In their early years, should a team of missionaries focus less on language learning in order to provide humanitarian services to the poor?
No Shortcut to Success
By Matt Rhodes
The Centrality of Communication in the Missionary Task
There are many ways Christians can serve God cross-culturally, but not all of them focus on serving Christ as his ambassadors. We can participate in many worthwhile Christian ministries, such as drilling wells, providing dental care, and overseeing micro-loans; the list is endless. But we can do all of those things well without ever sharing Jesus’s message or even knowing the language well enough to be able to do so. To be sure, such ministries may meet urgent needs. But if we want to maintain our focus as ambassadors, we need to be wise as to how we address these pressing, felt needs around us.
Consider this common mission-field quandary: In their early years, should a team of missionaries focus less on language learning in order to provide humanitarian services to the poor? If they pull back on language learning, they may hamstring their ability to communicate the message of Christ later on. But if they spend the bulk of their time learning the language, they will be less able—at least for a time—to serve the poor in tangible ways. The question is simple: which calling is primary?
Different Christians will answer this differently, according to their different callings. But missionaries whose ministry and giftedness revolves around serving as Christ’s ambassadors should prioritize communicating the gospel message over all other ministry activities. To be sure, they should still show compassion for the felt needs of those around them, but they should engage in ongoing ministries to meet those needs only when doing so doesn’t hinder their ability to effectively proclaim the gospel, or when it’s necessary to open doors for their message.
Am I advocating a “turn or burn” approach to missions? Am I trading the holistic love of Jesus for a crude salvationism that’s indifferent to human suffering around us? No and no. Let me explain.
First, Jesus’s love is holistic, but my ministry is limited, and so is yours. In the underdeveloped nations in which I have worked, a truly holistic ministry would have provided education, dentistry, optometry, water treatment, medical care, mental health services, public health services, infrastructure development, and marriage and family counseling—and much, much more. No missionary or team of missionaries should deceive itself by believing it is able to meet every need. Christian love requires that we stand ready to do what we can to meet the needs of those around us. But in order to do so, we must recognize that what we can do is limited, and we must prioritize which needs we will attend to. For example, when widows are overlooked in the daily food distribution, the apostles conclude that “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). Did the apostles not care that widows were suffering? Of course they cared! They found the most responsible men they could to look after them. But as ambassadors of Christ, their primary ministry was to preach Jesus’s message. And because knowing Jesus is people’s deepest need, they refused to let other needs get in the way.
It’s hard for some of us to treat Jesus so unapologetically as people’s deepest need. A Christian humanitarian argues in an opinion article that we should “show up for people in need . . . [and] seek their wellbeing, flourishing, and justice, whether they ever convert to our religion or not.” Certainly, we should care about people regardless of whether or not they become believers. But since ultimate well-being is possible only through faith in Jesus, why not phrase this in the opposite way? Why not say, unapologetically, that we “show up for people in need, simply seeking for them to know Jesus, whether or not they ever attain our Western standards of well-being, flourishing, and justice”? If we could somehow meet all of people’s this-world needs without introducing them to Jesus, then their greatest need would be left unmet. Sharing Christ’s message must take priority over other acts of mercy and justice—it’s the only act that can meet their eternal needs. Tim Keller explains:
Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being. This is true not because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal.
John Piper sums this up: “We Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.”
Second, when I say that missionaries’ primary ministry is to proclaim the gospel, I’m not arguing that they should ignore people’s humanitarian needs. Christians care about all suffering. And while the relationship between evangelism and other acts of mercy is “asymmetrical”—evangelism takes priority—Keller reminds us that it is still an “inseparable” relationship. Nor are missionaries likely to forget this! After all, the straw-man portrayals of “traditional missionaries” who want only to convert people and neglect their tangible needs are just that: straw-man portrayals. Let’s not forget that William Carey is best known in Kolkata today for promoting literacy among Bengalis, and that Hudson Taylor himself was a doctor! Compassion is an indispensable part of the Christian life.
That being said, Christians of most vocations—from engineers to ambassadors of foreign nations—shouldn’t structure their vocational lives around meeting the most tangible humanitarian needs of people around them. Of course they should give to the poor and help their neighbors when needs arise. But an engineer’s vocational life is structured around serving society by designing roads well, and an ambassador’s vocational life is structured around serving society by negotiating peace between nations. Similarly, missionaries should help the poor, but they shouldn’t structure their vocational lives around this. They already have a vocation as Christ’s ambassadors. They’ve been sent to deliver his message and set people free from eternal suffering. They’ll serve those around them best by staying focused on that.
Just before he ascended into heaven, Christ told his apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus is clear: the Holy Spirit will inhabit our message and witness, rather than work apart from it. The Spirit doesn’t explain the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch; he leads Philip down the Gaza road to do so (Acts 8:28–40). The angel that appears to Cornelius doesn’t explain the gospel to him; he tells him to seek out Peter (Acts 10:22, 34–43). Throughout the New Testament, the most common result of the Spirit coming on people or filling people is that they speak. Rather than bypassing ordinary, human means of communication, the Spirit communicates through God’s people, and communication is “the missionary problem, par excellence.” God sends missionaries as ambassadors. He is “entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:19). As Hesselgrave has helpfully summarized, “Whatever else the missionary is, he is a persuaded man persuading others.” This task is the missionary’s guiding star.
Excerpted from No Shortcut to Success by Matt Rhodes, ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway.