Our small church recently sent a very dedicated couple on an overseas one-year mission trip to serve as teachers and as-needed help for partner churches—even though these two have been our own congregational “Epaphroditus” and “Phoebe” (Phil. 2:25; Rom. 16:1, 2). Humanly speaking, Risen Hope Church wouldn’t exist without their vision, sacrifice, and steadfast commitment. No wonder our send-off included both cheers and tears.
Something similar happened years ago when I was pastoring another small church. Having labored to equip a couple to provide much-needed leadership for our church’s evangelism initiatives, we were mere days from launching their ministry. But then came “the email.”
An orphanage south of the border needed a couple with just the skill set and heart for the fatherless that these two had. I knew it was a fit, although I didn’t want to face it. To forward or delete? That was the wrenching question!
Sadly, we have seen our friends very few times since. But gladly, they continue their orphan and street-kids gospel ministry to this very day. Tears and cheers.
THE GREATEST MISSIONARY SUPPORT LETTER
Every church feels sorrow-tinged joy when cherished members embark on missions that take them away. And when the church is small, the loss feels bigger. For this reason, our vision for what God is doing must be even bigger still.
Few writings better inspire such vision than the book of Romans, although we could better consider the “book of Romans” as a letter, the best missionary support letter ever written. It is sent by a Christian missionary (Paul, Rom. 1:1–6) to a local church (or group of churches, Rom. 1:7; 16:5, 15) to inform them of the gospel he was preaching (Rom. 1:16–11:36), the work he was doing (Rom. 1:8–15; 15:15–29), and the need he had for their support and partnership (Rom. 1:10–13; 15:22–33).
Paul begins by showing us the world as God sees it, in order to help us envision gospel mission. God views the world as being: in rebellion (Rom. 1:18–32; 3:9–18; 5:12, etc.), under wrath (Rom. 1:18; 2:1–9; 3:19, 20, etc.), without excuse (Rom. 1:18–20; 2:14–16; 10:16–18), and needing Christ (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:6–11; etc.).
Apart from grace, every human suppresses God’s everyday communication through creation (Rom. 1:18–20; 10:18; Ps. 19:1–4). We all have received without due gratitude the kindness that should lead to repentance (Rom. 1:21; 2:3, 4; Acts 14:16, 17). And we all have muted with defiance our God-given conscience (Rom. 2:13–16). Hence, apart from grace, we all have been storing up wrath for the final Day (Rom. 2:4, 5).
Anyone who has ever thought, “There must be a God!” when seeing, feeling, or hearing nature’s wonders but then has suppressed that truth and failed to pursue and prioritize God is without excuse. Likewise, all who have ever thought, “I shouldn’t say or do this . . .” but then have said or done it anyway, are also without excuse, since they have violated God’s internally inscribed Law (Rom. 2:14–16). This inexcusable rebellion will render everyone both accountable and defenseless when God’s already-revealed wrath fully arrives (Rom. 1:18; 3:19, 20).
THE END FOR WHICH GOD IS WORKING
Paul delivers this three-chapter-long guilty verdict over the entire human race (Rom. 1:18–3:23) for both theological and missiological purposes. This scathing indictment sets the backdrop for the unfathomable mercies of a God who wants to pardon the very world over which his just condemnation has been pronounced (Rom. 11:32–36).
There is an end toward which God is working: the salvation of people from every nation on earth. Taking Paul’s references to “Gentiles” to mean “ethnicities” (Greek: ethnos), we see that God wills to reach all the ethnicities of earth so that they all might glorify his name with joy (Rom. 1:5; 15:8–12). This Great Commission impels Paul forward with unflagging effort to reach the unreached (Rom. 15:20, 21), asking the Roman believers to partner with him (Rom. 15:22–32).
THE MEANS TO THAT END
This brings us to the divinely-forged six-link golden chain of gospel mission. God’s end is the joy-filled salvation of all the nations. His means to reach that end is us. In his missionary support letter, Paul goes on to share that salvation depends on calling upon the name of the Lord, which depends on believing in his name. But “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” Paul asks (Rom. 10:14). So believing cannot happen without hearing. As if he intends to clear any possible doubt in our minds that we could slough off this work, Paul again asks, “And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14). Salvation to the nations hinges on preaching, which also necessitates going and being sent (Rom. 10:15).
This is the golden chain of gospel mission. Paul’s rhetorical “How are they to . . .” questions tell us that they aren’t because in fact, they can’t. Salvation through mission cannot happen unless each of these links is in place. People cannot call upon, believe in, or even hear the Lord’s name unless we send, go, and preach. Without us, the chain is too short to reach the ones who need to be reached. God’s plan is that God’s churches will proclaim God’s gospel throughout God’s world for God’s glory.
And—to echo many—there is no plan “B.”
NOT THAT GOD NEEDS US
That the mission cannot go on without us does not mean that God needs us. It means simply that if we flinch or fail, we lose our opportunity to be a part of what he is doing. The loss will be ours, not his. If we fail, God will find those more willing and will bring saving deliverance to others through them (Est. 4:14).
There is no doubt that our sovereign God will save all the nations in his time. What’s in doubt is whether our churches will seize our time to do our joyful part in it. What remains to be seen is whether your church and mine will lengthen and strengthen the golden chain to reach the nations or whether God will have to look for others more willing than us.
There is no doubt that engagement in this great work will involve tears since we may “lose” some of our best and brightest. But the cheers will far surpass the tears as we see God use our local churches to help reach the world for Christ. In the end such losses do not diminish our churches; they expand them. The more our churches send and go, the further our churches reach. And what greater joy can there be than that?