October 22, 2020

Don’t Waste Your Missional Calling

23.jpgThese Lives and Deaths Were No Tragedy

In April 2000, Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards were killed in Cameroon, West Africa. Ruby was over eighty. Single all her life, she poured it out for one great thing: to make Jesus Christ known among the unreached, the poor, and the sick. Laura was a widow, a medical doctor, pushing eighty years old, and serving at Ruby’s side in Cameroon. The brakes failed, the car went over a cliff, and they were both killed instantly. I asked my congregation: Was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great passion, namely, to be spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ—even two decades after most of their American counterparts had retired to throw away their lives on trifles. No, that is not a tragedy. That is a glory. These lives were not wasted. And these lives were not lost. “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).

I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader’s Digest, which tells about a couple who “took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.” At first, when I read it I thought it might be a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn’t. Tragically, this was the dream: Come to the end of your life—your one and only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells. Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: “Look, Lord. See my shells.” That is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. Over against that, I put my protest: Don’t buy it. Don’t waste your life.

-John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life, Crossway Books, pp 45-46.

Don\'t Waste Your LifeOur “Men’s Mornings With God” group gathered today and continued our discussion of John Piper’s book, Don’t Waste Your Life. In chapter 3 of that book are the two stories excerpted above. I’d ended the previous study with this section, and now was beginning this morning’s study with an unusual angle: I was going to disagree with Dr. Piper.

I’ve been reading and listening to Dr. Piper for two decades. He’s a favorite teacher and guide to the faith, but I have some disagreements with him. This part of the book brought me face to face with one of them: Piper’s handling of the potential abuses of some aspects of Christian Hedonism. Particularly, the tendency to interpret the missional calling of every Christian as personal involvement in going overseas.

One of the reasons I welcome the emphasis on missional Christianity is my rejection of the traditional paradigm of doing missions primarily through sending westerners to other countries. While I see a place for this, I think any reasonable study of the world Christian movement and the Kingdom of God will lead us to the conclusion that we need to find the best way to support indigenous missionaries and church movements, and we need to become missionaries in our own culture, outside the church but in our own callings.

The current emphasis on producing missional Christians is often misunderstood. We need to value the shift from a “church-serving” kind of discipleship model to a “go into your world and find ways to serve” model. The kinds of teaching that can produce Christians going into the community to make it better and to witness to the lost through missional ministry is also the kind of teaching that produces solid missionary Christians.

Dr. Piper advocates a number of approaches to the Christian life that stress intense commitment and a “wartime” or crisis mindset. This is almost entirely interpreted as a universal need to go into foreign missions in the 10/40 window nations and to organize with this as a priority. When Dr. Piper discusses missions in detail, it’s generally always from the standpoint that as many Christians–especially young people–as possible need to go into the 10/40 window countries personally. In addition, suffering, persecution and martyrdom are norms for him when he describes the life that is not wasted, but goes overseas.

Dr. Piper advocates the Biblical message of a single-minded passion centered on glorifying God through the cross of Jesus. Dr. Piper likes verses such as Acts 20:24

But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God

And Philippians 3:7

I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.

This revaluing of life in comparison to Christ is powerful aspect of the Kingdom of Jesus, but I do not believe its only or best expression is always or normally personally going overseas as a missionary. That is one glorious expression, but others are all around us, near and far and in many different vocations with various levels of risk and costs.

In Don’t Waste Your Life, Piper does a good job of showing how the singleness of our focus on the cross reaches into all that makes up our lives. He effectively makes the case that Christ’s work on the cross unifies all gifts, blessings, experiences and phases of life. It is the cross that makes it possible for us to enjoy any and all of God’s gifts, and for him to be merciful and generous to us.

So rather than saying we are to think only of one thing, i.e. the single focus of the cross, we are able to think of all things through the cross, or more exactly, in and through the person and work of the one on the cross. I believe this is the key to properly seeing how all Christians magnify Christ in all they do.

