By David Shibley
David Shibley is president and founder of Global Advance.
Today in ministry it has become cool to be “laid back.” But I would submit that the lost key to world evangelization is a sense of urgency. Further, it is the absence of a holy imperative that can sometimes embarrassingly juxtapose us from the spirit of the original Student Volunteer Movement.
Urgency is defined as a force or impulse that impels. Its root is literally an urge that is compelling, a deep knowing that immediate action or attention is required – and Jesus and the early church had it in abundance. Our Lord said,
“I must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (Jn. 9:4).
Paul challenged us to be,
“redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16).
The Student Volunteer Movement was drenched in an ethos of urgency. Eschatological hopes were high. New modes of transportation were starting to shrink the world toward what others would later call a “global village.” Students were motivated for “world evangelization in this generation.”
John R. Mott often peppered his challenges with phrases like in our day, in this hour and in this generation. And underscoring all this was the biblical certainty that people must be reached with the gospel now – before it is eternally too late.
I wonder if a couple of subtle nuances in today’s missions nomenclature have helped blunt a passion for world evangelization. First, has our emphasis on mission for the glory of God somehow dampened an intense passion to reach the lost who are without Christ?
Without question extending the glory of God is the highest missions motivation, but it is not the only motivation. Reaching people who are lost in every sense of the word without Jesus – headed for an eternity devoid of God and thus devoid of hope – this is an equally valid, biblical motive for missions.
Second, some noted writers have reminded us of our “great omission” of not adequately making disciples. “Jesus did not tell us to make converts,” these writers purport, “He told us to make disciples.”
Wait a minute. Yes, He did tell us to make converts. Mark 16:15 is just as much a part of the Great Commission as Matthew 28:19. We have been commissioned to proclaim the gospel to every person on earth. Paul was clear in his defense before Agrippa that His mission assignment from Jesus was,
“to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins” (Ac. 26:18).
That sounds to me like an unmistakable call to “make converts.”
Again, no one is arguing that those who are converted should not also be discipled and brought to maturity. Nor am I suggesting that obedience to the Great Commission is completed by evangelism alone. Of course, every Christian believer should also be an ardent worshiper and radical follower of Jesus.
But I’m just concerned that there is a distinct insinuation today that evangelism is somehow the tolerated step-sister to the nobler ministry of disciple-making. Why are we making dichotomous what God has joined together? It’s evangelism and discipleship; not evangelism versus discipleship.
The watchword of the Student Volunteer Movement – world evangelization in this generation – drips with both grandeur and urgency. We must recover a Scripture-based sense of urgency, and here’s why.
1. Our opportunities have a limited shelf life. Every day of freedom to declare the gospel in our post-9/11 world is a great gift. With threats of terrorism escalating rapidly, we should pray with the Psalmist,
“Teach us to number our days” (Psa. 90:12).
Look at the massive open door for the gospel there was in Japan at the end of the Second World War. The door flung open wide, the church stalled, and the door today is barely ajar. Or, what if suddenly China or Iran did stop their persecution of Christians and put out a welcome mat for all missionaries?
Are we thinking preemptively, and preparing accordingly? Someone has wisely observed that “the opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity.” There are colossal doors of opportunity wide open for the gospel in many parts of the world, and they may not be open long.
2. Life itself is short. James calls it “a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14). God give us young leaders in the emerging SVM 2 who feel the urgency of our task and can transmit that urgency to others.
In his book On What Leaders Really Do John Kotter claims that infecting others with a sense of urgency is the difference between effective and ineffective leadership. “Sooner or later, no matter how hard they push,” writes Kotter, “if others don’t feel the same sense of urgency, the momentum…will die far short of the finish line.”
Certainly there is an urgency for those who do not know Jesus Christ. But are we conveying this to them? Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Nothing could be more ruthless than to make men think there is still plenty of time to mend their ways.
To tell men that the cause is urgent, and that the kingdom of God is at hand is the most charitable and merciful act we can perform, the most joyous news we can bring.”
Missionary luminary Robert Moffett reminded us, “We have all eternity to celebrate our victories, but only one short hour before the sunset in which to win them.” Jim Elliot felt (prophetically) the brevity of time. He journaled this passionate prayer while still a student at Wheaton College:
“God, light these idle sticks of my life and let them burn for Thee. I do not desire a long life, but a full one – like You, Lord Jesus.”
Seven years later his life on this earth would be cut short on the tip of a poisoned spear as he attempted to get the gospel to the Waodoni.
3. The season of harvest is brief. I was raised in the city; I don’t know much about farming. But I do know this much: When it’s harvest time there’s nothing else on the agenda. The one and only priority is to get the harvest safely in.
Harvest by its very nature is not open-ended; there is a season of harvest. One of the saddest verses in the Bible is Jeremiah 8:20, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Jesus warned us not to look for a more opportune time but to put in the sickle now.
“Lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (Jn. 4:35).
There is a vast, ripe spiritual harvest worldwide right now – and it is threatened because we aren’t reaping it!
4. Eternity is long. Urgency in missions is theologically based. Our urgency regarding the missions mandate is in direct proportion to how much we truly believe people without Christ are lost. Our passion has waned as our belief in eternal judgment has dissipated.
Hear again the lyrics of an old missions hymn by Fanny Crosby. It carries the politically incorrect – but theologically correct – title, Rescue the Perishing:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save!
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
Do we wince today at such lyrics? If so, it’s an indicator of how far we have moved away from the spirit and passion of the original Student Volunteer Movement. This song was an often-requested favorite in SVM meetings.
John R. Mott was often the mouthpiece who described and defined that pathos that existed in the Student Volunteer Movement. He spoke from urgent passion when he challenged those young volunteers,
“In view of the constraining memories of the cross of Christ and the love wherewith He hath loved us, let us rise and resolve, at whatever cost of self-denial, that live or die, we shall live or die for the evangelization of the world in our day.”
Theologian Carl F. H. Henry reminded us that “the gospel is good news only if it arrives in time.” God, make us urgent. And may the gospel arrive in time.