Lecture 9: Top Ten Myths about Missions
Course: Essentials of World Missions
Lecture: Top Ten Myths about Missions
Another part of our educational task in working with local churches is to realize that many people have myths about the missionary enterprise. I call this lecture, “Dispelling the Top Ten Myths about Missions.” We have many, many faulty ideas about missions that must be separated from our thinking so that we can be better equipped to think appropriately about the great missionary cause.
Myth 1: Unreached means gospel-resistant.
One of the first of our top ten myths about missions is the assumption that “unreached” means “gospel-resistant.” That is to say, people typically make the assumption that because a people group in the world is unreached, and there are insufficient Christians there, or the church is not yet viable, people don’t have access to the gospel, that kind of missionary situation—that that must, therefore, mean that those people groups are resistant to the gospel message. This is actually a myth. It may indeed be true for a number of peoples in the world that are in that situation, but it is not an accurate statement to say that this means that.
Many people in the world today who are unreached are unreached, not because they have been offered the gospel and were then resistant to it, but simply because they have never been offered the good news of Jesus Christ. They need to hear the Christian gospel.
So, we have places that are actually ready, eager, excited about hearing the gospel, but they have never had a witness—a person—go there. Again, back to John’s Great Commission, “As the Father has sent me, even so send I you.” “How can they hear,” Paul says, “without a preacher?” How can they hear without a preacher? And so, because someone is not a Christian, it may not be because they’re resistant to countless exposures to the gospel like we’re used to in the West. It may be they’ve actually never heard the Christian message.
Now, as a missionary in India, I’m quite well aware of this context. I have seen so many groups over the years that responded favorably to the gospel, but they’d never been given opportunity before. Their attitude was, why hasn’t anyone told us this before? This is good news! And, therefore, we need to realize that unreached does not mean gospel-resistant.
Myth 2: Evangelism always leads to church planting.
Secondly, the second myth is the myth that evangelism always leads to church planting. This is a huge myth. People somehow believe that if we just evangelize—if we just get the word out through radio broadcasts, through the internet, through whatever means—that we will somehow be able to win the world for Christ.
Well, first of all, I don’t believe that’s actually the case. I believe that ultimately it takes churches to ultimately spawn other churches. I believe it’s also false to make this assumption, because it assumes that somehow the world can be reached through some kind of disembodied contact, that we don’t have to actually get our hands dirty and go live and move somewhere, we can just send them an e-mail. No, this is not what is required by our Lord in the Great Commission.
The evangelism that we do must be geared toward the world. We must always be thinking about the global context and how we can plant churches into that context. Evangelism should lead to church-planting, and it doesn’t always do that, and so we have to be clear about that myth. A church-planting movement is the critical way to determine whether or not we are on the right track.
Myth 3: Missions means going to live in jungles somewhere.
A third myth is that missions means going to live in a jungle somewhere. Now, I am a great believer in and great admirer of the great sacrifice that has been made by missionaries over the years and in the last century especially to bring the gospel to the remotest islands, the remotest tropical forests, and other remote places around the world. It is very inspiring.
But we have to also be aware of the fact that missions is changing today, and we have a tremendous growth in the number of people in the world that are actually living in urban areas. So the mission field today is much more likely to not be a remote jungle area—though we have missionaries who work in those areas—but actually more likely to be in a large urban setting.
The greatest need today are missionaries committed to the city. We need missionaries committed to bringing the gospel into the urban context. For God so loved the cities . . . that’s a message we have to understand. The Bible says, “For God so loved the world,” [and] that involves not just a geographic kind of statement about the planet Earth, but about the peoples of the world. “For God so loved the . . .” peoples of the world, “that He gave his only Son.” So if God loves the peoples of the world, we have to ask ourselves, where are these unreached peoples who need to hear the gospel? These peoples are peoples who are primarily living in urban areas.
Most of our missions strategy that’s been done in the last hundred years has been developing effective strategies for reaching people in rural areas. There are a number of things about preaching and teaching and church planting in rural areas which simply will not work—or will not work effectively—in the urban areas.
So we’re trying to actually press a round stick into a square hole. We’re trying to find a way to do something which it was not designed to do. Most missions strategies of the 19th century were designed to bring rural people to Christ. Today, our biggest context is how to bring urban peoples to Christ. And bringing an urban dweller to Christ requires different kinds of approaches, and we need to focus on that and to realize this is a myth, that missions is only taking place in remote areas.
Myth 4: The remaining work of missions can be done by national Christians.
