Southeast Asia, August 2023. AFM missionaries gathered from across Asia for their first retreat since 2018. Friendships were affirmed, and new friends were made. Some met their colleagues in other countries for the first time. Missionaries reported on progress across multiple unreached people groups. We rejoiced at the baptisms and congregations planted and listened in solemn silence as accounts were shared of spiritual warfare in its most personal and painful form. Prayer sessions allowed all our concerns to be placed in God’s hands, and in a final consecration service, we pledged ourselves and our families to the unreached once again.
Missionary retreats are biblical. In Mark 6:7-12, Jesus sent out the Twelve to the lost of Israel. Were they ready? Hardly! Yet, the fulfillment of the Word of God does not depend on the perfection or merit of disciples but on the authority of Jesus’ call and His equipping of disciples with gifts needed for service. The disciples Jesus sent out were to continue the ministry of Jesus—healing, teaching, and casting out demons. In verses 10-11, the Twelve were instructed to be grateful guests wherever they were received. If rebuffed, they were charged to shake the dust off their shoes and move on. Jews were required to shake the dust off their shoes when they crossed over from Gentile territory into Jewish territory lest they pollute the holy land (Nehemiah 5:13, Acts 18:6). Jesus was teaching that nobody is holy or special to God simply through birth. The gospel must go to every nation, tribe, language and people . . . so disciples then and now go into all the world.
In Mark 6:30-31, the disciples return to Jesus after their mission trips for the first missionary retreat and what stories they had to tell. The sick were cured! Large crowds had listened to their every word. Demons submitted to them. The lame could walk, the blind could see, and many had welcomed them into their homes. Who would not want to be a missionary if this was the expected reaction? Being a missionary had turned these twelve humble men into minor celebrities, eagerly welcomed wherever they went, with success and popular acclaim at every turn. Yet, things are not always what they seem, and after listening to their excited reports, Jesus leads them to a deserted place by themselves, away from popular acclaim and applause, where they could learn the true nature and cost of discipleship.
For sandwiched between the story of Jesus sending out the Twelve and their return to a missionary retreat with Him is the story of the execution of John the Baptist, a bitter commentary on the inability of tyrants to tolerate righteous individuals—a fact no less true today than in John’s day. The one whom Jesus called the “greatest man born of woman” (Matthew 11:11) was sacrificed to a cocktail wager. Why had John chosen to talk about Herod’s immoral marriage? Because he was a prophet without price whose thundering calls to repentance exposed sin in any quarter. There were no sacred cows in his herd. He did not read the opinion polls before preaching. He protected no special interests, nor did he seek public applause. He spoke heavenly truth to earthly power. He was faithful to his calling as a messenger of God and left the consequences in God’s hands.
For the Twelve then, and for AFM missionaries today, a retreat is not only the chance to rest, to share what God is doing among the unreached, and to return refreshed. It provides the opportunity to count the cost for any who would follow Jesus by pondering afresh the life and fate of John the Baptist. In his life, we see what true discipleship really is, for even though it led to public rejection and execution, he was true to the One who sent him.
True disciples do not ask, “Is what I am doing well received or popular?” Rather, they ask, “Am I being true to the One who sent me? Am I His faithful witness? Is my conscience as true to duty as the needle to the pole? Am I standing for the right though the heavens fall?” So missionaries today, as in the Gospels, spend time with Jesus in retreat so that we may better answer these questions and prepare for the next chapter of ministry, regardless of the cost.