" Missions "

American Missions and Cuba

From June 1 through June 8, 2015 I traveled to Cuba along with four other friends, two of which are mission agency executives. While this was their first trip to the island nation, it was my seventh. My wife was born in Cuba and that has allowed me access over the years in spite of the U.S. economic embargo against Havana. This was my first trip, however, in over a decade, and I was surprised to see the effect of the moderate economic openness which has recently been afforded to the citizenry. Whereas before everything was scarce and distributed by the government, there is now a burgeoning open market which has brought about eateries and small stores selling the necessities of life.

The goal of this trip, however, was not to evaluate the national economy or the freedoms of the populace. It was to ascertain the situation of Christianity in the country at this point in history, and more specifically to assess the future role that North American missionaries might play in a more open Cuba. We took advantage of the recently relaxed regulation of the U.S. embargo to travel under the invitation of a local church in the eastern part of the country. While no one knows what the final disposition of Congress will be toward the decades old division between the United States and Cuba, there seems to be growing willingness to restore relations and seek a new approach to fostering change in Havana. Assuming that change does come, we can anticipate a rush among American missionary organizations to establish a presence in Cuba.

skyline of havana

Skyline of Havana

The assumption of the average believer in the U.S. is that because American missionaries are not present in Cuba there is likely little Gospel activity there. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our visit revealed that the church of Jesus Christ in Cuba is very strong, very zealous, very obedient and growing very quickly. Again and again, as we traveled the length of the island, we came into contact with pastors whose churches were full of young, enthusiastic believers. In almost every case the existing churches had also started numerous daughter churches. Because the Castro regime prohibits the formal establishment of any new churches, these daughter churches are labeled house churches, or mission outreaches, of the recognized churches, but most have their own pastors and are functioning as subsidiaries of their parent congregations in name only. We interviewed many pastors who were leading their growing congregations while receiving no income except a few pesos a month from church offerings. Most of these men are bi-vocational and in the rural areas the majority are farmers. Their meeting places range from rooms in houses to make shift shelters to gatherings under a tree, but all of these congregations are growing through conversions and baptisms.

The Cuban church is characterized by joy, an appetite for doctrinal purity and a genuine hunger for sound, biblical teaching. Cuba’s current spectrum of evangelical churches reflects its missionary history, which dates back to the late 19th century. Many of the denominational groupings found in America are also found in Cuba, including Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists. The largest evangelical groups by far, however, are the Baptists, the Bible churches and the Pentecostals. In recent history, the Pentecostal churches seem to have been largely influenced by believers visiting from other Latin American countries and they reflect the typical patterns of excess (such as the health and wealth focus) found elsewhere. In the early years of missionary endeavor the Southern Baptist Convention made headway in the Western end of the island while the American (Northern) Baptist Convention gained ground in the East. From the time of the Revolution in 1959, the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba (American Baptist influence), headquartered in Santiago de Cuba, has had little to no connection with American church life. The Western Baptist Convention of Cuba (Southern Baptist influence), headquartered in Havana has continued to have filial connections with the SBC. Both conventions function similarly to the SBC in the U.S., with autonomous local churches associating themselves and cooperating with the programs of the convention. The concept of “independent,” or non-affiliated churches is foreign to Cuba (and most of the world) since it has not shared the same ecclesiastic/political history as have churches in America. As has been mentioned, there is also a strong Bible Church denomination called Los Pinos Nuevos (The New Pines) located primarily in the central region of the country (Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Camagüey Provinces). Picture1Each of these denominations has its own educational institution or “seminary” (in Latin America what we would might a Bible College is often referred to as a seminary). Our group visited the seminary of the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba in Santiago and met with its director as well as with the president of the convention. This school has a spacious, well maintained campus with residence facilities, a functional library and adequate classrooms to serve nearly 200 students. The economic situation in Cuba, however, currently promotes an enrollment of around 40. The Eastern Baptist Convention claims around 630 churches, with another 4000+ mission outreaches or house churches. The situation for the Western Baptist Convention in Havana is quite similar with some 500 churches (100 in Havana alone) and 5000+ mission outreaches or house churches. Though the New Pines Bible Church denomination is not as large, it is also thriving and growing.

The predominant competing religion in Cuba is not Roman Catholicism. Catholic churches are largely empty, being frequented mostly by the elderly. Most converts to Christ come from a background steeped in Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion of spirit worship. Santería is essentially animism with a veneer of Catholicism, and involves animal sacrifices and spirit possession. Nearly every Cuban is affected in some way by Santería and in practical terms it is the largest religion in the country. Yet the power of Christ is breaking the hold of Satan over multitudes of Cubans who are finding their freedom in the Gospel.

Christianity in the island today reveals a stark growth pattern since my previous visits to Cuba. Over and over we were told that when the country passed through its “special economic period” or economic collapse following the withdrawal of Soviet funds in the early 1990s, God began to revive the hearts of believers and they began to boldly proclaim the gospel. The past ten years in particular have represented a phenomenal growth pattern with countless thousands of people who have come to Christ. This is taking place in a nation with a resident population of around nine million people. Since Fidel Castro stepped aside and conceded authority to his brother Raúl in 2008, the country has enjoyed a relaxing of some of the harshest restrictions against Christianity and the believers have taken advantage of this opportunity to share Christ and see His church grow.

