Missions is changing.
At least, that is what some people say. And there’s no question, they have a point. There seem to be more and more people who are sent out to live in foreign countries with less and less of a concern for proclaiming the gospel and establishing and strengthening biblical local churches.
Now, we don’t want to exaggerate the problem.
Because there are many godly missionaries out there who are steadily plodding away to advance the cause of Christ in this world. And there have always been missionaries who didn’t fulfill their calling as well as they should. But, still it’s true, it does seem like there are many people who seem to be more concerned about helping with people’s physical needs than they do pursuing their eternal good. And you know, to illustrate that, it wouldn’t be surprising if these kinds of ministries get more college age students excited than perhaps ministries that seem more word oriented.
The question is, what might be causing this?
Perhaps someone might think it is the concern for people’s physical problems that is causing this. Is that true? Does a concern for people’s physical problems automatically and necessarily lead to a lack of concern for their spiritual good? Or maybe more specifically, does thoughtful and deliberate action taken towards relieving people’s physical problems lead away from a passionate pursuit of their spiritual health?
I am not so sure about that.
Instead, to me, this solution seems to be a case of identifying a symptom and then misdiagnosing the cause.
If people being more passionate about helping with people’s physical needs than spreading the gospel is the symptom, what is the cause? Is the cause their being passionate about helping with people’s physical needs? Is that why they aren’t passionate about spreading the gospel and the local church?
I really don’t think so.
Instead, I would think the cause has more to do with a general pre-occupation in the church with this world and what is happening now instead of the world to come and heaven and hell and judgment. Why aren’t we as concerned about preaching the Word as we are digging a well? We don’t really believe that there are people in hell right now who are in absolute anguish crying out for even a drop of water on their tongue, but we do believe there are people in villages who don’t have access to clean water. (Maybe that’s even why we distinguish between preaching the word and digging the well and say things like digging a well is mercy ministry. What? If you believe in hell, preaching the word is definitely mercy ministry too!)
We have lost sight of forever and so we can only focus on the now.
In the last several hundred years there probably hasn’t been a single preacher more concerned with heaven and hell and eternal issues than Jonathan Edwards and yet throughout his writings you often find him consistently stressing the importance of mercy, service to the poor and on and on we could go.
Obviously, his concern for the poor didn’t stop him from focusing on eternity as well or cause him to get his priorities out of a place.
It doesn’t have to distract us either.
When you see people who are more concerned about a person’s present physical needs than they are his eternal spiritual problems, the solution is not to downplay the importance of being concerned about a person’s present physical needs but instead to maximize the importance of his eternal condition.
I actually come at this issue the other way.
If I meet someone who has no concern for someone’s physical condition but tells me it is because they are so concerned about their eternal condition, I have a hard time believing that. It doesn’t take much faith for me to see that someone is suffering physically and if I don’t have the compassion to care about that, why would I have the compassion to care about their eternal suffering when believing that takes faith? At the same time, if I meet someone who is only concerned about a person’s physical suffering and has no concern for their eternal condition I don’t think that’s because they are loving the person too much. How can they truly love someone if they don’t care about their eternity?
Imagine the two of us driving someone home from an appointment where they just found out they had cancer. We are in a car accident where that individual’s arm is broken, you wouldn’t say to me, why are you concerned that his arm is broken, he has cancer! Of course not. But if I am only concerned about his broken arm over the weeks and months ahead, then you might want to warn me that I do need to get some perspective. A broken arm is a problem, but cancer is much more serious.
And the same is true with mercy ministries. If someone is truly and selflessly seeking to show the love of Christ to people in extreme physical distress, we shouldn’t look at them suspiciously or attack them for doing so. But we certainly should wonder if as they go about doing that, they don’t go the next step and seek to care for that person’s spiritual condition as well. For as John Piper once put it, we as Christians should be concerned about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.