Is the missionary impulse fading?

After a long hiatus due to a busy season of traveling and fundraising, I am eager to begin blogging here again. Through a subscription to the magazine Books & Culture (my Father’s Day gift from my wife), I heard about an article I find very interesting. It appeared in the Houses of Worship column of the Wall Street Journal and is titled “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire.”

Brad Greenberg, the author of the article, argues that worldwide evangelization has lost its passion, intensity, and ambition in our current era. I liked some parts of his article and disliked others. Here I will provide his argument and my response. You can read the full article here.

He argues that the term “missions” carries with it a negative connotation in “most Christian circles”- even conservative theological ones.

  • This may be true in small part, but, in my understanding, it is an unfair caricature that the majority of Christians hold this negative view of missionary work. Most conservative churches give a portion of their budget to missions and esteem the calling and vocation of missionary.

He also states that Christians need to balance actions and words.

  • The author is a few centuries late in delivering this bit of advice, as missionaries have been operating in this tension of word and deed for quite a long time. Perhaps most famously but certainly not the first to argue for this was John Stott at the Lausanne Convention in 1974.

Greenberg quotes a statistic from an evangelical scholar which states that only 2% of missionaries enter Middle Eastern countries, where Christian missionary work is illegal.

  • While the statistic is may be accurate, he is likely not taking into account the covert missionary operations that these closed countries require. Also, he does not seem to be aware of the missionary work of Asian and Indian believers in the Middle East.

He also labels most Americans who participate is short term missions as “vacationaries,” alleging that the motivation is not primarily the advance of the Gospel but some other less wholesome one.

  • Maybe he’s on to something here…?

Despite my concerns with the issue and particularly his unfair and narrow caricature of modern-day Christianity, I think the article is a reminder to us of the vital role of missions. Perhaps we have lost some of our ambition for the Gospel to reach every corner of the world. What do you think?

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One thought on “Is the missionary impulse fading?

  1. Eric says:

    Interesting discussion. Valuable stuff to consider, at any rate. One additional consideration that I would throw into the mix is the priority that’s been developed for indigenous ministry — letting the Chinese minister to the Chinese… the Arabs to the Arabs… the Africans to the Africans… and so on. I certainly believe that there’s still a place for cross-cultural missions, but I think we’ve gotten smarter through the years — realizing that we DON’T always know what’s best, and that the best thing we can often do is equip the indigenous church for outreach within their own culture.

    At least in Amsterdam, where I’ve been serving as a “missionary” for the past seven years, we’ve realized more and more how expensive and energy-intensive it is to run a cross-cultural operation, as compared to doing the long, slow work of letting Amsterdammers grow and develop and learn how to sustain a long-term movement.

    Suffice to say: I don’t always think that “less missions” is necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to be continually challenged to consider if we might be shirking our calling in some way. But at the end of the day, each “mission field” has unique characteristics that have to be considered, when it comes to developing the most effective strategy for such a setting.

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