I do believe, however, that it is possible to overbalance the cross against all that Jesus is and does. I do not mean in any way to minimize the cross, but to simply assert that we are, first of all, glorifying Jesus as Son of God, mediator and Lord, and that while the cross is the “one thing” Paul speaks of, it’s undeniably true that he frequently presents Christ in other ways, and our relationship to him in other ways. Hebrews also presents Jesus as the crucified one, but not only or completely as the crucified one.

Therefore we can glorify Christ in various roles and we can magnify him in various callings. We are not restricted to glorifying only the crucified one in sacrificially and personally going overseas. I may glorify Christ as mediator, Lord, intercessor, high priest, prophet and example, and I may do so in a variety of ways I spend my life stewardship at a particular point in my journey.

Piper’s emphasis on going overseas, suffering and single-passioned focus on the cross of Jesus raises, further, another issue with some persons. Christians of a sensitively zealous, fragile or fanatical temperament can take Dr. Piper’s emphasis and go in some directions that I believe are unwise, unbalanced and potentially harmful.

I frequently find myself counseling young people preparing to spend large amounts of money to go overseas with no language training, no sense of the needs of the church in the country they are going to, and no real plan to live a life that includes mission as a large component of stewardship. In my opinion, many organizations play on this zeal and send unprepared and unsuited persons into the field. I have no doubt that many Christian leaders overseas deeply wish we would rethink our entire emphasis on personally going into a country, and instead look at an overall response to the needs on the field and in the world.

I want to be clear that in no way have I ever felt that Dr. Piper was advocating fanaticism or any of the poor decisions I might mention. He clearly understands the need for a solid personal and family life, responsibility, preparation and informed placement of personnel. In fact, in this same book, Piper makes many helpful and specific observations that could be easily rewritten into prudent cautions. Still, Dr. Piper’s choice of metaphors for the Christian life do tend to leave the impression that the preferred destiny of the normal Christian life should be going overseas, choosing risk and suffering, with the goal of ultimate sacrifice in the cause. He frequently cites martyrdom or loss of wife and children as pinnacle acts of glorifying Christ. I agree with these examples, but working with young people has taught me that such examples must be placed in a fully helpful and healthy context to avoid some of the errors of the enthusiastic and unstable.

I stated my response this way:

When someone magnifies the cross by sacrifice and suffering, we must remember that sacrifice and suffering are not the only ways that person, or any person, magnifies Christ and the cross. Jesus himself chose to go to the cross…after living 30 years as a family man, member of his community and operator of a small business.

One of the factors that stays with me in reading this book is an incident several years ago involving a college friend who was suddenly converted and, within a year, vanished into a closed country to evangelize. With no training, no support and little discipleship, he undertook his mission with commendable enthusiasm but no real idea what he was doing. I have no doubt he would have sought and welcomed martyrdom. After an extended stay, all the while out of touch with his family, he returned and has shown no interest in missions since.

One of the problems this young man experienced was put very well by one of the men in my group. Leadership, at some level, motivated this young man for evangelism, but did not equip him with the sense that Christ can be magnified in many different ways in ordinary things that should, even must, be addressed by any disciple. When leaders don’t help us to all to see that Christ is magnified in ordinary things, as well as extraordinary, they leave us at the mercy of our own enthusiasms and the manipulation of others.

Let’s look again at the two stories Dr. Piper told. One set of women used their retirement years to go overseas and do medical missions. A married couple took a typical American retirement in Florida. Is the tragedy that the retired couple went to Florida rather than the mission field?

I believe the tragedy is that the retired couple has no idea how to glorify Christ by being Kingdom agents at their station in life. (Now please understand: our ministry at OBI thrives on retired couples. I “amen” Piper’s basic point, but I still disagree with the either/or here.)

A retired couple can support missions significantly in retirement. They can do so financially. They can join a missions motivated church. They can fund or participate in missions organizations. With a ministry like Gospel for Asia, they can funnel significant amounts of resources to the field.

