I’m posting this to answer a question posed to me by a coworker of mine, who I’ll call Crazy Cars Lady #2 (CCL#2 for short).
The other day, CCL#2, my wife, and I went out to lunch at Maggie’s Diner, a local joint with really good biscuits & gravy. Sometime during the meal, a pair of Church of Jesus Christ & Latter Day Saints missionaries showed up a few feet away at the diner’s cash register.
Alicia & I didn’t see them (well, at least I didn’t), but CCL#2 noticed them and made a comment about not considering what they were doing a “mission” but was rather “witnessing.” She further commented that she didn’t feel missionary work was needed here.
I sent CCL#2 a long-winded (me? a windbag?) email about why I felt missions were needed here — perhaps even more so because of the rampant spread of Christian churches which are no such thing.
Well, leave it to me to miss the point entirely. In my mind, missions & witnessing (or, evangelism) are just about the same. And that’s the perspective I took in the email. I really need to back away from what I’m saying and realize that people cannot read my minds, nor I theirs.
To a great many — perhaps the majority of — people, missions is social. They take the form as homeless shelters, “Lord’s kitchens,” free clinics, orphanages, the building of homes, and so on. And these are all Very Good Things™.
In fact, those things are so good, they ought to be part & parcel with our lives.
That’s a weighty thought, to be sure. However, lest I be accused of making stuff up, I want to share this instruction from my King:
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then he will sit on His glorious throne. 32And 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; 33and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
34Then 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. 35For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
37Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? 38And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
40And 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.’
41Then he will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’
44Then they themselves also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’
45Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31–46, NASB
Contextually, this applies strictly to the brothers of the King (verse 40), which are the regenerate of all ages. However, in light of the principles of living taught in such as Matthew 5–7 (the Sermon on the Mount), it can be reasoned that it is important to live compassionately toward all people.
However, all that said, that isn’t really missions. When we think of the “missionary journeys of Paul,” for instance, we don’t think of him heading over to Corinth or Rome to hammer some nails for Habitat for Humanity! What did Paul do on his missionary journeys?
He preached. And preached. And when he’d get stoned for preaching, what did he do? He preached. That was his life. That was his mission. That was what Jesus commissioned the apostles to do (Matthew 28:18–20). That was what those first Christians were empowered to do (Acts 1:8) — not just the apostles, but all those whom were gathered there.
Now before I make it seem like missions are comprised of only preaching, I really don’t mean that. The idea is service; indeed, the word “missionary” according to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of American English refers to one who is sent forth, one who is commissioned. Those who are sent forth to preach and to bear witness of Jesus Christ fit that definition to a “T.”
But at the end of Acts 11, we do see a social mission, so to speak; a great famine is foretold, and the disciples decide to send — everyone according to their ability — relief to their brethren in Judae. This relief is sent by the hands of Paul & Barnabas, and this missions trip is detailed for us in Acts 12.
Depending on the version you use, you may not find the word “mission” itself; it’s there (Acts 12:25), but it may appear as one of its synonyms: “ministry” or “service,” for example.
But do notice verse 24: “But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied” (NASB).
I think social work is great. The hungry need fed. The naked need clothed. The homeless need homes. All of that and more are worthy causes that Christians ought to be championing. However, our priorities must be kept in check; we may be commissioned to serve a meal, to build a house, to visit the imprisoned, but none of those things should take the place of or overshadow that which we call the Great Commission. Again, in the words of my King:
And He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; 47and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. Mt. 28:19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Luke 24:46–48; Matthew 28:19, 20, NASB
I’m going to summarize it like this: all witnessing (evangelism) is missions work, but not all missions work is witnessing. The caveat here is that I believe the focal point of all biblical (i.e., Christian) missions ought to be that the Word of God grows & multiplies in the hearts of men.
And as the elect of God are sent out to preach His Word, those who become Christians will then be able to shake up the areas they live in by infusing their lives with the principles of the kingdom of God. And eventually those Christians will be sending forth preachers to other areas, starting the process over.
I do not deny that special needs to arise, and just as Paul & Barnabas carried relief to Judae, so should Christians today be sensitive to such needs as well, that the Word of God may grow and multiply always!
I hope I helped to clarify the issues for you, CCL#2; if not, leave a comment or get with me at work. (And if anyone else reading this is confused or thinks that I’m totally mixed up, please do leave your questions & comments as well!)
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