The motivation for mission involvement is highly misunderstood in the American church. It’s true that we exercise spiritual gifts in part (1 Corinthians 13:8-9); I’m pretty sure that our motives are somewhat mixed, as well. The thing we especially do “in part” is to know. In fact, the most correct statement anyone could usually make is, “I don’t know.”
The apostle Paul issued an enlightening disclaimer concerning his motives (1 Corinthians 4:3-5) which seems to dismiss any human motivation as a principal factor in the dissemination of the Gospel. He didn’t care what caused people to proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom, as long as it was proclaimed (Philippians 1:18). Paul would probably agree with Nike’s trademark slogan, “Just do it!”
Over 30 years ago Judy and I were very unlikely missionaries, or so we thought. We were invited to start a new mission in upcountry Kenya. My first response was to laugh in the face of the good friend who presented me with the opportunity. All too soon, the invitation became like gum on the bottom of my conscience shoe. What if this was God calling me? I did not want to ignore His voice.
After a great deal of prayer and consideration, we left our family and our country to go to Africa, apprehensively if not downright reluctantly. We had no real clue what we were doing except that we were commissioned to establish a ministry training institute from which we could teach local, mostly rural pastors a scriptural worldview. That required me to write the curriculum simply because I could not locate affordable inductive studies that encompassed the entire Bible.
So, I was compelled to create a set of Old and New Testament courses that required a close examination of what the Bible says, what it means, and how it applies within a particular culture. Our goal was to equip poorly educated rural pastors to “correctly handle the Word of God.” Within a few years we had developed a simple but effective methodology for training pastors and church leaders using the Bible as our sole textbook.
The curriculum was mostly inductive, drawing from the immediate reading of scriptures. We were not teaching systematic sectarian doctrine, rather we were mostly concerned about enabling pastors to read and interpret the Word of God for themselves.
For many missionaries, those who want to carefully guard the “correct” interpretation of the Bible, this sort of approach is risky business. It puts a lot of trust in the ability of simple people to understand what they are reading, plus a lot of confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit to supernaturally reveal the true meaning to them. We were and continue to be comfortable with those risks. After all, centuries of Church history have taught us that even well-educated and sophisticated believers often disagree when it comes to the finer points of theology.
However, most sectarian doctrine is hardly relevant in the USA anymore, much less in the “non-western” world. On the other hand, the Bible is still vitally relevant, and the need to understand and apply it to our everyday lives remains essential to our life “in Christ.” Theology, like salvation, has to be worked out with fear and trembling in the trenches of life’s experiences, rather than in the safe and often sterile classrooms of colleges and seminaries.
African pastors appreciated the simple approach and the fact that the curriculum provided them with a practical, inexpensive means to their educational ends. That has also been the case in Latin America.
One of the many factors Judy and I had to deal with living in Africa was the substantial number of mistaken certainties that create frustration in the field. We have a worldview that is largely shaped by our culture. That perspective is very quickly challenged when confronted by an alternate interpretation of reality. Not everyone thinks like we Americans do.
The truth is that the rationale of other people groups has carried their own culture for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before we got there to straighten them out. How dare they not immediately embrace our modern and superior worldview!
Needless to say, Judy and I had some serious adjustments to make in our thinking if we were to have even a prayer of an effective ministry in Kenya. Often, we were unable to explain the adjustments or the need for them to our American friends. In fact, we had difficulty overcoming our own misunderstanding of the motivation for going to Africa in the first place. We even authored a book about our informal and practical cross-cultural education which we could have never acquired in a classroom.
In countless conversations with interested church folk, we have been asked, “When did you first get a heart for the African people?” Usually, we answer with the quip, “We’re waiting for it to kick in any day now.” That response puts some people off. But the fact is, our motivation to go into the mission field had nothing to do with any romantic or humanistic notions. It became clear to us while there that the deepest sentiments would not sustain us in the difficult and frustrating circumstances that face most missionaries.
Judy and I witnessed more than one failed mission that had been birthed by untested idealistic conceptualism. Certainly, there is a spiritual need to “feel” called to a place or a ministry. Feelings, however, are not the most stable of motivations. They usually are more affected by circumstances than they are at affecting circumstances. What, then, would be the motivation that could insure an effective mission or ministry?
Jesus commands His true followers to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything He commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20). That is our main mission … everyone’s main mission. Jesus doesn’t ask us to feel anything. He orders us to action. “Be,” “Go,” and “Do” are the shortest verbs in the English language. Yet, they are ripe with powerful meaning for those who are called to the purposes of Christ. They are words that provoke obedience.
Obedience is, simply put, applied faith. It is the product of true love for Christ and always expresses itself in self-sacrificing service. It is the ultimate point of our calling. Paul aptly expresses it like this: “Through Him (Christ) and for His name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” (Romans 1:5) We are called not just to have faith, but to actualize it in obedience. That, in sum total, is our sole motivation for mission and ministry.
The question for all of us is what has Christ called you to do? That begs a second question: what are you doing about that? You might not be called to a faraway place to establish a ministry. Perhaps your calling has been right under your nose for years, one for which you have been equipped beyond what you realize.
Time is shorter than we may think. Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. (Ephesians 5:15-17).
God bless you.
[LeRoy Curtis is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Asbury Theological Seminary. He served four years as a U.S. Naval Officer after which he became a pastor, Bible professor, educator, author, and missionary living in E. Africa for eight years where he and his wife developed a curriculum of biblical studies for untrained pastors in rural Kenya. His passion for training young church leaders takes him to various parts of the U.S., Latin America, and Africa. He and Judy are currently residing in Carrollton, Georgia.]