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Missions: Grabbing the wrong end of the stick

Mission work is an essential element of the Christian way of life, and churches today are devoting an enormous amount of time and energy to it. Individual Christians are increasingly committing themselves to “personal” ministries, offering their expertise to institutions that help the poor and underprivileged.

But has anybody ever paused to consider why—in view of this vast outpouring of effort, energy and expenditure—the congregations of so many churches are continuing their downward spiral? Surely these extraordinary missionary endeavors should be producing some fruit in the form of new converts?

Not so, however. And for the simple reason that large numbers of operations designated as “missions” cannot properly be described as “Christian missions.” While they address serious social ills and pressing needs, modern missions often fail to make even passing reference to Christ’s Gospel. Many, in fact, seem embarrassed by it.

This is quite bizarre. After all, the primary purpose of a Christian mission should be to propagate the Faith. For what greater gift can a Christian give than that of faith?

Shoving food into hungry mouths keeps the body together while the soul continues to starve. Ultimately, it is the knowledge that God loves every one of us—that each of us is equally valued as an individual by our Heavenly Father—that empowers the distraught, the down–trodden, and the down–and–out to rise above their circumstances.

Certainly, it is our Christian obligation to relieve their physical distress. It is also a practical necessity. As the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, observed: “You can’t preach to people with empty stomachs.” But many missions these days address only physical needs. The spiritual hunger goes unremarked and unattended.

No matter what the media and the political demagogues may say, aside from their economic distress, many of America’s poor suffer from a profound spiritual poverty. Visit the slums, and you’ll see what I mean.

Churches that really want to have an impact on the ills that afflict modern society would, therefore, be advised to start missions that aim to serve both body and soul. We are commissioned as evangelists, after all, not state–employed social workers. Far from acquiescing in the marginalization of Christianity, it is our task, above all, to spread the Gospel.

As to “personal ministry,” it’s a dandy notion. But, again, its primary purpose must be to propagate the Gospel. What is often called “personal ministry” might actually be more accurately described as political work or, perhaps, a hobby.

Truth to tell, the best first step Christians can take towards developing a “personal ministry” is to try to apply the Faith in every aspect of their daily living. It’s what the Church used to mean by “witnessing for the Faith.”

It’s a strategy devised by our Lord Jesus Christ. You’ll find it in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, which is in heaven.” It is the hardest ministry we have been charged with—and, potentially, the most fruitful. GPH✠

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