A Comment on Modern Evangelical Missions

The problem with modern Christian missions, in particular missions in the evangelical community, is that we’re developing missionaries who are far more concerned about saving the soul of a man than about saving the man himself, who stress the Hell to come while ignoring the Hell that is, who preach about a heavenly afterlife, but neglect to bring a heavenly now. Not that the afterlife should be ignored or diminished, just that salvation involves both the soul and body; it makes no sense to preach that Christ came to save man as he is, that Christ took on the flesh of our flesh, if we’re going to simply act as though salvation is purely a spiritual act.

I hear talk all the time from people who want to go overseas and “save these lost people.” They want to bring the Gospel to unreached people groups, or help win a population to Christ. All of these desires are quite noble and well intentioned. The cynics who act as though these sentiments are simply neo-colonialism wrapped in the cloak of Christianity are simply being too judgmental. I would contend that many of these future missionaries have their hearts in the right place, for the most part. However, their fervency is misplaced because it’s been directed in the wrong direction. Ironically, in their love for these people and desire to see them go to Heaven, they act in a way that is quite unloving.

For those that wish to dedicate their lives to living in another land and spreading the Gospel, we are doing them a great disservice by raising them to believe that salvation is merely a spiritual act. In American Christianity, or what we can call evangelicalism, salvation is acquired through a prayer. The idea that works should accompany salvation is almost viewed as blasphemous, a belief that is anathema. Though there is no magistrate within evangelicalism, nor is there any Sacred Tradition, one will be met with great disdain, questioning, and cat-calls of heresy if one even makes the suggestion that works should accompany our salvation.

Yet, when I say that works accompany our salvation, I do not mean that works can accomplish our salvation. Salvation comes through God’s mercy alone, through His grace. The fact that salvation comes from God’s mercy, however, doesn’t mean that salvation is purely for the soul, something simply done with a prayer. To put it another way, salvation is not a pit stop, but a journey.

If this is the case, then when we go to these foreign lands, while we should concern ourselves with the souls of the people, we should equally concern ourselves with their well being. It is one thing to preach that God has given people salvation, but it’s entirely another to demonstrate that God has come to save the entirety of their being. We must preach that Christ has liberated them from sin, but we must also preach that He has liberated them from the earthly oppressors of hunger, nakedness, and the elements.

What made the original Christians so successful in spreading their message, even in the face of rampant persecution, is that they lived the Gospel. It wasn’t enough for them to put on a “Jesus Play” (an equivalent to a Jesus film I guess), to give out papyrus tracts, or to have their version of an “evangicube;” rather, their lives served as a Jesus film in that they lived like Christ, their lives were their own tracts put on display for all to see. Their lives were the proof of their evangelism. They fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave money to the poor, took care of the widows, cared for the orphans. They became Christ to those who did not know Him. It wasn’t enough for them to preach about the Kingdom to come, instead they attempted to demonstrate what the Kingdom would be like, though all attempts were (and are) feeble and inadequate.

With that in mind, evangelicals need to change their approach to missions. They need to cease with the mass-evangelism, share the Gospel without living the Gospel attitude. They need to concern themselves with the lives of these people and, dare I say it, bring social justice to these foreign lands. They need to step outside of their Americanism and concern themselves with issues like free trade, foreign aid, and other issues that directly impact the lives of those overseas. Most importantly, however, is that American Christians need to actively help the physical lives of these people we’re reaching out to, otherwise we make the Gospel a vanity of words.


