The Muddled Mess Of Modern Missions
Picture this scene... it is forty days after Jesus’ resurrection and He is up on the mountain with his disciples about ready to ascend into heaven. He then announces these words: “Go and make disciples of all nations... preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” No this isn’t some new funky contemporary translation of Jesus’ “Great Commission”; rather this is the modern spirit behind missions today. For a number of years now I have witnessed a great confusion arise regarding the nature and purpose of missions. I hear stories of churches going on short term mission trips where they build homes, play with orphans, are involved with giving out medical supplies, and the like. But I always scratch my head and wonder, “What made that a ‘missions’ trip?” Folks who have done missions in third world nations come back with stories about how they were transformed by the experience, and yet there is no reference to Christians proclaiming the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins.
Now don’t get me wrong there is some good work going on here in these trips as people are helping other people out, but let’s look at it for what it really is, it is a “service” trip; a trip that could easily be categorized, in Lutheran parlance, as a Left-hand Kingdom trip. A trip that in many respects a non-Christian would be comfortable participating in, and in fact there are many organizations out there run by non-Christians that do this sort of thing (ex. “Peace Corp”). But therein lies the question. If a group of Christians go on a trip where non-Christians would be comfortable attending and participating in, then can we really call it a mission trip?
So how did the church get to this place where we are sending Christians out all over the world to be engaged in house building enterprises, feeding orphans, giving medicine to the sick, and the like and are comfortable in calling it a mission trip when the Gospel is never proclaimed?
It is my belief that as the West began to call Christians “intolerant” for holding to the belief that Jesus is the only Way to the Father, (John 14:6) and with the concurrent rise in religious pluralism, this began to affect the way that the church viewed missions. Gospel proclamation got replaced with doing good deeds. And yet many Christians defended (and still defend) what they were doing as missions by appealing to what has become an unofficial creedal statement: “Preach the Gospel, if necessary use words”. This Pseudo-Assisi phrase became the justification for Christians to say such things as: “Well they knew we were Christians so maybe through our actions they will come to Christ.” Not much different than the campfire spiritual – “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
But all of this brings up the question of how a non-Christian might delineate, say, between the “good deeds” done by a Mormon missionary - someone who is way beyond heterodoxy - and a Christian on a mission trip who holds to the historic orthodox faith? If all the non-Christian has to base his answer upon are the deeds done by both parties then he cannot make a distinction. Thankfully the words of St. Paul help us to frame and understand the problem, and the solution. He writes in Romans 10:13-15:
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?’ As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Understand that the Mormon missionary is not shy about proclaiming their false gospel to the non-believer. Yet ironically, out of fear of giving offense, the Christian who has the true Gospel remains mute in their proclamation and will remain resolute that their good deeds among the non-Christian was a good enough witness to this Gospel.
If as Christians we take seriously Jesus’ words in places like John 14:6 then we need to proclaim with Peter and John that “...there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Yes the Gospel will be offensive to people. People will be offended by it, because as sinners they are hostile to the things of God (Romans 8:7). Just look back to the life of Jesus and read about the plot to crucify him by the Jewish ruling structure. Look to the book of Acts and see how the apostles themselves were treated when they proclaimed the Gospel to the unbelieving world. It is the reality in which we live in between the time of the two advents of Christ.
So as a word of encouragement, hear the true words of Christ in his Great Commission, “...and I will be with you always even unto the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Jesus who proclaimed at the beginning of that section that all power and authority had been given to Him is with us in the going, and so it is in Christ’s power and authority that we can in boldness proclaim the Gospel, which Paul tells us is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). And this is a good reminder to us that we don’t convert people, it is God working through His Word by which people are converted to faith. So the pressure is taken off. It is God alone who does the work. It is also God, through the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to proclaim that Gospel.
So our modern mission efforts don’t have to be a muddled mess. I don’t believe that it is really difficult to discern what is a mission and what is not. I think Scripture makes it very clear for us. So while your trip can still include doing things to serve your neighbor like building houses, playing soccer with orphans, and helping to inoculate the poor against disease, it just means that in order for it to be a mission trip the proclamation of the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins needs to be front and center. It means that you need to be intentional about this proclamation. So as the church let’s bring about a revolution in modern missions and make, once again, Gospel proclamation the center of our work. Let’s, in the words of St. Paul (Rom. 10:15), be those “beautiful feet” who “bring the good news!”
 The phrase is often attributed to Francis of Assisi but it has been told to me that there is no historical proof that Francis ever said this.