On Writing a Sermon in a Foreign Language

In one sense, I’m not especially qualified to write a post giving advice on writing sermons in another language. After all, I have a whopping one sermon in Japanese under my belt. But the process that has led up to this single sermon has taught me something about writing a sermon in another language that I believe is helpful to share.

The First Try

Last winter, the pastor of our church asked me to preach the following summer. I was grateful for the opportunity, and because I had nearly six months of lead time, I thought, “I think I can pull off a sermon in Japanese!” So I chose a sermon I had in my files and a bilingual friend very kindly offered to translate it for me. I had heard that this is what other foreign missionaries do to preach in Japanese, so I didn’t really consider doing anything differently.

When I received the translated sermon back, however, I encountered two major difficulties as I tried to prepare to preach it.

The first difficulty is one that is perhaps unique to Japanese, or at least to languages like Japanese that employ multiple scripts. Because my translator didn’t know what kanji (i.e., complicated-looking Chinese characters that are incorporated into Japanese) I knew, she wrote the Japanese manuscript completely in hiragana (one of two phonetic Japanese scripts). On the one hand, this made it possible for me to sound out the words that I didn’t previously know—which is impossible to do with kanji—but on the other hand it made the manuscript more difficult to read, since it was harder to differentiate between one word and the next. If you know Japanese, you know what I’m talking about; if you don’t know Japanese, don’t worry, this won’t really affect your life in any way. So that was problem #1: difficulty reading the manuscript because of the script.

The second difficulty was my inability to preach the sermon well because of a lack of familiarity with the Japanese terms, and in some cases, the grammar used. My translator’s work, of course, was fantastic Japanese, but the problem was that I’m not as fantastic at Japanese as my translator. Even though I could sound out the syllables, because I didn’t understand the meaning of each and every term, I wasn’t able to speak the words with any kind of fluidity. I’ve realized that in order to say something with conviction and fluency, I don’t simply need to know the sound of the script, I need to know the meaning of the words I’m saying.

I began to look up words I didn’t know, but the process of looking up so many words, writing them down, and then memorizing them became too much to manage. There were a lot of words I didn’t know, so eventually I gave up, realizing that I didn’t have the time required to learn that sermon. Since I didn’t want to get up in the pulpit and awkwardly struggle through reading Japanese that I didn’t understand, when the time came to preach I did it in English and a Japanese friend interpreted for me.

The Second Try

This past fall, a friend at this same church was involved in organizing the church’s Christmas concert. She asked me if I would be willing to preach a sermon at this concert. Once again, I wanted to preach in Japanese, but after my experience in the spring I knew that the first process wouldn’t work.

So I tried a different approach: I wrote the sermon completely in Japanese. That is, there was no English version of the sermon; I composed it in Japanese myself with terms and grammar that I already knew. Occasionally I would have to look up and learn a new word that I wanted to use, but there were only a handful of those. Each week I met with my Japanese tutor, who went over what I had written that week and helped me iron out the various infelicities that arose in my composition. From the very beginning this was a sermon that I understood in Japanese. For me, this was the key to preaching it.

The fact that I composed the Japanese sermon myself solved the two difficulties I mentioned above. From the beginning I was able to incorporate kanji that I knew, which helped to distinguish the words in the manuscript. But beyond that, I was even able to use kanji that I didn’t previously know because I knew the content of what I wanted to say. That is, I knew all the Japanese terms that I used, so even if I didn’t know the kanji characters beforehand, this broader context of understanding enabled me to read the text anyways. This meant that not only was I able to read the text much more easily, I actually learned new kanji throughout the process.

This self-composition also solved the problem of my not wanting to be restricted to reading the Japanese manuscript in an awkward, clunky fashion. Because I understood every single word in the sermon, I was able to preach it with conviction. Of course, when the time came to preach, the execution was much more difficult than when I preach in English. I was more tied to the manuscript than usual and my speech suffered from the usual effects of speaking a second language. However, the difference between my preaching in Japanese vs. English became a matter of degree rather than a being a different sort of activity altogether. I wasn’t simply reading a sermon, I was actually preaching it.

In Conclusion

So for any of you entering the world of preaching in a foreign language, perhaps my experience may be of some help. I realize that what works for me may not work for everyone, but I expect that for some, composing your foreign language sermon directly in that foreign language will help you communicate the Gospel message more clearly and naturally.


The Labor and Benefits of Language Learning

Our family has lived in Japan now for 6 months. After spending our first month adjusting and getting our house and life set up, for the past several months I’ve been ensconced in Japanese language school, studying what has been rated the most difficult language in the world for English speakers to learn. By God’s grace I have completed more than one graduate degree in the past, and this is now the seventh foreign language I’ve studied, and I must say that I have never worked this hard before. Both the language itself and the pace of the program I’m enrolled in are very difficult, which can at times feel overwhelming and discouraging. Progress often feels like it moves at a snail’s pace. Nevertheless, we press on because we believe that this is where God has called us to serve.

As we’ve found ourselves amidst this new culture and struggled to understand the language, I’ve begun reflecting more directly on why we need to learn Japanese. Why go through all this effort to become proficient in a language with three alphabets and whose syntax is as far away from English as the east is from the west? Interpreters are available; shouldn’t we just “get right down to ministry”?

