Before we can have a good discussion about the role of good works on the mission field, we need to agree about what missions is and what missionaries do.
In his book, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, Eckhard Schnabel answers those two questions like this:
1. What is missions?
“The term “mission” or “missions” refers to the activity of a community of faith that distinguishes itself from its environment in terms of both religious belief (theology) and social behavior (ethics), that is convinced of the truth claims of its faith, and that actively works to win other people to the content of faith and the way of life of whose truth and necessity the members of that community are convinced.”
2.What do missionaries do?
“Missionaries establish contact with non-Christians, they proclaim the news of Jesus the Messiah and Savior (proclamation, preaching, teaching, instruction), they lead people to faith in Jesus Christ (conversion, baptism), and they integrate the new believers into the local community of the followers of Jesus (Lord’s Supper, transformation of social and moral behavior, charity).”
Now, if our definition of missions involves “actively working to win other people to the content of faith and the way of life of whose truth and necessity the members of that community are convinced,” anyone not actively seeking to do that is not doing the work of missions even if he is living somewhere other than his home country. And if our explanation of what missionaries do, involves, “proclaiming the gospel, leading people to faith, making disciples and planting churches,” then anyone who is not interested in evangelism and who is not actively seeking to promote the spiritual health of a local church is not really serving as a missionary, no matter how nice they might be.
On the other hand, if missions involves a community of faith distinguishing itself from its environment in terms of religious belief and social ethics, it would be strange to say someone is doing missions without a deep concern for the physical and spiritual good of their neighbors. One of the distinguishing characteristics of followers of Christ is their love. And the apostle John explains that true love involves more than just words. It is not normal for someone to say they are doing missions without a concern to evangelize. It is just as strange for someone to say they are doing missions without a concern for people.
It is hard to think of someone moving to a foreign country claiming they are serving as a missionary without a primary commitment to sharing the gospel, making disciples, and planting churches. Perhaps, we should call people who do this something other than missionaries. On the other hand, is it possible to move to a foreign country with a primary commitment to sharing the gospel, making disciples, and planting churches while engaging in what might be seen as secondary activities like digging a well?
I think, the answer to that question is, of course. Without writing an essay, two simple examples come immediately to mind:
First, missionaries establish contacts with non-Christians. It can be hard to do that very well sitting in your study. Where better to establish contacts with non-Christians then by getting involved in their community life?
Second, missionaries serve as part of a team. In our own family, my wife does many things that make ministry and service possible for us. Without her doing those things, it would be very difficult for me to do the work of preaching on Sunday. The same should be true with many individuals who are serving in mercy-ministry related activities. Through their daily interaction with people, love, and acts of compassion, they are helping create the context in which a local church can thrive.