Casey and Jess Smith, along with their three children—Soren, Solomon, and Scarlett—moved from the American Midwest to the green peaks of Sheffield, England to support the work of church planting across Europe alongside Acts 29 Europe and The Crowded House. If you're interested in church planting, Europe, or life as an ex-pat, they'd love to hear from you. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” Charles H. Spurgeon, “A Sermon and a Reminiscence,” Sword and the Trowel (March 1873).
“You shall love the Lord your God . . . and your neighbor as yourself.” [Luke 10:27]
One of the problems with being a missionary is that it is a title you tend to avoid even if you are one. Being referred to in public as a "missionary" often makes me feel uncomfortable. But it shouldn't. The scriptures make it clear that there is missionary work to be done [Mt 9:37-38], and Jesus commands us to get on with it [Mt 28:18-20].
Obedience in mission is obedience to Christ.
We know that people won't be saved without hearing the Good News [Rom 10:11-5] because Jesus is the only hope of salvation [Jn 14:6]. In fact, the Holy Spirit was given for this very purpose [Acts 1:8], which means we have an eternal guarantee of our missional success [John 10:6]! What is more than all this, mission and evangelism are means given to us by the Lord Jesus for our own growth in godliness [Philemon 6].
But this doesn't make it any easier for us, does it? Most of us believe these things, yet we're still perplexed and frustrated when we consider our lives in light of the missional commands of Jesus. We often live with a sense of "missional discouragement," feeling like a missionary failure—a fake.
Which is why when Jesus said that all the commandments can be summed up in loving God and loving our neighbors, he really was on to something. What would happen if we all just did what Jesus said to do? Seriously. What if we actually got to know our neighbors? Not metaphorical "neighbors" somewhere we can keep at a distance, but literal, flesh-and-blood, "I really wish they'd mow their lawn" neighbors.
Throughout the Bible, God tells us to love our neighbors. He relentlessly emphasizes that along with loving him, this is the most important thing we can do. God invites us to love the way he loves and he challenges us to put our love into the doorsteps around us.
Being obedient in mission doesn't go any further or get any simpler than loving God and loving our neighbors. Loving God requires Christ-like love for literal neighbors. It sounds simple, I'll admit, but it’s all too easy to ignore.
I don't know where you live, but I know you have lonely neighbors. Most of us feel alone in this world. It’s far too easy to leave the house in the morning with our head down or iPod on. We punch the time card and get busy with work, come back home, and hurry inside. We never get to know the people around us, and they don’t get to know us. To be honest, we tend to be a bit wary of our neighbors, and they're probably wary of us. All of us are afraid of the unknown, so we stay hidden. And because we don't know our neighbors, it’s easy to live with the wrong impression or get the wrong idea about one another.
More importantly, it is almost impossible to love someone you've never met.
So obedience in mission begins when we start to ask, "Who is my [literal] neighbor" [Luke 10:25-37]. Asking that question reorients our hearts toward sacrifice and compassion. We start thinking about adjusting our schedules and meeting our [literal] neighbor’s needs by opening our homes or providing transportation.
I'm emphasizing literal neighbors because if we say, “Everyone is my neighbor,” it can become an excuse for avoiding the implications of following Jesus and being obedient in mission. When we define “neighbors” in the broadest of terms then we don’t have to feel guilty. After all, we can’t be expected to really love everybody, can we? The problem is when we insist we’re neighbors with everybody, often we end up being neighbors with nobody.
Jesus assumed that his audience would be able to love those nearest to them, their literal neighbors, the people most like them, who shared the same heritage and geography. In telling the parable, Jesus was stretching their concept of neighbor to include even people from a group they didn’t like. Today as we read the parable, we go straight for loving the neighbor on the side of the road. Thus we make a metaphor of the neighbors—a metaphor that doesn’t include the person who lives next door to us. If we don’t take Jesus’s command literally, then we turn his command into nothing more than a metaphor. We have a metaphoric love for our metaphoric neighbors, and our communities are never literally changed.
So if we're interested in being obedient in mission we need to apply Jesus’s teaching to our very own, literal neighbors—real people with real names, numbers, and needs.
Here's a quick scheme for how to get on with loving those [literally] closest to you:
• Start by writing the names of the people who live in the dwellings immediately surrounding you and work out from there. See how many of your neighbor’s names you actually know. That gives you a gauge on where to start. Start by learning names.
• Then record what you know about your neighbors. Don't write anything you could obviously see from your stoop or driveway. Write information you could only attain via conversation. Start having conversations.
• Start charting how you will begin to pray specifically for your neighbors. Find out the things that matter most. What motivates and excites them? What are their thoughts about God? What are their needs?
With so much emphasis today on being missional, contextual, and radical it’s easy to forget the simplicity and significance of the truth that gospel makes us into lovers—lovers of God and lovers of others. Instead of trying to be trendy, edgy, hardcore, or hipster, we should strive to be the neighbors everyone wants to have next door. Now that would be edgy. Maybe even taboo.