The obvious answer is that language acquisition makes life easier. Learning your host nation’s language means you don’t have to rely on others to go to the doctor or read forms from your children’s school. And of course, knowing the language enables one to engage in ministry more directly and effectively. But beyond these reasons, I can think of at least four less obvious and less frequently discussed benefits to the labor of language learning.

1. Language learning is humbling

Missionaries can sometimes enter the mission field with the mindset that they are there to give and teach, while nationals are there to receive and learn. Although it is true that missionaries are vessels of gospel proclamation for those who have not heard (Rom 10:14-15), when not appropriately balanced this mindset can create a subtle superiority complex that is dangerous and unhelpful. Beginning one’s missionary career as a language learner fosters humility, since we are placed in the position of a student. We are here to learn first, and out of that humbled position we will be better suited, both personally and professionally, to serve as a vessel for the gospel message we seek to communicate.

2. Language learning teaches us patience

In our digital age we often don’t have to wait for anything. Services like Amazon, Wikipedia, and Google Translate provide instant products and information that we have learned to expect in a matter of seconds. This immediate access to anything and everything has had a side effect, though: we are now very weak in the area of patience. We want what we want and we want it now, and this has occasionally crept its way into our view of missions. We want to serve; we want to teach; we want to be useful; but focused time on language study often means that we must wait for these things. Although ministry is obviously a very good thing, if we pursue it impatiently we are not pursuing it in line with the Spirit’s fruit in our lives (Gal 5:22). Language learning provides a healthy and useful opportunity for us to develop patience, to wait, and to grow as we seek to acclimate to our new country. This fruit of the Spirit, in turn, will yield greater results in the long run as we seek to serve and minister.

3. Language learning demonstrates a servant heart toward those whom we seek to minister

This is the other side of the coin from number 1. Not only does language acquisition cultivate humility within us internally, it demonstrates externally to our host people that we are willing to learn from and about them. We are willing to serve them by learning their language, their culture, what they value, what they fear, and what they hope for. We don’t expect them to communicate to us in our language; we make every effort to learn theirs and thereby place their needs above our own. This is significant, since gospel ministry is not simply data transfer; communicating a message to a recipient. It is conveying the hope of the gospel to real people, and inasmuch as we move toward and serve those people in real, tangible ways, we will highlight the servant-hearted nature of the Savior whom we proclaim. Learning their heart language is a significant way to do this.

4. Language learning embodies the gospel to which we witness

At the bottom line, this is the most important reason to engage in the labor of language learning: it is a reflection of the gospel which we seek to proclaim. In order to redeem us, God came to us, adapted himself to us in the incarnation, served us on the cross, and spoke to us in words that we can understand. The labor of language learning pictures this truth insofar as we come to a foreign place, adapt ourselves to it, serve the people there, and speak to them in words that they can understand. For the missionary, then, language learning is an extension and embodiment of the gospel itself. May those of us who serve overseas make every effort to maximize this opportunity for Jesus’ glory.

Our new home in Japan

As the time comes for us to move to Japan (flying out March 1!), we thought we’d share some photos of our new home with you. This house has been a huge provision; it’s only 3 blocks from our language school and 3 blocks from Lydia’s kindergarten. We are very excited about being able to walk most places we need to go!

2 OutsideThis is a shot of the outside of the house (the front door is on the left behind the wall). It’s on a corner lot, with mostly other homes surrounding it. Behind this camera shot is a small apartment complex, so we’ll have lots of neighbors!

1 OutsideThis is a view of the back of the house. We have space to park two cars, though we’ll probably only own one. On the second story you can see the nice, large deck that connects to both upstairs bedrooms.

4 Entrance8 Entrance Hall

To the left is the front door and to the right is the entrance hall. People don’t wear shoes indoors in Japan, so the entrance hall is where everyone will remove their shoes before coming in.

12 room2This is one of two bedrooms downstairs, known as a tatami room. Tatami refers to the type of flooring in the room. The house has two bedrooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs.

15 DiningThis is the dining room, which is right next to the tatami room in the picture above. Easy access to breakfast for whoever ends up with that room!

20 toiletLast but not least, here is a pic of the bathroom. On top of the toilet you can see a little sink. In Japan, when you flush the toilet, this little sink runs water, which you then use to wash your hands as you straddle the swirling toilet bowl!

It’s an interesting experience the first time you do it, though it certainly is space efficient!

We are very thankful for God’s providence in this and look forward to making this house our home!

Many thanks to Yasuyo Kawai, who has done a ton of work for us to get this house and very kindly took all these pictures.


Missions and (Grand)Parents

Gigi, Caroline, and Lydia on their way to a fancy tea party!

We in the Newkirk clan are nearing our departure for Japan, and as we stand here toward the end of this preparation journey, I thought I’d say a word about missions and (grand)parents. I say (grand)parents here to refer to the parents of missionaries and, more significantly, the grandparents of missionary kids.

As we have gone through this season of support raising, it has become very clear that this whole missions thing is not something we have gotten only ourselves into. It is something that substantially affects our larger families, and our parents in particular.

We currently live about 15 minutes from my (Matt’s) parents, and over this last year and a half they have played a critical role in helping us get ready for the mission field. There has been practical support, such as the multitudinous times they have taken care of our kids so we could travel to an agency training event or attend to something in town that we both needed to go to. But equally as important, they have provided consistent emotional support as we have traversed the peaks and valleys of gathering a support team.

