The modern missionary movement didn’t start with a bang. The great missionary to India William Carey may be dubbed its father, but he was himself a child, a product, of missionaries of the previous century, men like David Brainerd and John Eliot. But the moniker fits, because Carey did leave a massive legacy. In the ensuing decades, thousands of Protestant missionaries were sent to field around the world.
Similarly, if the modern missionary movement is going to die, it is unlikely to do so by gunshot. No one will lay an axe to the root of the tree. Instead, we will one day discover the leaves have browned and the branches are brittle from drought. I think there is good evidence that the modern missionary movement is in fact coming to a close, and I’ll try to show you some dry leaves.
What would it even look like if the modern missionary movement ended? Well, think back to the time before it began. The majority of Protestant churches showed no concern over the fact that the majority of the world’s people did not have access to the gospel. They did not believe that it was their responsibility to make it available. Therefore, they did not send missionaries, they did not give money to missions, nor did they pray intentionally for the world’s masses. Carey’s time saw an exponential increase of these activities. When I say that the modern missionary movement is in decline, I mean that those activities are waning. Fewer missionaries are being sent, less money is being given, and Christians are less concerned to pray. In short, we are returning to pre-Carey levels of Great Commission activity.
But that is demonstrably untrue, isn’t it? The church still sends, it still gives, and Christians still feel strongly about the need of the world. We don’t resemble the pre-Carey church at all, do we? Certainly, the modern evangelical church seems to be in little danger of denying the world’s need of the gospel or the church’s responsibility to bring it. No one is talking of retreating back the way we came. However, there is more than one way off the mountaintop of modern missions: we need not fall down the same way we climbed up! Modern evangelicalism looks drastically different on many fronts than pre-Cary Protestantism, but the meters of Great Commission activity seem to be dipping down toward the levels of those times. How could this be?
Before the birth of the modern missionary movement, going and giving languished because Christians believed that they had less responsibility. But in the decline of the movement, going and giving languish because Christians believe that they have more responsibility. The hundreds of Christian workers exported to the world in the 19th century, and the thousands more who gave sacrificially to send them were desirous to spread the gospel. Today, tens of thousands of goers and the hundreds of thousands of senders are desirous to do dozens of things besides spread the gospel. Today, it is no more distinctively ‘Christian’, nor more distinctively ‘missionary’, (and usually far less so) to evangelize the heathen than it is to feed the hungry. The Carey generation, however, did not want to ‘spread the gospel’ in the sense of ‘living a gospel-empowered life of justice in the world,’ but in the antiquated dinosaur sense of ‘move your lips and speak the Word of God to unbelievers.’
This, of course, is not to deny that the ‘biographied’ missionaries of the modern era were involved in what we would today think of as humanitarian efforts. Carey certainly achieved some monumental things in this regard. But these works that characterized their ministries were, I think, manifestly different from the ones that characterize 21st century missions. There would be a few evidences of this, I think, but let me give the one that has stuck out the most to me lately: the old missionaries by and large did not think their social action was an end in itself. Their real goal was to proclaim the gospel to the heathen.
Take, for example, the writings of Carey himself. His little book ‘An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen’ (if the title didn’t say it clearly enough) is clearly concerned with a single fact about the heathen: that they are heathen! Not that they are poor, hungry, illiterate, victimized, disenfranchised, diseased, or underprivileged – but that they are unconverted! When Carey does mention social evils such as cannibalism, it is primarily with respect to how they pose a threat to the advancing missionary force! He says, for example, ’As to their uncivilized, and barbarous way of living, this can be no objection to any, except those whose love of ease renders them unwilling to expose themselves to inconveniences for the good of others.’ Yes, their barbarous lifestyles are awful, he says, but that should not stop a missionary from going.