Everywhere our group went, we asked the question, “What can the church in America do for the church in Cuba?” The most consistent answer was simply this – “Be our friend.” The leaders of the church in Cuba are humble, sacrificial, dedicated men who frankly do not need us to come and tell them how to serve Christ in their own land. Picture2They do need money, given the fact that most of the churches are in a desperate state of disrepair and most of their pastors are unpaid or underpaid, but economic needs will largely be met by the Cubans themselves if the economic embargo is lifted and the country experiences a return to a true free market system. There is also need for training, although the church leaders we met do not want us to come and do their training for them. Their system of providing Bible school training for their primary leaders and local church, or church based Bible institute level training for their outreach pastors is functioning well overall. Still, they recognize that there is opportunity for higher level academic training on one end and effective theological education by extension on the other. Future American missionaries to the island should carefully consider how they can assist existing educational endeavors for ministry training before thinking of starting competing programs. The Cuban church also needs help with discipleship. The church is growing so fast that discipleship is not always occurring well. That said, however, we were impressed with the level of commitment to making disciples on all levels that was evident in every ministry we encountered. What is probably least needed in Cuba right now is foreigners planting churches. The pattern of growth is so strong right now in Cuba that the best thing we could do from the outside is fan the flames by helping them do what they are already doing.

The bottom line in Cuba is that there is a very strong church movement which is functioning well with very little help from America. Could it function better with more help? Yes, but only if our help comes in the form of humble service to our brothers and sisters who have bravely paid the price to serve Jesus in the midst of hardship and persecution. One of the biggest problems we encountered in Cuba was the exodus to America for an easier life of men trained for the ministry. Those heroic servants of Jesus Christ who have remained behind to make disciples in in extremely difficult conditions deserve our admiration and our willingness to submit to them as they pursue their vision of making disciples for Jesus in their homeland.

After our group spent several days with one pastor named Daniél who has zeal, vision and determination in biblical proportions, he asked us to evaluate his work. I told him, “Daniél, all true ministry consists of loving Jesus with all your heart and seeking to serve Him with all your strength, and you are doing that. Jesus told us to make disciples and He promised that He would build His church. You are making disciples and He is building His church. My evaluation is that you should keep doing what you are doing.” I added, “I wish more churches in America were like yours. We should come here to learn from you.” May the Lord give us opportunities in the future to stand shoulder to shoulder with men like Daniél in Cuba for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of Christ.

Looking toward the possibility of more openness for American missionaries serving in Cuba, some of the questions that need to be asked are:

  • Is the concept of a fully independent church (not aligned with any convention) something which we are compelled to import into a thriving church culture? If so, is this because of biblical reasons, or (more likely) because we feel the need to franchise our own culturally influenced experience of Christianity in other places?
  • Can we allow the church in Cuba to be Cuban and not feel compelled to impose our American worship styles (either traditional or contemporary) on it?
  • Can we use money to assist without creating dependencies which will stifle the willingness of the Cuban people to serve Christ freely as they do now?
  • What avenues for providing ministerial preparation are most advantageous? How do we join in what God is doing there without simply bringing in our pre-packaged programs which may or may not be helpful?
  • How can U.S. churches use mission teams to genuinely assist the churches in Cuba by enabling them through partnerships rather than simply providing feel good trips for ourselves?

In part the answer to all of these questions is that we need to develop relationships before effective ministry can be accomplished. My advice would be to go to Cuba, spend time enjoying what God is already doing there, then begin to ask how and where we can help. This process is often rushed and results in a lot of money and effort being misdirected. The watchword of missions for Cuba (and for all of the world in the 21st century) is partnership. I pray that we will do that well.

A Missionary’s Lesson of God’s Sovereignty and Compassion

Jonah, a book that foreshadows New Testament centrifugal evangelism, is a favorite among God’s people. Perhaps one reason for this is that the book demonstrates not only God’s sovereignty, but also His great mercy. In fact, these are two major themes throughout the book. A brief survey of the book makes it clear enough that every chapter displays divine sovereignty. God appointed Jonah (1:1, 3:1), sent a wind (1:4), rescued (2:6, 9), commanded a fish (2:10), appointed a plant (4:6), appointed a worm (4:7) and sent a scorching east wind (4:8). Jonah tried to flee from the presence of the Lord but was unable to escape God (1:3, 1:10). In fact, there was nowhere, not even Sheol, that God did not hear Jonah’s voice (2:2).

The second major theme is God’s compassion. Jonah knew “that [God is] a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindess, and one who relents concerning calamity” (4:2, NASB). If Jonah knew this about God, why was this missionary so resistant? After all, God not only spared the mariners (1:14) and the city of Nineveh (3:10), but Jonah himself (1:17). But the climax for Jonah personally was not simply when God spared his life, but when God mercifully revealed to Jonah his own depraved way (4:10-11). In his very act of bitterness, Jonah demonstrated his own need for judgment. After all, rebellion is not less culpable when exercised by a chosen people. Jonah did not deserve mercy, but to Jonah, mercy was good when it involved his own lot, and not “Nineveh, the great city in which there [were] more than 120,000 persons who [did] not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals” (4:11).

