From a secular sociological perspective, rejection is something to be avoided if at all possible because it produces emotional pain, provokes anger, lowers self-esteem, destabilizes the need for belonging, and leaves psychological scars. However, God has called us to a new way of life and to a new way of thinking that redirects our focus beyond self. If our Lord Jesus Christ was rejected by the sinful world in which he lived, we can expect the same treatment from the sinful world in which we live (John 15:18-19; 1 Pet. 4:12-13).
Fear of rejection is a major hindrance to many Christians being more actively involved in evangelizing. After all, it’s hard to fail at something if you’re doing nothing. But doing nothing is itself a failure to live up to the divine expectation of faithfulness (Matt. 25:25-30; 28:18-20). It should be no consolation to say to a discouraged Christian, “They’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting Christ.” How can we seek comfort in Christ’s rejection?
“Receptive” Mission Fields?
The Lord has not commissioned us to take the gospel only to the parts of the world we deem receptive. How is receptivity to be determined anyway? A group might be labeled “unreceptive” even though they have not had sufficient opportunity to receive the unadulterated gospel. Do not judge a book by its cover. “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11, NKJV). Throughout history, even when God knew that people would reject his message, he still determined they deserved a chance to hear it (cf. Isa. 6:9-13; Jer. 1:19; Ezek. 2:7; 3:11; Matt. 10:14). Jesus died for and told us to evangelize all accountable human beings, regardless of how we might judge their potential response.
Some communities are called “receptive” simply because it is relatively easy to baptize the people, even though baptizing is not necessarily the same as converting. The Lord has commissioned us to “make disciples,” and part of the process is “baptizing them” (Matt. 28:18-20); but if we simply submerge compliant souls without sufficient teaching and discipleship, we have not fulfilled the Great Commission (cf. Luke 14:25-33).
If people are being baptized for the wrong reasons, or most fall away, or churches are consistently weak (spiritually and doctrinally) or cease to exist, then the word “receptive” is misleading. Though it may be more difficult and will probably take longer to convert souls and establish congregations in these so-called “unreceptive” places, we often find there is little question about their motives and they typically make stronger disciples and remain faithful long term.
I tend to be a bit skeptical when I read mission reports, especially from inexperienced or temporary workers, recounting hundreds of baptisms during a brief campaign effort, or thousands over a comparatively longer period. What happens when the workers leave? Without adequate instruction before and continued grounding afterwards, these “converts” inevitably drift back into their former way of life. If all the reports are taken at face value without any follow-up information, there ought to be hundreds more churches and thousands more Christians than can actually be found.
We can learn valuable lessons from past Catholic and Protestant missions. Large numbers of these missionaries lost their lives attempting to preach in hostile lands, and many of them struggled for a number of years before the first converts were made. Nearly one third of the Jesuits sent to China between 1581 and 1712 died before they even arrived. In the 19th century, in Ghana and Thailand, half the new missionaries died of disease. After twelve years in Ghana, all that the Basel Mission had to show for their efforts were eight missionary graves and only one survivor. Missionaries in Thailand labored for nineteen years before their first convert, and he wasn’t even a Thai national (Griffiths 19, 47-48, 122).
Today entire communities, regions, islands and nations profess some form of “Christianity” because of those willing to go to “unreceptive” fields. Imagine what could have been accomplished, and what can still be accomplished today, with the simple truth of the gospel!
It goes without saying that the church is to be a wise steward with our limited resources, although the notion of “success” is a dangerous concept if not framed biblically. The capitalist mindset determines success by quota. Since the primary missionary concern is spiritual in nature, how do we determine when we have done well or done enough, especially when visible results are not immediate? No matter how much time and effort a missionary expends, there is no guarantee he will have the desired quantifiable results by the end of the day, or month, or year, or decade. How is success to be measured, particularly in adverse and less responsive environments? If elderships and missions committees keep buying into the secular business model of getting the most bang for your buck, so many good works will continue to be unsupported or underfunded, making an extremely difficult task even harder (Terry and Payne 38-39, 43-44).
