The foundation of Christian missions can be summarized in Luke 4:18-21 as Jesus announced his ministry on earth. Since he returned to the Father, we have become the representation of Christ on earth, and we continue his ministry as proclaimed in this passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Our model for Christian missions is found in the four gospels, which detail the ministry of Jesus and the disciples over the next three years after his temple discourse and culminating in Matthew 28:18-20, when he gave the Great Commission to us, his disciples.
History of Christian missions
Christian missions began when Jesus gave this Great Commission to his disciples, as well as the complementary passage in Acts 1:8, where his last words were: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” However, the church did not have any outreach beyond Jerusalem and Judea until the persecution of the Church began and the early believers were scattered. This was just prior to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul, the first missionary to the non-Jewish people and the father of modern missions.
Evangelical, foreign missions as we know them today began after the Protestant Reformation and the emergence of preachers such as David Livingston, George Whitfield, Hudson Taylor, and Jonathan Edwards. Much of what we see today in missions is modeled after their prototypes, including the concept of presenting the gospel within the context of the receiving culture, and not trying to impose our Western culture and values on them. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen a tremendous increase in foreign missions outreach, with some of the more visible groups and organizations being Gospel for Asia, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Africa Inland Mission, China Inland Mission, the Assemblies of God, and Youth With a Mission (YWAM). The Lausanne Congress of 1974 birthed a movement that supports evangelical outreach among non-Christians and nominal Christians worldwide.
Proclaiming good news to the poor
One of the key concepts of Christian missions, whether foreign or domestic, is meeting the physical needs of people. Jesus said that anyone that gives a cup of water in his name will not lose his reward. Some churches may focus on only social outreach and feeding programs, without ever preaching any kind of a Christian message including the message of the cross and repentance from sin. Others may only preach to try to save souls, without ever meeting their physical needs. A balanced approach is needed, and it is important to make sure that the basic physical and social needs are met, as well as spiritual needs. James 2:14-17 states: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” This concept is critical in understanding how we can effectively bring the light of Christ to a lost world.
Proclaiming freedom for the prisoners
Once we have addressed the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing for a person or people-group, we have earned the right to speak into their lives about the levels higher on the hierarchy of needs, for which psychologists have developed a model. These needs include freedom from political oppression, through enlightenment and education. This is the reason we found schools in foreign countries, teaching basic education, trades, math, science, and the gospel message, which is able to save them as well as bring them the freedom from ignorance and darkness.
Proclaiming recovery of sight to the blind
The Christian message to the world should include the hope of divine healing, both physical and emotional, through the power of prayer and counseling. The first disciples were amazed by the dynamic power that was resident in them through the indwelling Holy Spirit in salvation and the subsequent baptism in the Spirit at Pentecost. An effective foreign missions outreach will include this, but not make it the primary emphasis. One extreme is to preach exclusively on divine healing and prosperity of the soul, and the other extreme is to avoid these due to the excesses we have seen by others who were well-meaning in their zeal but not always using tact and wisdom.
Setting the oppressed free
We in America live in a land that does not appear dominated by spiritual oppression, at least in the form of visible idols of wood and stone. Our idolatry is more subtle, and takes the form of whatever we choose to place on a higher level than God. But the oppression of the enemy is more open and obvious in some foreign fields, as we may encounter voodoo worship, demonic possession and oppression, and spiritual bondage. The casting out of demons was one of the visible activities of Jesus and the early disciples, who ministered with him during his three years on earth before his death and resurrection. We need to be prepared to engage in all of this type of spiritual warfare as described in Ephesians 6:10-17. Without this knowledge and this equipment, we will easily fall by the wayside as casualties on the mission field.
Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor
The last key point in Jesus’ temple discourse is the proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, which for the hearers was the news that the Messiah had come, the deliverer for whom the Jewish people had been waiting for hundreds of years. This is the most important part of the message that we have for the non-Christian world, whether they be Hindus, Muslims, spiritualists, animists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the heathen in the next cubicle at work. The message is assurance of salvation by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, freedom from trying to be saved by good works, or just being good enough to get into the Kingdom of God. Once we adopt a balanced approach of meeting the needs of a people group—physical, emotional and social—then and only then will our message of faith in Christ and salvation through his atonement be authentic and effective.
Until the Whole World Hears
As a matter of strategy, many evangelical Christians around the world now focus on what they call the “10/40 Window,” a band of countries between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude and reaching from western Africa through Asia. Christian missions strategist Luis Bush coined the phrase in his presentation at the missionary conference Lausanne 1989 in Manila. Sometimes referred to as the “Resistant Belt,” it is an area that includes 35% of the world’s land mass, 90% of the world’s poorest peoples and 95% of those who have yet to hear anything about Christianity. Sources such as the Joshua Project and Operation World have identified specific known Unreached People Groups that still have not heard the gospel of Christ and/or do not have any part of the Bible in their native language. Of the 16,439 people groups in the world, 42% or 6,898 of them have been classified as “unreached.” The total population in these groups is 2.9 billion, or 40.7% of the 7.13 billion people in the world. An example of these is the Sila of Laos, with their own culture and language, a group with a total population of 2,500 which does not have a single known Christian believer. It is a tedious and difficult process to develop a lexicography and Bible translation for such a small and splintered group, yet each person in these tiny and scattered groups is loved by God and he wants us to reach them with the gospel.
How will you get involved?
As committed disciples of Jesus Christ, we should all be involved in foreign missions, whether we go overseas for short- or long-term missions, or support with prayer and finances. The need is huge and daunting and the time may be short, but our commission in Matthew 28 remains the same: “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
Bob Woods is a Senior Project Manager at AECOM Technical Services, as well as a published Christian author and a writer for the Good News of South Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].