Sunday, May 20, 2018

TTT #13 Missionary Activity is Still Legitimate and Important

This article, based on the 13th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), is presented here with the hope that it will help Christian believers reflect on their own faith and practice and that it will help others come to a better understanding of Christianity.
The Modern Missionary Era
There have been missionaries to “foreign” places and ethnic groups from the time of the Apostle Paul to the present. The modern Protestant missionary movement, however, began with Englishman William Carey in 1792.
Building upon Carey’s ground-breaking ideas and actions, extensive time, effort, and resources have been expended on global missionary activities during the 225 years since Carey first went to India. 
According to the most recent statistics I could find (here), in 2010 there were approximately 400,000 serving as international Christian missionaries. Of those, 127,000 were U.S. missionaries; surprisingly, Brazil was the number two missionary-sending country.
As missionary activity by Europeans and Americans is much less prominent now than in previous generations, nearly half of the world's top missionary-sending countries are now located in the global South.
In this country there are now many Christians who seem to think that evangelistic missionary activities ought to be curtailed altogether.
Criticism of Missionary Activity
There were, of course, opponents and critics of the modern missionary movement from the beginning and throughout the two centuries in which it flourished. From the beginning, Carey struggled to overcome strong opposition to his ideas about missions.
In recent decades, though, much of the criticism of “foreign” missionary work has been, justifiably, because of what was so-often a tie between the work of the missionaries and the colonialistic and imperialistic activities of the Western countries from which most missionaries were sent.
Previously, that link was also the scourge of Catholic missions in the so-called “new world” from the time of Columbus, who saw himself as a missionary of sorts. And Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), who founded Vera Cruz [true cross], Mexico, reportedly said, “We have come here to win souls for Holy Mother Church, and to get much gold.”
More than three centuries later, the famous Scottish missionary David Livingstone (1813-73) declared in a 1857 speech given at Cambridge, “My desire is to open a path to this district [in Africa], that civilization, commerce, and Christianity might find their way there.”
To many critics, even more odious than the link between missionary activity and economic imperialism was what seemed to be cultural and/or religious imperialism promulgated by the missionaries. The latter was especially seen in much of the missionary work among the “Indians” of North America.
The Shifting Focus of Missionary Activity
Perhaps largely because of the criticism of much traditional missionary activity, which emphasized converting people to Christianity, the focus of much mission work in recent years has shifted primarily to benevolent work aimed at helping people live better in this present world.
“Mission trips,” which have become commonplace for many churches and Christian organizations, are almost completely concerned with helping people in physical need or deprivation.
To be sure, through the years since the beginning of the modern mission movement, responding in Christian love to the physical and psychological needs of suffering people has been a definite part of missionary activity.
For most forms of the faith, however, that activity was conducted in addition to, and usually secondarily to, the work of evangelism that endeavored to lead people to make a confession of faith in Jesus as Savior, to be baptized, and to become members of a local church.
While there is good reason to emphasize deeds and not just words, is there any reason not to have both?

[There is much more, some of a personal nature, in the 13th chapter of TTT, which you can access in its entirety by clicking here.]


  1. Well that needed to be said, and you are right, the entire chapter must be read.

    Having grown up and witnessed the work of missionaries (and PC governmental NGOs), much needs to be said, and evaluations made. One is that the holy catholic Church must be one in mission and love - including saving lives as well as souls. And that the work of NGOs is not all positive - far from it.

    In those countries we had missionaries from the US, UK, Germany, Kenya, Holland, Switzerland, Canada, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), India, and South Africa. In our local area, by and large, they were after a common goal and cut across denominational lines from Assembly of God to Catholics and Baptists, Lutheran to Seventh Day Advents and Church of Christ, and Church of St Thomas(India), but also sought to improve lives - much needed to change, and still does (not the least of which is cannibalism as a means of gaining spiritual strength over ones enemies, or killing someone of another tribe as proof of manhood, or buying many wives to prove one's wealth).

    Side note: Christian tourism (mission trips) are commendable for expanding a view of the world to the wealthy children of our land. Maybe that is not all bad. Even in retirement, my folks continued to return to spot others for a needed break.
    In our country here, I have met missionaries from India, Tanzania, Kenya, South Korea, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Australia, and Canada who are here on the same mission. We desperately need them as our land become post-Christian like Europe and we have learned to worship ourselves, our politics, and our government.

    Thank God for a Protestant man who sought to revive mission outreach. That God, through the Catholics and Orthodox, had not dropped the ball over the preceding centuries. And that God had retained a remnant of followers through His covenants with Abrahim and Japhu (Japheth).

    May the Spirit of God continue to use missionaries everywhere to draw people to the Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. (+)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write substantial comments. I especially appreciate you writing about reading the entire chapter.

      Yesterday I heard a Thinking Friend say that he read the chapter in the book for the first time. I realize that people are busy and that there is a lot of "stuff" to read. But I have been disappointed that more people haven't read the chapters linked to in the blog articles.

  2. It depends on what you mean "to have both." If you include in that the conversion of people from other faiths, then I'm totally against it. I believe Christian missionaries should serve, as you've recorded here, and even that they have the obligation to give witness to their faith. But they should not be proselytizing. I work for a college/seminary whose mission it is to train missionaries job the Society of the Divine Word. They have a marvelous mission to the poor and oppressed of the world. Their mission includes proclaiming the gospel, but they do not endorse proselytizing people of other faiths.

