Forrest McPhail, BJU Alumnus
Let’s talk about some more misunderstandings that affect our view of poverty.
Who is our paradigm for cross-cultural missions—Jesus or Paul?
Some see Jesus as the ultimate example of how to fulfill the Great Commission. Others argue that Paul is the primary example. Does it matter?
While the Son of God made flesh is our perfect example of righteousness, His ministry lifestyle is not the paradigm for cross-cultural missionaries in the Church Age. Jesus never left Israel and focused on the Jews. His teaching ministry was attended continually with signs and miracles. Before His death and resurrection, He chose and trained men whom He would later commission with the task of making disciples among all nations.
The Holy Spirit was poured out in Acts 2. After this, and on through the rest of the NT, we see the first sixty years of the Great Commission. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is our God-given example of a cross-cultural servant of the Gospel. The nature of Jesus’s earthly ministry and the unfolding of biblical revelation naturally lead us to consider Paul and his co-laborers for a model of how to “do missions.”
There is no conflict between the ministries of Jesus and Paul. Jesus and Paul ministered under different circumstances for different purposes.
A Closer Look at Poverty: What is it? What is the church to do about it?
A casual look at most missions literature today would reveal that many professed Christians believe that relieving world poverty and helping people achieve a higher standard of living is central to the task of the Church. The vast number of aid organizations, many with Christian roots, exist to promote upward mobility, economic development, and justice in foreign governments. The lion’s share of resources used towards “mission” are used for these purposes.
A simple question that is often left unasked is, what is poverty? When the Bible speaks of poverty, it is not describing people on government support, people with less, those in less developed contexts, or those unable to achieve middle class economic status. Those who are poor in Scripture are those that who do not have clothing, food, or shelter. They are people that cannot survive without emergency aid given to them by others. Search the Scriptures, and you will see that this is so.
What places and circumstances require such aid in today’s world? Those in refugee camps, in war zones, and suffering from recent devastating natural disasters are the kinds of people that need our attention. There are also individuals in our lives that we may meet in real need and genuine poverty.
The love of God commands us to reach out and help those around us. Righteousness means mercy and compassion. Yes, as individuals, we must be generous.
Missionaries today are not bound by Scripture to double as social justice agents or charity organization professionals. These means may be necessary at times, and may even meet a timely need, but these are the exception, not the rule.
Factor #7 A consistent spiritual focus of ministry can be difficult to maintain.
Keeping the Gospel clear among the poor
We can obscure the focus of ministry when we sweeten the call for repentance and faith with any material benefit for those that answer. Many among the world’s relatively poor profess Christianity in order to get a better deal in this life. Some of that is just human nature—being sinners, none of us desire the truth of the Gospel apart from saving grace. However, when aid work and charity programs are combined with evangelism, often the result around the world is large numbers of public professions with little enduring fruit.
If we are to use compassion ministries in conjunction with cross-cultural ministry, it must be done in a way that guards the Gospel and discourages false faith. Too often our love for visible success and desire for eternal fruit through our short-term efforts clouds our minds from reality. Those cross-cultural laborers who know the language and culture are best equipped to understand how best to use aid in ways that encourage true faith. Methods that confuse the hearers or encourage them to false faith are unworthy means for giving the Gospel message.
The Local Church: guarding spiritual relationships amid relative poverty
We can blur the focus of our ministry when we are confused about our role. Church planters/disciple-makers in the New Testament were not aid organization managers who wielded power and influence through their funding from overseas. Nor were they employers of those that they led to Christ. They were servants of the Gospel whose primary identity was that of being teachers of the Word of God. They were either financially independent of those with whom they served, as Paul, or dependent upon those they served, as Peter. There are no examples in the NT of church planters or spiritual leaders acting as financial patrons of the people that they served.
The norm for pastors in Scripture is that local congregations help provide for their pastors materially as he provides for them spiritually. This is true for cross-cultural laborers and traveling evangelists in the NT as well. But what has happened in modern times among cross-cultural missionaries is that they are not merely independently supported as Paul was (by his own hands and by love offerings), but they also become financial patrons to those whom they serve.
What happens when spiritual leaders become financial patrons, and believers they lead become their clients? People follow their leader because of the authority, status and power that he/she wields because of financial influence. The people do not give generously and fulfill their ministries apart from their patron’s immediate support. The people do not learn to support their own pastors as commanded by God. Servant leadership is almost impossible.
The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
This one thing can sharpen the focus of our ministry: the only thing required of God’s people in any given place to fulfill the Great Commission is to proclaim the Gospel through the enabling power of the Spirit. If we teach or exemplify through our ministry methodology that anything else is necessary to accomplish the task of making disciples, we render most Christians in this world incapable of obeying Christ!
Many cross-cultural missionaries lack faith in the power of God’s Spirit. They trust instead in a plethora of programs, buildings, and social aid. The national believers assume that if they too want to serve Christ and plant churches, they will need massive capital in order to do the same! The more complicated and expensive our methods on the field, the more we handicap the faith of the people we are striving to teach to obey Christ. The more simple our methods, the more reproducible they are, which encourages the faith of the people. Methods matter profoundly because of what they communicate about our faith in the power of God’s Spirit.
Factor #8 Changing times can obscure unchanging needs.
Avoid getting sidetracked from a primary need
Compassion ministries have their place and are current expressions of God’s love and mercy. People in this generation are far more interested in these types of ministries than past generations were, and that is just fine. But who fulfills these ministries, how they do so, when, and how these affect local bodies of believers on the field need to be grappled with. Compassion ministries must not be allowed to distract God’s people from the primary need of making disciples.
The 1 Corinthians 9 principle
Cross-cultural missionaries who are willing to labor for the Lord Jesus on pioneer fields must embrace the 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 principle: “I must be all things to all men with all discipline of body and spirit that I might win some.” This spirit is contrary to the spirit of our day.
Men and women are needed who are committed to labor for the Gospel who possess the spirit of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9. These will lay down their personal rights and embrace a life of discipline for Jesus’ sake. They will not insist on privileges or comforts. They will sacrifice and do hard things like conquer languages and understand and adapt to other cultures in order to preach Christ.
Missionaries may have to be creative and tolerate extra pressures in order to live where Christ is not named. They might have to be bi-vocational. They might have to endure the continual strain of imminent expulsion or imprisonment. But they will do this out of love for Jesus Christ. They will discipline their bodies and spirits by God’s grace and pursue His glory among the nations.
A return to biblical priorities and simplicity in cross-cultural missions would clarify the Gospel, empower believers for ministry, free up resources, promote reproducible methods of evangelism and training, and, above all, bring more glory to Jesus Christ whose name we proclaim.
Meet the challenges and share in the blessings!
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.