All of this has been enormously significant, not only because of pragmatic needs on our part, but because my parents are essentially helping us take their grandchildren away from them. They are serving us in order to sacrifice proximity to every empty nester’s dream: grandbabies. Of course, they have other grandchildren in town, which I’m thankful for, but it is no small thing to bless and assist the removal of one’s grandkids, period.

In contrast to this, I’ve heard multiple stories over the years of would-be missionaries who were discouraged and sometimes even dissuaded from moving overseas because of pressure from their parents and guilt over “taking the grandkids away.” While this type of sentiment is understandable from a worldly standpoint, ultimately it does not rightly prioritize God over family. In Matt 10:37 Jesus says,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

I think we can safely extend this principle to include, “whoever loves grandson or granddaughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

If you are the (grand)parent of a missionary or potential missionary, you are in a unique position either to supremely bless or deeply discourage your children as they respond to God’s call to the mission field. For those who are inclined to try and retain proximity to your children and grandchildren, think about what Jesus will say to you when you face Him beyond this life. Could it be said that you loved Him more than son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter? Will you joyfully bless and assist your children in taking your grandchildren away from you for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God?

I hope you will, and I am forever grateful that my parents have modeled this kind of sacrifice for us.

Learning to put doubt where it belongs

trashIn my last post I mentioned that we were at 50% of our monthly budget, and I reflected on some of the things I’ve learned during the first half of support raising. The first thing I listed there was how unbelieving I have been that our budget will be met.

Today, only four weeks later, I am blown away that we are now (unofficially) at 68%! We have had several people register pledges this past month, and we received a particularly sizable pledge today that has left me absolutely awestruck at God’s providence.

As I sit here, grateful that God’s faithfulness and provision is not contingent upon my feeble faith, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:28b-33).

Applying this to myself, I should not be anxious, saying, “Where will our support come from? How is this ever going to happen?” Rather, I need to learn to put my doubt in God’s  provision right where it belongs–in the trash!

And so we continue to press forward, by God’s grace and in his strength, to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Join me in giving thanks to God and praying that he will continue to astound us by his great providence.

Halfway There!… And What I’ve Learned Along the Way

50-yard-lineAs of this week we are (unofficially) at 50% of the monthly partnerships that we need in order to serve in Japan! A big THANK YOU to those who have discerned God’s leading and have pledged to partner with us. We are so grateful for your generosity and your desire to invest in the spread of Jesus’ kingdom. It’s been encouraging to see God provide His people with resources and then move in their hearts to give those resources away for the glory of His name. Praise God!

We also continue to covet your prayers that God would reveal the right timing for those who have a desire to partner in this work but haven’t had a chance to pledge yet (which you can do HERE 🙂 ), as well as for future opportunities and appointments – that the Lord would raise up the resources we need to be fully funded.

In addition to this brief progress update, I thought I’d take a few minutes and share five things I’ve learned as we’ve voyaged through this first half of our support raising journey. There is more that could be said, of course, but these five things are some of the most prominent that come to mind as I reflect upon this process so far.

1. I am full of unbelief.

To be honest, I can’t see where the second half of our budget is going to come from. In my heart I have deep struggles believing that it will actually come in, and this often causes me to feel helpless and discouraged. I’ve come to realize that I find it easier to talk about trusting God to provide than actually trusting Him to provide. This season of gathering support partners has forced me realize that this well of unbelief has always been there in my heart, lurking below the surface, only now a spotlight has shone on it and brought it to light. Consequently, this season has been not only one of raising funds but also learning (read: struggling) to grow in faith.

2. I have a deep-seated love of control.

In line with revealing my unbelief, this first half of support raising has also exposed the white-knuckle control grip that I prefer to have on my circumstances. Simply put, I am currently not in control of my own timeline, and I have been surprised at what a struggle this has been for me. It’s not that I don’t like this season of life or am dying to get out of town–after all, we love living near family, we love our church, and we have great friends and community here–it’s that I am more clearly aware than ever that I am not in control of the success or failure of this venture that we are on. I am completely at the mercy of God’s provision and other people’s participation. Of course, at other times of life I have certainly not been in control of my circumstances the way I thought I’ve been–it was just harder to see this truth behind the veneer of self-control that I had erected. But now this veneer has been torn down and the cold hard truth has become evident: I am not in control, and it’s hard for me to accept.

3. I am very prideful.

This past year has been the first time in 20 years that I have not been employed somewhere “earning” an income. Ever since I started as a busboy at The Hamburger Factory at age 16 I have had a job, with only  a couple of brief “between job” stages. Now, technically I am an employee of Mission to the World, and technically I am working full-time gathering a support team for our service in Japan, but it doesn’t feel like I’m employed anywhere, and that has picked at my pride. Apparently I have been drawing much of my self-worth from my ability to excel at things that generate a living for myself, but now I am not doing that. During this stage I am dependent upon God and others, or perhaps better said, during this stage it has become more clear than before that I am dependent upon God and others, and this has been a challenge to my prideful thinking that I provide for myself.

4. I am often paralyzed by fear.

I am not fearful of speaking in front of large groups about our work in Japan and I don’t mind meeting one-on-one with folks and inviting them to invest in this gospel work–I actually quite enjoy these things. But what I am afraid of is failure. I have a fear that we will fail at this task (as if it were up to us anyways!), and I fear what people will think when we do. And too often I let this fear have a stranglehold on my joy and debilitate me. Now, at other times in life I’m sure that I have struggled with fear, though those times of struggle were clouded by my pride in my ability and perceived sense of control of my circumstances. In this venture, however, I have been forced to face my fear and realize that it is a byproduct of the struggles I mentioned above: my lack of faith, my lack of control, and my unrelenting pride.