    1. Thanks, Anton, for your comments--and for raising the question about proselytization.

      An online dictionary definition indicates that to proselytize is "convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another."

      My experience as a missionary is only in Japan, although I have visited missionaries in other East Asian countries, I have seen very little proselization by missionaries.

      In my own missionary activities, and that was probably true for many if not most of my colleagues, there was never efforts to convert Japanese people because they were Buddhists, or Shinto believers (of which there were few, although every Japanese is a Shintoist to a degree).

      The Japanese people whom I knew who became Christians did so because they came to some class, or to a church, or to my faculty office seeking something--meaning/purpose in life, love/acceptance, maybe forgiveness for some wrongdoing--but mainly because they felt some (maybe considerable) dissatisfaction with their lives at the present and were looking for something more. And, yes, there were those who came to talk about Christianity because they were impressed with what some Christians had done or were doing to help people and to improve society.

      I never asked anyone to give up their non-Christian religious faith--and, indeed, hardly any younger Japanese (university students) had any personal religious faith. I talked with them about becoming a follower of Jesus. Some became Christians; many did not. But through my 38 years in Japan I don't really remember any Japanese person who became a Christian as a result of proselytization.

  3. Imperial Christianity casts such a long shadow that it is hard to see humble loving Christianity in the darkness. Imperial Christianity with its armies and Inquisitions is a whole different beast, much as multinational corporations practice a whole different kind of capitalism from your neighborhood entrepreneur. Let us share the love.

  4. Enjoyed the full chapter, once again, Leroy!

    Couldn’t agree more about the both/and approach to proclaiming the gospel while also practicing it through the giving of ourselves to others in deeds. In fact, I’m not sure the proclaiming of it is quite possible without that.

    Exactly what we proclaim and how we proclaim it and who we proclaim it to are more difficult questions. I still wrestle with how to steer my religious conversations with Muslims, for example. Things seem to go best when both of us have an open attitude toward being educated about the beliefs of the other.

    For many, even atheism has become a sort of ideology demanding commitment, meaning any attempts to proselytize are recognized for what they are and usually met debate-style. The ensuing debates usually have little value, except for the rare case when both of us are actually seeking to learn through debate. Sometimes there’s some intellectual merit, at least, in testing one’s ideas against another.

    Real change in belief for me has happened mainly through my reading, and I sometimes wonder if the written word is the best way of proclaiming the gospel these days. It reaches those already interested enough to seek out the subject, and it allows for depth almost impossible in conversations, debates or sermons.

  5. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson sent the following comments by email--even as he was grieving the death last week of his wife of 61 years:

    "I think mission work is defensible, too, Leroy. One aspect of it, which Southern Baptists have shied away from [in recent years], is creating institutions that continue to enrich different peoples and nations. Educational institutions grew out of schools like the one founded by the Alexandrians that gained widespread approval. Carey founded Serampore College. We should not confine understanding of mission work as buttonholing people and dragging them into our religious camp."

    1. Dr. Hinson, thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my blog article during this time of bereavement for you.

      You had written fairly recently about your wife not being in good health, but I did not expect her to pass so soon. I have been thinking of you and praying for you during these days of sadness because of your great loss.

      As one who taught as a missionary in an educational institution for 36 years, I fully agree with your comments.

  6. Steve Hollaway is pastor of Harbor Church on Block Island, Rhode Island. He had not (yet) read this blog article, but what he said in his May 13 sermon is pertinent to what I wrote:

    "I was born in Japan because my parents were convinced that the forgiveness available through Jesus had to be conveyed to our bitterest enemies. There were no limits on God’s love, or the love of Americans who truly followed Jesus.

    "Nowadays, most mainline Protestants have abandoned the mission Jesus gave us. You would think Jesus said, 'Help the nations, but don’t proclaim repentance-and-forgiveness to anyone who already has a religion.' You know perfectly well that in Jesus’ world virtually everyone already had a religion—at least one. Jesus did not limit the church’s mission to his own kind, and he did not dream that his message would not be proclaimed to his own kind, the Jews. He understood that the Father’s purpose included every ethnic group (which was the meaning of the word 'nation' in those days)."

  7. I think the sentence that followed that paragraph in the sermon is also pertinent: "It may be true that in America and Europe Jesus’ mission was used as an excuse for enslavement and colonization, but that does not excuse us from the obligation to proclaim forgiveness to all nations."

    1. Yes, it certainly is -- and I am sorry I didn't include it in what I posted but I much appreciate you doing so.

  8. After posting a link to this article on Facebook, FB friend Cody McMahan posted the following comments. I much appreciate his very affirmative, and perhaps undeserved, words:

    "Dr. Leroy Seat, I saw your work at Seinan and at Fukuoka International Church. Your way of doing mission and of being a Christian changes my answer to you question. I watched you with utmost respect for the Japanese people and their culture stand not as a condemnation but as a witness to the grace you'd been given. You would preach and then open the floor for questions and respond with compassion and respect.

    "The Japanese students would joke that you were more Japanese than the Japanese because you had mastered the subtleties of the culture and could explain them. You took us, your exchange students, to observe Japanese religious traditions and helped us understand a little of the integrated spirituality of Japanese practice.

    "You showed thousands of Japanese and hundreds of exchanges students that one can be Christian and still have a great big brain and an even bigger heart. If only all missionaries could be like you."