Systematician: Challenges for the Ministry of the Word on the Mission Field

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I have been preaching parts of the book of Mark in our new church plant here in Kaohsiung. And I’m struck once again by what a truly unique ministry experience it is to plant a church in a highly unevangelized region! While we have ‘church services’, we don’t really have a church yet. That is, the majority of people sitting in the seats are not believers. Not only are they not believers, they are completely ignorant of Christian theology. This has some implications for the ministry of the Word.

For example, our text last Sunday was the first half of Mark 7 where Jesus responds to Jewish traditions concerning ritual defilement. The background information required for communicating the meaning of a text like this is quite intimidating! The antagonists are the Pharisees… but who are they? Well, they are a strict sect of the Jewish people… but who are the Jewish people? Then, these Pharisees’ concern is with the disciples’ eating with unclean hands… but why did they care? Well, it was their tradition about God’s laws of uncleanness… but what are ‘God’s laws’? And why would God make such bizarre laws? All of these questions must be answered for the text to even be comprehensible, before we actually get to the work of comprehending it!

As ministers of the Word, we want to bring people’s understanding of the Christian worldview from nil to functional in as little time as possible. So, in a context like this, every missionary has to be a systematician. In part, this means that…

1. He must carve out new categories of thought

A person in this context does not understand what we as Christians mean by ‘sin’ or ‘glory’ or ‘redemption,’ even though equivalent words exist in their language. It’s not a translation problem; it’s a category problem. This means that the missionary continually has to craft definitions that are easy for their audience to work with. In just this one message from this past Sunday, essentially Christian categories that had to be quickly assembled and utilized included ‘law’, ‘holiness’, and ‘heart.’ Future teaching will provide more opportunities to reinforce these new categories in their minds.

2. He must present an entire theological framework

When you first plant a church in this context, you are usually the only one, humanly speaking, taking responsibility for the development of these brand new disciples. We must not accept gaping holes in their understanding of the truths and purposes of God! People need not become experts on every biblical doctrine before believing the gospel, but it is certainly cause for concern if long-time disciples still have a large void where truth should be! Part of the missionary task is to teach disciples all that Christ commanded us. We must plan and work unto that end.

3. He must answer the questions relevant to their culture

A couple weeks ago a Taiwanese friend asked me if Christians could eat food that had been used in ancestor worship. Not a question that comes up much in the West! A missionary can’t possibly know all the answers before he arrives on the field, because he can’t anticipate all the questions! This means that a missionary has to be an answer-getter. He must know something about how to conduct a survey of what the Bible says about a given subject and synthesize an answer. Not only that, but he must teach new believers to do the same thing! The alternative is making disciples whose lives are not shaped by their Christian faith.

I’m sure there are many other implications for the ministry of the Word, but notice that a common thread running through them all is the skill of explanation. A missionary is continually in a position where he must make complex things easier to understand. He must be constantly aware of what his listeners do not know! This is the most common mistake that non-missionary guest preachers make when they visit the field. They assume too much. Even in a church with many mature disciples, any visitor to the church is still back in that hopeless ignorance. This discipline of explanation, then, ought to be a part of a missionary’s training.

Of course, there is never time in a single sermon to ‘show your work’ to your listeners for every explanation you provide. If our explanation of a text could be likened to a stage reenactment of some event, it’s almost like we paint in the stage background (the many texts we aren’t explaining at the moment) to make the action on stage (the text we are explaining) more meaningful. As the disciples continue to grow in their understanding of the Bible, they will hopefully find that there really was a mountain and a tree there where we painted them (or drew their outlines at least).

All of this serves as another caution against plopping missionary in the same category as backpacking and roofing. We ought not be deceived by the overtones of catchwords like ‘frontier’ and ‘pioneer’; ‘missionary’ belongs in the same category as pastor and church-planter. His primary work is the ministry of the Word. Carson makes an interesting point (somewhere – sorry, forgot where!) that scripturally we should probably understand the ‘administrative’ role of the pastor in relation to his ‘teaching’ role. This means that the pastor’s main administrative job isn’t making a budget and planning a Christmas service, rather it is developing plans to ensure that every member is being nourished by the Word. It is making arrangements for Bible studies, theology classes, sermon series, and personal discipleship programs within the reach of each disciple’s schedule and maturity. If the missionary belongs in this category, doing this sort of work, he ought to be prepared in much the same way as a pastor. And those who are especially desirous for pastoral ministry ought to take another look at the world…

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2 Comments on “Systematician: Challenges for the Ministry of the Word on the Mission Field”

  1. Kyle Shreve March 10, 2015 at 8:51 am #

    Really enjoyed this. Especially these 2 parts:

    A missionary can’t possibly know all the answers before he arrives on the field, because he can’t anticipate all the questions! This means that a missionary has to be an answer-getter.

    and

    This means that the pastor’s main administrative job isn’t making a budget and planning a Christmas service, rather it is developing plans to ensure that every member is being nourished by the Word.

  2. Glen South III March 11, 2015 at 7:38 am #

    Great article

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