A fourth myth is the statement that the remaining work of missions can be done by national Christians. This has been widely propagated by a number of well-known Christian leaders, and I won’t mention their names on this summary course, but certainly they are well-known national figures in missions that have advocated that what really needs to be done is to send our money, our checks, and let the national workers do it.
Now obviously, I believe it’s very important to recognize the role of the national believer. So much of what I’ve said in even the summary course has sought to emphasize the importance of the national, indigenous believer. But, we have to always come back to this question of access and viability. If we are talking about a people among whom there are no Christians, or there is no viable church, then we simply are irresponsible if we say, “Oh, we’ll let the nationals do it,” because there are no nationals who can do it. They don’t have any nationals that—somebody has to cross a cultural boundary.
Now, the assumption that a near-cultural witness is more effective than a far cultural witness—so, for example if you were working with a people group in Nigeria, for example, the Hausa in northern Nigeria, and you wanted to bring the gospel to this Hausa people group. You may think, okay, lets find a place in Nigeria where there are vibrant Christians, like among the Yoruba, or the Tiv, or the Maguzawa, or the Ibo, or other groups where there may be some Christians—let’s take some of these nearby Christians and let them witness to the Hausa.
Well, many times, all over the world, the near-culture witness is viewed with more suspicion and has more of a history of problems than with the Christian from far away. So, we cannot make this assumption that the remaining work of missions can be done by the national Christians. We have too many places where there are either, a) no Christians who can bring that national witness, or b) where there’s massive mistrust and cultural problems with a near-culture group, even if that cultural group has a viable church.
So, we have to do this. I am very, very opposed to the idea of the American church interpreting their understanding of missions as simply sitting back and writing checks. Letting somebody else’s sons and daughters die on the missions field while we sit back and write checks, that is a disgusting insult to the number of missionaries from the Western world who have given their lives for the gospel, and we need to recognize that this Great Commission cannot be fulfilled without great cost and sacrifice.
Myth 5: Missionaries have destroyed cultures.
The fifth of the top ten myths about missions that we need to dispel is that missionaries have destroyed cultures. This is something that has been propagated widely in the modern period, that somehow or another assumes that missionaries have gone out, have been a destructive force, and have in many ways been critical of the national, indigenous cultures that are there.
Now, let me be clear: missionaries did speak out against evil practices that were being propagated by various cultures, and I would hope that even the most liberal, anti-missionary-minded person could appreciate the good service that William Carey, for example, paid to the Indian sub-continent when he spoke out against sati.
Sati is the practice in ancient India that still occurs to this day, unfortunately, though it’s illegal—it still occurs to this day, and it’s the practice of a woman joining her husband on the funeral pyre when he is cremated. The practice in ancient India was when a man died, in order to show your loyalty and your love and devotion to your husband who’s departed, the wife, who may be very young and perfectly healthy, would join her husband and be cremated along with her husband. This despicable practice, which forced young woman to often die on the funeral pyre in an agonizing death was challenged by William Carey. Now if that’s what’s meant by destroying cultures, we plead guilty and proudly so.
We are not at all opposed to the prophetic role of the church in speaking out against any cultural practice—whether it be in our culture or any other culture—where the practice is dehumanizing against the image of God in a particular individual’s life, who God has called us to encourage and support, and has dignity by virtue of who he is before God. But that’s a long way from saying that missionaries have destroyed cultures.
What we actually find is missionaries have empowered cultures. They have reduced languages which were only used by a few elite people and have given them to the common people, created vernacular languages. They have reduced the Bible to writing and thereby empowered the whole educational process of literacy and healthcare in countries and among nations all over the world.
In south India, for example, the word for “school” in the Malayalam language—one of the words for school that’s the most historic word—is a word which means “the building attached to the church.” The whole point was that people conceived of schooling or education as something that the missionaries were doing. They were there teaching, training, empowering people, and there are thousands upon tens of thousands of people around the world today who have received their education from missionary schools.
There are hundreds of thousands of people that are alive today because of missionary hospitals, missionary doctors, missionary nurses, and so many others in so many fields who give themselves selflessly to the Christian gospel and to promoting the presence of Christ incarnationally in the lives of others.
Myth 6: There are no job opportunities in missions.
The sixth top myth which we would seek to dispel, is the fact that there are no job opportunities in missions. This is patently false. Missionary work is probably the most diverse group of people in the world, doing every conceivable professional task, as well as all of the traditional Christian ministry tasks, from preaching, to counseling, church-planting, and so forth. There are many, many job opportunities.