The day after my 26th birthday I moved to New Zealand as a single, inexperienced, naïve evangelist, with an initial four-year commitment to work with the church in the capital city of Wellington. It didn’t take long for my youthful zeal and idealistic expectations to be challenged by cold, hard reality. I soon discovered that not everyone was as excited about the message of Christ as I was. In fact, most were apathetic or resistant, and some antagonistic. There were more days of discouragement than I could count, and the temptation to quit was a constant battle. By the grace of God I managed to extend those four grueling years to seven productive years, and the Wellington church grew to one of the largest congregations in New Zealand at the time, with a strong, capable leadership. I returned to the states for a much-needed break, but surprisingly my convicted heart stayed on the mission field and kept trying to pull me back. I managed to convince a young lady to marry me, and we moved to New Zealand as newlyweds to the city of Wanganui, spending the next seven years working to establish a new congregation.
From the beginning I was reminded of how difficult the Lord’s work is in that part of the world. After the first two-and-a-half years, we only had four conversions to report: one had moved away, two had fallen away, while the fourth eventually became unfaithful too. On our first reporting visit to the states, what did we have to show for all the hard work? I was apprehensive about our supporters continuing to invest in this seemingly less-than-productive effort, but they did. Over the following years the Lord of the harvest provided the increase, and eventually the church was averaging about 45 in attendance (a sizeable number for New Zealand standards). Then members started moving away, due to job and education opportunities or medical reasons, until we gradually dwindled down to about a dozen. What kept us going was the much-needed exhortation: “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal. 6:9). By the end of our 7-year commitment, the church was back to around 40 members with a full-time NZ evangelist.
We moved back to the U.S. with our two daughters (both born in Wanganui), and I started teaching at Freed-Hardeman University. Almost every day my wife and children would ask when we could return home to New Zealand. I managed to put them off for nearly seven years, and one day I said to myself, “Why not?” I requested a leave of absence, and the administration seemed happy to not pay my salary for a couple of years. We managed to raise the necessary support and moved to Porirua City near Wellington to plant a new congregation. Two years later we left behind a church of around 30 members, with FHU alumni carrying on the work. While it has not been easy, after all these years I have finally come to a threefold realization that is now my philosophy of missions: (a) I don’t know what I’m doing; (b) I’m determined to do something; and (c) I trust in God to take care of the rest.
1. There is no such thing as an easy mission field. Mission fields might be labeled “difficult” because of poor or hostile living conditions and/or the apparent non-receptivity of the people. Some missionaries are willing to bear substandard living conditions as long as their work is fruitful, while others endure the slow and difficult nature of the work in a less formidable environment. If one is looking for “easy,” a career other than missions ought to be considered.
2. While missionary work is never easy, it does get easier. There have been days I felt like I was trying to climb a steep mountain in knee-deep mud. In fact, some days the mud was waste-deep or even up to my eyeballs! With each laborious step forward I could quickly slip back several more. Any progress seemed painfully slow and miniscule. Over the years the mud has not gotten any shallower or the mountain any less steep, but the climbing itself is less daunting. With God’s indispensable help, experience leads to growth, conviction, stamina, and a stronger faith. As dependence on the Lord increases, discouragement is less intense and felt less often.
3. Flexibility and tenacity are key. Throughout my entire missionary experience, few things have ever worked out as planned. Each mission field is different, so a great deal has to be learned through trial and error. As missionaries we take what we can get and do the best we can with what we have, developing patience, ingenuity, and adaptability along the way (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23). The word “quit” must be removed from our vocabulary. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
4. Do not judge a work over the short term. Especially in a resistant culture, trying to measure results on a day-by-day, week-by-week, or month-by-month basis can be very frustrating and disheartening. Looking back over a several year period is when actual progress (or the lack thereof) can be seen. Are Christians still faithful? Are churches strong and growing? Is the gospel still spreading?
5. There must be those willing to serve the Lord in more challenging fields. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what Paul and his companions did. That’s what missionaries have done through the ages. The gospel is still for all.
Griffiths, Michael. Tinker, Tailor, Missionary: Options in a changing world. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1993.
Terry, John Mark and J. D. Payne. Developing a Strategy for Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Cultural Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
*Prepared for the 2019 FHU Lectureship.