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Don't Become a Cynical Missionary

Sep. 2, 2015By: Josh Montague

I’ve talked to them repeatedly. They joined up idealistic, adventurous, excited, and ready to take on the world. But now after years of living abroad, they’ve grown a cynical, disenchanted chip on their shoulder. I pastored in Madison, WI for twelve years and saw intellectual skepticism hijack the enthusiastic hope of many college students after their years in the educational field. Now as someone who gets to interact with both pastors here in the States and missionaries abroad, I’m noticing a growing cynicism around global missions. And increasingly, I find it in myself as well.


So let’s be straight. If we hold to Christ as the sovereign Head of the church, there can be no room given to cynicism. Cynicism is plain and simple disbelief in the promises of Jesus.

  • “I will build my church.” (Mt. 16:18)
  • “I am with you always.” (Mt. 28:20)
  • “I have many in this city who are my people.” (Ac. 18:10)

If anyone had a reason to be cynical and a bit jaded about the state of the global church it was the apostle Paul. The churches he planted were beset by various cocktails of heresy, immorality, false teachers, power plays, greed, disrespect, syncretism, and legalism among other things. Paul was personally beaten, exiled, ridiculed, rejected, mocked, shipwrecked, abandoned, imprisoned, whipped, and bitten by poisonous snakes. Combine that amount of personal suffering with the theological mess that describes so many of the churches he planted and the man had excuses aplenty for cynical despair.

In our modern Christian landscape, churches in Africa run to prosperity theology more than they run to Jesus. Small village churches have near-constant leadership squabbles. Pastors resemble celebrities and CEOs more than humble servants. The phrase “a mile wide and an inch deep” is used in Asia, Africa, and – lest we become geographically conceited - the Americas to describe a numerically growing church with a shallow and seemingly unsustainable theology. Every morning seems to bring news of another fallen Christian leader. Reading great books like When Helping Hurts cause you to question every missions trip you’ve ever taken. We have before us the perfect breeding ground for a cynical heart.

So it’s helpful to look to Paul.

  • To a church filled with immorality and power plays: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus”. (1 Cor. 1:4)
  • To a church struggling to understand the Gospel of grace: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” (Rom. 1:8)
  • To a church that needed to be reminded in multiple ways to simply be kind to each other: “I do not cease to give thanks for you”. (Eph. 1:16)
  • To a church with a lack of financial capital and an abundance of petty squabbling: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you”. (Php. 1:3)
  • To a church beset by heretical teaching: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you”. (Col. 1:3)
  • To a church with an incredibly over-realized eschatology: “We give thanks to God always for all of you”. (1 Thess 1:2)
  • To a timid young pastor: “I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers” (2 Tim 1:3)
  • To a slave-owner: “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers”. (Phil 1:4)

If Paul could sit down at the first-century equivalent of a whiteboard and draw out his ideal church, listing its core values, leadership structure, cultural engagement strategy, and plan for reproductive multiplication, it probably wouldn’t resemble the Corinthian or Colossian or Thessalonian church. The churches I’ve pastored and worked with rarely fit what I draw up on white boards and legal pads. But while I can get easily frustrated, Paul was thankful. And Paul wasn’t just superficially thankful. His gratitude ran deep despite so many imperfections and concerns. And my inevitable question is “How?!” How can Paul find so much gratitude and joy in the church with its many blemishes and imperfections?

  1. Big Picture > Small Pictures. At the outset of Paul’s ministry, there was no church in Corinth or Thessolonica or Colossae. God in his mercy had used this former enemy of the church to plant new churches across the global landscape.
  2. Jesus is sovereign. There’s a quiet confidence running through Paul’s letters. He attacks heresy and sin with intensity, but he’s always supremely confident that Jesus was in charge. The one who promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church (Matt 16:18) stands over and protects the church.
  3. Small advances are still advances. Anyone who is involved in pastoral ministry understands the feeling that the church is in a constant state of two steps forward, one step back. Paul was able to celebrate the two steps forward while learning from and teaching about the one step back.
  4. Prayer. Paul had written to the church at Philippi and said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Php 4:6) As a pastor and now as a teacher, I can easily slip into a state of anxiety about the global church … and my local church. Paul practiced what he preached. Rather than fret with anxiety, he prayed. Prayer directs us to the sovereignty of God. Prayer build hope in God’s redemptive plan for the church. Prayer places our anxieties and concerns into the hands of Almighty God.
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