#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.

Advertisements

#12  God’s Spirit is Aways with Us Whether We Realize It or Not

THE PREVIOUS THREE CHAPTERS have been about Jesus, especially about the lordship of Jesus. But more needs to be said about the Holy Spirit. In the long history of Christianity, there has been the tendency for far more to be thought and said about the Creator God and about Jesus Christ than about the Holy Spirit. Yet, in the creeds of the Church from A.D. 381 to the present, the divinity of the Spirit has been duly acknowledged.

One of the greatest needs of most contemporary Christians, at least most Christians outside of the Pentecostal tradition, is for a better understanding of and emphasis on the Holy Spirit. My concern is not just that Christian believers have a correct theology of the Trinity, but that they experience the gifts of the Spirit, exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, and become aware of how they embody the Spirit. Moreover, those who are not, or no longer, Christians need to have a better understanding of the Holy Spirit in order to understand Christianity more fully.

It is particularly the idea of embodying the Spirit that I focus on in this chapter. The Holy Spirit is not just an external power existing far from human beings and largely unrelated to them. Far from it. If people come to understand how the Spirit can live, and does, in fact, live within them, they can experience the Spirit as ever present, ever helpful, and ever empowering.

In writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul told them clearly that the Spirit of God dwelled in them (see 8:9), and then in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul declared that their bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit who was within them (see 6:19). The constant, internal presence of the Spirit within the lives of believers seems to be a clear teaching of the Bible, so it is worrying, indeed, that according to a poll taken in April 2009, “most Christians in the United States do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a living force. Fifty-eight percent strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that the Holy Spirit is ‘a symbol of God’s power or presence but is not a living entity.’”[1] And, no doubt, those percentages have gone down since that poll was taken.

It is unfortunate that so many Christians do not realize that the Holy Spirit, as a real, living power and “Person,” is actually with them always. And it is sad that so many Christian believers who give assent to the presence of the Spirit don’t really take advantage of that power. And the Spirit is also present in and around those who are not Christian believers. So one thing that everyone needs to know now is that the Holy Spirit is actually with and within them—whether they realize it or not.

The Holy Spirit as the Resurrected Jesus

The relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ is difficult to grasp. Some seem to think that the Holy Spirit came into existence only after the death and resurrection of Jesus and is primarily the post-resurrection presence of Christ.

Certainly, the Holy Spirit cannot be limited to that understanding. As I emphasized in the third chapter, the Holy Spirit was active in God’s creation from the beginning and is the eternal part of the Trinity. Moreover, it was the Spirit who was instrumental in the (virgin) birth of Jesus, and it was the Spirit who empowered Jesus from the time of his baptism.

Having said that, it is also important to recognize that it is in the “form” of the Holy Spirit that Jesus’ presence is with Christian believers—and also with non-Christians. The presence of the resurrected Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit are often conflated, even in the New Testament.

Consider Jesus’ promise to the disciples after his resurrection and just before his ascension: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). Obviously, it was not a physical, bodily presence he was talking about. And through the centuries, perhaps particularly in the last couple of centuries, Christians have talked about having Jesus in their heart. Another of the Gospel songs that we often sang in my boyhood and in the early years of my ministry was “Let Jesus Come into Your Heart.”[2] And at the time of writing, a website advertises “I Have Jesus In My Heart” stickers.[3]

Such talk, of course, can be traced back to the New Testament itself. On one occasion the Apostle Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19b-20a). But in another of his letters, Paul declares that “the Lord is the Spirit.”[4]

The close relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit is seen in other New Testament passages. For example, in Philippians 1:19 Paul makes reference to “the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” and Acts 16:7 similarly refers to “the Spirit of Jesus.” Moreover, in writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul declared to them: “the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9).

The Holy Spirit and Guidance

One of the most important popular religious books of the nineteenth century was In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? written by Charles M. Sheldon and first published in 1896.[5] In the 1990s, WWJC (the initials for “what would Jesus do?”) became quite popular in some circles, and there is now (in 2018) a What would Jesus do? app (see here).