5. The gospel is for people just like me.

Although the first four of these realizations are a bit negative, they have the effect of throwing my need of the gospel into sharp relief. Of course, I’ve known before this year that the gospel is for people like me, but given my new-found sparring sessions with unbelief, lack of control, pride, and fear, I’ve come to realize all the more how much I need the gospel. Because Jesus is in control and has promised to build His church, we need not fear and can have confidence that He will accomplish His work in and through us. Although my tendency is to try and operate out of my strength and ability, Jesus tells us that His “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). This is a hard pill for me to swallow, to be honest, but it’s one that I need.

As my wife says to me, going through struggles such as these will help us realize, when God chooses to provide the resources we need to go, that He alone is worthy of all thanks and praise – that He alone has accomplished this work, not us. Our prayer is that this truth will characterize the second half of our journey to Japan.


Do you take the church for granted?

It was most poignantly on a flimsy folding chair in the middle of a dirt “field” in Juarez, Mexico that I (Caroline) began to grasp the concept that the church is far more than a building. It was a Sunday morning, and I was 18, on a short-term mission trip. As our church’s mission team gathered for worship with our Mexican brothers and sisters, I marveled at the bond we shared in Christ that transcended linguistic, cultural and economic barriers. Somehow, too, this experience of Sunday worship felt especially appropriate under a beautiful blue sky–a vaulted ceiling of the most majestic and awe-inspiring kind, created by the One whom we worshiped.

My subsequent college years were ones of concentrated spiritual growth. I was full of insecurities and felt my perpetual singleness (and the sudden loss of my father as an early teenager) acutely, and God met me in the pain, sin, and unfulfilled longings of my heart. A huge introvert, I filled volumes of journals with soul-searching reflections, struggles, and prayers. Although I had been a Christian since middle school, I began reading my Bible almost for the first time. Through my doubts and insecurities, God spoke to me afresh with the soothing balm of the Gospel.

Slowly but steadily, a deepening sense of peace, joy, and purpose in my identity in Him began to quiet my tumultuous heart and mind. He gave me believing friends and roommates who challenged and encouraged me in my faith. Once I realized weakness was an acceptable (even healthy) posture for ministry, I felt free to become involved in a number of ministries in my local church. I learned that I was not gifted in all of them, but I enjoyed each opportunity to serve Jesus through loving the people around me. I grew to deeply appreciate the older men and women, both church staff and lay people, who modeled Christian maturity to me through their words and actions.

In fact, many of these people had been there all along; I had just taken them for granted. In my own family there are generations of believers as far back as I am aware. I was raised in the southeastern U.S. and had grown up going to church. Sunday School, smiles, sermons, singing. Yet now (for a variety of reasons), I was seeing the church with new eyes. As I viewed it through the lens of the Bible and further life experience, it was like a budding flower whose beauty was slowly unfolding. I saw, and rejoiced at the privilege of participating in, the beautiful mess of sinners saved by grace, ministering to others out of their own weakness and God’s strength. I saw a body with many parts, people uniquely gifted and serving in dramatically different ways. I saw a foretaste of God’s coming kingdom on earth as Jesus brought truth, forgiveness, restoration, and hope to people, through His people. And I saw it all over the world.

Every time I traveled, which seemed to be frequently (an interest in missions, a French/Spanish major, and a brother who lived in Singapore contributed to my passport stamps), I rejoiced in the unity of believers in Jesus that transcends all cultural barriers. My favorite part about visiting a foreign country quickly became going to church on Sunday. What did church look like in a Senegalese village suffering from famine? In a tiny farming town in the Swiss Alps? In the thriving metropolis of Nagoya, Japan?

The answer to this last question surprised me. It came in 2008, several years after my college graduation, when I found myself on a “vision trip” to Japan with my husband of three years. Although I had felt God’s nudging toward missions for many years by this point, I was rather shocked that He seemed to be calling Matt & me to Japan, of all places. I had always pictured myself doing some kind of mercy ministry in a developing country. I could speak French (so, Haiti or West Africa seemed reasonable) and some Spanish (hello, Central and South America!). This new sense of call, however, was destroying my missions paradigm. Not only did I not know a lick of Japanese, what I did know about Japan didn’t attract me, given my previous ministry experience and desires. Japan is economically prosperous. The Japanese are very well educated. They’re technologically advanced. They have excellent health care.  They’re quiet. They’re impeccably clean. They’re polite. The whole country runs on time, if not early.  (In dramatic contrast, I will likely be late to my own funeral.) What could I have to offer them?

As I learned some of the statistics on Christianity (and the lack thereof) in Japan, then began to put faces with those statistics, God began working in my heart to show me that the Japanese are among the neediest people on earth when it comes to the life and death matter of knowing Jesus Christ. The spiritual darkness in the country is palpable. There are over 150,000 cults registered with the Japanese government. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Voluntary teenage prostitution is common, not to mention the country’s history of human trafficking and child pornography. Did you know there is a large and influential Japanese mafia? There are many wonderful things about Japan, but beneath the country’s veneer of perfection there is a depth of depravity that is only explicable in light of Scripture. Like Americans, the Japanese need Jesus; they’re desperate for Him.  Yet unlike most Americans, most Japanese have no idea who He is.

