Less Is Less and More Is Less: Rescuing Witness from the Hands of Mission

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I recently heard a pastor say, “Invest in people who invest in people.” I’m glad he wasn’t Jesus’ pastor.

I’m pretty sure this is evidence of the growing assumption that the Church’s mission is to ”build the kingdom,” in which case productivity would need to be a priority. Of course, this language of “building the kingdom” is actually never used in the Bible. The closest we get to it is a prayer that our Father’s kingdom would come on earth, so that heaven and earth would find some sort of alignment, which Jesus associated with His will being done. But what people likely mean by “building the kingdom” is “building the Church,” and that language is indeed used; it’s just that the Church is never the subject of the sentence. Jesus told Peter he would build his Church (Mt. 16:18). In fact, even when it came to building a leadership team of workers, he just told them to pray “to the Lord of the harvest to send workers” (Mt. 9:38). You almost get this weird sense that the only way churches grow, people are mobilized, and “the kingdom comes” is when God answers prayer; as though anything we can do for God is only possible if he does it for us; as though the heavy burden of the kingdom is not dealt with by finding “people who invest in people” to share the burden–a burden which mysteriously doesn’t get any lighter no matter how many “share” it–but by recognizing that it is not the Church’s burden in the first place.

The Church’s responsibility is not productivity; it is faithfulness. The illusion that doing more than we are asked is better than doing less than we are asked fails to value to function of witness, of what we are communicating by doing more. Doing less than what God has commanded communicates that we do not take his judgments seriously, but doing more than what God has commanded communicates that we do not take his promises seriously. But they both are expressions of unbelief–one just takes the road of unrighteousness, the other self-righteousness. Both misrepresent Christ, who obeyed God to the bitter end and trusted him even when his entire ‘Church’ had died. Jesus built his Church from 12 to 0 in a matter of three years, because he refused to compromise faithfulness for productivity, which was particularly evident as crowds flocked to him, ready to follow, and he said things like, “Eat my flesh! Drink my blood!”, at which point the flocking crowds, even some of his disciples, scattered like sheep without a shepherd “and no longer followed him” (Jn. 6:66). The witness of a crucified and risen Lord can never faithfully follow conventional leadership principles, because conventional leadership principles are not allowed to account for the God variable. Christian leadership as such has to pretend like God didn’t say he would build his Church and send his workers. It may tell us to pray, but then it will get on with the more serious business of strategizing, and its pupils will take the iron yoke of their strategy and begin proclaiming it like an Amway sales pitch: “It’s as easy as 2x2x2–it’s all about multiplication!”

But it’s not about multiplication. It’s about obedience. And obedience to Jesus, while broad in scope, has a few definite and rather unconventional qualifiers, without which all other forms of obedience are relativized. At the heart of obedience to Jesus is the command to ask for forgiveness and to forgive others (Mt. 9:12-15). In fact, the only thing that can get us in the kingdom is being forgiven by our Father in heaven and the only thing that can kick us out of the kingdom is withholding forgiveness from others: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt. 6:14-15; cf. Mt. 18:21-35). This means that, in a strictly qualified sense, the ultimate form of obedience, which exceeds the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mt. 5:20), is primarily concerned about our being forgiven and forgiving others even more so than our not needing to be forgiven. This forces us to both maintain a permanent posture of humble repentance (“forgive us our trespasses…”) and of gracious forgiveness (“as we forgive those who trespass against us…”), while still asking for help to overcome our losing battles to sin (“lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…”), which keeps us from the grave error of thinking that the inexhaustible forgiveness of God is a cheap endorsement of sin. Indeed, with every request of forgiveness we must make our request at the foot of the cross; we must see what forgiveness of our trespasses truly costs, which will free us from ever being tempted to withhold our forgiveness from those who have trespassed against us. And inasmuch as a community is formed by this standard of righteousness, it will be a community that ever and again dramatizes the Gospel, always finding itself on both the giving and receiving end of grace.