This lesson is for you and me too—for all of God’s people. One can easily take for granted the tender mercies of a sovereign God by claiming exclusive rights to what God Himself initiated. Jonah must have eventually learned the lesson, for he told on himself for Israel’s (and our) benefit. How is God teaching you of His sovereignty and compassion for all? It is so easy for any believer to take for granted God’s sovereign mercies. Will you claim exclusive rights or learn the missionary lesson from Jonah?

Are We Ready to Send Missionaries to Cuba?

(A younger) Mark Vowels behind the wheel of a vintage car in Cuba

(A younger) Mark Vowels behind the wheel of a vintage car in Cuba

President Obama recently announced that the United States will once again establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. Official relations with the island nation were suspended in 1961 when Fidel Castro declared the country to be a communist state in cooperation with the, now defunct, Soviet Union. Although the U.S. change in diplomacy towards Havana does not automatically include the end of the decades long economic embargo imposed against it by the Treasury Department, it opens the door for dramatic change overall in the relationship between our two countries.

My interest in Cuba is profound. My wife, Caridad, was born in Cuba. Her family immigrated in 1968 near the end of the period of open departure permitted by the Castro regime. Although she has since become an American citizen, because my wife was born there I am granted a license by the U.S. government to visit Cuba freely and have traveled to the island six times. My first ministry following university was to found and shepherd a Spanish language church in Tampa, Florida which was comprised primarily of Cuban exiles. In 1994, when the Soviet bloc had crumbled and it seemed that Castro’s downfall was inevitable, we raised funds to become resident missionaries in Havana. Following a series of interactions with both Cuban and American officials in Washington, D.C., we were promised permission to reside in Havana. Eight days before our family was scheduled to travel there for the final authorization of our resident visas, our aspirations to become the first American missionaries in Cuba since the revolution were demolished. The Cubans shot down two civilian aircraft which they accused of having violated their airspace. The diplomatic fallout left us in limbo for nearly a year while we tried, without success, to move forward with our goals. Eventually, I acquiesced to reality and accepted a position working with our mission agency and later became the director of missions at Bob Jones University.

Mark & Cary Vowels with some faithful believers in Cuba

Mark & Cary Vowels with some faithful believers in Cuba

When I was a young, aspiring missionary to Cuba, I presumed that I would go to the island and start a church and do Christianity “right.” By right, of course, I meant importing American church life and theological perspective into the religious environment of Havana. While I was aware at that time that there were fully functioning churches in Cuba, I simply assumed with typical youthful arrogance that I would “do church” better. Under communism in Cuba the church was never eliminated or forced “underground.” Rather, it was subverted and, like everything else in Cuba, dominated by “Fidelismo.” Churches had many regulations and parameters which they were forced to accept, but by and large the church was functioning well. My various visits to the island had brought me into contact with numbers of pastors and believers who were fervent in their devotion to Christ and who, in many cases, had paid dearly for that devotion. Though I visited few actual church services due to the repercussions that such visits brought to church leaders, the times I did visit featured packed congregations with people even listening through the windows. To be sure, the church has waxed and waned in Cuba through cycles of relative openness and persecution, but it never went away and continues to boldly proclaim the Gospel.

Over the years since my hopes of living and ministering in Cuba were disappointed, I have often wondered what would take place when the inevitable time of openness between our two countries would be restored. As I gradually relinquished the angst regarding God’s sovereign redirection of my life plans I began to embrace His wisdom in keeping me out of Cuba. If I had gone as a missionary when I planned, I fear that I would not have been very effective in ministry. I would have brought a colonialist, ethnocentric attitude and methodology. I would have attempted to shape converts to Christ to follow Him in ways that matched my American Christian experience. To be sure, my experience in working with Cuban exiles in Florida for nearly a decade would have helped prevent the worst of anti-contextual missionary behavior, but I am sure that I would have viewed myself as some sort of American hero, newly arrived to set things right. That kind of thing happened a lot in the former Soviet countries when missionaries flooded into the newly opened territory. Many entered without any regard for the faithful Christ followers there who had borne their crosses into prison, exile or death. They brought a better way to follow Jesus, one filled with American methodology and triumphalist philosophy. Will that happen in Cuba? I pray not. In some ways, I believe that Christianity in Cuba may be stronger under oppression than it might be in freedom. And I believe that not having American missionaries there for more than fifty years may have been a blessing. The situation has forced Cuban believers to rely on the Bible and the Holy Spirit alone for direction and help, and that has made them strong.

