by Jim Reapsome
By and large, if you’re a missionary motivator, you can take one of two routes. You can either point to the great progress the church has made in fulfilling the Great Commission, or you can point to the vast multitudes who have yet to hear the name of Christ.
By and large, if you’re a missionary motivator, you can take one of two routes. You can either point to the great progress the church has made in fulfilling the Great Commission, or you can point to the vast multitudes who have yet to hear the name of Christ. In one sense, Ralph Winter, has done us the favor of highlighting both. He wrote a book called The Twenty-Five Unbelievable Years, in which he showed how missionary outreach exploded after World War II. Then he looked around and decided all was not well, because too many missionaries were working with too few people, and thousands of "hidden peoples" are not being reached at all.
There is nothing wrong with pushing both of these themes, if one is trying to recruit missionaries and people to support them. Some people are more likely to respond to success. They like to know things are happening. They want to be where the action is. They want to support a winner. Other people aren’t likely to respond unless there is a crucial need. Thoughts of unreached peoples and too few people to reach them are their bread and butter. If people are slipping into eternity at a faster rate than people are being converted, that is a solemn thought indeed.
But moving Christians to become missionary-minded isn’t quite the same as moving a crowd of college students to support their football team. Generally, winning teams draw bigger crowds. Perhaps that psychology has crept into missions. Fund-raising and promotion typically portray winners, not losers. Big, dynamic, forward-moving agencies seem to attract more millions than the small agencies. This trend was just one of several that missions agencies grappled with at a conference called by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. (See the article by Olan Hendrix in this issue.) There does seem to be more momentum with the winners. Quoting statistics about unheard of tribes in remote places doesn’t have quite the same impact. Perhaps in a success – oriented age we don’t like to be reminded of our failures. Or perhaps some Christians still think the last person on earth will be reached via satellite television or a computerized mailing. We are numbed by numbers, whether the numbers have to do with earthquake victims, starving refugees, or those who have yet to be evangelized.
It could very well be that we should keep quiet for awhile. That could be dangerous, because if the fund-raisers do that someone else will come along and soak up the dollars. That might not be a serious loss. Those dollars might save us from doing things we ought not to do anyway. Too often in the past policy has been determined by the availability of dollars, or the lack of them.
We suspect that many people in the pews are getting tired of PR hype, even for good causes. Television has drained them. Far-fetched schemes of building grandiose institutions have dulled their spiritual sensitivities. Some mission agencies are just catching on to the new sophisticated fundraising techniques, while others are having serious reservations about having been caught up in them. Once involved, it’s extremely difficult to back away.
We do not question the necessity of money for missions. Enormous sums, billions of dollars, will be needed in the future simply to support the missionaries and mission projects we are now engaged in. But if that money does not come in, do we close up shop and declare the game ended? Would the Great Commission no longer be valid, if TV and direct mail went dead? We must take a hard look at where our confidence really lies. Some Third World church leaders have said they might welcome a respite from Western financial imperialism. If the U. S. economy ground to a halt, would those churches disappear? Hardly.
But what about those vast multitudes who need to hear and obey the gospel? Do we write them off because we have neither money nor people? Of course not. But we must not depend on promotion built on a numbers psychology. It could be useful if we stopped talking about "the billions" for awhile and focused instead on how just one single American Christian might do something practical for the world-wide church.
No one can possibly grasp the enormity of "billions," whether people or dollars. But this country is full of highly dedicated, intelligent Christians who can grasp specific, doable concepts, like teaching overseas, practicing medicine, working as a printer, passing out literature, witnessing with gospel teams, and so on. We don’t need unrealistic appeals, we need hard information in the churches.
People can and will respond. Our confidence must be in God and in his people, those who really care about near and far neighbors, whether in Chicago or Calcutta. How is the gospel advancing, how is Christ building his church, quite apart from overblown publicity?
Well, there’s this retired educator, dean of a graduate school, whose heart burns for missions. He found a place to serve overseas. Seems there was this new seminary started by and for a national church. Small, yes, with only a handful of professors. Hardly in the class of the institution this man retired from. But there was this infant seminary and this man was healthy and he wanted to go and he did. He didn’t fit the negative stereotype so often given. He wasn’t just looking for retirement ease.
We believe there are hundreds of other Christians around like him who would appreciate some brotherly counsel and encouragement, rather than a kick in the pants. These people would like to know how and where they could be useful in missions. Not only senior citizens, but men and women who can take early retirement. There’s this airlines executive and his wife who quit a comfortable life in a Chicago suburb and joined a mission’s home staff. There’s a former steel executive who is now pitching in for a mission’s accounting department, and so on. These people weren’t looking for a winner, but for a place of significant service.
In addition, we have a tremendous resource in Christian teenagers, those who often are maligned for being materialistic and interested only in careers that promise big pay and security. We just heard from one who doesn’t fit this image at all. He is 16 and he is on his first overseas assignment. "This town is industrial and a lot of people are out of work," he writes. "You walk down the street and most people won’t even look you straight in the face. But I guess with unemployment being the way it is, people will be looking for that something that they don’t have. We take everything one day at a time. But in general we have at least one open-air meeting a day."
No one had to teach that young man to glamorize the facts, to prove that things are going better or worse than they actually are. His straightforward account is impressive. More than that, he and his friends are the genuine hope of the church’s future world-wide mission. If all we had to depend on were the over 50s and the under 20s, we would be in good shape. Obviously, we need the total resources of the church, but we do not need to continue the unmerciful pounding of the people, either to get going with the winners or to suffer false guilt with the losers.
We can be thankful for tremendous advances, but we must not neglect opportunities to back off, to evaluate, to look at what we have done, to question both motives and techniques. No cause, no goal, no matter how worthy, is beyond honest, Spirit-filled scrutiny.
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