Over the last several years the “Gospel-Centered” movement has taken the church by storm. Dozens of books and articles have been written about the gospel. There are gospel-centered churches and gospel-centered conferences. There is gospel-centered preaching, gospel-centered worship, gospel-centered discipleship, and gospel-centered youth ministry. And I could go on and on. “Gospel-Centered” seems to be the new buzz word. But though the language can get repetitive, behind this movement is a very important awakening to the power of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, I believe this gospel-centered awakening has not yet deeply touched the world of international missions. The world of cross-cultural missions with all of its strategies and methods and contexualization needs a deep awakening to the power of the gospel for the salvation of the nations.
As a cross-cultural missionary serving in South Asia, I have witnessed first hand the great need for more gospel-centered missions. Let me propose three significant concerns I have observed.
A Lack of Gospel Proclamation.
Many missionaries are constantly coming to the field with great expectations for serving the Lord. Among agencies, organizations, and missionaries there is much talk about contextualization, business as mission, church planting, and even facilitating church planting movements. But you generally hear very little talk about preaching the gospel to the unreached and preaching the gospel, with all of its implications, to the new churches being formed. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about those other important missiological topics. But if we are modeling our mission to the nations after Jesus’ commission and the apostles’ example given in the book of Acts, shouldn’t our ministry and emphasis line up with what we find there?
And what do we find in Acts and in the ministry of the apostles and early church leaders? Much can be said, but of utmost significance and priority is the pure and simple preaching of the apostolic gospel. Whether it is from Peter, Steven, Philip, or Paul, again and again Luke records account after account of their gospel proclamations. Jesus is Lord and Savior who died and rose again for the sins of the world. In his name alone God’s grace and forgiveness and Holy Spirit are received. Their mission was to preach this gospel, first and foremost, before all other considerations and plans. Paul said things like, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known,” and “For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (Rom. 15:20, 1 Cor. 9:16). Sadly, this is not how most modern missionaries talk. In fact, if you talked this way among many circles in missions, you would very possibly be frowned upon. Preaching the gospel with Spirit-empowered authority and power has been left behind for modern methods and strategizing.
Trusting the Wrong Source of Power: Methods vs. the Gospel
Where is God’s power to be found? Where is the power of salvation for the nations to be found? Is it found in our clever, Western missiological methods and strategies for reaching people? God forbid! What has Paul said? “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). The power that needs to be unleashed in order to save the nations is the pure apostolic gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. But are missionaries truly and regularly proclaiming this gospel and trusting this gospel as the source of power for ministry among the unreached? Or are they trusting in their Western, methodological sophistication? Now I’m not undermining the need to learn the language and the culture of the people in order to best communicate this gospel. I’m simply pointing out our need to trust in the gospel as the true source of power for salvation for the unreached, not clever methods.
Again what has Paul said? “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Cor. 2:1-2, 4). Paul did not trust in certain well-accepted Greek rhetorical models for his communication of the gospel, with all their proposed wisdom and persuasiveness. He trusted the very power of the gospel itself along with the power of the Holy Spirit in his ministry and communication among the Corinthians. May modern missionaries go and do likewise, trusting not in methods but in the presence, power, and message of Jesus Christ as the true source of life-giving salvation.
Law-based discipleship vs. Gospel-based discipleship
Another area of concern that I have seen in missions has to do with certain models of discipleship. These models have rightly underscored the need for believers to obey the Scriptural teachings that they hear. Much emphasis is laid upon application, obedience, replication, and multiplication. These models stress the need for believers (even unbelievers) to witness often and pass on every Bible story they hear. After every Bible Study, they are challenged to obey some particular aspect of the text and then report back to the leader about how it went. The emphasis on obedience and accountability is commendable, but my concern is that this sort of obedience could stem from a law-based, man-centered paradigm that becomes just another form of works-righteousness, especially if this model of discipleship is divorced from grace-motivated, gospel-based teaching. Is this obedience grounded in the gospel of grace and unconditional love in Christ or is it a fearful obedience that tries to please an angry God?
After reading Scriptural epistles like Romans and Ephesians, along with the rest of the epistles, it becomes clear what the Scriptural model for discipleship and change looks like. Obedience flows out of the amazing grace we have received through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The emphasis is upon Jesus, who He is, what He did, and how His Holy Spirit changes us. Commands and calls to obedience are always grounded in God’s grace and love and who we are as new creatures in Christ. May modern missionaries go and do likewise, modeling their discipleship strategies after the gospel-based discipleship models of Scripture.
May the Lord bring about a much needed gospel-centered awakening in world missions. We indeed need more Holy Spirit-empowered gospel preachers and teachers who have truly been changed by the gospel themselves.