So what should be our response if the day arrives that we can freely send missionaries to Cuba? First, we should remember that Cuba is not a pioneer mission field with only a few believers. New to America does not equate new to the Gospel. Much of the current evangelical ministry in Cuba has missionary roots dating back to the early 20th century or earlier and much of what continues there has become more truly indigenous during the years of Cuba’s cultural isolation. Additionally, while Americans have been restricted from ministering in Cuba, many Latin Americans from various countries have continued to faithfully enter the country and encourage the believers there. Second, the best thing we can do for the church of Cuba is come alongside of it and strengthen what God is already doing through it. Rather than assume that American missionaries should go in to do the evangelism, discipleship and church planting that can be accomplished, we must seek to understand the priorities and Gospel oriented ambitions of our Brothers and Sisters already in the country and find ways to serve them. This may take the form of educational assistance, leadership training, organizational support or financial aid. That doesn’t mean that American missionaries should not be engaged, it simply means that we should be sure that whatever we do does not disregard the Cuban church by ignoring it or competing with it. We must take the time to build relationships rather than promote an agenda that presumes that we have all of the answers before we take the time to ask any questions.

After all these years, my heart still yearns for Cubans to know Christ. So I pray that we will learn from our missiological mistakes of the past and cooperate with those courageous men and women who have shouldered the responsibility to make Him known through troubled times and enter with humble hearts, ready to learn from them and serve their aspirations to make Him known to their compañeros.

Why We Have Missions Emphasis Week at BJU

Each Fall Bob Jones University has a week of missions emphasis on our campus. While missions is emphasized in many ways and on many occasions throughout the school year, we set aside one week to specially focus student attention on the opportunities for missionary service around the world. We do this because we understand that making disciples globally is our primary response as obedient, worshiping followers of Jesus.

In Matthew 28:16, Jesus meets with His followers at an appointed location in Galilee following His resurrection. According to the text, those present were those men whom He had appointed to be His disciples. Verse 17 indicates that within that group of eleven men, some responded to Jesus with worship and some responded with doubt.

The fact that Jesus had already more than proven the reality of His physical resurrection from the dead by His earlier deeds performed in the presence of these same men while they were still at Jerusalem signifies that their doubt was not likely regarding the veracity of His return from the grave. It is helpful to note that the word translated doubt in this passage carries the idea of wavering or being unstable.

The only other use of this term in the New Testament is in Matthew 14:31 where Jesus says to Peter, who was no longer walking on water but sinking down, “wherefore didst thou doubt?” Given the fact that Jewish worship often involved some physical representation of inner response (such as lying prostrate, kneeling, or raising hands), I surmise that some of the disciples responded to Jesus on the mountainside in Galilee with visible signs of adoration. Others, however, were doubtful. That is, they were uncertain about the propriety of worshiping Jesus with the same zeal with which they were accustomed to worshiping Yahweh.

It is precisely in answer to that dilemma that Jesus responds in verse 18 by declaring His absolute sovereign rule over the entire universe. In essence Jesus is not only permitting outright worship, He is demanding it!

Based on that foundation, He commissions these men to make disciples of all people. That task would involve going (not a command, but an obvious corollary to global outreach), baptizing and teaching. The essence of Jesus’ mandate on the mountain is that all of His followers from that time forward now have one principle occupation – make disciples everywhere.

That is why we have a Missions Emphasis Week. It is not an attempt to guilt students into becoming missionaries. It is not an emotional appeal for the needs, both temporal and eternal, of the billions of lost people in the world. It is a reminder that those who worship Jesus should be eager to bring other worshipers as well.

Real disciples make disciples.

Every student at BJU has a commission to make disciples everywhere. For some, that will involve going far from home. For most, that will involve using their career as an avenue for Gospel outreach and influence for Christ. For all, that will involve looking for ways new and old to passionately proclaim to this entire generation of people on planet earth that Jesus is worthy of our worship.

For these reasons, we invite around sixty different missionary organizations to campus during Missions Emphasis Week to interact with students and share their stories of how God is opening doors for the Gospel around the world. We hear from missionary speakers in chapel and personnel from the various visiting agencies teach in dozens of classes.

We have Missions Emphasis Week because we want our students to think big, trust God and make disciples everywhere.


Indigenization in Missions

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The term indigenization is one of those buzzwords in missions that people like to talk about. But what exactly do we mean when we say that our goal is the indigenization of our missionary work on the field? The word indigenous is a botanical term which signifies “native to the soil.” So, for example, orange trees are native to the sandy soil of Florida, but not to the red clay of South Carolina. Ideally, when we talk about indigenous ministry, we are saying that we aspire to establish churches which function in ways that are native to the “soil” of the region where we have invested our missionary labor.

Do we really aspire to that though? Are we eager to develop ministry which can prosper because it is not “a foreign religion” and is not fraught with American concepts of what Christianity should look like? I fear that, more often than not, we simply want the “natives” to pay their own way and provide their own leadership, but we specifically do not want them to develop their own definitions of worldliness, dress standards, or worship style. Those things they must learn from us, because, after all, we have imported the correct biblical pattern for each of these areas. What we fail to recognize with this attitude, however, is that our practices have developed specifically because we have taken the Word of God seriously and applied it to the “soil” of our society and culture. That is to say, our concepts of modesty, appropriate entertainment, and style of worship are never formed in a direct line of adherence to biblical statements. Nowhere does the Bible address hemlines, movies or praise and worship bands, but it certainly does address modesty, holiness and reverence for the Almighty. We have indigenized the Bible’s teaching on those issues for the American church and I wholly subscribe to our fundamentalist perspective in each area. But we shouldn’t want to export to the mission field our experience of indigenization. We should seek to help local people establish their own indigenous Christianity. We should avoid what a close friend who is the director of a missionary agency focusing on advancing the Gospel in the world’s difficult places describes as “franchising” the American church.

