Going Forward Thoughtfully
Fulfilling the gospel commission means doing the right thing for the right reasons.
By Jan Paulsen
And this I believe also. I’ve said it many times and in many different settings: “God is in the business of salvation, and He is working to save every person He can lay His hands on.” The church to which you and I belong was founded on this conviction; we began as a mission movement, and this is what we still are today.
I’m sometimes asked to reflect on where we are with our mission as a church. Are we remaining true to Christ’s mandate to go and make disciples? Have we kept faith with the vision of our pioneers? And if the Lord should not return in this generation, what will Adventist mission look like tomorrow?
All that I’ve seen and experienced in recent years confirms my belief that a passion for mission still runs deep within Adventism. It still defines us as a movement; it still provides the foundation upon which our thinking and planning take place; it still provides the benchmarks by which we measure our faithfulness to God’s will.
But as we carry our mission into the future, how do we ensure that our commitment remains strong? Are there attitudes, ways of thinking, that, if we allow them to take root, could sidetrack our efforts or compromise our usefulness to God? Here are several dangerous possibilities:
♦Mistaking our role
What is our role in God’s work of salvation? I believe there is no end to the different ways God can, and will, use to turn hearts toward Him. But He has made a choice. Just as the Bible is God’s special instrument for communicating truth, He has chosen human beings as His preferred instrument for proclaiming the message of salvation. Are we the only ones who can do it? No, I don’t think so. In fact, Ellen White makes the point that there will be those who enter eternity who have not walked the beaten path.* They won’t share our knowledge, our history. They will ask the Lord: “Where did these scars come from?” The all-wise, omnipotent God reads the heart and will; He knows who has responded to His Spirit, and whose lives have prepared them for His eternity.
And so what does God ask of us? To be faithful. To recognize that the work is the Lord’s; the plan is His, not ours. We use every resource we have to go everywhere we can, because Christ has told us to go (Matt. 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15). We use every tool at our disposal to communicate Christ’s salvation because He has said: “I want you to be my witnesses” (see Acts 1:8). This is the life of discipleship that we have chosen.
There is a wonderful sense of freedom in this! Mission is not a burden—no matter how daunting the challenges seem—but something to be approached joyfully, in the sure knowledge that God is in control, that His plan will prevail, and that He is asking us to be a part of that plan.
Understanding our role in mission also affects the way we approach others. It’s not our responsibility to measure the point at which an individual is ready to enter God’s kingdom. We share with another person what we know, we share our experience, and God’s Spirit works to convict that person of truth. And it is at that moment of personal conviction when an individual becomes obligated to respond to truth.
Recently, five European leaders of another Protestant denomination visited the General Conference headquarters. They had come to America to become acquainted with a number of different church entities. As we talked, one of them said: “You keep the Sabbath in celebration of creation. The rest of Christendom keeps Sunday in celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Is there any chance that in the future you will ‘soften’ your attitude? Not give up your Sabbath, but perhaps recognize an either/or?”
And I said: “No. That doesn’t mean that I sit in judgment of the spirituality of those who keep Sunday, if that is their conviction. But if you have been convicted that the Sabbath is God’s very special day to be kept holy, it can never be compromised. Compromising the command of God would be destructive to our own spirituality. And so, no, it’s not going to happen.”
We engage in mission with an unwavering conviction of God’s truth, but also with a spirit of humility. We recognize that growth and discipleship are always works in progress. Our witness is not an exercise in judgment or caricature, which condemns everyone before they have had the chance to know and experience something better. Instead, our mission work is a constant drive to lift people into a knowledge and relationship with God that is richer, deeper, more fulfilling, more true.
Mission must always first be defined as: “How can I function as a witness for God where I am?” It has to do with obedience to the call of God where you are—in your own town, on your own street, among your own friends, colleagues, and neighbors. But the church has also been given a global mandate. And these two aspects of mission—local and global—must be held in balance; not competing with each other, but complementing and strengthening each other.
I see danger when a congregation becomes so focused on its internal life or its immediate community that it excludes the possibility of reaching out farther. I’m not suggesting that a congregation should weaken its local ministry! But it will never be fully alive as a witnessing community, obedient to God’s will, unless its mission also includes a vision for the broader world.
Shortsightedness can also come in the form of seeking exclusive control. For instance, a congregation that supports a foreign mission project only if it can “own” and direct it. This is a very unhealthy model. As a global church we have said: “Let’s work together to facilitate the greatest possible engagement with mission around the world. And as the life of the church develops in distant places, let’s allow it to take root and grow within local soil without insisting on controlling that.” This is a response of faith. It has to do with trusting each other, and extending to each other ownership and responsibility for God’s work where we are placed.
I have a strong sense that the young people of our church are saying, passionately: “Include us in mission, too!” I’ve heard it said that some young Adventists are skeptical about the legitimacy of the church’s mission. But I believe their cynicism is more likely to be directed toward those in the church whom they see as unwilling to listen to new ideas, slow to relinquish control, or grudging in doling out responsibilities.
Young people can and do play a tremendous part in mission. We need their enthusiasm, their ideas, their knowledge of new technologies, their ease with many different forms of media. And they are “closer to the ground” when it comes to understanding and relating to postmodern culture.
It is easier to talk about the need to include young people than it is to make concrete changes that open up more opportunities for involvement. This is something I continue to struggle with. I have to ask myself: “What can we do so young people see that the church is interested in more than simply making statements?” This is a challenge we have to resolve.
In a remarkably short span of history our church has been transformed from a handful of believers scattered around North America to a global movement—some 25 million adults and children. The hand of the Holy Spirit is unmistakable. The church has found life in countries and regions of the world that, a few short years ago, were effectively closed. Just in the past decade there has been an extraordinary acceleration in growth rates. There is a sense of strength and energy about Adventism around the world—which is something to celebrate, but not a signal to dust off our hands and say: “The work is almost done.”
In 2006, 1 million people joined the Adventist Church, but world population grew by 95 million; 60 percent of the world’s population live in areas where there are few Christians, and where the majority have not even heard Christ’s name. This picture shouldn’t discourage us, but it should remind us that the mission Christ gave us is not static. It’s a reminder that your actions and my actions matter; that witness is still at the core of our identity and at the heart of our faith. And it’s a reminder that the driving urgency with which our pioneers began their task is the same spirit we need as we move into the future.
I believe God is in the business of salvation; and I believe this is also the first business of the church. May each of us make it ours as well.
*“Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God.” Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 638.