the shape of leadership

The Case for Missionaries

Responding to contemporary critiques in light of biblical mandates

Why are you going over there when there is so much need here?

Missionaries have been hearing that question for decades. But in recent years, there has been a rising chorus of voices challenging the cross-cultural missionary enterprise.

In an increasingly pluralistic world, why do we continue sending workers to tell the story of Jesus to people who have their own religions?

Simply, we have a God-given assignment to preach this gospel to the ends of the earth. From Genesis to Revelation, the arc of Scripture calls us to participate in the global redemptive mission of God.

As the apostle Paul wrote, “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14). When we consider our Lord’s sacrifice, we can do no less than send and support those He calls as missionaries.

Human missions efforts have never been free from problems. The only perfect missionary was Jesus, who came to reveal God and accomplish our salvation through His death and resurrection.

The missionary task is not a human invention, however. It is the plan of the living God, who works through imperfect people to make himself known among every nation, tribe, and language group.

As challenges to God’s mission come from inside and outside the Church, we must maintain a robust missiology that reflects the heart of God.


External Criticism

For many non-Christians, the idea of Americans going to other societies and cultures to persuade people to follow Jesus is arrogant and morally repugnant.

Some dismiss religion as universally ignorant, divisive, and dangerous.

Others take a more charitable view, recognizing social utility in religion but seeing all faiths as equally valid or salvific. For them, every religion points to the same truth but arrives at it in different ways. Suggesting one belief system is better than another seems elitist, culturally erosive, and deeply offensive.

American author and religious studies professor Rita M. Gross called exclusive truth claims “among the most dangerous, destructive, and immoral ideas that humans have ever created.”

Within this relativistic environment, many see Christian missions as a waste of time at best — and hateful at worst.

Such criticism arises primarily from a worldview that treats the Bible as a human document with no authority, on par with the sacred texts of any other religion. In this view, there is no grand story to believe and no good news to preach. The goal is not proclaiming truth among the nations but simply getting along.

Somewhat ironically, strands of thought within Christian scholarship contribute to this secular worldview. Refining our understanding of the Bible is a worthy endeavor. We lose our way, however, when the need to update our theology undermines the authority of Scripture.

A diminished view of Scripture leads to a reduced concern for missions. If we are not accountable to God’s Word, obedience is optional. Sharing the gospel is no longer urgent — globally or locally.

To influence our world for Christ, we must remain just as committed to reading and obeying the Bible as the first Christians were. As N.T. Wright wrote, these believers saw themselves as “living under Scripture,” which called and equipped them “to be the church in mission, to be sent into the world with the good news of God’s kingdom through the death and resurrection of his Son and in the power of that same Spirit.”

A number of Christian scholars have pushed back against popular assertions that Christianity is intolerant of multiculturalism or suppressing of native cultures. Gambian-born Lamin Sanneh, who taught at Yale Divinity School, made this observation:

Christianity is the religion of over two thousand different language groups in the world. More people pray and worship in more languages in Christianity than in any other religion in the world. Furthermore, Christianity has been the impulse behind the creation of more dictionaries and grammars of the world’s languages than any other force in history. … Obviously these facts of cultural and linguistic pioneering conflict with the reputation of Christianity as one colossal act of cultural intolerance.

In many cases, Christian missionaries have worked to preserve language and honor culture in the midst of the homogenizing effect of globalization. People coming to faith in Jesus and growing in the worldview of the Bible have a sense of belonging to a diverse, worldwide family of faith.

Nevertheless, the most common objections to Christian missions — among non-Christians as well as increasing numbers of Christians — are allegations of colonialism.

In a 2020 Barna Group survey of engaged churchgoing Christians, 41% of young adults (aged 18–34) agreed strongly or somewhat that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism,” as did 32% of 13- to 17-year-olds and 28% of adults 35 and older.

Christian missions began in New Testament times as followers of Jesus spread the gospel from Jerusalem across the Roman world, and it continues to this day.

