Eighteen years ago when I first came to Japan as a missionary, I had to clarify my purpose. The Japanese unbelievers around me wondered aloud about the nature and intent of my work. A young Japanese Christian even told me, “We don’t need missionaries anymore.”
If my aim was conversions to Christ, it wasn’t a popular mission.
When we encounter skepticism about our evangelistic efforts, it can be tempting to answer, “Oh no, I don’t want to convert you. I want to serve you. I want to show you God’s love.”
But when we fall into this kind of mentality, we can lose sight of the gospel of grace. We can begin to think we need a larger gospel and a broader mission to better engage the culture. Of course, we do need to establish credibility and the right to speak. If Japanese people think I spend my days in their country just hanging out and going out to eat a lot, that doesn’t really inspire respect for my message. It looks like laziness to the Japanese, who themselves are often working long hours every day. Gaining respect from these hard-working skeptics was one reason I taught English in colleges for 10 years.
Since living out the gospel gives credence to our words, I also looked for ways to serve while bearing good witness for Christ. At that time, there were no homes for pregnant women in Japan, children were generally placed in orphanages rather than in adoptive families and there was no such thing as post-abortion counseling. It seemed natural for me, as a follower of Christ, to get involved. This is how some Japanese Christians and I came to run a crisis pregnancy center, a home for pregnant women and a post-abortion counseling ministry. We also run a neighborhood café that serves as a workplace for the pregnant women who live with me.
Over the years, I’ve practiced “Word ministry” and “mercy ministry” simultaneously. But I’ve also noticed that those of us who are deeply concerned about social activism can easily fall into self-righteousness. We aren’t like others who are just “trying to convert people.” We’re holistically engaging the world and making it a better place.
Since God does call some of us to be involved in social action, how are we to go about it without becoming just like the world we’re supposedly trying to change? We must never forget our first calling is to obey the Great Commission. We’re soldiers of the cross, not mere social activists who happen to be Christians.
Soldiers of the Cross
In our justice work, we can often gain acceptance from the world and better people’s lives. That is well and good. But if, in the end, they die without Christ, then—for them, at least—all is lost. As soldiers of the cross, we always hope that our actions will result in greater opportunities for people to hear, believe and obey the gospel.
In 2011, a Japanese filmmaker featured our work supporting adoption in a documentary which identified me as a Christian missionary. This documentary was the first in a series that greatly influenced the image of adoption in Japan. Because of the documentary, and my own adoption of a boy with Down syndrome, I was asked, along with Japanese adoption advocates, to speak to members of the Japanese government in Tokyo as they considered new, restrictive adoption policies.
Eventually, the officials decided to continue to allow private adoption agencies such as the Christian one we use. Rather quickly, the government went from anti-adoption to decidedly pro-adoption. In fact, our local government often sends pregnant women to our ministry to live—even knowing the women will be required to have devotions with me every night and go to church.
In our work, we must remember that we can’t save people, but we can plant seeds. Shizuka (not her real name) was a determined, hard-working woman who decided to carry her child to term, partly because of a phone conversation we had early in her pregnancy. When she became homeless, she moved into our ministry for the last weeks of her pregnancy. Shizuka arrived angry and stayed angry until the day she left. She blamed me that she hadn’t gotten an abortion. During Bible study, she and her neighbor often scoffed. Shizuka didn’t like Christians.
After she left, she was able to get a job, and she gradually came to love her son. Over the years, I kept in touch and continued to pray. Slowly, Shizuka softened. She started attending a church nearby, where the pastor’s wife became a great help to her. Eventually, I received a photo of her baptism. A few days ago, she sent me a letter with photos of her and her son on a vacation. This tough skeptic has become a wonderful Christian mother.
When I am only in social activist mode, I tend to focus on what I am doing. Am I making a big enough difference? But when I remember I’m first a soldier of the cross, I focus more on what God is doing. That’s why, after asking for permission, I pray with post-abortion clients. Many times, the woman (or man) will break down during the prayer, and then ask to receive our gospel-centered counseling. God can do that; I can’t.
As soldiers of the cross, we do everything in the name of Jesus, with the hope of planting seeds that will blossom into the salvation of image-bearers who become disciples. We have an ultimately eternal perspective, both for ourselves and also for those we serve.
Ultimate Problem, Ultimate Solution
Jesus made it clear that saving one lost sheep is worth nearly everything. It moves angels to dance for joy. As Christians, we want to love our neighbors and bring practical blessing to as many as possible, but only the gospel of grace has the power to save. In the end, everyone’s biggest problem is their need for God’s forgiveness of their own sin (e.g., Matt. 9:1–8). Without this mindset, we are in danger of helping people down a broad path that leads to an improved life here, but destruction in the end.
Additionally, a solider of the cross will long for Christ’s return. Christ is the ultimate Warrior who will put all things right. In the meantime, we fulfill the Great Commission.
As we bear witness for him, God may call us to renew aspects of culture, to endure persecution, to feed his sheep, to serve faithfully in a humdrum life or to be martyrs. This requires much wisdom for how we conduct ourselves during our brief time on earth. Regardless of our unique callings, however, Christians everywhere and at all times must be willing to “go forth to him, outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Heb. 13:13–14).
This article originally appeared on TheGospelCoalition.org.