Their personal involvement in missions is also critical, and Dr. Piper is right that to merely loaf is a tragedy. While in Florida they could start an outreach Bible study to their neighbors. They could chaplain in the dock community or a local senior adult housing village. They could sponsor a softball league that encouraged Christians to reach out to those who don’t know Christ. They could establish mentoring relationships with younger couples and guide them. They could start a prayer ministry, or help pay for language mission pastors at a local church.

There are many ways that the retired couple could say “We are where we are, who we are, and have what we have because of Jesus Christ. We are going to magnify him right now in as many ways as we can.” I am not disappointed they aren’t on the mission field…because they are on the mission field. I am disappointed they don’t see it. I believe Dr. Piper would join this assessment, and I don’t feel it in any way detracts from his point.

Later on in Don’t Waste Your Life, in a chapter called “Making Much of Christ From 8 to 5,” Piper addresses magnifying Christ in secular callings. This is a significant chapter because it is one of the few places that Piper departs from the “wartime mindset” to describe how “missional” living happens in secular settings. I would hope for much more in this direction in the future. While Don’t Waste Your Life is meant to motivate young people to consider missions, this chapter begins to move in the right direction of thinking missionally about all of our callings.

What is needed in a genuinely mission-concerned post-evangelical Christianity is an emphasis on 1) Jesus Christ and the Gospel, 2) the Kingdom of God, 3) local communities of believers, 4) missional living for every Christian and 5) the worldwide implications of the entire network of Christian vocation, communities and callings. This kind of emphasis will happen when pastors and leaders are prepared to translate the teaching of the Bible into our immediate contexts, and to look at the mission field with a real desire to assess and respond in a way that makes a lasting, substantial difference.

The call to Don’t Waste Your Life is appropriate and Biblical. Purchase and study the book with your church or Bible study. This call needs to go to every Christian, wherever they are, and in whatever chapter of life they occupy. And should any of us believe God is calling us to serve in other countries, it will be important to pass on a template of the Christian life that will enable believers in those countries to magnify Christ where they are in every way they can, not just by becoming foreign missionaries themselves.

NOTE: A previous post that modestly disagreed with Dr. Piper yielded so much negative mail that I removed the post. If you would like to interact in the comments with the substance of this post, I welcome your input, but please do not respond as if I am attacking a man I love, respect, and continue to learn from.


  1. Hey Michael,

    I really appreciate this post. I goes much deeper than I can assimilate all at one time, but I have felt for many years that the church puts much more emphasis on overseas missional work and not enough on going out into our own communities.

    As a Christian musician and worship leader I have more of an opportunity to go before the people in my home church as well as surrounding counties and minister. The sad part about that is that churches and parishioners will give unbelievable amounts of financial support to missionaries who are going into other countries, but don’t see that same need for those of us who feel called to spread the Gospel in our own communities.

    I really can not say that I am totally familiar with Mr. Pipers work, but like yourself, I understand the need for missions in other countries. My only wish is that the local church would embrace your theology of supporting the ones God calls to go to their neighbors down the street.

    Great post,
    God Bless
    Revived Ministries

  2. steve yates says

    On point, a good post. I do offer two counters (which aren’t as much counters as diversions):

    1. being a college student myself, i see tons of my friends living lives in a way that, sadly, they will not get this. perhaps the call to go SHOULD be given in a huge way, if nothing else than to save us from materialistic lethargy (esp. since the sbc sends a whopping 5000 missionaries overseas long term – 5000?!?! we should be sending 500 000…yet i see the need this would also bring about of more people to send)

    2. also being a youth worker, i see the impact short term missions experiences have on students. i also remember your post on expensive youth trips and thier effectiveness. it is a hard road i walk in my mind, but i have to believe that the $2000 spent on each of 5 students to go to a third world country and serve for a week is worth the return in terms of missional vision and the loss of an American innocence that so many people where i live have.

    keep up the great work!

    for glory…

  3. Hi Steve thanks for the response.

    1) Read K.P. Yohannon’s book The Revolution in World Missions -it’s free from GFA- and see if you believe the world needs westerners overseas in large numbers.

