Product and Process

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I just finished my rookie season as a parent, so I’m far from knowing it all. But I think I at least have figured out the goal of parenting. Might say it like this: “the goal of parenting is to train a healthy, mature, fully-functioning adult.” I think most parents would agree that this is the desired product of parenting.

What if I told you that I knew a couple in my church that had done a wonderful job of raising their three now-grown children. And this couple had more money than my family. They were certainly wiser, as well. And my wife and I are frankly too busy to do a good job of raising our baby girl. And so we want to entrust our daughter to their care. They will raise her for us. Our daughter is more likely to become a healthy adult under their care. After all, that couple is 3-0 in parenting and this is our first rodeo.

Now why is that so ridiculous? Doesn’t that produce the desired product of parenting? It very well might! But the illustration shows, I think, that the process of parenting matters, not just the product. Giving away my daughter may make a healthy adult, but it is tantamount to abdicating my role as a parent! In other words, the product of parenting cannot be divorced from the process of parenting. We are not interested in ALL processes that might lead to the desired product.

Now let’s talk missions. What is God’s expectation of a missionary? To achieve a goal, or to be faithful to a process? Well, like parenting, there is unquestionably a goal in missions. Many authors have done an excellent job of defining the purpose of missions for us. Some of them emphasize that the product of missions is new disciples from all nations. Others highlight the divine aim in missions: to glorify God in all the earth.

But are we at liberty then to choose any process that we believe will lead to the creation of this product? Or is it like parenting, where success concerns not only the product, but also the process used to produce it? I think we have to say ‘no’ to the first question and ‘yes’ to the latter. The mission given to the church is plainly not only a product, but a process. Jesus did not simply say, “Disciples – go make ‘em.” Instead we also find that he commanded them to work a process: to carry the message of his Gospel to all the peoples of the earth, teaching those that responded in faith to observe all things. The Great Commission is full of verbs – actions for Christ’s followers to do on earth – processes, in other words!

What are we actually being graded on as missionaries? Are we held accountable for the response to our preaching? Or the number of disciples that we’ve made? The answer becomes obvious when we realize that we cannot create what we’ve been commanded to create! A missionary may give his life to a Muslim nation, sharing the Gospel with hundreds, with few or no conversions. Is that failure? Most of us would agree that it is not. Why? There may be little or no product, but the missionary has worked the process faithfully. He is graded on his faithfulness to preach the Gospel and edify those who respond in faith. He is not expected to do what only God can do: save sinners.

I am concerned that many of the positions and strategies created by modern missions are increasingly divorced from the actual processes of the Great Commission. While they seek the goals described by the Bible (glorifying God in the earth, making disciples of all nations, etc.), they have created a job description for themselves that does not involve them personally in the processes prescribed by the Great Commission.

They are not church-planters. They do not proclaim the Gospel to people that have never heard it. They do not disciple converts or train leaders to observe the commands of Jesus. Instead, they’re directors. They’re strategists. They’re researchers. They’re mobilizers. They’re movement-initiators. They’re investors. They’re tent-makers.

Above their pay grade is what they are. They mistakenly believe that their job is to design the factory, when the Master has sent them to labor on the assembly line. They want to overhaul the process; the Master wants the process to overhaul them. They believe that missions needs more CEOs; what is really needed is more peons. More guys who will work in obscurity in a place where many people have not heard the Gospel. Missionaries who will learn a language, share the Gospel with unbelievers, train Christians, and plant churches. It is nothing to boast about if your missions strategy lies outside the work of Gospel proclamation, church-planting, and disciple-making! It rather means that you have abdicated your role.

If your dreams are too big to start a church, or preach a sermon, or teach a new convert, your dreams are too big. Truth be told, they’re too small. There’s nothing greater than you can do with your life than to work this glorious process. To put on your coveralls and go sweat it out on the assembly line. Preach the Gospel to another person. Teach believers through another passage of Scripture. Organize another church. Put down the clipboard. Get off the computer. Stop analyzing the statistics. And work the process. This is incredibly good news! It means you can go get involved today in doing work that matters. With ZERO speculation about whether or not your ministry is really the most strategic one you could have!

