I sat in a campus ministry weekly meeting as a student and my heart stirred with emotion. The speaker shared that the nations were ready to hear about Jesus, but there were no workers to go forth and bring the message. The reality: they were living and dying without eternal life. Their lives were without true peace, love, and purpose.
The speaker described different countries in the nations as trees in an apple orchard, the people being the apples. The trees at the front of the orchard with fruit that hung low were easy to reach and pick – people who were easy to reach with the gospel.
The trees at the back of the orchard were harder to reach and thus the apples were dropping to the ground, becoming rotten and dead. These were the people who were harder to reach with the message of Jesus – including the people from nations where it’s illegal to share Christianity. The people who will live their entire lives without ever knowing a Christian personally because it’s impossible to meet a Christian in their lifetime.
The starkness of the need for the gospel broke me: how was God asking me to respond? What was my role in helping others come to know Jesus personally? How was I supposed to help them experience and obtain the same peace, love, and purpose God had blessed me with? The weight of the urgency felt heavy. If I said no to the ‘urgent call’, was I doing something wrong? Was I being a bad Christian?
If people are ‘dropping like apples’, dying without hearing the gospel, does that mean that God is asking me to go urgently and share about him with those people?
At first I believed that.
I desperately pursued any and every opportunity to go overseas so that I could share my faith with those apples at the back of the orchard that were ready to drop. I felt impatient. I needed to go NOW. Why wouldn’t I charge ahead with the vision of reaching the nations with the gospel? He had given me the passion, some training and experience, the time, and resources. What else mattered?
A lot more, apparently – as I was about to learn.
There is more to missions and following God faithfully than urgency. Don’t get me wrong, there is urgency. But there is more to ministry than the weight of urgency alone.
In hindsight, as I review the past four years of entering full-time ministry, God has been incredibly generous and gracious with me. Even though those feelings of urgency initially drove me into ministry and serving him, God has steered me and prevented me from completely destroying my health on the altar of ministry. My zeal, passion, and urgency were unknowingly leading me down that path. God was gracious in saying “no” to deep diving into overseas ministry because he knew that I needed time to heal and to learn more deeply the love of God.
I like to work hard. I am fuelled by desires of approval and performance. Before I became a Christian, those desires resulted in me finding my worth and value in my success (or failure) as a student. If I achieved a high grade, I was worth something so much more than the failure of a student, and person, that I was terrified to become. Simply deciding to follow Jesus didn’t remove those driving forces of performance – they were simply transplanted onto how I viewed ministry and serving God.
I wanted to accomplish big things for God, and I assumed that in each season God required a lot of accomplishment from me. That easily led me down a path where I prioritized the ‘work’ for God over God himself. It’s a dangerous path, one that left me feeling exhausted, drained, angry, and essentially distant from God.
The message of urgency in gospel work fuelled those desires to perform for God. My focus was on the work that I could do, instead of on the one whom I was serving.
Urgency as the highest motivator for missions is not in line with the true call of the Christian life.
The true call of the Christian life, known as the Great Commandment, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… [then you] shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37, 39).
Jesus was asked by the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt 22:36). As usual, they were trying to trick him and catch him in a lie. Their question was not an honest searching of spiritual truth, but an attempt to find a reason to get rid of him permanently – to kill him as they eventually did. Jesus’ response was to quote the beginning of the oldest and most revered prayer in Jewish faith: the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
For all people, the most important thing in life is to love the Lord our God, with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. And then we are called to love our neighbour (other people) as ourselves.
What does it look like to love God with our heart, soul, and mind? In my own journey of doing full-time ministry, it looked like pursuing emotional healing in the areas of pain and brokenness from my past. My heart needed healing before it was ready to be placed into a high-stress ministry environment like living and working overseas long term.
