If you have been called, sent, trained, and deployed to reach a certain people group on the mission field, how exclusive should you be in your focus? How many things should you make a commitment NOT to do so that you can achieve your aim?
There’s one phrase I keep finding myself saying as a team leader, “It’s an inclusive focus, not an exclusive one.”
When it comes to language learning, strategy, and teaming together, I find many are wanting to draw hard lines beyond what I’m actually asking for – and beyond what the Scriptures are asking for. The default often seems an embrace of an either/or mindset, rather than an steady emphasis on one thing wisely paired with an openness to the unexpected opportunities the Spirit might bring.
“If our goal is to share the gospel in the local language, we shouldn’t share the gospel in English, right?”
No, while we push to get to gospel fluency in our focus language, by all means share the gospel in whichever language is most effective for clarity and for that person!
“If our goal is to plant healthy churches among this people group, should I turn down my neighbor from that other people group if he wants to study the Bible with me?”
No, while the majority of our time needs to be focused on the people group we have been called to reach, let’s not use that calling as an excuse to not extend basic Christian love and discipleship to others that are open around us. Who knows? Maybe that unexpected person will be the key to breakthrough among our focus group. If there’s no partner who can study the Bible with that person, then you are the one who should do it.
“If I’m focused primarily on our house-church planting strategy, that means I shouldn’t mix with the international-church strategy people, right?”
No, cross-pollination and the visible unity of believers bring far greater benefits that outweigh the possible costs of mixing with likeminded believers who have a slightly different strategic focus. We need many faithful strategies to reach our city, and we need to be fluent in as many of them as possible. We need relationships of trust with those involved in different strategies as we will very likely need to lean on one another in the future – especially if the work really takes off.
“Because we are supposed to be devoting our time to language learning, evangelism, discipleship, and church planting, I really shouldn’t invest time in that life-giving hobby of mine, right?”
Once again, no. If playing the piano, rock climbing, or blogging (!) are life-giving for you, you’d better invest in that. These kinds of things are important for our wholeness and flourishing on the field. God has made us to do more than ministry – to create, to play, and to rest. We need to trust him as we invest in those things, especially when we can’t see any immediate ministry payoff.
In my experience, many default to an exclusive focus mindset and would not agree with my positions on the above questions. I believe this often comes from fear. If I don’t draw these hard lines, how am I to be protected from the dreaded mission drift? Well, mission drift is a real danger. It’s important that we regularly assess ourselves to make sure that we are primarily focused on the things we are supposed to be primarily focused on. That’s what team vision, meetings, regular rhythms, and goals are for. And yet the unintentional effects of an overly exclusive focus are often a lack of openness to what the Spirit might be doing in our context and frustrated colleagues who feel their consciences are being bound. Not to mention the fractured relationships and lamentable absence of healthy unity among likeminded groups on the field.
Far better that we embrace a posture of inclusive focus. We can learn that target language and freely share in English (or any other tongue) when we need to. We can labor to reach our focus people group and still find ways to serve the open among other people groups. We can focus on the strategy that we think will be most effective and still find healthy ways to partner with other strategies. We can still be faithful missionaries and pursue some life-giving hobbies for the good of our souls.
I think my greatest worry with an exclusive focus mindset is the assumption that we know the details of how the Spirit is going to bring awakening in our particular context. Don’t get me wrong. We know the main plan – Share the gospel, make disciples, plant churches, put it on repeat. He has been abundantly clear on that front and we don’t need to question “his heart for this land” in that regard. But why are we so cock-sure that we know the will of the Spirit in the minute details of lifestyle, strategy, and contextualization which are not made clear in scripture?
Given the unexpected ways the Spirit moves, it seems far wiser to embrace an inclusive focus posture. Be about learning your target language. Devote the bulk of your time to your people group and your strategy. But not exclusively. Rather, be about these things with an openness that acknowledges our own blind-spots, limitations, and inability to predict where the lightning of the Spirit will strike next – and that our particular work is not the only thing the Spirit is doing in our context.
Let’s make our plans with great intentionality and wisdom. And yet regardless of what missiology says, if the Scriptures have not made certain things a law, then please let us also not make them laws. Let us instead hold our focus intentionally and loosely, and not let it close us off to the unexpected work of the Holy Spirit.