The evangelical church in Japan is tiny. It has a long history, but has perpetually struggled in the face of spiritual opposition. It is this church our family wants to serve. Humbly, realizing we have so much to learn from our Japanese brothers and sisters along the way. Our primary role of service will be helping to build the Japanese church via the indirect avenue of theological education. Yet, we also desire to simply be present, members of Jesus’ global church, serving in our new local church environment however we can, perhaps sometimes simply by sharing our Christian heritage. Such a heritage probably won’t be taken for granted in an environment where Christian families (in which both spouses know Jesus), much less generations of believers, are rare.

We’ve been told that simply living life as a Christian family, seeking to raise our children in the Lord, and inviting Japanese friends and neighbors into our home will be a huge ministry in itself. As I think of the multitude of believers God has used to influence me spiritually from childhood onward, I can’t imagine where I would be without them. He provided Christian teachers and mentors, friends’ parents and my own, and many other believers, to love, instruct, and encourage me over the years. They showed me (often unknowingly) what walking with God looks like on a daily basis. Countless brothers and sisters in Christ demonstrated His love to my family in a myriad of practical ways following the tragic deaths of each of my parents. What if I had been born into a typical Japanese family and these types of people simply hadn’t existed?

Will you pray for Japan?  Will you consider helping us serve there?

Does Missions Stop When a Group Has Been Reached?

I recently read an article on The Gospel Coalition website by David Sills entitled, “Missions Doesn’t Stop When a Group Has Been Reached.” Sills begins by noting the standard definition of unreached peoples as “those ethnolinguistic people groups whose population is less than 2 percent evangelical, or those groups without a sufficiently strong presence of New Testament churches or numbers of Christians who could carry on the work without outside help.” As the title of the article suggests, he goes on to argue that the work of missions is not completed once a people group crosses the threshold from being “unreached” to “reached.”

Sills contends that since Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations and to teach them all that He has commanded (Matt 28:19-20), the work of missions involves not simply converting unbelievers but discipling them. He gives the examples of Haiti, where a majority of people claim to be Christian yet still practice voodoo, and Rwanda of 1994, where 90% of the people were baptized as Christians when the worst genocide of the modern era occurred. The implication is that although these people groups are considered “reached,” there is obviously more work to be done.

Sills then states,

“We have unintentionally created the erroneous perception that missions equals reaching the unreached. If one’s efforts consist of flipping on light switches and then hurrying to the next darkened room, that is not the Great Commission; it’s only half of what we have been commanded to do. Jesus said we are to teach them to observe all that he has commanded.”

What he means by “flipping on light switches” is preaching the gospel and converting people. So here he is saying that we cannot be satisfied with converting a people group, not discipling them, and then moving on to the next people group. Missions must involve not simply conversion but discipleship. He closes by saying,

“Lost people of the world must hear the gospel to be saved. That is true whether they are in an unreached people group or not. Lost people in reached people groups are still lost, and everyone who dies in a lost condition will go to hell for eternity. Their only hope is to hear the gospel and repent. The task of missions is not simply to reach the unreached, allowing every missionary to define what that means for himself; it is reaching the lost and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.”


Several elements of this article seem problematic to me on both missiological and biblical grounds. Below I will focus on only two: imprecise terminology and removal of biblical-missiological strategy.

Imprecise Terminology

Sills seems to use “unreached” and “reached” terminology somewhat imprecisely. As mentioned above, he provides the standard and widely accepted definition for unreached people groups at the beginning of the article. According to Sills, this definition understands an “unreached” people group to be one “without a sufficiently strong presence of New Testament churches or numbers of Christians who could carry on the work without outside help” (typically measured numerically as 2% or less evangelical).

One thing Sills does not do at this point is define what “the work” is that cannot be carried on by such a people group without outside help. However, a well worn understanding of “the work” that unreached peoples cannot carry on is indigenous church planting. The 1982 Lausanne Unreached Peoples meeting defined a people group as “the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” Since church ministry includes both outreach and discipleship–both evangelism and edification–it follows that unreached peoples are those who cannot effectively convert and disciple their own without foreign assistance.

For this reason it seems to be a bit of a straw man to claim that an “unreached people group” focus in missions is like running through dark rooms, flipping on light switches, and calling the work complete. Rightly understood, an unreached people group focus is not against but inclusive of the ministries of discipleship and training. Since effective church planting cannot occur without such discipleship and training, a people group should not be considered reached until it has been so equipped.

If people groups claim to be Christian yet are steeped in voodoo or engaging in genocide,  rather than classifying them as reached and then claiming that missions is not finished there,perhaps we should reevaluate whether or not they are truly in a position for an indigenous church planting movement to be successful. If they are not, then they should not be considered reached. The issue of importance would be how we classify people groups, not how we define missions.

Removal of Biblical-Missiological Strategy

In his closing paragraph Sills notes that people are lost in unreached and reached people groups alike, reminds us that unbelievers in both of these categories will go to hell if they don’t hear the gospel and repent, and asserts that the task of missions is “reaching the lost and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.” This statement, however, removes the guideposts for a biblically informed global strategy for world evangelization. If one were to accept Sills’ argument here–if “missions” is simply reaching “the lost” indiscriminate of where they are and teaching them to obey Jesus–why would anyone choose to cross cultures into unreached territory where such ministry is more difficult and even dangerous?