From the 17th–19th centuries, a flurry of missionary activity coincided with a period of Western political, economic, and cultural expansion known as the colonial era. Indeed, the lines between missional and colonial aims became blurred at times. But there were also many sincere missionaries during that time who laid down their lives for the sake of the gospel.

Today’s missionaries are diverse and often more attuned to cross-cultural issues than their critics. Many are highly trained in intercultural relations, languages, world religions, and gospel contextualization.

Labeling Christian missions as colonial or neocolonial suggests all missionaries are motivated by a sense of moral superiority, racist assumptions, exploitative behaviors, a white-savior complex, and American exceptionalism.

This critique erroneously assumes Christianity is inextricably linked with colonial beliefs and practices. It presupposes Christ followers cannot help but package the gospel in ways that devalue and distort human dignity and life. Nothing could be further from the reality of Jesus’ good news.


Internal Criticism

The experience of some missionary colleagues illustrates how these cultural currents are influencing young adults.

Several Assemblies of God World Missions personnel recently accepted an invitation to address a classroom of students on a university campus. They talked about church planting efforts among unreached people groups and the process of connecting indigenous believers with local churches.

After sharing, the missionaries offered to answer questions. The first two students who spoke up challenged the morality of missionaries evangelizing people of other faiths. The students objected that Christianity’s exclusivist claims reek of Western privilege and neocolonialism. These young people saw compassionate works as commendable, but they opposed the idea of missionaries making converts.

When the missionaries tried to respond, the class moderator quickly ended the discussion and thanked the guests for coming.

We would expect this kind of exchange on a secular campus. However, this happened at a Christian university. The students were enrolled in a class on missions as part of a training program for ministry.

How do we answer such critiques from within our own ranks?

To begin, we invite believers who are struggling with a negative view of missions to read broadly about the history of Christianity.

Historian Philip Jenkins explains in The Next Christendom that missionaries in the colonial era risked violence, tropical diseases, and other dangers — not for colonial objectives like financial gain or political conquest, but for the singular goal of proclaiming the gospel.

Protestant missionaries translated the Scriptures into local languages and empowered native church members to step up as leaders.

Missionaries were often critical of colonial abuses, speaking out to expose them and initiate change. Some of these missionaries became vital allies in Western anti-colonial movements.

Native converts quickly grew in their newfound faith. In fact, many were ready to lay down their lives for the cause of Christ.

The king of Buganda, an African kingdom in present-day Uganda, executed hundreds of locals from 1885–86 when these individuals refused to renounce their Christian faith.

“On a single day, thirty-two Christians were burned alive,” Jenkins wrote. “With such examples in mind, it was ludicrous to claim that the new religion was solely for white people, and the faith spread quickly in both Uganda and Madagascar.”

Today, the World Assemblies of God Fellowship (WAGF) alone comprises approximately 160 national councils, 370,000 churches, and 70 million believers around the world. These are indigenous national churches with their own leadership and training institutions. They are evangelizing their own people and sending out and supporting cross-cultural missionaries.

It would be insulting to deny the agency and commitment of these believers, suggesting their devotion to Jesus and His Great Commission is merely a product of Western imperialism.

Along with promoting a more balanced understanding of the history of missions, we can point to the development of indigenous church movements today. Within the Assemblies of God, a commitment to the indigenous model has led to the formation of 2,900 Bible colleges and training institutions around the world with 162,000 students enrolled annually.

Whether pioneering among peoples with no gospel access, strengthening an emerging national church, training leaders for a growing movement, or preparing indigenous members for cross-cultural missions, it is local Christians, congregations, and leaders who are in the driver’s seat.

As Jenkins observed, “For any missionary venture, the ordination of native clergy must be the acid test of commitment to moving beyond an imperial context.”

Some Christians cite the Church’s global growth as evidence there is no longer a need for missionaries. “Instead of sending people,” they say, “we could simply send money to support the work of local Christians.”

We must continue sending gospel workers to engage in missional evangelism because there are still people
in need of a Savior.