    2) After many missions trips, I saw little if any lasting impact on students. Lots of temporary impact, but little lasting. I am more interested in seeing how to impact a culture, not seeing it first hand. I know hundreds who have been overseas and think that mission trips to do VBS and hand out t-shirts is what is needed. What’s needed is to understand indigenous movements and how we can encourage them.

    peace and thanks MS

  4. Michael,
    I think Piper’s book is very good. And I agree with his basic premise – Don’t waste your life.
    I also agree with much of what you say.

    Everyone must find, and live out, their own calling, whatever that is. And they should always be missional, no matter where they are.

    I am tired of the constant “my way is the best way” approach to the faith. This is the best way to preach, this is the best way to do missions, etc. This approach causes 90% of the needless division and antagonism within the church.
    We are each unique in talents and personalities and callings, but so many with an agenda want to jam us in their box.

    I believe that I am called to missions involvement ( as opposed to pastoring a church, youth ministry, music ministry etc.) I live in a border city, do cross cultural missions and have relatives and friends who are full time missionaries in other countries. At this point in my life, I see my calling to be a mobilizer and have a desire to encourage Christians to be “world Christians.”

    Yet, I realize it is not everyone’s calling. So I encourage and invite, but I do not beat people over the head with missions or send them on guilt trips. A big success for me is simply getting someone to cross the border to attend a worship service at a church in Mexico. You wouldn’t believe how hard that is, even in a largely bi-lingual border city.

    One last point. I have always heard the “neighbor” excuse (If you don’t reach your neighbor…) and think it is invalid.
    Missions is primarily about church planting, not door to door evangelism.

    I have not sat down and given the Romans Road to all my neighbors personally. And I do not think successful evangelism means everyone must get a 15 minute presentation.
    The point is that virtually everyone in the U.S, and certainly everyone in TX, have abundant access to the gospel. In TX, you cannot spit without hittng a gospel preaching church.
    If folks do not get the gospel, it is not for a lack of churchs and opportunities.

    In many other countries, unbelievers have no access to the gospel, no access to a church.
    And churchs need to be planted, even if it requires “foreign” help. We need to stop thinking about the “western” church and the “indigenous” church. There is only one church which is comprised of Christians with more and Christians with less. As one speaker said at Urbana recently, the goal is not national church independence and self-reliance, it is inter-dependence.

  5. “When leaders don’t help us to all to see that Christ is magnified in ordinary things, as well as extraordinary, they leave us at the mercy of our own enthusiasms and the manipulation of others.”

    So true! Three years of my early twenties were given over to such fundamentalist fanaticism.

    Am I awaking from sleep or is there an increasing polarization of Xians between the I-Will-Do-Amazing-Things-or-Die-Trying-For-God camp and the Huh?-It’s-Not-My-Problem crowd? Neither one seems to value service in the small things, i.e., a not-so-mega church with a growing kid’s ministry.

  6. “I have no doubt that many Christian leaders overseas deeply wish we would rethink our entire emphasis on personally going into a country, and instead look at an overall response to the needs on the field and in the world.”

    You talked about something like this a while back on Christian merchandising when you said we could support a pastor and his church in India for 50 years rather than pay for books by Joel Osteen and Max Lucado. I completely agree with you on this and see where you are coming from.

  7. steve yates says


    that book has been one of the hardest pills for me to swallow with a calling for missions. one thing i’ve thought about is the role that thousands of western Christians can have overseas – possibly in training (if KP’s vision takes hold, or ones such as the Back to Jerusalem movement, there will be thousands upon thousands of believers needing instruction, praise God) and always in mercy and peace. As far as mission trips, again (since I’m such a stickler for them) I wonder whether the question may not as much be whether mission trips are needed but rather how to do mission trips right, ones that show youth and adults how to impact culture and mobilize others in thier lives. much grace.

    for glory…

  8. The key is knowing that we need to promote church planting MOVEMENTS. When Westerners send millions of dollars into the void to be Christian tourists, I think the impact on missions is limited. (Not useless) but limited. I think that is especially the case when a church doesn’t make the effort to be SURE knowledgeable adults are guiding the whole experience to teach the right lessons.