In addition to lacking support from broader biblical-theological concerns regarding God’s design for his kingship to be recognized and submitted to all across creation, such a definition of missions does not do justice to the Great Commission itself, from which it claims to derive. Jesus commanded his followers not simply to “reach the lost and teach them” but to make disciples of all nations (= ethne), baptize them, and teach them. Given this all-encompassing people group focus in Jesus’ command, it is simply unwise for us not to distinguish between people groups that can evangelize and disciple their own through indigenous church planting movements and people groups that cannot.

Definitions of missions that seek to restrict it to reaching unreached people groups are not opposed to engaging in holistic discipleship but are wisely attempting to preserve the Scripture’s preoccupation with people from every tribe and tongue submitting themselves to the Lamb who has been slain. In distinguishing unreached and reached peoples we are not claiming that no further ministry is needed in the latter; we are simply identifying those tribes and tongues where Jesus’ kingdom will not spread unless cross-cultural gospel workers go there.


To conclude, I believe it is not biblically warranted to lump all people groups into the same missiological category. I would argue that missions does indeed stop when a people group has been reached, but this does not mean that ministry stops. It is important to distinguish “missions” as an internationally expansionistic enterprise from other areas of gospel ministry. If we fail to do so, we will cease to be strategic toward reaching and teaching all nations, as Jesus has commanded us.

Fill the Earth 8: Mission Fulfilled

Fill the Earth 1-page-001Last time we saw how Jesus reinstates God’s mission by commissioning the church to go out on a geographically-expanding mission, which is described in the same terms as God’s creation mandate to Adam (Acts 6:7; 12:24). Here in this final segment we will see how God’s mission, which is for his kingship to be represented to the ends of the earth, is fulfilled as redeemed, allegiant followers of Jesus fill the earth in the new creation.

The Church Fulfills All the Mission Roles of the Old Testament

First, the NT describes the church’s mission as the creation mandate to Adam. In Col 1:6 Paul says,

“All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing [i.e., ‘being fruitful and multiplying’], just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.”

We have already seen how this language of “being fruitful and multiplying” was used in Acts to describe the spread of the word of God. Here we see a similar idea: the “gospel” is being fruitful and multiplying “all over the world.” Paul then notes that the Colossians heard this gospel from Epaphras, and then in vv. 9-10 he says,

“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.

Here Paul uses the same two verbs as in v. 6 to describe the believer’s qualitative growth in holiness and knowledge of God. This is particularly significant, as when we looked at the decline of humanity in Genesis 6, the text says that as man began to multiply on the earth, the wickedness of man multiplied on the earth also. Therefore numerical proliferation is not enough to fulfill God’s mission; it must be accompanied by “knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” And God provides this by his Spirit.

Paul hints at this as we keep reading:

“being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (vv. 11-12).

Here Paul makes clear that it is God’s might, and not our own, that enables us to endure with knowledge of His will. This is what Adam had failed to keep when He fell — God’s will. Paul then says that God has freed us from the penalty of this fall through Christ:

“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (vv. 13-14).

If you remember our discussion of “being fruitful and multiplying” in the creation mission, you’ll remember that it occurs in the context of humanity created as God’s image. Paul goes on to include this language of “image of God” in his discussion as well:

“He [i.e., Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (vv. 15-18).

So connecting these ideas:

  1. Jesus is the image of God, and He has succeeded.
  2. Jesus is the head of the church, whom He has commissioned through the gospel to be fruitful and multiply.

Since the spread of the word of God is empowered by the Spirit of God, it is God who is portrayed as at the helm of this missional endeavor.

Second, the NT describes the church’s mission as fulfilling the call of Abram. In Gal 3:6-9 Paul says,

“Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

We’ve already seen that Paul considers Christians to be Abraham’s descendents and therefore “true Israel.” Here we see that the promise to Abram in his call (“all nations will be blessed through you”) was a forecast of the church’s gospel mission to the Gentiles (i.e., the nations).

Third, the NT describes the church’s mission as fulfilling the call of Israel. In 1 Pet 2:9, Peter describes the church by alluding to Israel’s call in Exod 19:4-6:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

In Exodus, Israel was to be a priestly kingdom because the whole earth belonged to God (“for all the earth is mine” [Exod 19:5]), and they were to represent Him. Peter says that the church is a priestly kingdom so that they might declare the praises of God – i.e., represent His kingship.

Revelation: A Vision of Mission Fulfilled

The most prominent picture of the fulfillment of God’s mission comes in the final vision of the book of Revelation: ch. 21. This vision presents the new creation — “a new heaven and a new earth,” as John says — which will be the eternal home of all believers. Our eternity will be spent on a physical creation, which is depicted in this chapter as a city. Several elements of this city — the new “Jerusalem” (v. 10) — are relevant for our discussion of mission.

First, this city includes the entirety of God’s people. In vv. 12 and 14, the gates and foundations of the city are labeled with the names of the founding groups of both OT Israel and the NT church. This means that the New Jerusalem is the eternal home of both faithful OT Israel and the faithful NT church.

Second, this city is depicted as a worldwide Holy of Holies. V. 16 says:

“The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal.”

