What Evangelicals commonly call ‘missionary work’ (admittedly, a very broad field) involves much that does not meet the biblical criteria for missions. Let me tell you some things which have happened on the mission field and which, in my estimation, are an abomination in the eyes of God.
Several years ago, a Baptist missionary in Mexico gathered a crowd of people on a hot summer day with the promise that, if they would listen to his message, he would give them all ice cream cones afterwards. Very quickly the crowd increased to about six hundred expectant people. Pictures were taken, which would be sent home as a testimony of the ‘work of God’ in Mexico.
After his message, the preacher asked for heads to be bowed and for a show of hands from all who would have Jesus as their Saviour. Nearly all of them responded, while the cameras rolled. When all this was done, the people were rewarded with their ice cream cones. You can imagine the amazement of those at home, as they received the pictures and saw such large crowds expressing an interest in being ‘saved’.
This kind of ‘mission work’ is going on all the time, not only in Mexico but all over the world. We belong to a generation where people want to see results, and so ‘results’ are produced at whatever cost. The missionary is pressured to become a promotional expert instead of a preacher of the gospel. What a sad state of affairs!
Recently, in India, I discovered that small, impoverished churches often allow missionaries to claim them as their own, provided that the missionary support them with a small payment each month. Some of the church members even submit to being re-immersed, giving the impression that the missionary is baptising new converts.
Missionaries who have discovered this public relations gold-mine are writing back to the USA declaring that God has blessed them with the establishment of yet another church! In reality, all that has happened is that the missionary has started supporting an existing church (for less than $50 per month) in order to use their name in his reports.
Has our biblical understanding of missions degenerated to such a state that we can take existing churches and call them our own, just to bolster our monthly news-letters?
In some remote areasof Mexico, the ‘missionary’ makes his visit about once every quarter. He brings with him seeds for planting, or chickens or pigs for the farmers. There are no gospel tracts. In fact, there is no gospel witness of any kind. His only objective is to meet the social needs of the people. They become ‘Baptists’ because it is the Baptist missionary who brings them food, seeds, or animals.
Is this biblical mission? It may be benevolence. It may be caring for the poor. But is it mission? Can any of these things be called missions? I think not! Recently I discovered that a ‘missionary’ in Jamaica took some pictures of extremely poor people and included them in his monthly newsletter to gain extra support. He wrote as though the kind of poverty he was portraying was common and the needs were correspondingly great.
No doubt, sincere, tender-hearted Americans who saw the pictures were moved with compassion and gave at increased levels to what they thought was a genuine need. The truth is that the same ploy could be used in San Antonio, Texas, where I live. I could take pictures of the very poor in my city and pass them off as though they reflected the general state of things in San Antonio when, in fact, they do not. You could probably do the same in your own city.
The truth is that Jamaica is a very diverse nation. It has some very poor people, but it also has some very rich. They also have a developing, albeit small, middle class. From my visits there, I have seen that Jamaicans are a hardworking and diligent people. Even the very poor are looking for ways to improve their lot in life.
Let us not be fooled by so-called missionaries who play upon our emotions with pictures of the destitute. Our Lord has told us that we will always have the poor with us. Instead, we should stay focused upon the one great end of true missionary labour – the salvation of souls and the establishing of churches!
What, then, should be our understanding of biblical missions? Biblical missions are simply the work of preaching the gospel of the grace of God to the whole world. Real missionary endeavour is simply a church’s obedience to the Master’s mandate, to ‘preach the gospel to every creature’.
Our hope is that our God will give us the grace, the gifts, the means, and the men to carry his gospel into the whole world. I have preached to crowds in Mexico. They gathered with the understanding that a gospel message would be preached. We gave nothing away except a gospel tract. We asked nothing of them except that they repent and believe the gospel message being preached to them.
I have preached to large crowds in India. In fact, it was not uncommon to preach to between 1500 to 2000 at a time while I was there. Nothing was given to them but the gospel. Nothing was promised to them but eternal life – and that, only if God showed them mercy to repent of their sins and call upon the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour.
In Mexico and in India I have seen God save sinners. I have seen God establish churches. I have seen God bless his gospel message to his own glory. May our one great desire for missions be that God be glorified in the salvation of sinners and the establishment of churches!