If any of my travel companions shared my disquietude it was not outwardly evident. It was an exciting break from routine and adventure, a chance to travel with a group of peers. Better yet, the ‘missions trip’ label gave it full religious sanction.
However, my guilt started weeks before. We had raised a large sum of money through fundraisers. In fact, we probably had enough cash to employ a team of Haitians for a year. But, to my dismay, most of it would go out the tailpipe as burnt jet fuel used to ferry us in and out. It seemed to me obscene that we were flying into that earthquake ravaged nation for only a few short days.
When I expressed my concern I was assured that this exposure would be a good opportunity for the young people to grow in awareness and compassion. I tried my best to accept that answer. But, finally on the ground in Port-au-Prince and throughout the trip my pangs of guilt would return, my concerns verified.
The most notable experience was when a young Haitian man, seeing our enthusiastic labors to paint a church interior, beckoned for my attention. In our short conversation he pled for work to feed his belly and said the obvious: “I can do that!”
It was true.
We were doing menial tasks. We did work almost any Haitian could do with a bit of supervision. We could have sent two people for a year and had a far bigger impact. Yet, here we were, playing in the paint, doing unskilled labor in front of pleading eyes, as if to taunt them with our privileged position.
What is Christian ‘missionary’ service about?
Young people in my church are encouraged to serve as missionaries. What this often implies is travel to some exotic locale to do work projects and possibly to share a Christian witness with the indigenous population before jetting away to the next big thing. Some commitments are longer, they stay years as teachers, nannies and doing a variety of other things.
We celebrate those who go elsewhere with prayer cards featuring their picture, a “serving in [insert location here]” tagline and a favorite Bible verse. When they come back there is often a report to the congregation; which usually includes some humor about cultural oddities, maybe an expression of how blessed they were through the experience and many pictures.
I have little doubt of the sincerity of those who have embraced this idea of Christian service. Images of men like Hudson Taylor or Jim Elliot have been impressed upon their young minds, reminders of the 10-40 window fill their thoughts and they go with strong feelings of obligation. To many church raised people the ultimate Christian example is doing something over there somewhere.
I am, on one hand, happy for enthusiasm and dedication to the cause of Jesus Christ. And still, on the other hand, I question the effectiveness and wisdom of the current effort. I also suspect there is a deeper problem, a fundamental difference between the Spirit that motivated the early church to act and attitude that propels many today.
There are many reasons why a person may travel the world. But, according to Scripture, not all who claim to represent God truly do and not everyone who does wonderful things in the name of Jesus is actually saved. In fact, Jesus warns specifically about those whom he will not recognize for their efforts:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.“ (Matthew 23:15)
And it was not just the non-Christian religious leaders and Pharisees whom Jesus warned:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’“ (Matthew 7:21-23)
How can it be? How is it that some missionary efforts are flawed beyond mere ineffectiveness and are actually destructive? Why is the work of some rejected despite the outward appearance of faithfulness?
These are questions we should ask. I do believe this severe criticism and warning from Jesus applies to us today. I believe someone can spend their life in missionary work, can profess to have faith in Jesus, and—despite their dedicated religious effort—still not be doing the will of God.
Too often missionary efforts go unquestioned. It is easy to remain silent, because we know we ourselves should be doing more, and take a position: “Well, at least they are doing something…” But this reluctance to be involved is unfortunate and is what leads to wasteful or even counterproductive effort.
#1) True Missionary Service Must Be Spirit-led
I’ve talked to a young person who is determined to be a foreign missionary. I asked them how they knew it was God’s calling for their life and the reply (or lack thereof) did not convince me that they truly knew. It was simply something they wanted to do.
Others referenced Scripture, they quote the “go ye into all the world” of Jesus commissioning the disciples, dutifully applying it to themselves without considering context or chronological order. A case of proof-texting where a person can find whatever they want.
But this is not how Jesus started his ministry nor the way he told us to determine God’s will for our lives. We see instead that in his ministry Jesus was led directly by the Spirit:
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 3:16-17, 4:1)
Jesus was led by the Spirit. And that this is the exact same Spirit that was promised and is now made fully available to those who believe in him:
“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promise which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'” (Acts 1:4-8)
It is easy to skip around the Bible to defend an established dogma and find what suits our own particular religious agenda. But we should always remember that the Pharisees also diligently studied Scripture. Yet, without the Spirit to guide them in their study, they were way off base and seriously misled.
