Monday, February 26, 2007

Why Many Mission Trips Are Not Missionary

A church youth group spends Spring Break in Tijuana, Mexico fixing the roof of a small church. A Christian school teacher leaves her classroom in the United States to teach ESL classes in China. A retired Christian couple travels to Africa to help poor farmers plant crops and improve their irrigation systems. A Christian doctor devotes several weeks a year providing free medical care to the indiginous people of the Amazon jungle. A Christian hospital chaplain volunteers his time providing care and words of comfort to patients and family members.

In today’s church, each of the before-mentioned people are considered missionaries. While this may be true, the likelihood is just as great that none of the before mentioned people are missionaries. They are considered missionaries by their churches or sending agencies. Their salaries come from a church’s missionary budget. They likely consider themselves missionaries. However, the most critical component to missionary work is sadly, often missing.

This article will discuss why many mission trips are anything but missionary, and why many people who call themselves missionaries do not fit the biblical definition of a missionary.

So many times I have heard Christians say that they do not have the gift of evangelism, therefore they are not obligated to share their faith. And some of the Christians who try to make such an argument often turn to Ephesians 4:11-12 to support their position. “And He gave some as apostles and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.”

What they fail to realize is that Ephesians 4:11-12 has less to do with spiritual gifts and more to do with specific offices in the body of Christ. When Paul writes about evangelists, he is talking about the office of an evangelist, not a specific spiritual gift of evangelism that is available only to certain Christians. Interestingly though, many Christians who do not feel they have been called to be evangelists engage in short-term and long-term missions. What they fail to realize is that a person cannot serve as a missionary, in the true sense of the word, without serving as an evangelist.

The Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines the word “evangelist” this way: “A ‘publisher of glad tidings;’ a missionary preacher of the gospel (Eph. 4:11). This title is applied to Philip (Acts 21:8), who appears to have gone from city to city preaching the word (8:4, 40). Judging from the case of Philip, evangelists had neither the authority of an apostle, nor the gift of prophecy, nor the responsibility of pastoral supervision over a portion of the flock. They were itinerant preachers, having it as their special function to carry the gospel to places where it was previously unknown. The writers of the four Gospels are known as the Evangelists.”[i]

The office of evangelist, as it is used in Scripture, is akin to our present-day understanding of the function of a missionary. That being said, one is only serving as a missionary if they are proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ—the one and only gospel that has the power to save lives.

If a person claims to be serving as a missionary, but they are not actively engaged in the proclamation of the gospel to lost and dying people, they are not missionaries. They might be ministering to people’s physical needs, they might be serving as a teacher in a secular school in a different culture, they might be shining the light of godly living in an otherwise dark world and befriending lost people, but if their primary focus is not the proclamation of the gospel they are not missionaries.

Can missionaries use some of the before-mentioned activities as bridges to the presentation of the gospel? Certainly. However, traveling to Mexico (for example) and spending a weekend building a house, or putting a roof on a church, or distributing good food and clean water, and then enjoying fellowship and worship with Mexican Christians; while these are certainly wonderful things to do, and while these activities are biblical and God-honoring, these activities are not missionary work.

The kind of activity I just described is dedicated work to the Lord. It’s service. The mandate to help and to serve others, particularly our brethren within the body of Christ, is very clear. We’re told so in Romans 12.

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality
(Romans 12:4-13).

Likewise, we are told by the Lord Himself that we are to provide care and comfort to all people, saved or unsaved, whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself. Jesus alluded to this when He talked about the coming judgment of the world. We find it in Matthew 25.

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. “All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.”

Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?”

The King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
(Matthew 25:31-40).

What Paul writes about in Romans 12, and what Jesus talks about in Matthew 25, is service. It is god-honoring service, so long as the work is done to glorify God and not to simply please man or draw the attention of man. But it is not missions.

Many Christians engage in acts of Christian service, but they never open their mouths to proclaim the gospel to those they are trying to serve. They consider the driving of a nail with a hammer, or the planting of a crop to be evangelism when it is not. And having made a genuine effort to serve others in such a significant way, they feel as though they have fulfilled their evangelism requirement until the next opportunity to serve presents itself.

What many Christian workers fail to realize is that when they leave—while the people may be warm and dry, and while the people may have full stomachs—if the lost people die in their sins, having not repented of their sin and received Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they will face the righteous and just wrath of God as He judges their sin in righteousness and sentences them to eternity in hell. When the Christian worker fails to share the gospel with the people to whom they have provided food and shelter, when the Christian worker leaves, they leave the lost person every bit as lost as they were before the Christian worker arrived on the scene.

Before the Christian worker arrived, the lost person or people group might have thought very little of their spiritual condition. If all the Christian worker does is meet the lost person or people group’s physical needs, then that lost person or people group is left with even less reason to consider their spiritual condition, because they are now more physically comfortable as a result of the provision of the Christian worker.

I am not suggesting that such Christian service is not commendable and necessary. It most certainly is commendable and necessary. More importantly, it is biblical, which makes the need for such activity all the more urgent. Nor am I suggesting that Christian service is not compatible with evangelism. Of course it is. But without the presentation of the gospel in either written or spoken form, it is not evangelism; and it is, therefore, not missionary work.

It is important that Christians have a biblical understanding of the relationship between the office of evangelist and the work of a missionary. It is likewise important that Christians understand that while some are called to fill the spiritual office of evangelist, every Christian is called to be activiely engaged in evangelism (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15). Furthermore, it is important that Christians distinguish Christian service from evangelism and missions—evangelism and missions, again, being synonymous terms.

So the next time you are asked to go to a foreign country (or the other side of the tracks in your own town) in order to serve lost people, go! Go into all the world. However, please make sure you are taking the gospel with you. Make sure you are going with the full intent of speaking the truth in love; warning lost sinners that God’s wrath abides on them (John 3:36) and unless they repent and believe (Mark 1:14-15), trusting Jesus Christ alone for their salvation (Rom. 10:9-10)—having been born again (John 3:3), they will face God’s righteous judgment (Heb. 9:27) and spend eternity in hell (Dan. 12:2; Rom. 6:23; Rev. 21:8). Without the gospel your efforts in Christian service, while commendable, will not be missionary work.

[i] Easton, M.G.: Easton's Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996, c1897


Eddie said...

Amen Tony! Well said! I couldn't agree more.

Lynn said...

A hearty amen. This should be read by every church! What good does it do to offer a drink of water (which will not last) but not offer everlasting Living Water? To offer daily bread but not the eternal Bread of Life? To build someone a house but not tell them about the only Door to salvation? Without the verbal gospel message (Rom. 10:14), we're conveying to the lost that Christianity improves your life (a life-enhancement, modern gospel message). Also, if our missionary efforts consist only of bettering people's brief lives on earth, but do nothing to tell them about eternal life, then we are simply giving them a nicer place to go to hell from. Is that not like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

Jerry Parker said...

Tony you just described me for nearly 20 years! I was involved in many acts of kindness including "servant evangelism" but sadly I NEVER preached the Gospel. God finally got it through my thick head that our acts of kindness aren't going to save anyone, it is the Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. I determined to step out of my comfort zone and get equipped and actually open my mouth. Now days I still do servant evangelism, but I use it as a bridge to actually share the good news! Great challenging article Tony!!!