Mary, Martha, and Missions

The Ninth Sunday in Pentecost, July 17, 2016   Luke 10:38-42

Just as I was getting ready to launch Anglican Frontier Missions back in 1993, one of my mentors said, in passing, “You know, God has done great things in the world… in spite of the missionaries.”dominos in Indonesia

This man is not at all against sending missionaries. Quite the contrary, he has sent many, became one himself, and has written about missionary practices. One of his books I highly recommend and mention at the bottom1. While he is a missionary advocate, he has sat with Mary at the Lord’s feet.

That is first work of any Christian worker–to sit beside Mary at the feet of Jesus. Martha has her jobs, but the better—and more crucial—is Mary’s. Henry Blackaby gives us this provocative statement from Experiencing God: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”

In Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, which is read over four Sundays, he gives high praise to the life of this congregation—for their hope, faith, and love; for their witness to surrounding cities; for their resistance to distortions to the truth; and for their earnestness in prayer.

In the letter he points to the origins of their maturity—a man named Epaphras. We have enough of a description of him to see in his life the priority of Mary’s devotion and the fruit of Martha’ toil.

Love                 He lived among them, sent Paul news about their growth in the Lord, committed his heart to seeing Christ be born and take root in them. Paul could mention the love of the Colossians certainly because they had a leader whose love was their model and example.

Prayer              He “labored in prayer.” That’s not emphatic enough for Paul. “He labored fervently for you all.” Epaphras was a man whose walking and talking with them were essentially prayer walks and prayer talks, increasing and informing his labors of intercession.

Zeal                 As Epaphras saw his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, he saw whom he wanted to be recreated in the people of Colossae. Paul referred to him as a “fellow servant” and “faithful minister”—a pastor’s heart and soul bound up in his efforts to teach, admonish, lead, and form the Body of Christ.

Sacrifice          The one specific example that Paul gives of his friend occurs at the close of the letter when he wrote Philemon, written at the same time he wrote this letter. “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner, greets you (Phile 23).” There is exposed the life of a man who knew “the better thing” and did not fail to do the work God gave him.

We find one supreme and rare compliment to the fruit of the labors of Epaphras. This Body of Christ was so rich that many of Paul’s friends went out of their way to stop in. These knew that a visit to the Colossian church was one they would cherish, that the friendships were lasting and deep, and the fellowship in Christ had splendors of heaven. Among the visitors were Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, Mark, Justus, Archippus, and Nympha. A supreme and rare tribute, indeed.

World Christian Trends

The work of mission is the work of both Martha and Mary. But it starts with Mary. And that “better thing” must include prayer.

Keith Carey has led the ministry of the Global Prayer Digest for 30 years. This monthly digest gives information on the least evangelized ethnic groups for prayer2. Recently Carey wrote that the number of unreached groups 30 years ago was about 17,000. That number has now been reduced to about 7,000. Why? Because prayer moves God. Yes, there are many angles that can dissect that statement, but at the end the truth remains: God has heard and answered prayer!

At the same time God expects us to use our brains, our imagination, and our resources. Jesus did not imply that Martha’s work was frivolous. The commission to evangelize the world requires the best that we can offer.

WCT presents the gallery of strategies for world evangelization. It lists 1500 of them, noting that there are more. (One that does not make the list, mentioned in the corridors of our offices [theirs were just above ours] was the plan to send television sets by parachutes over the Himalaya mountains.)

The list begins with Matthew 25:18, what is called The Great Commission. Number 63 comes in the year 1000, number 93 at 1500. Two-thirds of them have come since 1960, with about one a month since 1990.

Ours would have come in 1985 under the plan of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board with what was then called the “non-residential missionary.” We piggy-backed shamelessly on their advanced planning.

In the analysis of these plans, WCT points out the basic elements of the most enduring plans, the most common flaws, and the goals to seek.

The most basic elements:
Evangelization            There is no short cut in this. Incarnational love, language learning, and time are built into this.
Cooperation                My hunch is that the reason the Lord urged unity in His High Priestly prayer of John 17 is that that reality is so difficult for us. This cooperation means cultures, races, denominations, confessions, and genders see greater value in working together than separately.
World A                       This is the term for those ethnic groups that are less than 50% evangelized. Along with this piece comes the recognition of the essential reliance on research, statistics, and numbers. If illiteracy means those who do not read, innumeracy means those who do not value these tools
Wholism                      “Evangelization requires word, sign, and deed inseparably linked. This includes a response to justice, peace, and responsibility towards creation and the truth of the Gospel to all areas of human experience.”

The most common reasons for failure are:
Organizational isolation
Financial mismanagement
Downplaying the cost of discipleship
Moral lapses
Rigid church/mission structures
Excessive dominance of Western churches
Spiritual flabbiness
And about 325 others.

The goals for mission      by the year 2025     projected status at today’s pace:
Global % evangelized             100%                           77%
# of cities without a
church                                     0                                  80
# of people groups
without a church                       0                                  500
# of languages without
a Bible                                     0                                  4,000
% of giving to Christian
causes                                     3%                               2%
% of population Christian        44%                             33.4%


Photo: Lampung men of Sumatra, Indonesia, enjoying a (regular?) afternoon’s game of dominoes.

About Tad

After 25 years in parish ministry and 15 years with Anglican Frontier Missions, I have had enough reflection time to sort out responses from churches to the Lord's call to the least evangelized. This series addresses the nine most frequent rationales for leaving fields that are white for harvest without harvesters.
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