This brings me back one last time to the parenting illustration. How would you comfort a parent who seriously felt incapable of being a good parent, who really felt that another couple would raise their children better? I think most of us who are parents (even a rookie like me) would tell them that no one is much more qualified to raise a child than anyone else! We’re all amateurs! And the most important things that your child needs are things that any parent can give – selfless love, quality time, hard work, etc. So calm down! And raise your own kid. This is much the same thing that needs to be said about missions. These ‘missions managers’ want us to believe that the work of missions is so complex and so troublesome that without master strategists like them, the product can’t be produced. The truth, however, is that God has designed the mission in such a way that the average Christian really can be meaningfully involved in the task! What incredible news! A nutcase like me can actually preach the Gospel, train men, and plant churches. And that’s all we need missionaries to do!

You say, what if I don’t want to do those things? What if I really believe that I have a better/different/greater role to play in missions? What if I walk away from the process we see in the New Testament? Then, like the parent who gives their child away to good parents, you lose your reward. The child may turn out alright, but you have not been faithful to your role as a parent. All your strategizing and re-imagining may push the mission forward in some way, but you have personally been unfaithful to the command. God’s commands are never suggestions, nor are they disconnected from what is best for us! If he sends us forward to preach the Gospel, we have to believe that there is something glorious and joyful in that process, and not just in the product. Abandon that process and you will abandon your own joy and fulfillment in the mission. Part of the goal of missions is actually fulfilled in the process of missions!

May we always remember that it’s not the one who commends himself that God approves. Rather, it is he who God commends that is approved (2 Cor. 10:18). In other words, the fact that we have achieved a product is no guarantee that God approves of us as producers! It is ultimately God’s opinion of our work that matters, not the results that it seems to have created. God uses all things. But all things will not receive his final “well done.” Let’s get on the assembly line!

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5 Comments on “Product and Process”

  1. David October 24, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    Praise The Lord for this encouraging and needed article. This is very helpful to us here in Egypt. We know we are here for God’s glory, but through it all, we must preach and teach and make disciples daily to His glory as well. Thanks for the helpful reminder.

  2. Peggy S October 25, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    I also was encouraged by this. I think we need to be reminded often that God’s way is still the right way. I’m going to share this. Thanks!

  3. ian crump November 12, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    You called some tent makers, and seem to imply they couldn’t make tents and Plant-churches. I might have misunderstood. But if that is what you are saying, it could be argued that that is actually the model. Paul is a missionary example and he did both. But I would whole-heartedly agree that anything other than church planting and disciple making is not missions.

    • Jake November 16, 2013 at 8:19 am #

      Sorry to take so long to respond to your comment. You make a good point. There is no doubt in my mind that tent-makers can plant churches. For that matter, any of the other people I mentioned could plant churches as well. Directors, strategists, mobilizers. So I certainly don’t mean that tent-makers can’t start churches; rather, my point is that tent-makers generally don’t plant churches! Like the other positions I mentioned, tent-making as a missionary strategy in most cases ends up being an alternative to church-planting. And I have never met a church-planting tent-maker who would not have been a better church-planter if he could put aside his tents!
      Which brings me to the Apostle’s example. It must of course be conceded that Paul made tents. But surely in Corinth we see Paul under necessity! He seems all too happy to receive missionary support when he can! There is much more to be said on this subject, but we must exercise caution in setting up a ‘model’ or ‘example’ or a ‘principle’ where Paul does not prescribe one. Paul may very well have made tents; he may also have been incredulous that any minister of the Gospel would choose to make tents over receiving money from churches! (and it’s my opinion that he would be)
      Thanks for the comment, Ian!

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