Every year at Gordon-Conwell, we have a missions fair where we bring together all the major missions organizations to our campus, and they reach out to our students, and many students sign up and they go out as missionaries, even career missionaries, to various fields through these missions agencies. There are organizations that are particularly designed to help you find jobs in whatever area of interest that you have in missions. The most important one is the organization InterCristo. InterCristo can be found on the internet very easily, and they are a job placement organization, and we have never had any problem finding great job opportunities for our missionary student graduates.
Myth 7: Missions is only for the super spiritual.
The seventh of the ten myths that we seek to dispel is the idea that missions is only for the super spiritual. It is true that the missionary community represents some very inspiring Christians with a great dedication. I would say some of the most dedicated, inspiring Christians I’ve ever met were missionaries, people who give themselves to cross-cultural service. But that’s not to say that missionaries are somehow super-human people.
Missionaries are quite ordinary people with a quite ordinary task that they’re involved in around the world, and many times these tasks don’t seem to be that glamorous or that exciting, but upon reflection, they are actually changing the world and doing some remarkable, inspiring things.
Missionaries have problems like everybody else. Missionaries go through difficulties like everybody else. Missionaries get discouraged like everybody else. Missionaries wonder at times whether they really are truly called by God or not, just like anybody else in ministry.
So these are the realities of the missionary community. This is a great community; it’s a wonderful community; it’s a fun community; it’s a community that has a wonderful outlook on the world; but they’re not super-spiritual. They are godly men and women who are doing their best to follow God in sometimes difficult situations. But to put them in some special category would be to glamorize them in a way that is not appropriate.
Myth 8: Short-Term Mission Projects are sufficient to fulfill the Great Commission.
The eighth of our top ten myths to dispel is the idea that short-term missions projects are sufficient to fulfill the Great Commission. I’ve already alluded to this earlier in these summary lectures that I have concerns that our short-term missions be smarter and be seen within the proper context of what missionary work actually is and how short-term missions fits in the long-term goals. I mentioned that I have the six dangerous questions that one asks about short-term missions.
So, I believe that short-term missions is a part of a larger strategy of missionary activity. But I do not believe that short-term missions could ever possibly fulfill the Great Commission. There is no replacement for the difficult, challenging, and sometimes arduous task of language learning and cultural adaptation. And that cannot be done in two weeks, it cannot be done in four weeks, it cannot be done in one year. That takes time, it takes moving away from short-term missionary thinking to long-term missionary commitment, and I believe that the greatest gift of short-term missions, the greatest contribution of short-term missions is, in fact, the great gift of producing long-term workers.
This is really the most effective aspect of short-term missions, that today most long-term workers have been stimulated to that commitment because of their short-term missionary activity which they’ve been involved with in previous years, and that’s very inspiring.
Myth 9: Missionary commitment is mainly about giving money.
Number nine is somewhat of a recapitulation of the point I made earlier about someone who says, “I’ve given to missions, so I’ve done my part.” This just again dispels the notion that missionary commitment is mainly about giving money.
Now, once again, I look at churches missions’ budgets and I see that many missions budgets of churches are in two different camps. There are those who actually support living, breathing missionaries that came out of their church, that are part of their lives in the community, and there are those who simply provide funds for missions around the world that are doing things that they may not even ever know any of these people personally.
We have to see that the financial support, though while it’s important, should be seen as a part of the larger commitment to send workers. Jesus says, “The harvest is ripe, the laborers are few, therefore, pray the Lord would send out laborers into his harvest.” He does not say, “The harvest is ripe, the laborers are few, therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest that he may get you to send your checks to the ends of the earth.” No. He wants us to send laborers. So we have to keep that people-focus on the missionary enterprise.
Myth 10: Hearing the Gospel is the same as being reached by the gospel.
The tenth and final popular myth about missions is that somehow hearing the gospel is the same as being reached by the gospel. This is a big myth. Because someone can hear the gospel does not mean that they have been reached by the gospel. Some people advocate that if we can just get enough radio transmitters out there, we can actually cover the globe with the gospel message.
But because the gospel message is available on radio, or even if someone tunes in and hears it, does not mean they have sufficiently understood the gospel message and the implications of the gospel message.
So I deeply, deeply encourage churches to work with missionaries to develop the strategies to help them understand whether or not the people to whom they’re working, or with whom they’re working, will actually sufficiently understand the implications of the gospel message that’s being preached to them. And we have to do a lot better job of making sure, not just that our lips are moving, but that their ears and hearts and lives are comprehending.