I suppose Carey sounds most like a modern missionary when he asks, ‘Can we hear that they are without the gospel, without government, without laws, and without arts and sciences; and not exert ourselves to introduce amongst them the sentiments of men, and of Christians?’ But it would be a mistake to hear Carey as being equally concerned about the progress of the gospel and social justice. For he goes on to say, ‘Would not the spread of the gospel be the most effectual mean of their civilization?’ In that single question, I see a good litmus test for the change in missions philosophy from Carey’s day to our own. For in these last decades, Carey’s question has been flipped around. The 21st century missionary asks, ’Would not their civilization be the most effectual mean of the spread of the gospel?’
In other words, as the scale and theater of modern missions has expanded, so has our definition of what the mission is. Doubtless, there is a great deal more activity going on in the name of missions globally today than in Carey’s day; nevertheless, true Great Commission activity is in decline. Let me say clearly that I agree with believers of all generations in saying that Christians should live sacrificial lives of compassion and justice whether they live in a modernized, affluent society or whether they live in a primitive, poverty-stricken culture. But I also join with the believers of previous generations, against the mood of our current moment, in saying that the mission of the church is the proclamation of the gospel. We may send missionaries who minister, as Carey did, to social needs along the way as they preach the gospel. It is, however, concerning that we would send missionaries whose primary goal was not the furtherance of the gospel! I contend that we need to add a ‘sola’ – the mission of the church with regard to the world is ‘only preaching.’
I understand if you have some doubts that this is really happening, that there is really that big of a gap between the missiology of, say, 1814 and 2014. So let me give you a couple notes for you to consider, and then I’ll wrap it up.
1. Follow the money
Doubtless, there are many, many faithful missionary proclaimers of the gospel scattered throughout the world. Truly, I thank God for every one of them. Many millions of dollars are spent on gospel furtherance every year. I recognize that, and rejoice in it. The point of this post, however, is to highlight a trajectory of decreasing Great Commission activity. Less and less of our exported manpower is the gospel-preaching, church-planting sort of missionary. Less and less of our missions budgets are designated for strictly gospel ministry. And this trend is not restricted to theologically liberal groups. Go research the amount of manpower and money that ends up overseas from even the most conservative of missions organizations and see for yourself what percentage of it is earmarked for the preaching of the word and the establishment of churches. I have been repeatedly astonished – both by statistics and personal encounters – at the low percentage of both ‘missionaries’ and ‘missions dollars’ that ends up being used to give the gospel to those without it.
2. Go look at a fossil
Recently, I stumbled across a series of lectures on church history by Dr. John Gerstner (from the late 80’s, I believe). I watched a couple of the talks he did covering the time from Carey up through the 20th century. Couldn’t look away. All I could think was, ‘This guy is a fossil!’ In no more than the space of half an hour, I heard him: decry an early form of the insider movement, assert that the vast majority of people in christianized contexts are not truly converted, deny the legitimacy of mass conversions, debunk the idea that the gospel must penetrate every area of the world before Christ’s return, and affirm that the mission directs us to give the gospel to as many individuals as possible! Listen to his talk, then read half a dozen missions blogs and see if you can’t feel the distance that has been traveled between his day and our own. I think Gerstner would be amazed at the status quo of missions 25 years later. This is an experiment that could be repeated countless times with the church’s teachers from the past. They simply held to a definition of the church’s mission which we now find narrow, unbalanced, and even hypocritical.
In closing, I believe that this expansion of the Great Commission to include humanitarian-type efforts is a largely unexamined trend. I hope even those of you who strongly disagree with my post would agree that what’s needed now in missiology is a more rigorous examination of Scripture to determine the limits of what should be included in the church’s mission. On the one hand, the ‘expansionists’ need to move beyond statements like, ‘Well, Jesus healed people before he preached his message to them.’ And on the other, ‘traditionalists’ like myself need to move beyond statements like, ‘What good is clean water going to do the heathen when they end up in hellfire?’ Either one of these statements may stand behind the truth. But the mandate of Scripture itself is going to have to decide the issue. God speaking through Scripture is what awakened Carey and his movement; it alone must guide us in our modern modern missionary movement.