So what are we left with? The kingdom of God can only be received. The building of the Church can only be received. The growing of our leaders can only be received. Even our ability to overcome sin can only be received, which is why we ask God himself to deliver us. One would almost think that the mission is not the Church’s at all, only God’s, which would leave us to the category of witness, which is the category Jesus left us in (Acts 1:8), so that all we can do is declare what God has done, is doing, and has promised to do. But we are apparently called to witness not only with our words, but with our works. Indeed, we are told that “unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). And if we assume that Jesus is just saying that we have to be more righteous than hypocrites, as the scribes and Pharisees are caricatured in the Sermon on the Mount, he goes on to say “You must be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Of course, Jesus did not say to “be as perfect as,” which would be a quantitative statement. In that case we would most certainly be hopeless. He said, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” And he said it just after telling his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44), which means perfection, and probably such exceeding righteousness, is not quantitative but qualitative. It is a certain way of righteousness and perfection. And it is perhaps that way that gets particularized in the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 5:9-13) and the following statement (Mt. 5:14-15). It is a righteousness and a perfection that seeks to order a community that does unto others as God has done unto them: to forgive those who don’t deserve it and to love those who don’t deserve it, because God forgives us and loves us, and none of us deserve it (cf. Mt. 7:12). And it is this kind community whose “light will shine before others, so that people may see [our] good works, and glorify [our] Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16). Perhaps if we take seriously what people see when they look at us, we will be able to understand why Jesus did not separate the Great Commission from Christian obedience (Mt. 28:20) or Christian unity from Christian witness (Jn. 17:11-26).

Being witnesses of Christ is not about quantity but quality, not about production but faithfulness, because if our proclamation of the Gospel and practice of the Gospel want to find congruence with the Gospel, we must commit ourselves to the grace of the Gospel, so that everything we say and do communicates the truth that the only thing we can do to see the Church grow, the kingdom come, and the Gospel spread is learn how to receive.

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Lk. 18:17; cf. Mt. 18:3; Mk. 10:15).

Postscript: In response to some questions raised about this article, I need to make clear that I am not suggesting that we need to do away with what we typically call “missions,” but rather that we need to address the role of “witness” in our local congregations. Helping our local congregations take seriously their role as communities of Christ’s faithful witnesses will enable them to see the central role of the local Church in God’s mission of creating a “royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Ex. 19:6; Tit. 2:14), of creating a peculiar people who are meant to be put on display for the world to see. It is on the stage of the local Church that our candid honesty to confess, humble willingness to forgive, and unsentimental commitment to love in the concrete ever dramatizes the Gospel we preach. Our observability as such serves as the prevenient grace of our proclamation, just as our observability as a self-righteous, pitiless, shame-perpetuating people serves as the prevenient hypocrisy of our proclamation. Besides, faithfulness to all Christ’s commands (Mt. 28:20) will obviously include an aspect of going and/or sending to the ends of the earth, but not without addressing the role of the Church when it gets to the ends of the earth, as well as when it is in Samaria, Judea, and Jerusalem, because regardless of where a church is, what its denomination, how new or old its members, it has in common with all the rest the same Lord who gives to it the same commands that are designed to shine the same light to the same world so that all who observe its witness as such “might see [our same] good works and glorify [our same] Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).
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Jeremy Spainhour is bivocational pastor/coffee roaster. He enjoys life with his wife Keldy and three sons Kezek, Ryser, and Maccabee.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Jeremy,

    I have read this piece several times (from when you first posted it on FB to now) and I think you are on to something. But i do have one question that i dont feel is resolved and it surrounds your opening sentence.From a practical standpoint, is it unwise and or unbilical to to advise pastors who are already overworked and cannot possibly have a proper span of care to “Invest in people who invest in people?” To me, it makes perfect sense and actually perpetuates the royal priesthood idea even further.