If we do things our own way we end up like Abraham who had two sons, one of the bondwoman and his own human effort, the other of the promise God had given. (Gal 4:21-31) We are the same, we do not trust God, we get impatient and take matters into our own hands.
Instead, rather than go out on our own understanding and effort, we must wait on God’s timing and Spirit.
#2) True Missionary Service Starts Here, Not There
It is interesting to note, the author of a popular quote about every Christian being either a missionary or an impostor spent his years preaching in his native England and not overseas. So was he, by his own words, an impostor?
The full quote, from a sermon Charles H. Spurgeon preached, sheds light on what Spurgeon actually meant in his usage of the term missionary:
“Every Christian here is either a missionary or an impostor. Recollect that you are either trying to spread abroad the kingdom of Christ, or else you do not love him at all. It cannot be that there is a high appreciation of Jesus, and a totally silent tongue about him. Of course I do not mean, by that, that those who use the pen for Christ are silent; they are not. And those who help others to use the tongue, or spread that which others have written, are doing their part well; but I mean this,—that man who says, ‘I believe in Jesus,” but does not think enough of Jesus ever to tell another about him, by mouth, or pen, or tract, is an impostor.“
What Spurgeon is actually saying is that everyone who truly believes in Christ will share that with other people. He is not saying that we need to travel further than our next-door neighbors and hometown to do that. He is saying that a person is missionary wherever they are or they are an impostor.
It is true that some men in the early church traveled far and wide to spread the good news. We can read much about Paul’s missionary journeys and of other men sent out. But not all went. Not all traveled over land and sea. In fact, few probably did. Many others were needed to establish and serve in their local congregations.
All missionary work is local whether it takes place here, over there or in Jerusalem:
“…repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47)
The idea that Christian missions is a trip overseas and something over ‘there’ is plain wrong. In our age of internet connectivity and social media, a person can be an evangelist—literally speak to people on the other side of the world—from their bedroom. So start in your own Jerusalem, stay busy where you are and then if you are called elsewhere you will be ready to serve.
We must be faithful where we are, because changing addresses will not change who we are and the need is everywhere. We need to start serving our neighbors here where we are or we are an imposter.
#3) True Missionary Service Glorifies God, Humbles Us
Many parachurch organizations exist today to support the evangelical efforts of others. American missionaries to foreign countries are often well-supplied with their own plans and material support. But in this there careful planning can be a dependency on ourselves and our own efforts rather than God.
Sending people out as Jesus did would be unthinkable. Try to imagine this:
“He told them: ‘Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:3-6)
It was total dependence on God. There are no five year plans. There’s no walled in compound or institutional support structure—not even so much as a change of clothes, a bag of personal hygiene supplies or packed lunch for the journey.
These men went out literally with nothing but the clothing on their back and the message of the Gospel. I can imagine that there was a bit more urgency to get to know people and make friends when your next meal depended on it. I wonder also if their total dependency and vulnerability is what was required for miracles to happen.
We can make Christianity look more like a profitable enterprise than a walk of faith. When we go out with obvious advantage over those we are trying to reach it should be no surprise that some seek our wealth rather than our Jesus and ‘convert’ for the wrong reasons. When we go out with our big checkbook or provide for needs (based in our own abilities to raise funds) it quickly can become about us rather than God’s glory.
Jesus gave a different example:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:5-7)
If we wish to present ourselves as entitled recipients of American prosperity then we ought to bring it with us. If we are cultural imperialists selling Capitalism then we need to display those wares. But, if we want our faith in Jesus to be be the focus then we must live it and leave everything behind.
People are not completely dumb and many can see through a religious act. If we wish to be effective we must “become all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22) and lower ourselves. Our hiding behind walls (necessary to secure our possessions and keep people at a safe distance) will likely speak louder than our words when or if we finally do get around to speaking.
Jesus left his privileges behind. If we are to be of the “same mindset as Christ Jesus” we should mimic that example.
#4) True Missionary Service Is About Them, Not Us
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Why else would someone travel besides love for those they seek to reach?
