After his resurrection, and just before returning to the Father, Jesus gave his disciples an important command.
It’s recorded for us 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.”
For the 2000 years since, Christians have followed this command with great zeal. From Paul and his contemporaries travelling thousands of kilometres on sandalled feet or unsteady ships, to modern missionaries boarding giant planes to faraway countries, the gospel has compelled countless men and women to go to the ends of the earth – often taking extreme risks and acting in ways that the world has struggled to understand.
Jim and Elisabeth Elliot plunged into the Ecuadorian jungle with great faith but without the language needed to share it. Saint Patrick returned to the country that had enslaved him to preach a gospel of forgiveness. Hudson Taylor pressed far into China, beyond the well-known ports and cities, followed by a group of eager graduates from Cambridge. David Livingstone gave his life and eventually his heart to Africa. These are the heroes of faith whom our churches uphold as taking the Great Commission as seriously as possible.
But what about now?
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on global mission. Travel is significantly limited, borders are closed and an impending financial crisis looks set to ravage the supporter base of sending organisations.
Many Australian missionaries have made the hard decision to return home, for the sake of their families and their long-term health. Others have remained on the field but are working under strict limitations necessitated by the dangers of meeting closely with others.
Acts 1:8 is not just a command: it is a promise.
It seems impossible that Jesus would want us to be worrying about the gospel reaching ‘the ends of the earth’ in 2020. But Acts 1:8 is not just a command: it is a promise.
You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth, Jesus says. You will go. And as Jesus always does, he has given us the tools to be faithful to his words, to continue taking the gospel to people far away.
Modern technology is a great gift in this area, breaking down global barriers and allowing us to connect with people on the other side of the world in ways that can come close to replicating the experience of meeting in person.
Multiculturalism is another gift from God to help us in this period. Australia is blessed to host people of thousands of cultural backgrounds for long and short periods of time, and many of them remain connected to families and friends far away. In the past, missionaries used to get onto boats and planes to go to the ends of the earth. But now the ends of the earth have come to our large cities.
Going to the ends of the earth may mean simply crossing the street.
And while we might worry that COVID-19 is cutting off our access to the ‘mission field’, the fact is that there has been a shift in recent decades away from the traditional ‘west to the rest’ exercise that tends to feature in our collective imagination of what constitutes mission.
Mission has flourished under pressure in the past, and it can again.
Missiologist Ed Stetzer said in our documentary Jesus the Game Changer: To The Ends of The Earth, “Today, come to a global summit about global missions, it’s dominated by the Global South. And thank God for it because we can learn from our sisters and brothers in Africa and South America and Asia and more.”
So yes, mission is still important in 2020. And yes, it is still possible! And while it might have to look different, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Mission has flourished under pressure in the past, and it can again.
Jesus is faithful, and he will provide his people with what they need to follow His command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. I pray that we will make the most of His gifts to offer the hope of the Good News to our world in this trying year.
Karl Faase and Ed Stetzer will discuss mission in 2020 and beyond in a webinar hosted by Olive Tree Media on 11 November. Registration is free but places are limited, so sign up now to hear their take on how Christians can continue to take the gospel to the ends of the earth in a COVID world. Here is a short video outlining the webinar.