    Several years ago, Denise and I stopped giving money to students going on short term trips unless they impressed us that the group they were gong with had a real knowledge of what missions is and how missions works today. I simply am not going to finance a trip to hug kids and hand out t-shirts.

    IM essay:


  9. The discussion about westerners serving in mass numbers overseas brought to mind issues I have been considering recently. I watched a sermon by Brad Buser on Cornerstone’s video podcast the other day and he was very strongly arguing from the early church model of churches sending large percentages (50%+) of their congregations out to start new churches. He outright stated that we should duplicate this model. As I watched, I had to disagree with him about the effectiveness of such an effort in a global missions endeavour. As a student of military affairs, I feel a more effective model may be to look at military special forces. The primary purpose of modern special forces is not the flashy combat one sees in movies, but rather long term remote deployment to mobilize, train, and coordinate with indigenous forces. When NATO removed the Taliban from rule over Afghanistan, the most effective tool they employed was a small number of special forces organizing and training the loose Northern Alliance resistance. Indigenous personnel know their homeland better than foreigners and that’s a powerful capacity.

    The short version of the “special forces missionary” model is to deploy small numbers of very highly trained westerners who are well versed in the Gospel and in cross-cultural teaching. The focus would not be on western missionaries personally evangelizing as far and wide as they could, but rather assembling and training a cadre of indigenous missionaries who can be more effective in building the church in their own culture. On a strategic level, special forces have a fairly low tooth-to-tail ratio and for missionaries this would be similar. Behind the missionaries would be administrators, logisticians, teachers, bible translators, and so on who would equip and enable the missionaries to focus on discipleship. An even larger number of individuals would have to work in the western world to gather the resources to support the work of the missionaries and the caring for the poor.

    Obviously, the special forces model could not be directly translated into missions work, but I think certain valuable lessons and methods could be brought into the discussion. Um, I hope this wasn’t too much of a tangent… :\

  10. I read the quote from Piper’s book and my first thought was, “Right on.” I had just commented to my pastor that I expect to be working for the Kingdom until I drop dead; I don’t believe in retirement. I don’t believe God ever intends for us to retire from being about His business.

    But like you said — being about His business doesn’t necessarily mean we need to go overseas for foreign evangelism. There’s plenty of evangelism to do right here in the States. My own hometown has been barely reached with the Gospel, yet to hear some missions-minded people tell it, I’m to abandon the lost sheep of my own house — where I already speak the language, where I’m already familiar with the culture, where I can easily demonstrate how to live out a Christian life without my foreignness getting in the way — and go directly to the uttermost parts of the earth? That’s not even consistent with Jesus’s instructions to His disciples in Acts 1. You preach to your homeland first. When God intervenes and tells us to leave, we leave; until then, we’re to serve God where He placed us, and support anyone He places on our hearts (with money, short-term missions, fellowship, etc.) while we’re at it.

    The sad “retirement” of that fiftysomething couple is that they are doing nothing for the Kingdom, and little for society. If they were retired and sharing Christ with their neighbors, God would approve — but they’re doing nothing. Just like 80 percent of the Church.

  11. Great post.

    Christ’s commands were simple (not easy): Love one another, teach the Gospel and ‘Follow me’. How those commands are carried out in the lives of the individual Believer will (and should be) as varied as the individuals involved. Whether it be how we do missions, how we worship, how we educate or raise children, etc…I have long been frustrated by the tendency of some to prescribe one size fits all answers, and further define our mission beyond that which was given by Christ.