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Mission/Evangelism Is a False Distinction
Reflecting on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Three Days after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 102:1-17
Old Testament: Jeremiah 25:15-32
Gospel: Matthew 10:5-15
Psalter: Psalm 61
Old Testament: 2 Kings 15:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 10:5-15
As you heard the prayer of Isaac and Rebekah, O God, and guided them in the way of your love, so listen now to those who call upon you. Move us to praise your gracious will, for in Christ Jesus you have saved us from the deeds of death and opened for us the hidden ways of your love. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not take a road leading to gentiles, and do not enter a Samaritan town, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick; raise the dead; cleanse those with a skin disease; cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff, for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (Matthew 10:5-15).
Many churches today make a distinction between mission and evangelism. Mission is digging wells and building churches in far away places, while evangelism is telling folks about Jesus. Many churches have a Missions committee and an evangelism committee. By default the two are viewed as two separate endeavors. But are they?
One of the interesting discussions that gets going in Christian circles from time to time is whether or not mission work should also be seen as a time for evangelism. After all, it is reasoned, if we are going to help people in need primarily in the hope that they will “come to Jesus” are we not viewing people as means to an end instead of ends in and of themselves? Shouldn't mission work teams be limited simply to doing the job that needs to be done and save evangelism for another day?
I think the mission/evangelism distinction is quite unfortunate, and quite unbiblical. For Christians, mission and evangelism should be intrinsically related to one another. Whether we are digging wells or sharing faith in conversation with someone, both are motivated by the belief that Jesus is the Savior and Lord of all the world. When I am digging a well I am embodying my faith in Jesus and when I am speaking of Jesus, I am presenting the reason for why I am digging the well—to assist whomever I can in need because Jesus, who is Lord of the World, would do no less. The mission/evangelism distinction assumes that mission is something other than evangelism and that evangelism is something other than mission. Mission is only doing and evangelism is only speaking. Can anyone who reads the Bible seriously believe this? Why can’t mission also be speaking and evangelism also be doing?
Jesus himself, who saw people as ends, nevertheless called people to follow him. The general scholarly consensus is that Jesus' basic message is summarized in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus did not separate his deeds of mercy from his preaching. Indeed, his entire ministry was an expression of the arrival of the kingdom. When we separate mission from evangelism we unwittingly undermine the New Testament notion that deeds of mercy are not signs of the kingdom come. In addition we lose sight of the fact that the resurrection of Jesus is not a provincial event meant to effect only a limited number of persons. Resurrection is a sign of God’s desire to transform the world.
I think what some Christians rightly object to and why they find the mission/evangelism distinction helpful is that some Christian groups can make “evangelism” a requirement to receive “mission.” I know of some churches who have soup kitchens, but make listening to the “come to Jesus” speech a requirement to get a hot meal. Other Christians will stop helping certain persons if they have not converted within a certain period of time. Such an approach to mission and evangelism, does view people as a means to an end. While every Christian should hope that all persons accept Christ as Lord and Savior (and I do mean that), that should never be a precondition for the ministry of the church. We must minister in the name of Jesus, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. If Christians are to see people with the eyes of Jesus, they must have compassion on them in their need and act accordingly regardless of the faith commitment or the lack thereof of the recipients. At the same time, the kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, and every kingdom citizen should want others to become kingdom citizens too.
Finally, the last command Jesus gave to his followers before his Ascension was to make disciples of all nations. It is not always easy to know how to follow Jesus' instructions, but we must follow them. Whether or not we should take Jesus seriously should not be up for debate. Jesus said make disciples; we must make disciples. I sometimes wonder if “mainline” Christians emphasize the mission/evangelism distinction as a way of avoiding calling people to conversion, and if evangelical Christians emphasize the same distinction as a way of not having to do manual labor along with having to come up with the expense involved. Of course, I am speaking in over-generalized fashion, but sometimes overgeneralization helps advance the discussion.
Mission must be more than glorified relief work. Evangelism must be more than simply presenting information.
It is high time we discard the mission/evangelism distinction in the church. It distorts both mission and evangelism.
PRAYER: Life-giving God, heal our lives, that we may acknowledge your wonderful deeds and offer you thanks from generation to generation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.