If we truly want indigenous churches, we must focus the attention of the target people on Jesus and the Gospel, not on our patterns of church life. Teach them to understand Scripture and to appropriately apply it in their culture and society so that the Christianity that develops there is, in fact, “native to their soil.” This takes time, but it can be done, and is being done around the world. The alternative is to provide financial support for an American missionary who perennially remains as pastor of a church on the field. While he will always claim that he wants the work to become indigenous, he is constantly fearful that if he were to leave, the local people might practice their Christianity in ways that are different than what he envisioned. His problem is that he doesn’t really understand indigenization; he fails to recognize that what he is importing is itself an indigenous version of Christianity and not the ultimate standard for the entire globe.

When I was a kid in Illinois, I planted some orange seeds in a pot and was thrilled when they started to grow. The problem, of course, was that even though I could transplant the fledgling tree into larger and larger pots, I could never transplant it into the ground outside. It might grow for a few months in the summer, but it could never survive the native winter. It was not indigenous. I’m afraid that much of our missionary work is like that. We can get something to grow, but it is stifled because it will never be able to thrive without our supervision. We can delight in and defend our experience of Christianity in America, but let’s be careful to conduct our missionary efforts in a way that produces indigenous Christianity elsewhere rather than a mere transplant of what is indigenous to us.

Recommended Books on Missions

Missions can be incredibly simple while at the same time be incredibly complex. It truly is as simple as “Pray, meet people, and tell them about Jesus” as my friend David H., pioneer missionary likes to say. At the same time, the intricacies of language and culture, the maneuvering through seemingly impermeable worldviews and the maze of religious variations involved in communicating Christ in cross-cultural settings are overwhelming. As a missionary educator, I highly recommend that those who pursue missions as a vocation receive as much missiological preparation as possible. BJU’s Cross-Cultural Service major provides an excellent foundation for missionary service. But many who are willing to serve will not have the opportunity to benefit from a program of formal missiological education. They can, nonetheless, reap great reward by reading good books about missions.

Good books are like good friends. They play a valuable role in your life, and it is hard to choose which ones you treasure most. I want to introduce you to several books which are at the top of my list and which have had the greatest input into my understanding of, and enthusiasm for missions.

allenAt the top of my list is a book which has been cherished by missiologists for many decades, Roland Allen’s foundational treatise, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Allen, a missionary to China in the late 19th century, was an Anglican priest who wrestled with the relationship between the religious structure of his tradition and the expansion of the Gospel on the mission field. His study of the Apostle Paul’s methodology develops principles that are applicable for missionaries from any background in any time period. The salient foci of his work are that Paul had confidence in the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and so should we. Our role in missions is to enable local believers to accomplish the work of the Gospel by bringing them the Word and teaching them to depend on the Spirit.

passingbatonA similar theme is found in a book which highly influenced my missionary perspective at the beginning of my teaching career. Passing the Baton by Tom A. Steffen addresses the reality that while many missionaries are very adept at starting a ministry and developing a ministry, they are often unprepared to transfer their role to indigenous leadership. Steffen argues that this is not so much a question of poor philosophy, but of poor planning and ineffective strategy. Much of his book deals somewhat narrowly with his own experience among tribal people, but his essential teaching about beginning a missionary ministry with an exit strategy in view is outstanding.

nationsgladNext in the list is John Piper’s work, Let the Nations Be Glad. Now in its 3rd edition, this book has proven to be a highly influential resource for communicating a basic theology of missions. To be sure, Piper’s Reformed perspective is strongly felt, but his careful and joyful overview of the Bible’s teaching on missions should be appreciated by all who long to see the peoples of the earth worshipping their Creator.



schnabelNo book has shaped my understanding of New Testament missions more than the exegetical work, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods by Eckhard J. Schnabel. Applying his considerable scholarship to understanding the times and events of the early church, Schnabel’s tome challenges me to think critically about the Apostle Paul and his central role as the paradigmatic missionary. More of an academic corrective than a motivational or practical guide to missions, this book is a must read for those who want to hone their thinking about Paul’s axiomatic ministry.

barrettFor those who want an excellent, solidly evangelical guide to missionary philosophy and strategy in one volume, Mike Barnett has edited the recently published Discovering the Mission of God, Best Missional Practices for the 21st Century. I like this book a lot. If someone asked me to recommend only one book which could provide a foundational understanding of New Testament missions, it would be this one. It’s not short, and I would not endorse every contributor, but no one book in my library covers the general subject of missions more satisfactorily than Barnett’s.

lanierFinally, let me acquaint you with a delightful little book about interacting with other cultures. I have many books about cultural integration. For me, these are just fun to read. Though not exhaustive or erudite, Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier is an excellent primer about how people from different cultures think. Other books on this topic are more detailed, but none are more fun to read. Even though this technically is not a missions book, it would be a great starting place for mission teams, short term missionaries, or even as a first read about culture for career personnel. It’s accessible, enlightening and enjoyable.