This cubic shape reminds any reader of the OT of one particular place that is explicitly described as cubic: the holy of holies (1 Kgs 6:20). The new creation, therefore, is portrayed as a worldwide temple — God’s special, most holy presence, is everywhere.

Third, God’s people are depicted as priests in this temple. In vv. 18-20 John lists 12 stones that adorn the foundations of the city walls. These 12 stones just happen to be the same 12 stones that in Exodus 28 are said to adorn the breastpiece of the Israelite high priest (8 are word for word, 4 are synonyms). This means that those people whom the city’s foundations represent—the 12 apostles—are being depicted as high priests, those who minister in the temple of God.

Fourth, this city is the location of the nations’ end-time migration. V. 24 says,

“By its light [that is, the lamp of the Lamb] will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.”

The New Jerusalem will be home to all the nations who walk by the light of the Lamb, that is, those who trust in Jesus as Savior.

So to summarize: In the vision of the New Jerusalem, we see:

  1. The entire world filled with God’s people.
  2. The entire world presented as the Holy of Holies — i.e., the temple.
  3. God’s people functioning as priests in this temple.
  4. All nations coming to this temple.

In short, God’s mission is here fulfilled, since His kingship is represented to the ends of the earth.

Christian Participation in this Mission Now

Where Should We Be Going?

IF, as we have argued, God’s mission in the world is for His kingship to be represented to the ends of the earth, and IF the way this is accomplished is by God’s people filling the earth as His representatives, and IF the means by which God’s people fill the earth is by the gospel “being fruitful and multiplying” to all nations, THEN the church must be strategic in ensuring that all people-groups around the world hear the gospel.

What is a “people-group”? I have discussed this issue here, but I will re-define this term here again:

A “people group” is a large grouping of persons united by a variety of elements such as language, religion, ethnicity, location, class, and situation. The Lausanne Movement has defined people group as “the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.”

THEREFORE, given the preceding, the church must not neglect gospel presence among unreached people groups, that is, people-groups where there are insufficient numbers of Christians and Christian resources so that the group may be evangelized.

How Are We Doing?

Penny-obverseAs I mention in that other post, there are currently around 16,750 people groups in the world, a little over 6,900 of which are classified as unreached. Currently, only 2.4 % of missionaries minister among unreached people groups, and less than 1% of Christian giving goes toward supporting missions to unreached peoples. This means that for every dollar given toward the work of the gospel, less than a penny goes toward representing God’s kingship where He is currently not recognized. This would seem to suggest that we are not investing our resources well in the spread of God’s kingship to the ends of the earth.

How Can We Get Involved?

First, we need to recognize that God calls all of His people to participate in His mission. This has essentially been the burden of this whole series.

Second, we need to recognize that God gifts His people in different ways in order that we might participate in His mission. In Eph 4:7 Paul says that “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” That is, we have been gifted in different ways in order to participate in the work of God’s kingdom. In vv. 11-12 Paul gives some examples:

“And he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be shepherds, and some to be teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”

Essentially, God bestows various gifts to all of His people, that they may use those gifts to build the church. With regard to missions, we could say that, since God has given grace to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift, He has given some to be goers, some to be pray-ers, and some to be financial senders in order to engage in the work of missions, for building up the body of Christ to the ends of the earth.

The question for each one of us, therefore, is not, “Do I feel called to missions?” All of God’s people are called to missions, since we were all made to represent His kingship to the ends of the earth. The real questions are, “How has God gifted me to participate in missions?” and “Am I participating?” Our responsibility is to discern how we fit into God’s worldwide mission, and to demonstrate our faith in God by acting accordingly.

Fill the Earth 7: Mission Reinstated

Fill the Earth 1-page-001Last segment we saw how Jesus fulfills the roles of both Adam and Israel. Whereas the disobedience of the prior two had invalidated their roles as God’s representatives on the earth, because of Jesus’ obedience, as we’ll see in this segment, He reinstates God’s mission by commissioning the church to go out on mission and represent God’s kingship to the ends of the earth.

Jesus Calls the Church to Mission

First, because of Jesus’ obedience, he sends his followers out on mission. After Jesus’ resurrection, He gives his followers the well-known Great Commission:

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt 28:18-20).

Notice here that Jesus’ followers are to “make disciples of all nations” because “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Him. Why has authority been given to Him? Paul tells us in Phil 2:8-10:

“Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

The reason that Jesus is highly exalted exalted is because of His obedience. Therefore, we may summarize the relationship of Jesus’ obedience and the church’s mission as follows:

  • Because Jesus was obedient, He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
  • Because Jesus has all authority, He commissions His followers to go and disciple the nations concerning His saving work.

This grounds the church’s mission in Jesus’ obedience, which means that the church’s success in mission is based on the faithfulness of Jesus rather than our own.

Second, Jesus’ mission for the church involves the call for repentance and forgiveness. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance, He tells His followers this:

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).

Whereas Matthew’s version focuses on baptizing and teaching people to obey, Luke’s version emphasizes preaching repentance and forgiveness. These are essentially the same ideas, as baptism represents the washing away of sin in forgiveness (cf. Acts 2:38) and part and parcel of obeying Jesus’ commands is recognizing that we don’t always obey and thus need to repent.

