Keeping Evangelism and Compassion Together
A biblical imperative for Pentecostal missions
The Assemblies of God was born of the Spirit, but raised on missions. Missions — defined as cross-cultural proclamation of the gospel — was one of four reasons given for the founding of the AG in 1914.
Early Pentecostal leaders interpreted their dynamic experience of the Spirit as an indication that Jesus was returning soon. Time was short. And so they committed themselves to the “greatest evangelism the world has ever seen” — not in vain self-confidence, but in the power of the Spirit and in deep compassion for those who were lost and separated from Christ.
If contemporary churches are to remain true to our Pentecostal heritage and Scripture, we must be intentional about keeping our efforts in compassionate missions connected to reaching the lost. Yet, there are growing reasons for concern in this area.
A friend of mine recently shared a story that illustrates what I’m getting at. While serving in a sensitive country, his team gathered for a strategy meeting. As they discussed ways to reach the lost and plant churches in this mostly Muslim nation, one member who had sat silently for most of the meeting finally spoke up: “I don’t really need to be here. I’m here to do social justice work, not plant churches.”
The other team members sat back in disbelief. How could someone working among unreached peoples not want to connect their work to evangelism and church planting? We could imagine lots of reasons why someone might hold this perspective, but I suspect the answer is quite simple: social justice is cool; evangelism is not.
Statistics indicate that this is more than an isolated event. When it comes to connecting compassion to evangelism, too many American churches are likewise declaring, “I don’t really need to be here.” Between 2001 and 2008, missions budgets for evangelism and discipleship declined by almost 11 percent, while funds for relief and development work increased by nearly 9 percent, according to the Mission Handbook: 21st Century Edition by Linda J. Weber.
The remedy for this problem is a deeper commitment to planting churches and making compassionate disciples. These things may not be as hip as sponsoring a child or building an orphanage, and they are certainly not something a team from your church can build in a week’s time. But they multiply compassionate efforts a thousand times over and provide compassion that meets a person’s deepest spiritual and physical needs.
The problem with compassion efforts divorced from evangelism and church planting is that they are not compassionate enough. Biblical compassion, like what we saw among early AG leaders, centers on the urgency of lostness as the primary impetus for missions.
Today is the day of salvation, but that day will come to an end suddenly and unexpectedly. “You must also be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:40). When Jesus returns, missions will also come to an end. What won’t end, however, is the suffering of those separated from Christ.
Missions Is about Making Disciples
“Doing missions” requires more than just crossing international borders. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 commands us to make disciples. We do this by going, baptizing and teaching. This provides us with a helpful rubric for measuring the activities we call missions. Based on this passage, we can ask: How do our church’s missions activities relate to helping local people become followers of Jesus?
Compassion efforts divorced from evangelism and church planting are not compassionate enough.
Acts 11:19-30 provides a helpful portrait of what this looks like. Here we see the story of Barnabas, sent from the mother church in Jerusalem to aid the fledgling church in Antioch. When Barnabas arrives, he discovers that God is doing something amazing there, and so he goes to Tarsus to get Saul (later Paul) to help in the work.
As missionaries, Barnabas and Saul assumed the responsibilities of teaching and equipping — in short, making disciples. They spent a whole year serving the church at Antioch in this fashion.
Later a prophet arrives in Antioch and tells of a coming famine. When famine struck, it was the disciples (the local believers) who decided to respond, according to their own means. In Acts 11:29, we read, “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.”
This is in fact a consistent pattern of NT compassion, as seen also in 2 Corinthians 8:3. Here, Paul describes the efforts of the Macedonian believers. “For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”
Notice two things in both instances: The local believers came up with the plan, and the plan was carried out using the resources of the local believers.
As missionaries, Paul and Barnabas simply helped facilitate the vision of the local believers through teaching and equipping. They were not the primary doers. In fact, Luke makes it clear that the teaching and equipping ministry of Paul and Barnabas flows directly into the indigenous compassionate response of the local church.
Why does all of this matter? It matters because in the Bible the Church is not peripheral to God’s plan. Rather, it lies at the very center. Jesus said that through the Church He would provide entrance to His kingdom and overcome the work of Satan (Matthew 16:16-18). If we want to see people truly liberated from oppression, we must plant churches and make disciples. That is the essence of missions in the Bible.
The bottom line: The most compassionate thing your church can do is support missionaries discipling local people to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16).
Local churches are the key to God’s redemptive plan among the nations. They are the place where people encounter the risen Lord and become empowered by the Spirit to serve God as He advances His kingdom. Paul and Barnabas understood this, and so did our early AG leaders. We would do well to follow their example.