Is Emphasizing What Divides Us a Threat to Missions?

We must be careful not to base our strategy on what separates image-bearers.

There is a real, positive trend in evangelical churches.

We’re seeing missions as less “from the West to the rest.” We’re realizing the need not only to cross geographical borders but also to cross cultural borders in our own backyards.

As the nations come to our home shores, churches are finding more ways to get off the sidelines and take the gospel to our new neighbors—like the believers in Antioch, who, though driven from Jerusalem, chose to witness to the Greek-speakers in their midst (Acts 11:20). This is happening while more Christians are learning what it means to be unreached—which has to do not only with one’s location but with access to the gospel, regardless of location.

But while we focus on reaching new peoples for Christ, there is also a hidden danger we must avoid.

When Divisions Drive Mission

John Piper is noted for his radical statement that missions exists because worship doesn’t. But we are constantly in danger of switching the order and putting tactics in the driving seat and doxology in the rear. This happens when we are more concerned with what divides people groups from each other than what unites us on mission.

On the question of people groups, we do this by emphasizing the diversity of peoples themselves more than the one Lord who has sent us to disciple them. We tend to focus on the uniqueness of ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic status more than the transcendent gospel that applies universally to all. We make much of the presence of every nation and tribe in Revelation 7:9, yet we fail to make much of the Lamb whom they assemble in heaven to adore.

We do not need to look far to see how this disordering of loves can go awry. In recent years, critical theory has taken the national conversation by storm. At root, critical theories view power as the central human pursuit, critiquing the powerful and advocating to empower those perceived to be marginalized. The world is seen through the sole lens of the victim-versus-oppressor dynamic. This type of thinking dominates secular institutions and media. But on a broader scale, the result is that group identity is prized above all other human traits. In this schema, superficial diversity is regarded as inherently virtuous. Prosperity is typically recast as unjust privilege. We idolatrously obsess over our differences.

In this environment, it’s easy to let our attempts to understand people groups, culture, and social dynamics drive missions strategy. But Scripture calls us to preach the gospel to all people indiscriminately: “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34b-35).

Distinctions between peoples and cultures do matter. Language determines whether one can understand the gospel at all. And value systems embedded in a culture can affect whether the gospel “lands” in one’s heart.

But divisions can’t drive mission. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) loved his neighbor as his neighbor, not because his neighbor was Jewish or because he was a Samaritan. He was commended by Jesus not for choosing to show love as a social statement but for showing neighborly love despite the cultural barrier at play. Likewise, we should not reach someone with the gospel solely because of their ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or group affiliation. Nor has God called us to craft a new version of the gospel for each potential group identity. Our love for God and his image in our neighbor, not their group identity, should inform our motives.

The Ultimate Privilege

We began by considering what it means to be unreached—to lack access to the gospel in a way one can hear, understand, and embrace. God is no respecter of persons, and he looks on the heart rather than the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7). But one distinction Scripture does make clearly and frequently is between those who have heard and those who haven’t—those with gospel access and those without:

  • “I will send survivors to the nations . . .  that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations” (Isaiah  66:19b ESV, emphasis mine).
  • “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans  10:14 ESV).
  • “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’” (Romans  15:20-21 ESV).

Whatever differences there are among peoples, the difference for which we should have the greatest concern is whether one has a way of hearing the gospel. To have access to the gospel is the greatest unearned privilege one can possess.

Let us check our hearts as missions-minded believers. We cannot be captivated by human differences and diversity more than by the glory of Christ. The image of God and not group identity gives people groups their value, and our calling is to share the privilege of the gospel indiscriminately with them all.