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The worst mission advice ever

by on September 18, 2010

I was reading 1 Thessalonians 4 this morning, and this verse caught my attention:

Aspire to be quiet and mind your own business, and to work with your own hands – as we instructed you – so that you may live attractively before outsiders.

Wow. Now there’s a mission strategy! This is Paul writing to a hot missional church. These are the guys from whom “the Word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia…everywhere” (1 Thes 1:8).

Paul’s advice to these believers who are proclaiming the Word loudly, far and wide? Try to be quiet. That’s got to be the worst mission advice ever, hasn’t it?

What exactly does Paul mean? The word ‘to be quiet’ often means ‘to rest’, and sometimes ‘to hold your peace’ or ‘to be quiet.’ Here it clearly doesn’t mean to rest: Paul is talking about working hard. It’s most likely about being quiet. Our translations ‘to live quietly’ or ‘to lead a quiet life’ aren’t too far from the mark. As long as we don’t hear Paul saying ‘join a monastery’ or ‘avoid parties.’ That’s not his point. He’s thinking ultimately of how the Christians treat people, about how to not create strife and ill-feeling. Ultimately he’s thinking  about the impression they give  to outsiders, to non-believers. He’s talking mission strategy.

What’s Paul’s goal here? It seems he wants the church at Thessalonica to be known for their peaceful, peace-making, loving community, and their mind-their-own-business attitude. He wants their lives and their style of relating to be attractive to outsiders. The translations ‘live properly’ and ‘win the respect’ need nuancing: it’s an active thing on our part, and it’s about looking good.  The idea is that they make the gospel attractive by their gracious and respectful behaviour.

I come from a long tradition of God-botherers. From day one as a believer, I was taught to find ways to talk Jesus with people who didn’t want to talk Jesus. I’ve been trained to think that if I can make a conversation about Jesus happen, then that’s a win. I learned to go door to door and try to get people to listen to a message they didn’t want to hear. I read books on ‘how to bring the conversation round.’ I learned not to take ‘no’ for an answer, but to keep on trying. We expected to be seen as nuisances – but if it brought someone to Christ, it was worth it!

I reckon in the end I made a pretty good salesman. But I wonder what Paul would have thought of me as a missioner?

So here’s the question: how can we reconcile  our evangelical goal of producing gospel loudmouths, with Paul’s instruction to be quiet?

From → General

11 Comments
  1. Keith permalink

    It seems to me that in the N.T. church it was envisaged that there would only be a small number of loudmouths – people with a gift for it, called evangelists. Everyone else in the church helps the arguments of the gifted evangelists by living transformed lives that show just how wonderful the gospel is. I think a lot of the problem is that we often try to turn every church member into an evangelist.

    • Agreed! ‘Not many of you should aspire to teach’ is surely a caution to all about how they use their words, especially in public forums.

      However, even the Spirit-gifted loudmouths are not called to bother their neighbours and make a nuisance of themselves! Somehow this gift needs to be exercised with grace.

  2. Susannah permalink

    I’m with you on that one, Keith – designated evangelists do seem to have a specific calling in the NT. Sometimes those who are not the loudmouth type feel like they aren’t really contributing, or (worse) evangelism becomes the one true mark of genuine discipleship – very depressing. Perhaps we need to appreciate more the sheer breadth of the church’s work in making the gospel attractive. You couldn’t have a body made up just of mouths.

    • I’m struck by how often I hear this observation about low morale amongst the non-talkers. Seems like a real issue for our churches. The non-talkers feel like they can never be much help, with their current ‘gifting’. Perhaps affirming the significance of non-verbal ministry in a regular way might help?

      Yet somehow handing out noticesheets and putting money in the plate isn’t that satisfying for many people as a ministry. Featuring on church-rosters isn’t giving everyone a sense of significant involvement. I think part of the trivialisation of non-speaking gifts is in the kinds of service we encourage. Much of it is about enabling church meetings and teaching programs. In Calvin’s Geneva, deacons ran hospitals and visited the poor. If our churches encourage members in doing stuff that counts, that might help them to feel like their ministry counts!

  3. Yes. And also, times change and culture changes. When the message is new and no-one much has heard it, then there may be opportunity and need to speak out. But when people feel the message is old hat, they’re not interested, and actions will often speak louder than words. And it may be similar when there’s strong opposition.

    So Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians may have been based on local factors we aren’t now aware of, or it may have been good advice regardless. But I definitely think that christians and the church today are not always well respected, and we desperately need to “walk the talk”.

    • Yes Eric that’s a good point. Times change, and needs change with them.

      I don’t think the gospel sounds old-hat anymore, I think we’ve got beyond that, for my generation anyway. It’s just an unknown, but with a general feeling of negativity. A nasty unknown, if you like. And so yes, at a time like this, actions that exemplify Christ are surely going to cut through more than words about him.

      I think you’re right than whenever the church’s name is held in low regard, that’s the time for us to walk the talk with extra vigour! And maybe shut up a bit, too?

      Also makes me wonder about the common idea that the church has a role preaching moral standards to the wider community, the government, etc. Is this true? And if so, is it always equally true, or does it also depend on how we’re going as community servants? Do we need to earn this? Hmm, I feel another post coming on.

  4. Daniel permalink

    Every time I have been able to talk of Christ in my work place, Which has been many, was because I was quiet and pushed my beliefs on no one. People knew I was a Christian. I Just walked the walk than sooner or Later people came to me Asking what I believed. I am convinced that if you go in firing, as I have also done, people make sure not to talk with you on these things again.

    • Thanks for this inspiring post, Daniel. It exemplifies what I think Paul has in mind in 1 Thessalonians (above). Great to hear a living testimony of exactly that. I wonder how many other ‘ordinary’ Christians could give similar testimonies, if someone asked them?

      people make sure not to talk with you on these things again.
      That’s the point isn’t it, the burning bridges before we ever get to really cross them. That’s what I was taught to do, big time. Always go for the most, for the short term ‘successful gospel conversation’. So short-sighted!

  5. “the church has a role preaching moral standards to the wider community, the government, etc. Is this true?”

    I’m very doubtful that this is true. Paul said explicitly we are to correct each other’s behaviour within the church, but “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (1 Cor 5:12).

    If we preach moral standards to the world around us, they will hear legalism and judgment. If we want them to hear grace, let’s show them love, speak about Jesus and let the Holy Spirit do any conviction required (John 16:8).

  6. Stuart Broughton permalink

    Some great comments! Don’t know why I haven’t found your web-site before!

    • Welcome Stuart, thanks for the feedback. We’d love you to take part in our discussions – usually relating mission and culture and stuff. All springing out of our plan to begin a multi-ethnic missional church in Canterbury early next year. It’s been a bit quiet here lately – I’m trying to finish 4th year at college – but should spring back into life soon.

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