Third, Jesus’ mission is for His church to spread geographically. We read of another post-resurrection appearance in Acts 1:8:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The other passages we’ve looked at specify that Jesus’ followers should go to “all nations.” Here He specifies that they need to do so by expanding geographically. When we studied the tower of Babel, we noted that the nations were created because of humanity’s failure to represent God geographically. God dispersed the nations over the face of the whole earth because they did not “fill the earth” as God had commanded. This means that taking the gospel to “all nations” is not an end in itself, but is the means toward fulfilling that mission that the Babel generation rebelled against. Because the nations have been spread across the fullness of the earth, going to them with the gospel is the way we “fill the earth” as God’s people.

Confirming this is our next major point.

The Church’s Mission is Described as the Creation Mission

In the book of Acts, the language of the creation mission is applied to the spread of the word of God and the multiplication of disciples.

In Acts 6, after the seven so-called deacons are called, verse 7 says, “So the word of God was fruitful. The number of disciples in Jerusalem multiplied rapidly.” This is the way that God’s representation through His images spreads now – when they turn to Him as King in repentance and faith as the word of God is preached to them.

In Acts 12, Herod is trying to stifle the church’s growth through persecution. However, after he fails to give God glory when a crowd declares that he is a god, an angel of the Lord strikes him dead. After this, we read in verse 24, “But the word of God was fruitful and multiplied.” What is being contrasted here is Herod’s attempts to stifle God’s people and exalt himself as king and god, and the unstoppable spread of the word of God, which is the message that He is King.

In Acts 19, seven sons of Sceva, who were Jewish exorcists, “undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims'” (v. 13). After one of these evil spirits attacks them, v. 17 says, “And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled,” that is, Jesus’ name was held is high honor. This leads many to repent from their sinful magical arts (v. 18-19). Then we read in v. 20: “So the word of the Lord continued to be fruitful and prevail mightily.” In short, as people repent of their sin and turn toward Jesus in faith, God’s creation mission advances.

Since God’s creation mission involved humanity “being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth,” it follows that the preaching of the good news must spread geographically. And this is exactly what we see when we examine the structure of the book of Acts.

The Book of Acts Follows a Geographic Spread

Acts is structured according to the threefold movement present in Jesus’ commission in 1:8.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

This description represents concentric circles expanding outward.

Acts1-8 map-page-001

In Acts 1-7, the geographic focus is Jerusalem. In Acts 1:4, Jesus tells the disciples, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” The stories that follow are all set in Jerusalem.

In Acts 8-12, the geographic focus shifts to Judea and Samaria more broadly. After Stephen’s martyrdom, in Acts 8:1 we read,

“And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”

In these chapters Philip goes to the “city of Samaria” (8:5), where we read the story of Simon the Magician. Philip then goes “toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (8:26), where he converts the Ethiopian eunuch. Saul is converted along the way to Damascus, and after Barnabas convinces the church in Jerusalem that he is not a threat, we read this in 9:31:

“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”

Then in Acts 10, Peters converts Cornelius the centurion in Caesarea, which is in the region of Samaria.

In Acts 13-28, the geographic focus expands again to the ends of the earth as Paul and Barnabas begin the Gentile mission. The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome, the center of the Gentile world at that time, “proclaiming the kingdom of God” (28:31).

The Spirit Empowers the Church in Its Mission

One aspect of Acts 1:8 that we haven’t yet emphasized is the first part: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” As the church expands geographically, preaching repentance and forgiveness, baptizing, and teaching Jesus’ commands, they will go forth in the power of the Spirit.

Jesus declares that the church’s mission will be carried out in the power of the Spirit. Jesus not only declares this in Acts 1:8, but He articulates this same truth at the ends of Luke:

“You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48-49).

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit had not been poured out in such a way to empower the people’s mission. But after Jesus ascends and takes His seat of authority, He extends His kingdom through His people, by His Spirit.

The Spirit was outpoured at Pentecost for international mission. Acts 2 describes the Spirit coming on the apostles at Pentecost. At this event, the apostles are filled with Holy Spirit and begin speaking in other languages (v. 4). That these are recognizable, earthly languages is evident from v. 8, where the residents from all over the world say, “ And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?

Verses 9-11 then gives a list that represents people from the entirety of the then-known world:

“Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

This is confirmed by what v. 5 says: “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.” With the outpouring of the Spirit, the apostles spoke of “the mighty works of God” in the various languages of the nations. This was a sort of foreshadowing of what their mission would entail. Through the witness of the church, people from all the nations would come to give glory to God.

Occurrences of tongue-speaking in Acts confirm this threefold, international, geographical expansion. Tongue-speaking occurs only three times in Acts, and these three occurrences follow the concentrically expanding geographical movement of the gospel.

Occurrence 1: Acts 2. This first occurrence is at the original outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, which happened in Jerusalem.

Occurrence 2: Acts 10. This second occurrence is in Caesarea, which fits within “all Judea and Samaria,” when Peter preaches to Cornelius’ house. Peter goes and preaches the gospel, and in vv. 44-46 we read this:

“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”

This is the first major Gentile conversion in the book, evidenced by the apostles response in 11:1.

Occurrence 3: Act 19. This final speaking in tongues happens in Ephesus (vv. 1-7), which corresponds with the final geographical segment, “to the ends of the earth.”

The point of these various tongue-speaking events is to show that the mission in Acts is happening by the power of the Holy Spirit.


Therefore, in summary, we may say that as the word of God is fruitful and multiplies, God’s people engage in a redemptive spread of the image of God by filling the earth with the gospel.