They are among the most courageous and faithful Christian servants in the history of the Church, though rarely are they given much praise. With few possessions and scarce companions they thrust themselves into a vast wilderness answering the call of God to carry the good news about Jesus Christ to unreached people groups. Trusting in the Spirit’s guidance they valiantly created a new road into the heart of unexplored territory blazing their way by carving crosses into the trees to mark the route for others to follow. As they traveled northward they established small mission stations one day’s journey apart. These outposts of light became the strategic centers for reaching into the surrounding darkness of paganism and spreading the glory of God.
No, I am not talking about some foreign mission venture in a distant land. This pioneering evangelistic move of God took place right here in California over two centuries ago. You can still follow the journey of these intrepid missionaries. The road they built is called “El Camino Real,” “The King’s Highway.” U. S. Highway 101 traces the same route first established by these Christian explorers. Of the twenty-one mission stations they established up and down the coast most are still standing today, proud monuments to the manner in which this state was settled. Their names still appear on contemporary maps and their history is studied by every elementary student in the state all of whom are required to construct models of the missionaries’ architectural handiwork. The amount of influence these early evangelists managed to instill upon our contemporary culture is staggering. Yet it could have been so much more.
One of the best preserved of these mission stations is in the tiny community of San Miguel on the Central California coast. Our daughter Tiffany and her family reside there and we have often driven by the sight of the ancient structures thinking that one day we would like to take a closer look. A few weeks ago we finally took the opportunity to do so.
Mission San Miguel was founded in 1797 and was the sixteenth mission to be established in California. Construction on the main sanctuary didn’t begin until 1816 and was finished two years later. Its adobe walls are six feet thick and forty feet high. In its time it must have been a magnificent structure for even today it remains an impressive edifice and a marvelous example of mission architecture. In 1836 the property passed into the hands of the United States government. During recent years great efforts have been undertaken to restore and preserve the site. Tragically, in December of 2003, a powerful earthquake severely damaged much of the facility. Since then the sanctuary has been closed to the public and deemed unsafe. Huge cracks are visible in the walls and one side is propped up by wooden braces. Large areas of white plaster have fallen to the ground exposing the dull-grey, decaying adobe bricks.
We were disappointed at not being able to tour through the sanctuary but were fascinated at the rest of the buildings. The primitive existence of these faithful Christian servants and the hardships they willingly endured for the sake of the Gospel is on exhibit for all to see. In one place a portion of the trunk of an ancient oak tree is displayed with a scar clearly visible outlining a cross. Woodcutters had taken down the tree unaware that hidden inside its bark lay the remnants of one of the trail blazes cut into its flesh over two centuries earlier. The bark had long since grown over the scar obscuring its existence until the axe brought it back into view.
As I examined this amazing preservation of our history I couldn’t help but wonder why this great evangelistic venture ceased moving forward. Why did “The King’s Highway” come to a stop in the Bay Area and proceed no further north? Why did the work to establish mission stations in this wilderness come to an end? History books speak of the westward expansion of the United States and the accompanying geo-political changes in the territory as being the primary reason. However, I would like to advance another theory.
I believe somewhere along the line of church outposts, at some point along “The King’s Highway,” the original purpose of advancing the kingdom of God into a region yet to be reached with the Gospel changed. The zeal for evangelism which was so much a part of the motivation of the early missionaries transformed into a zeal for creating grandiose buildings. Although much of the architecture is similar throughout all of the California missions each one displays its own unique character. I wonder if, instead of competing against the devil for the souls of men, the later mission workers found themselves competing against each other to see who could construct the most magnificent buildings. Perhaps this great movement of God died away, not so much due to outward pressures, but inward vanity. Each station became a mission which had lost its mission. Therefore the Lord allowed these incredible edifices to fall into disrepair and this great missionary movement stopped moving.
The crumbling walls of Mission San Miguel are a testimony to what can, and will, happen when the Church loses sight of its primary purpose. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. – Lk. 19:10. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. – Jn. 20:21. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. – Mt. 28:19-20.
Sadly, much of the body of Christ in western culture has forgotten its mission. In denominational churches and independent gatherings, in mega churches and one-room country chapels, in magnificent cathedrals and simple house churches, there is a common tendency to turn inward, to focus on ministering to ourselves rather than reaching out to the dark world which surrounds us. Rather than fighting against our real enemy we have sparred with each other giving rise to a spirit of envy and competition. No matter how diligently we prop up our churches with man-made programs the plaster continues to fall from our white-washed façades and huge cracks are opening up in our walls through which our members are escaping to find meaning and purpose for their lives. We have become obsessed with preserving monuments to the past rather than creating new ways to promote the Gospel to reach our post-modern culture. We have become missions that lost their mission.
In front of the Mission San Miguel there is sign advertising the need to raise funds to repair the damage caused by the earthquake. The thermometer painted on the sign reaches toward a goal of fifteen million dollars. The red marking on the thermometer calibrating how much has been donated to date rises only to the one million dollar level. As a lover of history there is a part of me that longs to see them reach their goal. Yet as a child of God I realize there are more pressing causes vastly more worthy of our support. The task of evangelizing this dark territory is far from complete. In fact, we are nearly as pagan now as were the native civilizations the original missionaries were sent to reach. Those funds could kick-start a new evangelistic movement and help give birth to many more mission stations.
I am heartened to know that a small church still meets in a part of the mission left undamaged. The mission has also recently been used to facilitate a unity gathering of the surrounding Christian churches. As long as there is life there is still hope that one day the mission will recapture its original purpose. Though hidden beneath two centuries of growth the cross was still present in that ancient oak. Yes, the church in this land is cracked and in danger of collapse; yet even though we may have tragically lost sight of our mission, Christ has not abandoned His Church. I just pray we get the message before He sends the tremors of an earthquake or the axe of the woodcutter to adjust our focus.
I can’t help but long for the days of those courageous missionaries. Where are the daring souls who are willing to lay aside the comforts of home and risk their lives to answer the call of God? Where are the intrepid pioneer evangelists who are anxious to carve out a new road in this dark wilderness giving their all to travel “The King’s Highway?” Where are the heroic and faithful soldiers of the cross committed to following the Spirit into enemy territory and blazing the trail for others to follow? Where are the lionhearted warriors of righteousness planting new communities of believers in the midst of this moral wasteland? Where are the modern day mission builders dedicated to taking up the cause others have abandoned and continuing the mission to carry the light of the Gospel into the surrounding darkness? And where are the local gatherings of believers eager to commission, support, and send out the missionaries of the current age?
Praise God, they still exist! Even now God is calling them into the wilderness to plant new mission stations. Even now He is empowering them to accomplish His purpose. Even now “The King’s Highway” is being built. Even now He is creating missions that have not forgotten their mission, their walls strong and sturdy; their crosses clearly visible; their focus squarely on their King. Even now the mission campaign begun over two centuries ago is continuing—and history continues to be made!

Bill, a child of God still on mission

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