Unsplash: Alex Azabache

The Smoke of a Thousand Villages: Responding to the Mission of the Church

By Mark Bates, Feb 21, 2023

David Livingstone was on his way to a medical career when his whole life was turned upside down by his future father-in-law, Dr. Robert Moffat. Moffat was a missionary in South Africa and shared his vision of taking the gospel farther north into the continent.

After hearing Moffat speak, Livingstone joined Moffat as a missionary to Africa. For the next 30 years, he traveled over 29,000 miles, mostly on foot, preaching the gospel, providing medical services, and building churches. After seeing the horrors of the slave trade, he became a major voice for abolition in England.

Livingstone was the first European explorer to see much of Africa and was the first man to map the vast continent, which was some feat because Africa is bigger than the U.S., China, India, Japan, and most of Europe combined. In traveling to the far reaches of the continent, he often went for years without any contact with his family, and at one time was even presumed dead. He was once attacked by a lion on the mission field, crushing his shoulder to the point that its mobility would be hindered for the rest of his life.

The Smoke of a Thousand Villages

What would drive a man to give up so much and to suffer so much? While there may have been a mixture of motives, what started it all were the words of his father-in-law, Dr. Moffat. He said, "Many a morning have I stood on the porch of my house, and looking northward, have seen the smoke arise from villages that have never heard of Jesus Christ. I have seen, at different times, the smoke of a thousand villages—villages whose people are without Christ, without God, and without hope in the world ... The smoke of a thousand villages ... The smoke of a thousand villages."

Today, the gospel is spreading like wildfire around the globe. Yet, at the same time, there arises the smoke from thousands, perhaps even millions, of villages around the world where there is no sufficient gospel witness, cities and villages whose people are without Christ, without God, and without hope in the world.

The Church Is Given Her Mission

It is the mission of the Church to do something about this. We see this throughout Scripture, beginning in Genesis all the way through Revelation, but one of the most explicit statements of our mission is in Acts 1:6–11:

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Here Jesus commissions His followers. He says you will testify to My kingdom, not just here in your homeland, but to the end of the earth. That is our mission. Notice this: The mission is not merely to evangelize the lost—although that is important. The mission is not just to reach out to your neighbor—although that is important. The mission of the Church is to testify to Christ’s kingdom to the ends of the earth.

"Why Do You Stand Here, Looking Into Heaven"

What does Jesus do immediately after giving the Church her mission? He ascends into heaven. Don’t you think it would have been better if Jesus had stuck around?

Actually, no. We know this because Jesus said so Himself.

In John 16:7, Jesus told His disciples, “It is [better for you] that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”

Notice in Acts 1:8, Jesus ties the giving of the Spirit to the mission of the church. They receive power, and for what purpose? So that they will be His witnesses to the end of the earth. So, when we arrive at Acts 2 and Pentecost, when God pours out His Spirit, it is for the expressed purpose of empowering God’s people for God’s mission.

Now, that certainly is not all the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit confirms our adoption as Sons of God. He convicts of sin. He is our Comforter. Yet, the reason God pours out His Spirit on us, gifting us and empowering us, is so that we might be faithful witnesses to the end of the earth.

Are All Called to Go?

While that is our mission, does that mean we are all called to go? I’ll use an example in the Air Force. I looked up the mission statement of the Air Force: It is to fly, fight, and win—airpower anytime, anywhere.

Not everyone in the Air Force flies or is directly involved in combat. I have a son-in-law who is training to be a doctor in the Air Force. I had a neighbor who was in the Air Force, and his job was to be an elite athlete. He competed in the Olympics in the modern pentathlon. Others I know were accountants and engineers. The mission of the Air Force is not to give jobs to good accountants or musicians or athletes, or to provide good medical care. The mission is to fly, fight, and win. Yet, to do that, they need doctors to care for the members of the Air Force. They need good accountants. They need musicians too, I guess.

It is the same way among the people of God. Not everyone goes to a foreign field, but together, our mission as a Church is to reach the world.

Are You Furthering the Mission?

So, it is the job of some to go to foreign fields. Our mission in the division of MTW that I lead is to help them get there and to help the rest of the Church help them get there. What are you doing in your own church to further the mission of Christ’s Church?

Several years ago, Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Maybe the most worrying trend the past 10 years can be found in this phrase: ‘They forgot the mission.’ So many great American institutions—institutions that every day help hold us together—acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do. You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it’s the one you’re part of.”

If you need help in participating in this grand mission of the Church, please reach out to one of our regional hubs or explore our ways to serve. You won’t regret the sacrifice. I promise.

Mark Bates
Mark Bates is MTW's senior director of U.S. Operations. Mark has a B.A. in Greek from Bryan College and a master's degree from Reformed Theological Seminary. He served as youth and singles pastor at Orangewood PCA in Maitland, Florida. In 1991, Mark and his wife, Tricia, founded University Presbyterian Church in Orlando. From 2007-2021, Mark served as senior pastor of Village Seven PCA in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Mark and Tricia have three daughters.
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