If you would like to interact about other helpful books about missions, feel free to contact me at mvowels@bju.edu.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

We are all familiar with the expression about putting the cart before the horse. I think we do that sometimes in our thinking about the relationship between discipleship and church planting. At the risk of being naively simple, let me state my understanding of the relationship. Jesus gave his followers one primary task before returning to heaven. He told them to make disciples (μαθητεύω) in Matthew 28:19. This is precisely what they did as revealed in the book of Acts. After Jesus called Paul to be one of His Apostles, we find that Paul did the same (Acts 14:21). The KJV wording of Acts 14:21 reads “taught many,” but the Greek word there is μαθητεύω (make disciples), the same word that Jesus used in the Great Commission. The work of Paul was the same work as the original eleven Apostles, to proclaim the Gospel with a view toward developing people as faithful followers of Christ.

During his ministry on earth Jesus made various promises about the future. Regarding the advance of His kingdom, His central promise is found in Matthew 16:18. He said unequivocally that He would build His church. He did not associate that statement with conditions. He did not say, “if this happens then I will build My church.” Rather, it was statement of fact, not possibility.  We know that this is precisely what He has done. He has built, and is building His church throughout history and around the world. Hell itself cannot hinder what He is accomplishing regarding His bride, the church.

Is it too simplistic to say that we have our responsibility and He has His? We are to make disciples. He is to build His church. Throughout the centuries and around the world today, in those places where His followers are passionately seeking to make disciples, He is rapidly building His church. There are some phenomenal church planting movements in parts of the world where there is little ecclesiastical refinement, but contagious passion about making disciples. Could it be that we focus far too much on building the church and far too little on making disciples? When the Apostle Paul looked in the mirror, did he see a church planter or a disciple maker? May I suggest that, although Paul was fully aware of the fact that Jesus was building His church through the Apostle’s efforts, Paul understood his day to day activity to be defined by Jesus’ commission to go and make disciples? I think that Paul had genuine confidence in Jesus’ promise to build His church. He had faith to obey what Christ had commanded him to do and believed that Jesus absolutely would accomplish what He had said He would accomplish. Is this perhaps part of the reason why Paul’s writings say so little about how to plant a church and so much about how to make disciples? Do our programs for church planting domestically and internationally focus primarily on the nuts and bolts of growing a congregation or on the travail of developing Christ-like followers? In my many years of involvement with all aspects of missions, I have encountered many new church planters and new missionaries who have taken courses and read books about church planting. They are educated and primed to serve. But I can count on my fingers the number of people who when asked the question, “can you tell me about your experience in leading someone to Christ and successfully developing him as a growing disciple of Christ” gave me a satisfactory response. Are we sending people into ministry with inadequate preparation for the one thing that Jesus said was to be our primary activity until He returns? Could it be that we are putting the cart before the horse?

Short-Term Missions: It Really Is the Great Commission

(The following post is the first of a two-part series on short-term missions.)


When Christ finished His earthly work and returned to His Father, He left a job for His people to do. We call it the Great Commission, and it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels as well as in Acts. The classic statement of it is in Matthew:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen (Matthew 28:19-20).

Our Primary Task

It has been often observed that this passage’s structure emphasizes making disciples; the passage is literally arranged as follows:

 Going, therefore,

Make disciples of all nations,

Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Teaching them to keep whatever things I have commanded you.[1]

Our primary task is to make disciples. We do so by going, then baptizing those who repent and believe, and then teaching them the way of Christ. According to our Lord Himself, that is what we are here for.[2]

Other accounts of this command, most specifically the one in Acts 1, make it clear that the “going” is to be progressive and global. We start where we are (“Jerusalem”), then move outward to “Judea” and “Samaria” and eventually to “the uttermost part of the earth” (v. 8).

Church History and the Great Commission

The church has obeyed this command, more or less, throughout its history. According to tradition, the Twelve traveled as far as India and Ethiopia to make disciples. The gospel was in China long before Marco Polo, and the great outburst of the modern missions movement, initially focusing primarily on Asia and Africa, has become legendary. Names such as William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, and Mary Slessor are well known to modern Christians.[3]

The movement experienced a surge in the years after World War II, when soldiers returned as men from a war to which they had gone as boys. The postwar Christian GIs were passionate about taking the gospel to the lost. This passion was augmented early in 1956 when five American missionaries were killed by Huaroani natives (then called Aucas) in Ecuador.[4] Hundreds of young Christians stepped forward to take their place.

Decline in Motivation

Many in recent years have noted a decline in missions interest in the last 25 or 30 years. It’s indisputable that many more missionaries are coming home—due to retirement, discouragement, or medical necessity—than are arriving on the field to replace them. Many reasons for this decline have been suggested. Probably the easiest factor to spot is the rampant materialism and prosperity in the United States, which for the last century or more has been the leading nation behind the world missions movement. American Christians are generally not in spiritual shape, because they rarely get any spiritual exercise. Another factor is the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent perception in the States that persecution of Christians overseas is declining.[5] Add to that the recent growth of the internet and satellite broadcasting, which have made communication across political borders much easier, and you have a recipe for decline in motivation to go to the ends of the earth.