    Im not sure the context in which you heard the phrase, but i think of it from a span of care perspective it makes sense and Biblical (Jesus invested in 12). Not that only certain people are worth investing in, but pastors only have a certain amount of time and they need to invest in those who could then invest in others. Otherwise a large group of people never receive intentional discipleship. I know this is much of what Clem Coleman wrote about in his tome master plan of evangelism. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    • Not trying to answer for Jeremy, but I would point out that while indeed Jesus did invest in 12 people, they were not “people who invest in people.” They were, by all measures of their day and time, a rag-tag group of outcasts, people who had been passed over by the system. In essence, Jesus invested in 12 people who were bad investments. Even after Pentecost, they didn’t show much desire to invest in others, perhaps in Jerusalem, and maybe even Judea, but certainly not to Samaria or the ends of the earth. It took the bumpy road chronicled in the Gospel of the Holy Spirit which we call the book of Acts to twist their arms and make them do so. Apart from (wavering and selective at times) fidelity to Jesus, they had nothing going for them. In the end that was all they needed in order for the Spirit to work through them.

      • And I have to agree with Billy’s assessment of the disciples. I recently wrote an article reflecting on the way the so called inner-three seem to be not the disciples that showed the most potential, but the least. It almost seems as though Jesus kept them the closest, if anything, because they were furthest away. Between Peter rebuking Jesus, and getting classified with Satan as a result (Mk. 8), and James and John chasing thrones, and getting rebuked (Mk. 10), or wanting to call down fire on Samaritans (not the most missional idea…), and getting rebuked again (Lk. 9), the clear message of the twelve is not a message of potential realized but of the transformation of the Spirit, so that the Peter of the Gospels could become the Peter of Acts, not to mention that the Saul of Acts could become the Paul of Acts. [And maybe I’m biased because I find that my own testimony is consistent with this pattern.]

    • Hey Joshua,

      I anticipated some feedback like yours, and I actually do think it is appropriate. It may help for you to know that the context of the sermon I heard was about fulfilling the Great Commission, and the content of the sermon reduced to multiplication. There was no concern about exactly what it is we are supposed to be multiplying, and my best guess is that he had in mind a certain kind of extroverted, charismatic personality (and in this case, it seemed like skinny jeans were a prerequisite). This came from the pulpit and frankly I have no idea how to reconcile this as a principle for lay ministry with the principle (rather command!) to invest in the people on the margins.

      From a practical pastoral standpoint, however, since I began at FAC our leadership team for the high school ministry has grown from 6 to 25 [short testimony: a few months back we were short girl leaders, got together and prayed for the Lord of the harvest to send workers, and within ten days 6 new girls volunteered…and we just received it!], and while I have been intentional about recruiting, my approach has never been to think of the ministry in terms of a weight or burden that needs to be distributed to more people. My approach has been that God is in control of our numbers, so my role is simply to call our students to live faithfully and to call our leaders to live faithfully. The focus is on what God is multiplying rather than simply multiplying. And I have found, as I have focused on the faithfulness of the people entrusted to the ministry, the ministry has grown…go figure. I can’t speak on behalf of the leaders, but my broken record message to them is that I only want them here if they believe God himself is calling them. The result seems to be a real sense of freedom and joy about what is happening, and if there is any variable other than the sovereign work of God, I believe it is that very sense of joy and freedom that is becoming ingrained in the culture itself. But as soon as I worry about numbers, think of my responsibilities as burdens, people will just become bodies on which I can throw weight. That’s a bad place to start…and I don’t even think it is effective.

      Lastly, the thrust of my article had more to do with my concern for the role of the local church in the mission of God, since there has been a sort of “outsourcing” of the “Great Commission,” as though the Great Commission is being fulfilled merely when we go or send, with little serious thought given to the role of obedience as regards mission (rather “witness”). As I mentioned in my postscript, I’m concerned that we extend the Great Commission to where Jesus extended it: Christian obedience, which is not simply personal pietism; it is being a distinct people shaped by the lordship of Christ, whose very shape as such is itself a witness to the surrounding world. But I think you understood me on that point.

      Jeremy

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