Sheldon’s novel was a powerful one and his message quite significant. I don’t mean to criticize those who in recent years have found the WWJD emphasis meaningful, but it is more important for people to ask themselves WWHSHMD than WWJD, that is, What would the Holy Spirit have me do? rather than What would Jesus do?

It is very difficult to assess what Jesus would do if he were here at the present time. Sure, asking WWJD gives some good and important guidelines about many actions, but still, the details are often problematic. Of course, asking what the Holy Spirit would have one do doesn’t yield quick and easy answers either. The need for discernment is always present. But there is more likelihood that people will act correctly if they ask for, and then seek to follow, the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than trying to guess what Jesus would do if he were here in their place.

Guidance is one of the main functions of the Holy Spirit for individual Christian believers. But care must be given here: it is easy to be mistaken, easy to describe following selfish desires as being led by the Spirit, easy to fall into the error of false certainty. Again, the need for discernment is always present. Still, if the New Testament is taken seriously at all, the guidance of the Holy Spirit is evident throughout its pages.

In the sixteenth chapter of John, Jesus told his disciples that when “the Spirit of truth” came, the Spirit would guide them into “all the truth” (v. 13). And truth, in John, is more a way of acting than it is a way of thinking. Similarly, the Apostle Paul wrote about the guidance of the Spirit: he averred that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14). And the reverse is also true, at least potentially so: all who are children of God are led by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit and Empowerment

One of the most significant missionary passages in the New Testament is Acts 1:8. Those words, which give an outline of the content of the book of Acts, speak about the centrifugal force of the Gospel. But it needs to be clearly recognized that the expansion of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and then to the ends of the earth was predicated on the receiving power through the coming of the Holy Spirit.

When the Holy Spirit came upon the early church, as promised in Acts 1:8 and described in Acts 2, straightaway Peter was empowered to preach a sermon, the result of which was that three thousand people believed in Jesus, were baptized, and were added to the church. The subsequent growth of that early Christian community was due primarily to their being empowered by the Spirit. By Acts 4:4, the number of believers was said to be five thousand.

Throughout these early months and years in Jerusalem, the apostles and others in the church spoke and acted with great power, and that power was from the Holy Spirit. Thus, as has often been pointed out, the title of the fifth book of the New Testament probably should be The Acts of the Holy Spirit rather than the Acts of the Apostles. The outstanding acts of the Apostles were possible only because of the power of the Spirit.

To varying degrees, Christians through the centuries have lived and acted by the Spirit’s power. About a century ago, Charles H. Gabriel wrote a hymn called “Pentecostal Power.”[6] The words of the refrain go like this:

Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!
Thy floodgates of blessing, on us throw open wide!
Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!
That sinners be converted and Thy Name glorified!

That hymn writer may or may not have known about the new movement that had just begun, one which placed great emphasis on the Pentecostal power about when he had written. In Los Angeles, California, a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit was being experienced on Azusa Street.[7] That was the beginning of what has been called the Pentecostal movement, and it has developed into one of the most vibrant branches of Christianity, not only in the United States but especially in South America and Africa.

In 2006, the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, it was estimated that worldwide there were about 500 million adherents of Pentecostalism, comprising about one-fourth of all Christians.[8] This is quite remarkable, considering that the Catholic Church claims to be nearly two thousand years old and the Protestant movement is now five hundred years old. Moreover, the largest Christian congregations in the world are Pentecostal churches, the largest being Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea. There are also huge Pentecostal megachurches in Chile, Indonesia, and Nigeria as well as in other African countries.

There are pesky problems with some aspects of the Pentecostal movement, though, and those negative matters need to be acknowledged. One major problem is that many of the Pentecostal churches are linked to what is often called the prosperity gospel, emphasizing what is sometimes described as “name it, claim it” or “confess it, possess it” mentality.[9]

While emphasizing the very important concept that the Holy Spirit is always with everyone whether they realize it or not, and that everyone should become more aware of that fact in order to receive guidance and power from the Spirit, care must be taken so as not to fall into the error of thinking that people can “use” the Holy Spirit for their own personal benefit.