5 thoughts on “A Comment on Modern Evangelical Missions

  1. Hi Joel, it’s me! I like everything you wrote except, of course, the parts about God. I’m not so sure early missionaries were any better then the ones today. If anything they were probably worse but that’s an opinion that’s not based on any facts I have right now. I do remember reading something many years ago (decades before the Internet) about missionaries giving potatoes to the Indians that had the eyes cut out. When the potatoes failed to grow they told the Indians it was because they didn’t believe in God. Hey, here it is on the Internet!
    Years ago when I didn’t think there was a Christian God, but kept the possibility open to some sort of Creator I imagined what it would be like if there was no creator altogether. I’m sure you’ve have the same thoughts before being as open-minded as you seem to be. That sure was an empty feeling for me! What’s my direction? What’s the purpose of it all? It sort of felt like being in a HUGE place with nobody else. I didn’t like that feeling at all. I like the idea that something, somewhere, even if I didn’t understand it was behind all of this, and it was aware of my life.
    That feeling didn’t leave all at once, but gradually as the years pasted, and I keep reading. Today I’ve polarized in the opposite direction. It’s just us, baby, and we’re all we have. That makes me want to be even more empathetic and forgiving toward other people. I have faults, and I hope others can forgive me when I falter. I try to remind myself of that when I see others do the same. To think that 99.9% of species ever living on this planet have gone extinct gives me even more reason understand not only our special place on this Earth, but that of the other 0.1% that have survived, too.
    I’m getting long winded here, so I’ll stop. If you’re ever headed to Wisconsin I hope you can stop to visit. You’ll probably take I-90 across the Illinois border, and then you’ll pass through the city I live in, Janesville.
    Oh, one last thing. I’m excited! I found a new YouTube great, Edward Tarte. He says he was in the seminary for 7 years, and a priest for 5 back in the 1960s. He shows pictures of those times in one of his videos. He retired after teaching math in school for over 40 years, too. He has over 500 videos on religion, math, and piano music. Right now he’s engaged in comments with a local priest in his town “TJ”. It’s very interesting. Your comments on his channel would be enlightening I’m sure. BTW: Edward Tarte is no an atheist.

    1. AKron,

      I think I’ve said it before, but let me preface my comment with a few things:

      1) I appreciate your comments here as they offer an alternative point of view.
      2) We know you’re an atheist, we get it. But you’re coming across like a rabid evangelical for atheism. I know some individual evangelical Christians who turn every single conversation into something about Christ. It gets annoying. But the same is true for atheists who turn everything into atheism.

      That being said, atheism is no excuse for ignorance. I stated the “early Christians.” Pointing to missionaries who lived a few hundred years ago doesn’t constitute “early Christianity;” they still lived well over 1,000 years after Christ. In fact, everything you mentioned in that goes against what I was saying, so your point was quite superfluous.

      1. Joel,
        In a way your comment to me struck me as funny. Just a week or so ago I accused PZ Myers of being a “rabid evangelical for atheism”, but not in those exact terms. I’m hoping Edward Tarte’s videos will moderate me somewhat, but right now its not looking hopeful.
        Point taken.

  2. Wow, my comment is totally ridden with errors! How could I have missed so many? Anyway, Edward Tarte IS an atheist. You can figure out the rest of the errors I think.

  3. Hey Joel!
    I found this article interesting. I had many debates about this very topic while in school as my degree was in “Intercultural Studies”. I find it fascinating that what inspired this article was hearing people wishing to do ministry overseas talk about “saving the lost” or “winning a population to Christ”. Perhaps you did ask them this, but my first thought was, “Did you ask them how they planned to go about winning that population to Christ?” Most M’s have a plan in mind for going overseas and in today’s society it involves DOING the very things you are talking about. For instance, many plan to go over as nurses or doctors, many go over as teachers (saving the mind is just as important as saving the body), many go over in order to help solve the World Hunger Crisis, many go over to build houses, or disciple young people, or to get prostitutes off the streets, or….the list goes on and on. In fact, in today’s society it is almost impossible to go over as just a “normal” M: evangelism and church planting only. That is becoming a rare thing indeed. For one thing, the amount of countries who do not except “normal M’s” has increased over the years. Almost every person planning to do overseas work must go over doing something other than just evangelism and/or church planting. Interestingly enough, just because most M’s plan to do things like feed the hungry, or teach, or help cure the sick, they will probably still talk in terms of “I am here to honor God by sharing Christ with those around me. I am here so that they might be saved” because that is ultimately the end goal, that is the heart and passion behind everything that is done, because on the flip side of what you are saying: what good is it to have spent all of one’s time clothing and feeding a person, if when they die they go to Hell? The two things must be balanced (I believe you did say as much above). Unfortunately, there was a handful of people at the school I went to who seemed to think that all M’s should be doing is social work and private prayer only; they did not think any direct evangelism should be done. This is equally as bad as giving a hungry person a track and then walking away.
    Anyway, food for thought I guess. 🙂
    Oh! I don’t think you were actually saying this, but I just thought I’d throw it in here: The one thing we certainly don’t want to tell people is that by becoming a Christian they will have no more problems with hunger or poverty or social injustice. That is certainly not true as I’m sure you agree! 🙂

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