#13  Missionary Activity is Still Legitimate and Important

THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER CLOSED with a section on the Holy Spirit and mission, and in this new chapter I invite readers to think more about the missionary activity of the past, present, and future. Here I am thinking particularly of what previously was usually called foreign missions but which is now more commonly dubbed international or global missions.

As I pointed out in the last chapter, missionary work has been based partly on the “Great Commission” of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 28:19-20, but perhaps even more it is grounded in the movement of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised in Acts 1:8.

Although there has been a variety of missionary activity throughout the centuries, it is often rightfully stated that the modern missionary movement began with William Carey in 1792. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw great time, effort, and resources expended on global missionary work. But at the present time, that activity is much less prominent than it was in previous generations, and there are many Christians now who seem to think that evangelistic missionary activities ought to be curtailed altogether.

Criticism of Missionary Activity

There were, of course, opponents and critics of the missionary movement from the beginning and throughout the two centuries in which it flourished. There was opposition to Carey and his ideas, strong resistance that he struggled to overcome. Part of that opposition was from the hyper-Calvinistic theological stance of English Baptists at that time. In the meeting at which Carey made an impassioned appeal for sending missionaries overseas, one of those in attendance is reported to have said, “Young man, sit down: when God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.”

In recent decades, though, much of the criticism of “foreign” missionary work has been, justifiably, because of what was so-often a tie between the work of the missionaries and the colonialistic and imperialistic activities of the Western countries from which most missionaries were sent. That link was also the scourge of Catholic missions in the so-called “new world” from the time of Columbus.[1] And, although it was as negative as that of the first missionaries to North America, the famed missionary activities of Francis Xavier in Asia were also closely tied to the political and commercial activities of Portugal. At other times, missionaries to different parts of the world were supported by other countries.

It seems undeniable that throughout the nineteenth century there was an inordinate link between Christianity, commerce, and colonization. Even the famous Scottish missionary David Livingstone (1813-73) declared in a speech given at Cambridge in 1857, “My desire is to open a path to this district, that civilization, commerce, and Christianity might find their way there.”

Some see the emphasis on commerce as being a link between missionary activity and economic imperialism. There are also those who charge missionaries with the promotion of cultural and/or religious imperialism, that is, seeking to impose a “superior” culture and/or religion on less “developed” societies through the introduction of the missionaries’ language, culture, and religious beliefs and the suppression of “native” languages, cultural expressions, and religious practices. Perhaps one of the best examples of that sort of missionary activity was seen in the approach of European settlers toward the Native Americans in the “new world.”

As one who was long an educational missionary, it is somewhat painful to admit this, but some, or maybe many, mission schools in the past were perhaps also “tools” of cultural and religious imperialism. The mission schools were not just for education in general but were founded to teach the ways of the West and to indoctrinate the children and youth into the Christian faith. True education, of course, is not indoctrination, and some mission schools did, and still do, a good job of providing quality education to children and youths in countries where, otherwise, educational opportunities would have been non-existent for large segments of the population. But it is hard to deny that there were, and perhaps still are, some mission schools which were/are primarily for indoctrination.

In addition, there is the problem of proselytism. The term proselytizing refers to the act of attempting to convert people to another opinion and, particularly, another religion. Such activity is widely criticized in the contemporary Western world and is one of the main criticisms against missionary activity today. The acceptance and celebration of diversity is seen more and more as a value that should be widely promoted in society. Missionary activity, thought to be invariably linked to proselytism, is, thus, widely rejected and criticized, especially by those who seek to be “politically correct.”

The Shifting Focus of Missionary Activity

Perhaps largely because of the criticism of much traditional missionary activity, which focused on the conversion of people to Christianity, the focus of much mission work in recent times has shifted primarily to benevolent work aimed at helping people lead better lives in this present world. “Mission trips,” which have become commonplace for many churches and Christian organizations, are almost completely concerned with helping people in physical need or deprivation.

To be sure, through the years since the beginning of the modern mission movement, responding in Christian love to the physical and psychological needs of suffering people has been a definite part of missionary activity. But for most forms of the faith, that activity was conducted in addition to, and usually secondarily to, the work of evangelism that endeavored to lead people to make a confession of faith in Jesus as Savior, to be baptized, and to become members of a local church.

It seems that now most mission trips, as well as most mission activity of many churches and some mission organizations, are expressly not for the purpose of seeking to lead people to faith, baptism, and church membership. Those trips and activities are involved in a lot of good projects, but evangelism does not seem to be one of the identifiable goals. For example, as I was working on this chapter, the weekly publication of the local church of which I was a member listed the following items under the heading “Mission Support”: helping with the shipment of relief supplies to Haiti, a mission trip to South Dakota to work with Native Americans, painting a house in Kansas City, and involvement with digging water wells in Nigeria.

All of the above “mission” activities are good projects, and I don’t intend to criticize them in the least. But here is the problem: all of those projects could be done, and to some extent are being done, by people who are not Christians—and that is good. But is there not a problem when what Christian people do in the name of “missions” is pretty much the same thing as some of the projects undertaken, say, by the Rotary Club or the Lions Club? How do the relief supplies sent by Christians to Haiti differ from those sent by the American Red Cross, for example? And how to the water wells dug by Christians different from those dug by groups like WaterAid?[2]

Some who enthusiastically support such Christian mission activities say that it is important to show the love of Christ, not just talk about Christ’s life. And it is hard to argue with that. But why does it have to be one or the other? Certainly, the love of Christ, the believer’s love of Christ and Christ’s love for all people, compels Christians to help those in need. But how are people who are the recipients of the loving service of Christians able to tell the difference between loving action done in the name of Christ and that done simply humanitarian reasons?