If you don’t see a reason why a person would choose to be a missionary besides sincere faith here are some alternative explanations:
- They love adventure. You do know that the millennial generation prefers experience and travel, right? It has nothing to do with faithful sacrifice and everything to do with seeking pleasure.
- They want to escape. We do not send missionaries like the early church. Sure, those who wish to go may get a rubber stamp blessing from a church. But, in this age of individualism, people today decide for themselves and might do it to be further independent from accountability.
- The ‘cool’ people do it. Positive peer-pressure is good, right? Well, yes, assuming that going into missions is merely a group bonding experience, a chance to be with age-group friends and maybe find a mate. But, if that’s not the missionary position we want to produce, it could be a concern.
- It is self-gratifying. Some people really feel good about themselves and simply like to crow about it to vulnerable people. A missionary, especially supported by others, has power over those who are needy and can enjoy a near celebrity treatment as a foreigner.
- They are duty-driven and fearful. I recall this guy named Jonah. He finally did what God said because he didn’t like being fish food. But, despite the grace he received getting spit out alive, he lacked any love or compassion for the people he was told to reach.
- We like praise. Who doesn’t want a few feathers in the cap and ‘mission accomplished’ signs to welcome them home? Well, Jesus told us that those who act righteously for the praise of others have their reward.
- We like projects. It takes some discipline and focus to do missionary work. Unfortunately, real love is something that does not fit a formula or schedule and people do not like being your project.
All of those things aren’t necessarily bad in their right place. We should enjoy ourselves with good friends. The less materialistic focus of the millennial generation is one positive thing about them and a potential strength. Confidence is great too and so is a sense of accomplishment or being recognized for the right things and encouraged.
Yet the purpose of missions is not our own pleasure. If it is not primarily for the good of those we claim to serve then we might be better staying home until we mature spiritually and love genuinely.
My caution is that our priorities be in the right order. Missions is about having true love for our neighbors. If you are not willing to serve your next-door neighbor, then you probably have no business traveling over land and sea on a religiously sanctioned trophy hunt. We need to go in genuine love for the people we are serving or it is going through the motions and it is spiritually empty.
#5) Missionary Service Is About Faithfulness, Not Dogmatism
In the book of Acts we have the interesting account of Philip and an Ethiopian. We are told Philip was promoted by an angel to take a walk. It was on that walk Philip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch on a chariot (the Bentley or Rolls Royce of their day) and an important man. Philip was directed by the Spirit to go stand near the chariot.
So Philip obeyed.
The man was perplexed about a passage from the book of Isaiah the prophet. Philip asked the man, “do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian admitted his need for help interpreting the meaning of the passage and Philip explained. The result was an on-the-spot Baptism (no mandatory background check or ‘young believer class’ waiting period) and the two never crossed paths again.
Philip was faithful. He was willing to adapt to circumstances and do what needed to be done without much hesitation. Faith is creative, it is free, it adapts as need be, and motivates us to become all things to all people, like Paul:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Religious dogma, by contrast to Spirit-led faith, is rigid and inflexible. It tries to make every situation conform to a predetermined ‘cookie cutter’ mold or established mode and becomes easily frustrated when things do not fit the prescriptive ‘one size fits all’ solutions. It is confining rather than empowering and is often confusing or confounding in practice. It is limiting of full potential.
The front lines of evangelicalism have shifted dramatically. The internet has opened a new front and can get us beyond ‘enemy lines’ much like the invention of the airplane revolutionized warfare. Unfortunately many Christians are stuck slugging it out in the trenches, too fixated on established fighting methods, blinded by missionary dogmas built in the 1800’s, and unable to take advantage of the opportunities right in front of them.
Likewise the Pharisees did everything right outwardly, in their own minds (and that of their religious peers) they had righteous living all figured out to the last detail, but they lacked the mind of Christ. Nothing in their religious devotion or diligence in studying Scripture revealed the truth of God’s word (John 5:31-40) to them. They thought of themselves as gatekeepers and in reality they themselves would not enter in.
We have been warned about the false security of religion, but do we have the faith to change where need be? Do we have the imagination or vision for today? Are we like Philip who followed the Spirit and improvised? Or are we stuck fighting trench warfare in an age that may require a different approach?