One Hopeful Sign

One hopeful sign, however, is the significant increase in popularity of short-term missions, whether 1- to 4-week mission teams or 1- to 2-year mission assignments.[6] In the summer of 2014 Bob Jones University is planning to send 6 different mission teams across the globe. It’s not unusual for half of an incoming freshman class to have done some sort of short-term mission work with a local church before starting college.

Since I began teaching, I’ve tried every summer to find a Bible college or institute somewhere overseas, where I could teach for a few weeks during the academic break. It’s a luxury afforded teachers, who have options for that portion of the year. It has been my privilege to teach in a number of cultures and climates and to see the Lord work in remarkable ways.[7] There are few practical barriers to such efforts; the time is available, there are scores of institutions that are eager to use willing teachers, and many churches have mission funds set aside for just such short-term efforts. I find fund-raising quite distasteful, but I have found raising support to be the easiest part of the process. Individual or family travel for qualified people, in whatever needed skill area, is not at all difficult to accomplish.

More common, however, are teams assembled for the purpose of working on a specific project. The team might include anywhere from 6 to 25 people who travel to a specific mission site for a week or several weeks to accomplish a specific task. The most common tasks are construction and child evangelism, since these are always needed and allegedly require the fewest technical skills.

The subject of short-term missions raises a number of questions, both philosophical and logistical. What are the benefits of short-term work? What are the dangers? Who should go? Who should not? And what should be the primary goals of anyone directing such an effort?

These questions will be dealt with in Part 2 of this series.

[1] Translation is mine.

[2] I am of course not forgetting that mankind’s larger, eternal mission is to bring glory to his Creator: “Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). My point here is that during our time on earth, which providentially lies between the ascension of Christ and His return, we glorify God primarily by devoting ourselves to His specific commandment for this age, which is the Great Commission.

I am also aware that some hyperdispensationalists teach that the Great Commission was given to an earlier dispensation. That obviously is not my view, but I cannot devote the space necessary here to delineate why.

[3] One very helpful history of missions is Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).

[4] The definitive work on this event is by the widow of Jim Elliot, one of the martyred missionaries. Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1996). The original edition was published in 1957.

[5] This perception, though common, is thoroughly inaccurate. A reliable source of information on persecution of Christians worldwide is the free newsletter Voice of the Martyrs (http://www.persecution.com/).

 [6] Some would question whether this is a positive development. Some see in it further evidence of the prosperous church’s general lack of commitment. While this point is well worth considering, it is difficult to disregard the benefits of short-term work or the potential it has for developing long-term talent.

 [7] I suspect that I was the first person ever paid by a Communist government for the publicly stated purpose of teaching Christian doctrine to its own people—but that’s a story too long to tell here.

This article originally appeared in publication “Teacher to Teacher: Balanced Perspectives in Education,” vol. 12, no. 2, May 2008. Headings have been added.

Short-Term Missions: Getting from Here to There

(The following is the second post in a two-part series on short-term missions. You can view part 1 here.)

Dan Olinger Missions

The subject of short-term missions raises a number of questions, both philosophical and logistical. What are the benefits of short-term work? What are the dangers? Who should go? Who should not? And what should be the primary goals of anyone directing such an effort?


The benefits are great. A brief experience gives the student an opportunity to experience mission work up close and reasonably realistically, at relatively low cost. It certainly makes sense for the student to find out that foreign missions is not his calling before he has gone through the effort and expense of candidate school, deputation, and language school. On the other hand, a large number of career missionaries testify that it was a mission trip that either initiated or confirmed their recognition of God’s calling for them.

A significant benefit for American students is that it attacks the insularity with which most American teens develop; they are separated from the rest of the world by two large oceans, and they really believe that Miley Cyrus and the Super Bowl are significant news stories. They can learn otherwise very quickly if given the opportunity. The student will benefit from this exposure whether or not the Lord eventually calls him to foreign mission work.

Pretty much everyone can benefit from team-oriented activity. Sports provides most young people their primary experience with teamwork, but mission work provides a team experience that is different in many ways from what they’ll learn on the athletic field. Most obviously, the work they’re engaged in is overtly and primarily spiritual; they’re helping one another not to swing a bat or kick a ball, but to tell the story of Christ and to disciple younger believers. They learn to make sacrifices, to encourage one another, and to share failures and successes as they go about the business of taking the message to the ends of the earth. That is precisely preparation for life in the church.

Often overlooked is the benefit to teachers of gathering foreign mission experience. It rejuvenates the jaded teacher, and it places into his toolbox a set of experiences that will both shape his teaching techniques and enrich his teaching content for the rest of his life.


Any work that can be done well can also be done badly. Mission trips are no different. And the price of failure is high—waste of financial resources given in good faith by God’s people, which could have been used instead on something worthwhile, not to mention the spiritual damage that can be done both to team members and to potential ministry recipients if the job is done badly.

