I lived for many years with a weak grasp of God’s intentions for the world. I was a missionary. My job was to evangelize, teach the Bible, gather believers, and develop leaders. When a missionary suffers from this limitation of vision, the fallout affects other people. The story of Dan (not his real name) is a good example.
Dan was a Micmac Indian from eastern Canada. He told me he was a chef, and that his “whites” were in storage while he waited to take a job in a prominent restaurant in the city. I learned later that this was not true. In fact, he had a poor work ethic, few skills, and no job prospects.
I was trying to serve Dan’s spiritual needs. I shared the gospel with him and led him in a prayer to place his faith in Jesus Christ. He said the words but nothing changed. He was always needing something else from me.
It all came to a head one day when he called me with an urgent but strange request. Would I please come pick him up and take him to a basement sale where he was going to buy something at a deep discount and then take him to another place where he would sell the same item at a substantial profit, out of which he would pay for the gas?
No, I could not do that.
“I thought you were here to help people!” he replied.
“I am here to help people … with spiritual needs. If you have any spiritual needs, you should feel free to call me.” Implied, if not expressed, was that for all other dimensions of his life, I was not available. He responded in anger and hung up.
I never saw Dan after that. I never talked to him again. But I do believe I heard him. A few hours after that conversation, a loud crash woke me up in the middle of the night. I can’t prove it, but I have good reason to believe that it was an angry Micmac Indian from eastern Canada who smashed the windshield of my car outside my bedroom window.
I have often reflected on that experience with regret, but not because I didn’t agree to Dan’s request. No, I see now that my view of ministry, of life, of God’s agenda for the world, was incomplete. I had unknowingly divided life into two realms, the sacred and the secular, and relegated God to the sacred only. God cared about church, the Bible, evangelism, preaching, and worship. He was not concerned with the “normal” stuff of life: work, money, civic duty, government, art, the media. Mine was the God of Sunday; the rest of the week we were on our own. My theology left me with nothing more to say to Dan than, “No, that’s not a priority to me so I’m not going to come pick you up.”
Such myopia is not of God. Jesus sent us to “make disciples,” and he goes out of his way to elaborate: “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”
Does God really have nothing to say about stewardship? About work? About the place of the Christian in society? Of course He does. These Monday-through-Saturday elements of life matter to God. Teaching others to understand and practice them is part of Christian service, part of ministry.
If I had opportunity to talk to Dan again, I would not just lead him in a prayer of confession and think my job was done. If he asked me to run him around the city buying and selling stuff, I would find out where he was, go pick him up, and have a long talk. In relationship, I would try to help him understand what it means to live before the face of God. That we are responsible for how we spend our time, for the stewardship of our bodies, the strengths and energies which He has given us, to work, to earn our living, care for our families, and to contribute truth, beauty, and goodness to the world.
I would not do a fool’s errand; but I would seek to teach him all that Jesus Christ commanded us. That’s true discipleship. That’s the Great Commission.
– Gary Brumbelow
Ana RoncalJuly 11, 2011 - 11:56 am
Thanks, I do believe there’s almost no day that someone approaches us with some kind of “business” in mind, an urgency for life, and we skip it all over failing to see the real need behind.
Jim ByrneJuly 12, 2011 - 4:09 pm
Gary, I would argue that as a missionary your job was job was “to evangelize, teach the Bible, gather believers, and develop leaders.” And yes, to teach them to obey what Christ commands, And that pretty well sums it up.
Of course, being a missionary also presupposes you are a human being and a neighbor. Dan’s appeal was not especially to your role as a missionary, but as friend and brother in Christ. Whether or not you made the right call or not, God is the judge — not Dan, not me, not even your own conscience in the matter (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
The distinctions between sacred and secular, two cities, sovereign spheres, etc., not only have a long history in the Christian tradition, but in scripture itself, going back to creation itself. All seven days were quite good, and God is concerned with them all, but only the seventh was made holy, so far as we know from scripture. Our labor is to enter that sacred Sabbath-rest from our own work, by faith (Hebrews 4).
disciplenationsJuly 12, 2011 - 5:34 pm
Thanks for your readership and for commenting!
Yes, every human being and neighbor who is also a follower of Christ has adequate basis to respond to a plea for help. My failure as a missionary was not recognizing the full picture of the “making disciples” dimension of the Great Commission. It had never occurred to me that to disciple someone includes teaching them the biblical work ethic.
Jim ByrneJuly 13, 2011 - 6:39 am
Saint Paul certainly taught his new converts and church plants to be diligent in daily responsibilities, both in his epistles and by personal example. Perhaps he even apprenticed a few tent-makers. My guess is that most missionaries have a few job skills to pass on, but the rest would need to be gained elsewhere. What every missionary might offer is the spiritual formation that enables others to learn and put to use some good job skills. Luther referred to such aptly employed skills as baker, builder, barber, etc., as “masks of God” (larva dei).
disciplenationsJuly 13, 2011 - 11:39 am
Yes, Jim, I agree that Paul does indeed teach a work ethic. Thanks for making that point.
My story is not related to “job skills” which the missionary may or may not have, but is about the biblical work ethic. I had been taught a work ethic from my childhood and practiced it. But virtually all my training discounted the idea that a work ethic was part of discipling. It was, rather, considered a phenomenon of my culture, and everybody acknowledged that a missionary must not impose his cultural values on members of another culture.
More recently I have come to understand, and seek to communicate, that the Bible does teach that we are stewards of the bodies God gave us to engage the creation, develop and grow its potential, and provide for ourselves and our families, and contribute to the blessing of our societies. Call it discipleship, or call it spiritual formation, I see it now as part of the ministry of the gospel.