Service or Evangelizing?

Perhaps one of the most contentious issues within missions is the interaction between service and evangelizing. Should a missionary be remembered for establishing a field hospital of for the quality of their preaching? In what follows I am going to suggest a different approach to viewing missionaries that will hopefully provide an answer to this question. Whilst I am entirely responsible for the following I am indebted to George W Peters[1] for starting and inspiring the distinction between a Christian's work and a Christian's life.

First and foremost I would suggest that if a missionary really has been sent by their local church then the question as to what they should do has already been answered. They have been sent to perform a task on behalf of a local fellowship; this could vary from preaching the gospel to planting rice fields to taking a good selection of photographs. As I have argued previously someone that has been called by God to move to a given location is not really a missionary; they are someone that has moved.

Of course this does not really solve the question it simply moves it. The question now is for what reason should churches send missionaries? It might also be asked: 'how should people that have been moved into a radically different culture behave?'

I am going to answer the second question first because I think it may hold the key that is needed. Supposing I forget I am 'a missionary' but I am just a person that has moved into a given locality: what should I do? As Peters draws out very clearly I have three primary responsibilities:

  1. I have a responsibility to care for my family
  2. I have a responsibility to act as a responsible member of society
  3. I have a responsibility to enact the great commission and evangelize

Items a&b should be carried out with greater integrity and diligence because I am a believer and I may wish to adapt what I chose to do for society based upon my Christian beliefs[2]. However as my responsibilities to my family do not predominantly change because of the great commission neither does my responsibility to society.

This is a radical and controversial assertion but I believe it to be true. Christ did not set up medical hospitals, He did not implement relief programs and He did not in general go out looking for sick people. If Christ instigated contact it was almost exclusively for spiritual purposes. Looking at the apostles the same is true. Peter healed a lame man than came across his path. He did not set up a lame person healing center. Likewise Paul went around looking for opportunities to debate scripture; any healings he performed were incidental to his mission.

The third item is thus the carrying out of the great commission: evangelizing. This is the act of preaching the gospel and explaining the teaching of Jesus and the training of new converts. If the church is to be vital everyone should see this as their primary purpose for living where they are. If we are not evangelizing we are not carrying out that commission. We may be living wholesome Christian lives and our lives may influence others: however we are not evangelizing.

I suspect that one of the principle reasons that evangelizing and service come into such conflict is because the Western believers that move into less developed areas are unwilling to accept the conditions under which the locals are living. If an American missionary moves into a tribe that fetches water from a river and starts fetching water then they can immediately focus upon evangelizing. However if the American insists upon some more high-tech solution then immediately the poverty of the locals is emphasized. At this point it becomes inconsistent for the Christian to live in opulence beside a poorer person to whom they are attempting to show love. Thus the raising of the whole tribes living standard to one that the American is prepared to accept becomes a priority.

Based upon this analysis of how an individual that has moved may view things the decision making process for a church ought to be much simpler. The church has a responsibility to God to carry out the great commission and it has a responsibility to the church to ensure the care of all believers: it has no responsibility to society whatsoever. We would therefore expect that missionaries sent from a given church would be focused upon the tasks of evangelizing or upon the bringing of relief to other believers. A study of acts reveals missionaries sent for both tasks. We do not see a single believer sent by a church to provide help to non-believers.

In the preceding I have again made the distinction between missionaries that are members of a sending church sent upon church business and movers that are individuals that God has moved into a new area[3]. I have argued that movers are identical to other believers and share the same mixed responsibilities and should view them accordingly. I then suggested that true missionaries should be on church business which would involve tending to the church universal or evangelizing.


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