Some may say that it is not important for people to know why they are being helped; it is only important that they are being helped—and that is true to a large degree. But the question remains, why call such activity Christian missions?

Of course, those who support humanitarian service projects and call them Christian mission activities often make reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25. The house painting mentioned above is linked to the Matthew 25 Project sponsored by William Jewell College, and a number of local churches and other Christian organizations are cooperating with it—and it is a good project. I am glad the College was sponsoring it and that my church (at that time) was participating. My only question is whether it was really a “mission” project and whether it is adequate for “missions support” to be expressed primarily only to only this sort of good, humanitarian activity.

Proclamation as the Central Missionary Activity

For decades evangelical churches have sung the hymn “We’ve a Story to Tell.”[3] First published in London in 1896, that gospel song declares,

We’ve a story to tell to the nations, / That shall turn their hearts to the right,
A story of truth and mercy, / A story of peace and light, / A story of peace and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning, / And the dawning to noonday bright,
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth, / The kingdom of love and light.

Granted, that hymn reflects the general optimism and triumphalistic spirit of its day, but does it not also express a basic characteristic of the Gospel that was present, to greater or lesser degrees, in Christianity throughout the centuries until rather recently?

In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles is unequivocal in its focus on proclamation, beginning with the Apostle Peter’s sermon in the second chapter. At the conclusion of Peter’s proclamation of the Gospel message, it is recorded that some three thousand persons were baptized and added to the fellowship of believers.

Peter’s second sermon is recorded in the third chapter of Acts, and then the next chapter begins with these words: “While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” So the Jewish leaders arrested the two loquacious disciples and put them in jail. “But,” it is reported, “many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand” (vv. 1-2, 4).

Most of Acts 7 contains the heart of Stephen’s sermon, cut short by the crowd that stoned him to death. The next chapter tells about Philip who “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them” (8:5). Later, Barnabas and Saul are sent out on their first missionary journey, and according to Acts 13:5, “they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.” Later in another city, “Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers” (14:1).

While the above verses in no way exhaust the number of times proclamation is linked to the work of the apostles and missionaries, they show decisively that in the beginning the spread of the Christian message was largely through proclamation. Of course, there were personal encounters with individuals also, such as Philip’s witnessing to and subsequently baptizing the court official from Ethiopia (see Acts 8:26-39) and Peter’s witnessing to Cornelius, the Roman centurion (see Acts 10), who was also baptized, along with some others who had heard Peter’s proclamation.

In the light of this indication of the growth of the early church through proclamation, it is hard to understand why some today question the legitimacy of evangelistic missionary activity. Granted, there has been perhaps too much emphasis on word and not enough on deed, and, unfortunately, there has often been too much discrepancy between the word proclaimed and the lives lived by those doing the proclamation.

If, however, there is a problem with there being too much said by missionaries and too little good done by them, the remedy is to emphasize and to practice missions by word and deed, not to give up proclamation for deeds only.

Not Ashamed of Missionary Activity

As one who spent thirty-eight years as an overseas missionary, it is sometimes painful to hear aspersions cast upon those who have served, or who still are serving, as missionaries. While I was primarily an educational missionary, one underlying goal of all I did as a missionary was the leading of individuals to faith in Jesus, baptism, and membership in a community of faith.

Even though from the beginning and throughout the centuries there have been those who were critical of missionaries and their activities, there have also been those who were ready and willing to affirm the legitimacy of missionary activity in spite of the criticism. The Apostle Paul was one such person.

In a highly significant verse in the first chapter of Romans, Paul, the first Christian missionary, declared, “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (v. 18). This verse by itself does not speak directly about missionary activity, but the previous verse acknowledges Paul’s “eagerness to proclaim the gospel” to people in Rome. And it is clear from reading the book of Acts that because Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, he went on several missionary journeys, all of which centered on preaching the gospel message of salvation for all who believed.

Of course, those who serve as missionaries today, as well as those who support those missionaries, want to shun the errors of the past, errors that might be readily understood but which, still, cannot be excused and certainly not condoned. Also, it goes without saying that missionary activity today should include, as it does, multifarious efforts to help people who are suffering physically or psychologically through hunger or discrimination, through illness or exploitation, or because of natural or human-instigated disasters.

When all is said and done, however, the fact still remains that Christians have “a story to tell to the nations,” and it is not only legitimate but imperative that that message, that good news, be shared as widely, as effectively, and as passionately as possible.


[1] Columbus saw himself, at least according to his letters, as a missionary, and Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), who founded Vera Cruz [true cross], Mexico, is reported to have said, “We have come here to win souls for Holy Mother Church, and to get much gold.”

[2] According to http://www.wateraidamerica.org, “WaterAid is a leading international non-profit organization focused exclusively on improving poor people’s access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation.” They work in Africa, Asia and the Pacific region and campaign globally to realize their vision of “a world where everyone has access to these basic human needs.”

[3] Both the words and music of this hymn were written by Englishman H. Ernest Nichol (1862-1926), a graduate of Oxford University in 1888.

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