When the Tyranny of the Urgent Invades Missions

I’m deeply concerned that much of evangelical Christian missions is a straw house built on a sandy shore.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but Americans don’t do well with delays. We live in an age of two-day delivery, when you can receive just about any essential (or nonessential) item at your doorstep within 48 hours. If you’re ordering milk or cookies, it might only be a matter of minutes. Western Christians also come from a more task-driven and time-conscious culture. Relationships and partnerships, while valued, aren’t primary. Maybe most significant of all, few of us operate with a long-term vision. Prudence and patience are social virtues of the past. Our consumeristic culture has given rise to throwaway culture. We value novelty and immediacy more than durability.

This phenomenon might be most obvious in modern architecture. What we build today is gone tomorrow. We don’t construct edifices that remain and survive. Gone are the days of cathedrals and castles. Instead, we erect shopping malls and shanties that, within our lifetime, will flatten by wind or by wrecking ball. The same could be said of Christian missions. It would be foolish to assume that our prevailing cultural atmosphere doesn’t in some way influence the way we envision overseas ministry.

In missions, we recruit missionaries with urgency, not toward longevity. We tend to go fast, or we don’t go at all. We invest untold material and personnel resources to help others in the short term but do so in ways that often hurt them in the long run. We start countless programs and projects, only to watch many fizzle out and die. While our missionary mantra of late has been “Work yourself out of a job,” one has to wonder if a more appropriate goal would be, “Build something that lasts.”

My concern is that we’re living at a time in global missions today where the gospel and faithful ministry are threatened by the tyranny of the urgent. We’ve often sacrificed the important for the immediate, the best for the most pressing. Over the last few decades, as our focus has been on reaching the unreached and finishing the task, we’ve increasingly prioritized rapid reproduction, with a programmatic and results-driven focus that looks more like Western capitalism and business franchising than genuine Christlike servanthood and faithful stewardship.

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Democratization of Missions

We live in a day of what could be called the democratization of missions. Everyone is a missionary, and everything we do is mission. As the world continues to shrink, our opportunities keep expanding. But in such a situation, how do we prioritize our limited resources? How does a church know whom to support or where to go? And how can we determine if what we’re doing is faithful to Christ’s gospel and our mandate?

It’s not enough to just do something. In this hour, one temptation for the church is to respond to the urgent global need by simply trying our best while aiming at the nebulous goal of God’s glory. Even if we don’t know whether we’re effecting change or doing lasting good, we might at least find solace with the impossibility of our task, the nobility of our intentions, and the sovereignty of our God. When our efforts collapse and no legacy survives, we might surrender to the words of the psalmist, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).

Don’t misunderstand me. The need for building is undoubtedly urgent; the task before us is truly unfinished. So I resonate with voices that call for immediate action. I also appreciate the emphasis on glorifying God and an accompanying God-centered confidence that totally depends on him for success. But there’s a wrong way to rest in God’s sovereignty while taking great risk. If we steward Christ’s gospel and the church’s resources yet end up with nothing to show for it, God is not honored. Nor will we be.

Our consumeristic culture has given rise to throwaway culture. We value novelty and immediacy more than durability.

Jesus taught that the honorific commendation “Well done, good and faithful servant” is reserved for those who spend wisely, who produce a return on God’s investment (Matt. 25:14–30). Paul says much the same, though using the metaphor of construction. Only those who build with the right materials can expect a recompense for their labor: “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss” (1 Cor. 3:14–15).

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In 1 Corinthians, as in many places throughout the Corinthian correspondence, Paul reveals how God’s judgment was a controlling influence over his mission—as it should be over all our missions. What matters on the last day is God’s approval of our work and the lasting value of our efforts. Of course, Paul wasn’t talking about the structural integrity or legacy of a brick-and-mortar structure in Kampala or Chattanooga. He was suggesting that our reward as ministers of the gospel is directly tied to the quality of our labors. Shoddy work will not be praised.

Today, I’m deeply concerned that much of evangelical Christian missions is a straw house built on a sandy shore. From my years living in Asia to my current travels around the globe, what I find are missionaries and ministries with the unbiblical view that, when it comes to missions, any effort is commendable. Equally troubling, many assume that the all-important goal of reaching the lost validates our use of almost any means.

My purpose isn’t to criticize or unhelpfully shame; rather, I’m compelled to raise the caution flag—perhaps we need to slow down if danger is around the bend. I also want to call us to another goal, a different end. At such a time as this, we don’t necessarily need more impassioned pleas about opportunity and urgency. While those are important, I’m convinced that what we desperately need are voices of discernment, calls for wise investment, and plans for better building.

Content adapted from Mission Affirmed by Elliott Clark. This article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.