If we allow the book of Acts to lay down the lane markers for our missions efforts, then church planting, leadership training (and Bible translation, where necessary) will be our focus. That’s how the men whom Jesus trained understood and applied His commission.
There is no doubt that the early Christians showed concern for the needy unbelievers around them (Titus 3:14; Gal 6:10): that’s what Christians do simply because they’re Christians. And I would hasten to add that I encourage this. For example, people in my church are employed at orphanages, teach Bible studies for orphans, volunteer at a hospice, direct a school for underprivileged African farmers, minister in prisons, sponsor theological training for needy pastors, have created a food-for-trash program for street children, and a host of other compassion efforts. They do those things because they’re Christians. However, what Christians do because they are Christians, and what the church mobilises itself to do as its organised, corporate missions program are not necessarily the same.
The apostles’ philosophy of missions can be compellingly illustrated by Paul’s long-planned mission to Rome. In Paul’s day, Rome was a sprawling metropolis with over a million inhabitants, and its social woes were easily the equivalent of those found in any modern city. What would the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans have looked like if it were written by one of today’s evangelical social action advocates?
I can’t wait to come to Rome to lead the charge of Christ-centered social justice! Deed must precede word! We need to proclaim Christ’s love for the city by working to improve the general civility, race relations, and social conditions in Rome. We need to eradicate slavery and poverty. We need to start orphanages. The people of Rome won’t listen to the gospel unless we first help them flourish socially and economically. But if the church organizes a series of community-based services to eradicate unemployment and to uplift the disadvantaged, then we’ll see the city of Rome transformed.
Of course, you know what Paul actually wrote:
“For my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation … “
And in Romans, Paul makes it clear that his gospel is a gospel of sin, wrath, Christ, the cross, repentance, faith, and forgiveness. Paul was fully aware of the social conditions that prevailed in any large city in the Roman Empire; nonetheless, he showed the same systematic disregard for social action missions one finds throughout the book of Acts.
Its true that, because of the varying gifts in the body of Christ, some missionaries will add more mercy and compassion components to their ministry than others: believers have different gifts. That is not my concern. My concern is that we are allowing corporate social action missions—something we see no example of in the NT—to take over our missions efforts. At the very best it is disproportional to the book of Acts. And in fact, it’s hard to say that it reflects the book of Acts at all.
Long after the AIDS orphans have grown up, the wells have been blocked with sand, and the medical clinics have closed due to a lack of Western funding, the people of Africa where I minister will need churches to preach the Word and proclaim the gospel. If we send out missionaries who are primarily focused on social action, who will plant and pastor those churches? Unbelievers and NGO’s don’t preach the gospel and plant churches: only the church does that. While the work of social action is emotionally rewarding for missionaries and for the churches that send them, I fear that we’ll wake up one day and realise that we’ve not been helping the world in the most helpful way.
What can you do to correct this trend? First, remind your current missionaries that the proclamation work they’re doing is of highest significance. Old-guard missionaries who are doing book-of-Acts kind of missions sometimes feel pressure to embrace the new social-justice model. They know that “We cared for fourteen orphans this week,” is far more likely to produce a positive response from supporters than “We are in our fourteenth week of an exposition of Philippians in our church plant.” Write to or visit your missionaries and encourage them not to redirect their efforts based on trendy rhetoric or pragmatic pressures.
Second, when preparing to send out new missionaries, sit with the book of Acts open on your knees to determine your philosophy of missions, and what they did, you do. Let Acts shape—yes, even dominate—your view of the church, and therefore, your missions program. It’s no mystery: how the men whom Jesus personally trained understood the Great Commission is the right way to fulfill it.