The Holy Spirit and Mission

If the Holy Spirit is with Christians, to guide us and empower them, then what is such guidance and empowerment for? It is important to realize that the primary purpose of the Holy Spirit’s presence with Christian believers is mission or service.

As mentioned at the beginning of the previous subdivision, Acts 1:8 clearly links the Spirit to the centrifugal expansion of the early church. It has been pointed out that the initial, and maybe the ongoing, missionary movement of the church was due far more to the inner compulsion of the Holy Spirit than to the external command of Jesus (in the “great commission” of Matthew 28:19-20).[10]

There are certainly personal blessings or “benefits” to be received when one is open to the work of the Holy Spirit in his or her life, and those should not be minimized. But neither should they be over-emphasized. As noted in an earlier chapter, God is interested in more than the personal happiness of those who believe in God. God is primarily concerned with the needs of the entire world, and those who believe in God are expected to work with God by the power of the Holy Spirit to work for the expansion of the kingdom of God.

The work of the Holy Spirit is seen not primarily when worshippers ecstatically pray in tongues, but rather when sincere Christians use their voice to share the good news of the Gospel. The work of the Holy Spirit is seen not primarily when individual believers receive personal blessings, but when those believers are empowered to serve those in the world, both those near at hand and those in the far parts of the earth, who have great physical and spiritual needs.

The many gifts of the Spirit, those described in 1 Corinthians 12, are not for personal benefit. They are gifts for the sake of the body of believers and for the sake of the world at large. Like in several other manifestations of Western Christianity, there has been especially within the Pentecostal movement a proclivity to individualism. (And, unfortunately, that emphasis has spread from the U.S. to other parts of the world in recent decades.) But, again, it needs to be realized that God’s primary concern is with the whole, not just the part; that is, with the whole body of Christ, the church, and not just the individual members. And what is more, God’s concern is with the whole human race, not just some privileged groups, and with the whole world, not just human beings.

Yes, Christians need to know and to affirm that God’s Spirit is always with them whether they realize it or not. And they need to know that so that they can be more often and more fully led and empowered by the Spirit—for the sake of others and for the Kingdom of God.


[1] Jennifer Riley, “Most US Christians don’t believe Satan, Holy Spirit really exist,” posted April 16, 2009, on http://www.ChristianityToday.com.

[2] Lelia Naylor Morris (1862-1929) wrote the words of this Gospel song in 1898 at a camp meeting in Maryland.

[3] The ad for the 100 stickers for $1.99 came with these promotional words: “Tell your friends ‘I Have Jesus In My Heart’ with these fun heart-shaped stickers! Add a sticker to each valentine you hand out.”

[4] 2 Corinthians 3:17. As there is a reference to Christ in verse 15, it seems clear that Lord here refers to Jesus Christ.

[5] More than 30,000,000 copies of In His Steps have been sold, making it one of the bestselling books of all time.

[6] The words and music for this hymn were written by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932) in 1912.

[7] The Azusa Street Revival, led by William J. Seymour, began with a meeting on April 14, 1906, and continued until 1915.

[8] The same source (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/218/a-pentecostal-primer) tells how only thirty years before, the adherents of Pentecostalism were comprised of only six percent of the world’s Christians; the growth from six percent to around twenty-five percent in only thirty years is remarkable, indeed.

[9] In the U.S., this emphasis has been, and continues to be, seen in the ministry of such well-known radio and televangelists as Kenneth Hagin (1917-2003), father of the Word of Faith movement; Oral Roberts (1918-2009); Kenneth Copeland (b. 1936), and Joel Osteen (b. 1963), pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, by far the largest congregation in the U.S.

[10] This is the important point made by Harry R. Boer in his book Pentecost and Missions (1961, 1979). That seminal book remains the authoritative work on the subject.