people spend their lives aspiring to leave. The reality is, like most people, ministers in hard to reach places would like good schools for their children, nice cafes to frequent and all the same sorts of things that well-heeled churches enjoy. But the article makes the case powerfully:
I write all this because I want the church to see that first of all, missionaries are just regular Christians. I am convinced that the vast majority of missionaries are not “called” in the subjective sense, but persuaded from Scripture. We are persuaded that the task of the church today is the spread of the Gospel to the nations. And we are persuaded that the God-chosen method of spreading the Gospel is by normal people going to far away places. We are persuaded that the message that we carry is that people by nature are separated from God, and without the Gospel they will spend eternity without Him. We are persuaded that this world is not our home, and we shouldn’t love the things of this world. We are persuaded that God is made strong in our weakness. And finally, we are persuaded that the job is not yet done.
I have said it before and I will say it again: there is no such thing as hard to reach people, there are simply hard to move Christians. In our setting, we find people are unwilling to move on the grounds they feel no call. They feel no affinity with the people having never set foot in the town and knowing nothing more than the headline that says Oldham is the most deprived town in England. Well, excuse me for saying so, but big surprise! How can you love a people, or have a heart for them, or feel an affinity with them, when you have never been anywhere near them, don’t know them or anything about them.
Whilst Oldham is full of need, it also full of people lost in their sin who need to hear of Christ. We minister in an area that has historically been considered a “no-go” areas for white Brits. It is replete with Muslims whom we are engaging with the gospel, who are regularly coming into the church and witnessing the power of the gospel in our multicultural, multilingual church membership sited in this monocultural Asian area of the town. It would be all too easy to say, ‘I have no heart for these people’ but Jesus calls us to go to them and doesn’t qualify it with ‘when you eventually feel led to do so’.
But we have our fair share of council estates too. There are areas of the town nearby that are entirely unchurched and lack any gospel witness. These places need people to heed the missionary call to live in these areas and plant gospel-centred churches in their midst. We need to recognise that missionary call is not some mystical inner-intuition, it is something Christ has given to every single disciple. We need people who will consider coming to areas like ours not because it is full of people like them, or they love the feel of the place, but simply because there are people lost in sin who need to hear the gospel and be discipled as they come to know Christ. You may feel that you have no heart for people or places like this, but Jesus does and aren’t we all called to emulate him? No heart for it is not a ‘get out of difficult mission free’ card, it is simply another way of saying my heart is not yet like Christ’s because if it was I would have a heart for any and every group of people that desperately need to hear the gospel.
If you wait until you have a heart for the people, how will ever go if you have never been around the people you haven’t yet developed a heart for? How do you hope to develop a heart for them if you never go near them and you turn your nose up at the very thought of being asked to go? We came to Oldham three years ago simply because we were asked to come. We had no connection to Oldham and no more a heart for the people here than anywhere else. What we did have, however, was a desire to see the gospel go out to people dying in their sin and see them won for Christ and growing in their faith.
As we moved to the town and began to serve and minister in it, then we developed a heart for both the place and the people. We have come to love them as we have served and ministered to them. We cannot possibly hope to have a heart for a people before we know them. Not one of the apostles tells us they waited to have a heart for people before they went. All of them simply went, just as they were called to do by Christ. If Paul’s letters are anything to go by, his clear love for the churches came about as he served and ministered to them, which makes sense because it’s really hard, if not impossible, to have a heart for people you don’t know and have never met.
The missionary call is not some inward, standalone feeling. It is a call issued to all followers of Jesus Christ. We are all called to be on mission and the question we all face is not whether I should go but where. That where is based less on feelings and more on maximising our gospel usefulness. Where can we be most effective for the kingdom? If we are waiting for some inner-feeling to lead us to a people or a place, how are we ever going to reach those people and places most want to avoid because the schools, the cafes, the neighbours are not quite to our taste? We need people prepared to go to places that others wouldn’t because Christ calls us to go to a lost world and share the gospel with those that need to hear it.
We have opportunities at Bethel Church to join with us in Christ’s mission here in Oldham. We are currently looking for a Ministry Trainee to join us from September (details at the FIEC job board).
We also have long-term plans to plant in the unchurched areas of the town. We would, therefore, love to speak with you if you are interested in church planting either among the urban unreached or first, second and third generation Asian Muslims.
Beyond this, we simply need mission-hearted people with a desire to see the gospel proclaimed to a needy town to join us in the work, serving and giving to this fruitful mission. If you have a professional background such as doctors, dentists, nurses, teachers (NB: there are currently £25,000 tax-free bursaries available to any teachers willing to train in Oldham) we would ask you to consider whether you could elect placements or work in Oldham to join with us. If you are able to get work in nearby Manchester (30 mins on tram), Sheffield or Huddersfield, we would ask you to consider whether you could live in Oldham and be part of our community and commute to work.
It will require a missionary heart. It will require an answer, not so much to an inner call as, to the overt call of Jesus Christ to each one of us and to calls such as this one about Oldham in particular. As we are seeing people from across the world coming to faith at Bethel Church, could you join us and be part of Christ’s mission in this town?