Others suggest cross-cultural workers should no longer engage in evangelism and church planting. In their view, those who go to the mission field should stick to training others.

Often coupled with these views is the idea that “everyone is a missionary.” Although pastors often use this phrase to encourage church members to become more active in expressing their faith, it can have the unintended consequence of reducing participation in and support for cross-cultural missions.

If everyone is a missionary, the reasoning goes, all Christian work is the same. And if that is the case, why not just fund local Christians — all of whom are likewise missionaries — saving time, effort and money?

A careless approach to short-term missions trips can also undermine healthy missiology. Such trips are helpful when they result in a heightened commitment to long-term missions, prayer for the lost, increased giving, and mobilization of volunteerism at home. However, in the absence of teaching and discipleship, they can give participants the wrong idea about the primary purpose of missions.

Performing kind acts and giving tangible goods to locals are among the few things people without language and cultural capability can do. As a result, some church members have trouble conceiving of missions as anything other than compassionate work.

Scripture provides the corrective for these misguided notions. The Gospels and Acts contain five commissions from the risen Lord (Matthew 28:16–20; Mark 16:14–18; Luke 24:44–49; John 20:21–23; Acts 1:4–8). These texts have been the basis for many missions sermons.

As the Father sent Him, Jesus sent His followers in the power of the Spirit to proclaim the gospel and make disciples, crossing cultural boundaries to the ends of the earth.

This is a global task of immense complexity. No one seriously contemplating it would propose a strategy of sending untrained, short-term workers, with no language or cultural understanding, to engage in mere social ministry.

About 40% of the global population — some three billion people — lives in societies that are less than 2% evangelical. Within that group, nearly two-thirds are in places with no more than 1 Christian per 1,000 people.

The Spirit is still calling workers to pour out their lives for the apostolic work of proclaiming Christ and planting the Church among those who have little access to the gospel.

We must take our cues from the apostle Paul, whose missionary band planted local churches and instilled in them the full revelation of Scripture. Those new communities of faith then evangelized others and cared for the poor and marginalized.

A strategy of sending money rather than missionaries is fraught with difficulty. Paying Christians to minister to their own people funds pastoral work, not missionary labor. Without mobilization and special training, these believers cannot reach beyond their own cultural spheres.

The presumed cost savings of paying locals evaporates when their work becomes cross-cultural. At that point, they are doing the work of missions agency personnel, but without the same level of accountability and support.

Language study, schooling for children, medical issues, travel, member care, financial infrastructure, and so on add up for those making long-term commitments to a mission field.

Paying local Christians from the outside creates hirelings, not apostles to their own people. It leads to paternalism, dependence, and corruption, making churches in wealthier nations more liable to the charge of practicing neocolonial missions.

By contrast, the indigenous principle of self-support has a demonstrated track record of success. Within the WAGF, local people not only pay their own pastors, but they are also sending and financing missionaries.

This approach affirms the faith, spiritual gifts, and capability of indigenous believers. It also makes every missionary responsible for multiplication and reproducibility.

God’s apostolic calling is not limited to certain people groups. There is no indication in Scripture that any church gets a pass on participating in the Great Commission.

So, we continue sending cross-cultural workers to plant and strengthen the Church of Jesus Christ around the world. Our commitment to missions cannot change because God’s Word doesn’t change (Matthew 24:35).


Biblical Missiology

Our vision for the Church must align with God’s. From His promise to Abraham that “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3) to the magnificent revelation of redeemed humanity in all its diversity (Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 21:24,26), God’s heart for redemption is clear.

People around the world with the least access to the gospel are crying out for truth. We know where the Church does not exist today. We have statistics, charts, and maps highlighting the places where there is little to no gospel witness.

We cannot unknow this information, nor can we stand before the judgment seat of Christ and plead ignorance. The missional realities of our generation compel us to reach the unreached.

