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  • Writer's pictureMark Bocanegra

What is the most uncultivated mission field?

What do you immediately think of when I say an ‘uncultivated mission field’? Perhaps you’re expecting me to say the largest unreached people groups like Bangladeshi or Japanese people. However, I believe the first President of Princeton Theological Seminary (it used to be the bastion of Confessional Presbyterian though), Archibald Alexander, gives us a fresh—or perhaps ancient—take on missions: I have taken up an opinion, that all religious impressions made by truth are salutary, even if conversion does not immediately follow. The fruits in a revival are commonly from seed sown long before. This in the spiritual world is precisely analogous to the harvest in the natural world. But to the query, what ought to be done? God has promised to ordain strength out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. It is unbelief to deny that the grace of God can reach children... Do you ask what should be done for children? Persuade parents to do their duty; to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. But I have a favorite notion, that this is a rich uncultivated missionary field. There should be a class of preachers for children alone. If I were a young man, I would, God willing, choose that field. (From Princeton and Preaching by James M. Garreton, pg 4-5) Missionaries (myself included) usually think their main task is adult evangelism; some would go so far as think that child evangelism as another important task. However, the children of new converts or mature christian are often neglected. As a result (at least in Japan), what often happens is that these children either walk away from the Lord or have have paper-thin understandings of their faith leaving them vulnerable to the attacks of Satan. Practically speaking, this should be a major issue in missions work. Even if you spend hours and money raising up the first generation believers, if the children do not receive this faith and deepen Christian understanding, then all of the initial missionary work is lost. However, too often, I acknowledge its importance, but focus time, energy, and resources that give me immediate results, visible performance, and tangible rewards. However, I'd argue that the most common way in the Bible of 'advancing' the kingdom is through the generational transmission of faith--an ordinary, not-so-glamorous way of doing missions. We have the obvious commands in Deut 6 and Eph 6:4: parents are commanded to bring their children up in the faith. In all of the major covenants, we see God's people/kingdom advancing through children: Adam was supposed to have dominion over the land by having children as perfect images of God (Gen 1:28); Abraham's children were the primary way in which the God's promise would be fulfilled (Gen 15, 17); Moses declared that if Israel did not teach the faith to their children they would be exiled from the Promised Land (Deut 31:19-29); the son of David's obedience to the LORD was the linchpin for Israel's eternal kingdom (2 Sam 7:12-13). I'd even argue that the reason why the Apostolic church was so successful because it utilized Jews who were immersed in Scripture from early childhood (e.g. Paul, Timothy etc). I could go on and on... Furthermore, we see the people of God go into periods of spiritual darkness because parents did not transmit the faith. The Abrahamic patriarchy is riddled with generational sin: Isaac seems to commit the exact sin of abandoning his wife, just as Abraham did; Joseph seemed to mirror the favoritism of his father Jacob. Despite the wilderness generation's 40 years and their utter failures, the generation of Joshua is no better (Joshua 24:14-28). Clearly, the radically evil generation of Judges fell because "[Joshua's] generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10). Commentators have argued that Solomon's violent retaliation and his womanizing that led to his downfall was connected to his father's sins. We see kings of Israel fall into idolatry because the Law of God was neglected for generations (2 Kings 22:8-13). They're also countless examples of this in the New Covenant church--even in the Reformation era and our own generation. Perhaps the bottom line is this: missionaries should not merely labor to evangelize to adults and children. Missionaries should not be teaching others to do evangelism. Missionaries should not merely labor to disciple the current generation or the upcoming generation. Missionaries should be laser-focused in providing discipleship that equip them to transmit their faith to their children. I could only think of a handful of missionary examples that endeavored to do this. But if this is not done, all the blood, sweat, and tears poured in 'breaking the ground' would be lost in a single generation. What should we ask ourselves? Are missionaries encouraging parents to pursue a life of godliness that is visible to their children? Are missionaries encouraging parents to intentionally train their children up in the faith by teaching them how to sit through a sermon, doing family devotions, reading them the Bible and the catechism, and modeling deep communion with the Lord through prayer and good works? Isn't this why one of the qualifications of being an elder is having children that are producing signs of belief (Titus 1:6; 1 Tim 3:4-5)? (I'm aware that there are debates around Titus 1:6, but let us not blunt this sharp and searching qualification) This may sound more 'inward-focused' growth rather than evangelism; however, this is a false dichotomy. The pursuit of holy lives and pouring into your children is one of the foundational works of missions. If your child can see your holiness, will not your colleague or worker as well? Will not your discipleship of your own child/spouse help you disciple others as well? Will not the next generation pastor most likely a covenant child? Too often we pray and labor to make our generation the most holy, faithful, and bold; however, should we not pour our time, energy, and resources to pray, labor, hope that our children would be more holy, faithful, and bold than we are? It seems this desire for our covenant children to grow has become a secondary or tertiary to the work of evangelism or church planting. Why do we then neglect this important call? As Alexander said, it is unbelief. Megumi and I try our best to read a chapter a day to Kate while she eats breakfast. Sometimes, by the middle of the chapter, she's screaming, stuffing her face with a peanut butter sandwich, signaling me to finish so she can play, or just zoned out. One of those busy mornings, I just said to myself, "We're in a rush and there's no time, so let's skip Bible reading because she doesn't care anyway." As we were cleaning up her food, our 1.5 year old started to point to the Bible and say "Bah-buh, Bah-buh." This could be a proud father moment, but it actually is a shameful one. It was a clear sign of my unbelief. Not only did I underestimate what children can learn, but I refused to believe in the Father's loving command to teach children, Jesus's commitment to bleed for little ones, the Holy Spirit's power to indwell even the hearts of babes. To be honest, I don't like discipling Kate. Why? I don't get immediate feedback, praise, reward, or money for it like I do with other things. However, although we have much to despair in our sinful, faithless, and broken parenting of our physical and spiritual children, we rejoice that we have a Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit that takes pleasure in bringing to life stubborn, indifferent, rebellious, and thankless children--even if God never receives any immediate feedback, praise, reward, or money.

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