by EMQ Readers
Readers reply to questions raised in a previous article (Relief and Development Work is Not Part of the Great Commission, January, 1982).
As a medical missionary with 14 years in the field and about five years of experience in development, I feel quite firmly that inaccurate assumptions about development underlie Mr. Owens’ position. ("Relief and development work is not part of the Great Commission," January, 1982.) He lists two solutions to the man rummaging through garbage for food: placing food there, or inviting the man in, befriending him and giving him both spiritual and physical food.
But these suggestions fall short of their goals. The first is devoid of human contact, and therefore of the opportunity to share the gospel. The second assumes that the man will want to be befriended, that he will want to accept a handout, that he will tolerate a possibly patronizing, dependent situation. Both of these solutions offer only immediate help in the man’s need to survive. What about the next day? And the next? If the Christian moves away, the man’s food supply is cut off and he is again desperately needy.
However, I believe that community development is a more effective means of both sharing the gospel of Christ and of relieving suffering. Community development is the process of enabling people to identify and attempt to solve their own problems.
When Christians actively demonstrate Christ’s love by responding to physical need, relationships of trust develop which often lead to opportunities for sharing Christ’s message on a one-to-one basis. In a Christian context, community development should involve and strengthen the local church.
When a local church is lacking, community health often is effective in establishing one. A mission in West Africa has found community health helpful in starting churches in areas which for decades have been resistant to the gospel.
Community development does not foster dependency by providing a short-term solution. Rather than handing out food, for example, development helps people determine how they can increase their crop yields.
Nor, as Mr. Owens states, does community development promote materialism. Rather, community development aims to bring a tolerable standard of living to poverty-stricken people living in countries like Bangladesh, where I served for two years.
There, in rural areas, approximately one out of four children dies before the age of five from preventable diseases, frequently induced by malnutrition. Community development is undertaken with sensitivity to the local culture, using indigenous, appropriate methodology, materials and technology.
As a Christian, my responsibility is to fulfill the Great Commission. But Christ did not only command me to preach the gospel. He also told me to love my neighbor as myself. His dearly loved disciple wrote, "Whoever possesses the world’s goods and beholds his brother in need and then locks his heart against him, how can the love of God be in him?" (I John 3:17).
The Great Commission and community development are not antagonistic. Rather, the Christian who patiently, gently helps people learn to relieve their suffering heightens receptivity to the Christian message. People see that Christianity is a vital faith lived out through love and deeds.
—Howard Searle Director for Community Health Programs MAP International Wheaton, Ill.
As a missionary recently returned from twelve years of service in Bangladesh, I applaud Ralph Owens for struggling with the issue of relief and development vs. evangelism and Bible teaching. No, raising people’s living standard is not a part of the Great Commission. But, yes, we must respond in some way to real suffering. The problem is the definition of real suffering. Most Westerners have never seen any poverty and can tend to be a little soft-headed on the issue, whereas my colleagues and I in Bangladesh see it enough that we tend to get a little hardhearted! Let’s keep struggling with the issue.
Yet, let’s not underestimate the social value of church planting. If I had to vote on it, I’d opt for planting fruit trees over importing fruit.
—Ed Welch International Christian Fellowship Wheaton, Ill.
As a missionary organization working with medical personnel serving overseas, we have often asked the question, Is medical work included in the Great Commission? Our conclusion has been that if medical work is used as a means of evangelical gospel witness in a given area, it is part of Christ’s commission to heal the sick. He, himself, healed when he was on earth to give opportunity for preaching the truth. But if a work itself does not provide a gospel outreach, or if no attempt is made to provide for both the spiritual and physical needs of individuals through a ministry, we can only assume we are doing good works and, as Mr. Owens suggests, salving our own conscience -neither of which provides eternal dividends for the giver or the salvation of souls to the lost.
—Marjorie A. Collins Director Of Public Relations, OCEAN, Inc.,Columbia, S. C.
I do not agree entirely with what Mr. Owens had to say. I feel that his explanations are sometimes over-stated, and in some cases contradictory! I can only speak out of my experience in the area of relief and development, and my association with medical ministries in the Mali Republic, West Africa. My wife and I have served the Lord in both the Mali and Upper Volta Republics for the past 22 years. I do agree that it is possible to get sidetracked in ministries which treat the physical and material rather than those which we term strictly spiritual. But this need not be the case.
I would borrow from one of his statements to point out what seems to me to be a contradiction. On page 28 he states that a ministry of relieving the suffering of people in underdeveloped countries cannot come under the heading of the Great Commission. Then he writes, "Those people involved in obeying the Great Commission carry within them a compassion for the needs of others, and they will respond to their physical needs as they preach the gospel of Jesus Christ." Now, to me, we cannot minister to the physical needs of a people while taking the gospel to them without engaging in nursing or relief or development, all of which are designed to relieve their suffering and economic hardship which prevents them from getting help.
One other point he makes is that missionaries carry on a relief or development ministry, or even nursing for that matter because of a guilt complex since we are the well-to-do and those we treat and help in these countries are the underprivileged. I agree that we are in a sense guilty. This cannot be avoided when we come up against a need in the lives of those who have not had the opportunities, or education, or means we have had in our Western society to rise above a state of mere subsistence. He says we need to go to the people with compassion. Compassion is present because we do see the need, and can do something about it, and want to. I do not agree that guilt is the No. I factor in relief or development or medical work. It is compassion and a desire to help those who are in need. The Scriptures state clearly the need to be helpful when there is a need. To turn our back and say, "You need only the gospel, not medicine, nor grain, nor a better standard of living," to me wrongly dissects the gospel into physical, material and spiritual evaluations. All we have and are is of the Lord.
One comment he makes seems to me to be too englobing. On page 26 he states, "I know one situation where the people had a vibrant church, but since being exposed to ‘the better life’ all they want to do is move to the city." To me, moving into the city does not constitute a spiritual void, or necessarily produce shallow Christians. In Mali, because of drought conditions and the lack of sufficient food in villages, young men have been moving into the centers for years in order to find work so they can help support their families. But this doesn’t necessarily produce lukewarm Christians. It may contribute to it, if they do not associate with a strong church there and receive spiritual food for their souls. But some of these young men have become stronger in their faith by rubbing shoulders with the world and learning to stand on their own feet spiritually away from their families who were always around to comfort and counsel. I admit that modern day evils of urban society are not conducive to spiritual life, but they can be the means of purifying a soul.
To say that missionaries by living on a higher standard than the people they minister to cause the latter to crave better living conditions and consequently lead them into divers temptations, is not entirely the case. It depends on how missionaries use what they have in the eyes of the people. We constantly have our African friends in with us to visit, and sometimes to eat if they feel free to do so. We don’t lower our standards when we minister to them, but we do expose them to the way we live. When we are with our friends in their villages, we eat as they eat and sit as they sit, and enjoy it. We let them know we appreciate their hospitality, and they do the same with us. Here is where attitude really counts.
To argue that when Christ said to the rich young ruler to give all his goods to the poor, it was of no purpose to those who would benefit from his generosity, but was only to test his love to himself, is not, in my thinking, a valid reasoning of that portion of Scripture. Can we say that because some individuals do not appreciate what we do for them when we give them physical or material help, we should therefore not do so? I don’t believe so.
I have seen too many individuals helped through medical assistance, and relief and development projects to agree with Mr. Owens that these are not a part of the Great Commission. To me the question is not whether we should, or shouldn’t engage in relief and medical ministries. We cannot do otherwise when we see the need, and know we can help meet that need. That, in my thinking, is love in action.
—Robert D. Overstreet Lincoln, Neb.
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