Healthy Pentecostal missiology is built on the foundation of Scripture. Three biblical insights are particularly relevant to this discussion:

1. The Bible’s vision of Spirit-filled witness. Acts 1:8 is a significant verse for Pentecostals. This text informs not only our experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit, but also the primary purpose for this empowerment.

The Pentecostal revival at the turn of the 20th century led to a rapid expansion of global missions. In 1914, the founders of the Assemblies of God expressed a desire to achieve “the greatest evangelism that the world has ever seen.”

We remain committed to the same calling of going in the power of the Spirit, taking the life-changing message of the gospel to people who have not yet heard.

2. The Bible’s vision of humanity needing salvation from sin and reconciliation to God. People who are against missions, whether non-Christians or believers, hold a view of humanity that is at odds with the Bible.

According to the biblical revelation, God created human beings in His image. However, sin entered the world and separated people from their Creator. The Bible’s portrait of humanity as lost and in need of salvation is at the heart of God’s redemptive project. It is also the fundamental starting point for understanding Scripture.

As Christopher J.H. Wright puts it in The Mission of God, “The whole Bible could be portrayed as a very long answer to a very simple question: What can God do about the sin and rebellion of the human race?”

Reconciliation is at the center of the biblical narrative. The good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ is the message of hope we proclaim to a broken world.

We continue preaching this saving message because reconciliation begins with proclamation (Romans 10:14–15). Romans 1:18–32 indicates humans suppress what they know about God from general revelation. Ultimately, all are accountable to God (Romans 3:19).

In their rebellion, sinful humanity actively rejects the light (John 3:19–20; Revelation 9:20–21). Yet God is merciful. He sent His Son to die for lost people (John 3:16), and He sends His Church to declare His truth.

3. The Bible’s vision of multiplication. Indigenous national church movements are a beautiful thing. In them lies the greatest hope for evangelizing their cultures and passing the faith on to the next generation.

A fully indigenous, Bible-believing congregation is a missionary church that will go places to fulfill the Great Commission.

The purpose of partnering with national churches is not to fill slots local believers can manage, but to help them reach and train their own people. Eventually, they will come full circle and send their own cross-cultural workers into the mission fields.

Of course, there are many who disagree radically with our understanding of the Bible and our continued desire to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world by sending missionaries.

To use Chris Wright’s phrase, however, we want to read the Bible with its grain and not against it. And that grain is the grand story of God’s redemptive plan for all people.

History is on our side in this. The explosive worldwide growth of the Pentecostal Movement during the 20th century started with Spirit-filled believers who took seriously the Bible’s message about the lostness of humanity, God’s love for the world, the saving work of Christ, and the role of God’s people in proclaiming salvation.

God is likewise calling this generation of Pentecostal men and women to go where the church and faith do not exist.

We must continue sending gospel workers to engage in missional evangelism because there are still people in need of a Savior. We believe every person should hear a loving invitation to follow Jesus. That is what compels us to go as missionaries and send missionaries.


A Final Word

A robust sending theology is essential to the life and ministry of the Church (John 17:18; 20:21; Romans 10:14–15).

This is evident in the Book of Acts as the newly formed congregation at Antioch sent Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1–3). Despite the resistance of some to their missionary efforts, the long-term result was a harvest of souls.

Many churchgoers are struggling with cultural ideologies that oppose God’s mission. We cannot allow an entire generation to become sidelined from participating in the apostolic activity of the Church’s calling. As ministry leaders, we must equip believers to participate in what God is doing around the world.

Missional apathy is dangerous. If congregants do not care about reaching people across the globe, they probably won’t care about reaching people across the street.

A lack of urgency to engage in missions and personal evangelism can also lead Christians to believe everyone will ultimately receive eternal life. With this mindset, there is no need to talk about Jesus or salvation.

The Holy Spirit is calling the Church to look up and see that the fields are ripe for harvest. He is asking workers to pour out their lives to proclaim Christ and plant churches among those who have little access to the  gospel.

So, with the continuation of Christ’s mandate in mind, we continue sending global workers to proclaim salvation in Jesus.


This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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