Loving God with my soul looked like discovering the essence of who God created me to be. This is an ongoing journey of accepting my unique giftings and strengths instead of trying to force how I wanted to be. It may seem silly, but I actually spent several early years of ministry trying to replicate and develop the giftings of the people who trained me, and whom I looked up to. I wanted to be just like them because I wanted God to use me too. It took some time for me to accept and embrace the unique way God had created me and realize that he was using my specific giftings for his kingdom.
My mind also needed to be developed and invested in. I spent time learning how to do my job well and was coached by people who had more experience than me. I once believed that ministry competency (through developing my mind) was the most important part of doing the work of God. However, I failed to consider that if my heart and soul were unhealthy, it didn’t really matter how well I could share my faith. A person could know the “four spiritual laws” like the back of their hand, but if they were an angry person would anyone listen to them?
When the urgency of the gospel becomes my main motivator, I’m tempted to try to rush the development of my relationships, seeing them as a stepping stone towards the ‘end goal’. I’m tempted to prioritize short-term results over long-term patience and perseverance. In my own heart, the temptation to sacrifice my health and relationship with God on the altar of ministry becomes too great.
On this side of eternity, before Jesus returns to Earth, the ‘work’ of God never ends. That can be an overwhelming and daunting task. When my main motivator is urgency, why stop working? It can be too easy to kill our health, bodies, and minds for the ‘work’ itself, instead of offering our lives as a living sacrifice in following and obeying God wherever he leads us (Romans 12:1).
True rest doesn’t come after we’ve burned our bodies and souls on the altar of ‘work’. True rest comes when we can entrust the urgency of the work to God who remains in control of the bigger picture.
God doesn’t call us to always ‘do more’. He calls us to draw near to himself – a person who IS rest. He calls us to abide (John 15:4). In abiding we love God deeply, and out of that love, we love the people around us.
The love of God, through our heart, soul, and mind, must be our main motivator for doing the work of God – not the urgency itself.
The urgency of the gospel isn’t wrong. It’s true that people in the world need to experience the eternal life that only Jesus offers. The need for the gospel IS an urgent matter. The people at the back of the orchard are still waiting. Someone still needs to go to reach those hard-to-reach people. And perhaps one day I will be one of those ‘someones’.
It does matter however how we live out the urgency, in the context of where God is leading us personally. Are we being faithful to the opportunities God has placed right in front of us? Are we being faithful in loving the people in front of us no matter if they’re at ‘home’, or in faraway places? If they are labelled ‘reached’ or ‘unreached’? The urgency of missions is an opportunity to be faithful in the small picture of where God has placed us today, in this moment.
Furthermore, to pursue loving God with my heart, mind, and soul for the sole purpose of performing better and more efficiently in the urgency of ministry is to miss the point. The first question of the Westminster Catechism is “What is the chief end of man?” Essentially, what is the most important thing for a person to do with their life? What is the greatest commandment to follow? The catechism answer is “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
The urgency of the gospel is an opportunity to be faithful with what God has given you: a ministry of reconciliation to help others become reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). The Great Commission, to “make disciples of all nations”, was never intended to become a guilt-driven motivator to get you to do the work of God. The work of God IS loving God and loving people. Lived out in the framework of the Great Commandment, the Great Commission is an incredible joy and life-giving opportunity to bring God more glory.
Remember the people that God has placed right in front of us. Loving them fully is the Great Commission. They are not a stepping stone to get to an even greater mission.
It was on a more recent mission trip with Power to Change that I began to understand the real opportunity of reaching others with the gospel. I learned that ‘reaching them’ was not just presenting a set of ideas or convincing them to change their worldview. It was in listening and loving who God had created them to be. It was in the value of my presence. It was in learning the unique paths in their culture through which the message of the gospel could be translated.
The success and value of that trip was not in my competency, in me knowing fully the message that I was sharing, nor even the amount of times it was shared. Those factors, though important, could not outshine the deeper importance of loving God fully in each moment, loving my team, and loving the people directly in front of me.
As I loved God and loved others around me, the Great Commission was in process. And it will be in process until one day, all people – from each tribe, language, and tongue – know Jesus too.