Most evangelicals agree that the purpose of the missionary task is to glorify God by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations. The Lausanne Covenant, for example, affirms that “We believe the Gospel is God’s good news for the whole world, and we are determined by his grace to obey Christ’s commission to proclaim it to all mankind and to make disciples of every nation.”
This clarity of purpose, however, is certainly not universal. Exhibit A: a recent article, “Missions is About More Than Just Reaching the Nations.” The writer, an expat missionary in Africa, suffered a frightening breakdown of health stemming from “dangerously high levels of stress and anxiety.” He had to go home for needed “rest and counseling.” He disarmingly relates his reflection about all this.
According to the formula of missions I had learned throughout my life, this pause for physical and emotional illness was an embarrassing blight on what otherwise would have been an ideal experience. It was not the kind of thing you wrote home to your sending church about. It was a detour—an unfortunate hindrance to the mission that needed to be overcome so that the mission could continue. The dollars that had been given sacrificially for me to be a full-time gospel witness were instead now paying for my mistakes. I nearly drowned in shame.
The same has happened to many expatriates. Missionaries are human, after all, and live with demands that sometimes transcend their capacity. Chronic overextension can lead to burnout and depression. Few among us have avoided the performance trap. Many have overdone it. Many need to slow down at some level. Maybe get treatment. No shame there. Even Jesus needed to rest.
No reader of good will can fail to appreciate the pathos of this brother’s experience, or admire his resilience, or salute his vulnerability. He’s clearly on to something: witness the rise of the “missionary-care” industry in Western (at least) missionary circles in the last 30 years.
Where one might part from the writer is his conclusion: missionary work is as much about the missionary as the receiving community.
Yes, missions is glorifying God by obeying the Great Commission. But it is also glorifying God by being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Just as God’s mission is two-armed, by the Son and through the Spirit, its purpose is also two-fold: the nations’ gospel obedience to Christ and the church’s spiritual formation in Christ. They both bring glory to God. They carry equal significance. They deserve intentional distinction, yet they can’t fully be separated. [emphases the original author’s]
Yes, God cares about the growth and maturity of all His children, including those we call cross-cultural missionaries. No doubt He uses their experiences to grow them in many ways. Many of us can personally testify!
But to assign one’s own development as a second purpose of missions, parallel and equal to the proclamation of the gospel and making of disciples … surely this is going beyond a healthy view of the purpose of the missionary enterprise.
Imagine William Carey affirming “the duty of Christians to attempt the spread of the Gospel amongst heathen nations [what he did say] … and experience their own growth in the process [what he did not].”
As someone who “went on deputation” many years ago (now it’s called “partner development”), I can’t imagine a straightforward presentation of these two ministry purposes. “Please join this ministry to help me: 1) make disciples among the unreached, and 2) grow as a disciple myself.” (A donor might be tempted to designate his support to just one of those. But I digress.)
The Bible does provide reflection about missionaries who suffer some kind of physical weakness.
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NAS.
Paul recognized the purpose of his malady: “to keep me from exalting myself.” He doesn’t regard his ailment as a purpose for his ministry. About that purpose he was very clear.
I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24 ESV
All our experiences along the way of service and obedience God uses in our lives for our sanctification and growth. The by-products include joy and maturing.
It’s not for me to judge any servant, especially a faithful brother who has crossed substantial barriers to pursue his calling. By his own master he stands or falls. The bigger question relates to a trend about motivation for ministry. The relative ease and affordability of international air travel has precipitated a major shift in the primary focus of (and motivation for) mission. In the past, the attention was focused on unreached people. The driving passion was to see them reached with the gospel, discipled, and thriving local churches planted to serve as salt and light. It was largely selfless and other-focused. You see this in the biographies of people like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, and Amy Carmichael. They got on boats and spent weeks or months just to reach their destination. Now we embark for Peru on Sunday and get home in time to catch SNL.
This globe shrinking has fogged the lens of missionary motivation. We have lost sight of the purpose of missions. Now it’s mostly about the person going—their spiritual growth, the grand adventure, etc. Yes, the people they go to serve matter, too, but they’re secondary.
I once heard a pastor say as much. His church had sent a team to Mexico for a week. A team member shared in the group the impact of the trip, how it was a pivotal experience in his life, etc. When he sat down, the pastor affirmed, “Isn’t that great? Look what God has done in his life! That’s what missions is all about!”
Just one comment from one pastor, but it wasn’t made in a vacuum. That sentiment is no doubt frequently uttered in some form.
You see this in Christian community development efforts as well. Time was when the overriding concern was to actually help people trapped in poverty overcome their poverty and begin to flourish. Now, the overriding goal seems to do work with the poor that makes one feel good about oneself, regardless of whether or not it actually helps anyone. In fact, we may even foster dependency, but look how we’ve grown in the process!
Obedience results in growth. That’s not tantamount to a purpose for the obedience. It’s not a purpose, but a benefit. To make one’s own growth a purpose parallel to advancing the glory of God where He is not known is exceeding scriptural warrant.
- Gary Brumbelow. Scott Allen and John Bottimore contributed to this post.