A great danger, obviously, is that the trip becomes simply pious tourism; the members are interested primarily in experiencing something new, in gathering experiences for their own selfish purposes. There’s nothing wrong with tourism, I suppose, but there’s also no reason why the church should pay for it. Teams need to understand that they’re there to work, and they need to be held accountable both by supervisors on site and by the sending churches back home.

Another danger with short-term work is that it gives the impression that you’ve “seen missions,” but it typically isn’t long enough to provide a realistic experience. In a week or two, you don’t really have time for the adrenaline to wear off. It’s all a whirlwind and very exciting. But that’s not what missions is like. Missions is all about being faithful through drudgery, routine, and only the occasional moments of terror. Lust for adventure is a lousy reason to become a missionary. My most recent mission team experience lasted 8 weeks, and intentionally; I wanted the students to have enough time to get really tired. That’s part of what they needed to learn.

My greatest fear in short-term mission work is that I or the team will turn out to be more of a burden to the missionary than a help. Most short-term “missionaries” don’t realize how much work it is for a missionary to prepare for and supervise the work of a team. I know of cases where teams ran up significant expenses for the missionary (I hope without realizing it) and then left him to pay the bill. The team leader needs to discuss frankly with the host missionary whether what the team is doing is really worthwhile from the missionary’s perspective; the team needs to ensure that the missionary lets them do as much of the work as possible;[1] and they need to pay attention to the costs they’re running up.[2]

A very significant danger of short-term work is the fact that in a short stay, team members cannot learn to work effectively in a strange culture. They don’t have time to learn the language; they are unknowingly being strange and offensive in virtually everything they say and do;[3] and their effectiveness at carrying out the Great Commission will be significantly hampered.

One more danger worth mentioning is the temptation to cut corners on qualified, discipling leadership. Team leaders need to know how to disciple believers, how to discern what’s happening spiritually in the lives of team members, how to confront biblically. There are all kinds of leadership styles, of course; some leaders are very intense and driving (in a healthy way), while others lead with a lighter touch. But whatever their style, leaders need to lead, and they need to be proactive in spotting and addressing spiritual needs as they arise. Not everyone can do that well; knowing a lot about the country or the culture or the cuisine or the airline is simply not enough. This is a mission trip, not a cultural exchange program.


Experienced business people will tell you that a business rises and falls on hiring; if you hire the right people, everything else about the business is a lot easier. Mission teams are no different. Leading a team that gels and works proficiently is one of life’s greatest joys; herding a bunch of cats around a strange country is one of the worst experiences imaginable. So who should be on the team, and who should not?

As was implied earlier, you want to weed out the tourists. You also want to filter out the abysmally selfish, the secretly sinful, and the well-intentioned but largely useless hangers-on. This can be difficult, obviously, because we can’t see hearts, and people who want to go on a mission team tend to be on their best behavior when around those who are deciding who will go. Many team leaders have found that the simplest way to discourage the insufficiently or improperly motivated is to set up the team so that it costs something in personal effort before the team leaves. Team members are required to read certain books, or memorize verses, or prepare and perform a children’s Bible story or two—not busywork, mind you, since these are things that they’ll need and use during the trip—but things that require some discipline and sacrifice. Have potential team members engage in exercises or ministries where you can watch for their willingness to put self aside and prefer someone else.

It should go without saying—but unfortunately it can’t—that team members need to be qualified for the work they’re allegedly going to do. Many people think that construction work doesn’t require skilled help—but people who think that don’t do construction work. Not everyone can work effectively with children; not everyone can teach even basic courses in a Bible institute. You need to show up with people who can get the job done, and well. There’s no excuse for sending missionaries the personnel equivalent of used teabags.


Different teams will obviously have slightly different goals, depending on their type and location. But a few basic goals should serve as the foundation for any short-term mission work:

  • Carry out the Great Commission as effectively as possible, given the cultural limitations.
  • Lighten the load of the host missionary both while you’re there and after you leave.
  • Expose the team members to as realistic an experience of missions as possible.
  • Disciple the team members in their spiritual walk as they are experiencing and assimilating what the Lord is teaching them on the trip.

Short-term missions is not a substitute for career missions, but it is an important ingredient in an overall missions strategy when done well. Most Christians would be surprised at the positive impact it can have on the spiritual walk and effectiveness of almost any believer.

[1] I have no wish to stereotype, but many missionaries are used to working alone and thus are not  particularly skilled at delegating. Teams need to encourage their hosts to let them do as much of the work as possible—and then they need to do the work well.

[2] On one trip I had to press the host fairly hard to get him to let me buy him a tank of gas after he had been driving us around for most of a day. I’m not sorry that I insisted.

 [3] Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. On one trip to South Africa, I was setting up two-person teams to distribute flyers for a youth rally. I suggested that each of the “Americans” team up with one of the “Africans.” But this was a Coloured (mixed-race) church we were working with, and they unfortunately took offense at the word “African,” which to them was a synonym for “Black,” a different racial group in South Africa. I meant simply someone who lives in Africa, with no thought of race. I should have known better; this was not my first trip to South Africa. But it illustrates how easy it is to be well-intentioned and yet inept.

This article originally appeared in publication “Teacher to Teacher: Balanced Perspectives in Education,” vol. 12, no. 2, May 2008. Headings have been added.