Saturday, July 22, 2006

"Whatever Happened to Rescuing People from Hell?"

Robertson McQuilkin offers upLost Missions: Whatever happened to the idea of rescuing people from hell? in Christianity Today.

In full ...

The official representative from Saddleback Church had just finished his powerful presentation of Rick Warren's P.E.A.C.E. plan. Afterwards, I told him that I use The Purpose-Driven Church in a doctoral-level course, and also how much I appreciate Warren's impact on the church. But when I mentioned the critical omission of missions in the book, this rep grinned in agreement. That's why he and I welcomed the P.E.A.C.E. plan (CT, October 2005, p. 32), which outlines a holistic approach to the church's responsibility to the world, conquering the "giants" of poverty, illness, and ignorance. The plan is marketed as a wholly new paradigm for doing missions.

Warren's well intended, helpful, and increasingly popular approach, however, is not fundamentally new. It tackles the Great Commission with methods that have been wending their way through the evangelical missionary movement for at least two decades: using (1) short-term teams and money via (2) church-to-church ministry (the local church "here" partnering with a local church "there"). Let's look at them before we examine an equally troubling theological shift.

Strategy Problems
1. Short-term teams and money. This "new" approach to doing the evangelistic part of missions began to emerge in the 1970s, especially with Calvary Chapel and other megachurches. And it has been wildly successful, at least in terms of raw statistics. While the number of long-term missionaries from North America has stayed basically static, the number of American laity involved in short-term projects grew from 22,000 in 1979 to more than a million today.

Of course, the appeal is irresistible for a generation wanting personal involvement now in something significant, but which does not require a long-term commitment. That cultural/generational base for the shift would seem to guarantee its permanence, assuming continued American affluence to fund this very expensive approach.

So what's the problem? Simply put, the 1.8 billion people who have not heard the gospel and who have little or no opportunity to hear it. People living outside the reach of present gospel witness, it stands to reason, cannot be reached by short-term "amateurs," as missions strategist Ralph Winter identifies them. These out-of-reach peoples must have a witness who will cross geographical and cultural boundaries and live among them long enough to understand them and win their confidence. If completing the Great Commission is the churches' assignment, short-termers can't do it.

Proponents may answer that short-term teams can partner with indigenous pioneer missionaries who live near the unreached to win the unreached. Perhaps this is true in theory, but it is extremely rare or even nonexistent in practice. We must face the fact that most career missionaries from the younger churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have yet to penetrate these out-of-reach areas in significant numbers. Sadly, our million-plus North American short termers minister not among the unreached, but among the reached, where the church already exists.

2. Church-to-church ministry. We encounter similar problems with this second emphasis. The central issue is this: When it comes to those who are not within reach of a gospel witness, by definition there are no churches for our churches to partner with. To reach the unreached, we must cross boundaries, and for about one-third of the world's people, there is no receiving church on the other side. Stan Guthrie, a CT senior associate editor, notes in his book Missions in the Third Millennium that cross-cultural ministry remains essential to the Great Commission:

If all ministry were done by Christians of the same ethnic groups as their non-Christian neighbors, some 4,000 sociolinguistic people groups without any Christian witness would remain unreached forever. The fact is, cross-cultural, Western missionaries will be needed for the foreseeable future.

Not only will career missionaries from North America be needed for the foreseeable future, they will be indispensable. Both Western-based missionaries and missionaries from the developing world must work together to complete the task, but assuming that church-to-church ministry models will overcome the thorny problems inherent in the missionary task is naïve at best.

Shifting Emphasis
Beyond these practical concerns, we come to a shifting theological emphasis among some North American evangelicals—though not Rick Warren—that has an even greater potential for undermining missions. Why do people support the missions enterprise? One reason, of course, is to express their love for the Lord, who told us to make disciples.

Another, surely, has been to express their love for the unsaved, who face God's condemnation. In recent years, however, there has been a subtle shift in the discussion. ct executive editor J. I. packer notes in the foreword to Ajith Fernando's book Crucial Questions About Hell, "Emphasis on the lostness of the lost has come to be almost taboo. The shift is startling."

Now we emphasize the glory of the God whom we love, almost to the exclusion of the uncomfortable truths about the lostness of the lost. Indeed, a new missions text, The Changing Face of World Missions (Baker Academic, 2005), has a chapter entitled, "Changing Motivations for Missions: From 'Fear of Hell' to 'the Glory of God.'" Of course, God's glory has always been primary for the church. The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards—he of the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" fame—looked forward to a "general revival of religion" that would be "very glorious … special and extraordinary" and would produce the "flourishing of Christ's kingdom on earth."

But deliberately downplaying the motive of other-love will prove fatal, I fear. Actually, we're not shy about expressing our love for others, as long as the focus remains on the needs of the here-and-now. Holistic concern for health, education, and justice is okay, advocates tell us. But other-love in terms of a rescue mission from a bad ending—well, that's so offensive to the postmodern we mustn't even mention it, let alone emphasize it.

The way I read John 3:16, however, is that God so loved people he gave his one and only Son to—do what? Save them from perishing (hell). That's God's motive, so it can't be too wrong. I believe the shift among evangelicals to de-emphasize hell could prove the demise of Pauline-style missions. And thus it could lead to the spiritual death of multitudes who would, as a consequence, never hear the Good News of redemption.

Déjà Vu
If that should happen, of course, it would be a case of déjà vu, for that is precisely what took place in the early part of the last century. The mainline denominations moved away from saving people from hell to saving them in the here and now.

With every move in that direction, the missions enterprise shriveled. And no wonder. Why make such great sacrifices to reach the unreached if there is no eternal-destiny danger?

This shift was coupled then—as now—with entertaining the possibility of other ways to be acceptable to God than through faith in Jesus Christ. If the past is any guide, we seem to face once again the slow demise of missions as it is found in the New Testament. That's why I consider the question of final destiny the theological issue for missions in our postmodern context.

Without apology, we may love others in many ways: seeking their health, promoting justice, advancing education. But above all, we should love them into eternal life, away from eternal death.

May our churches never fail to love as God loves, to extend his provision of eternal salvation to the 1.8 billion out-of-reach people. God was motivated by people-love, so that must be our motivation as well, if we are to be like him.

But of course we also are motivated above all by the Great Commandment, to love God. And one way to do that is to keep the spotlight on him, to glorify him. I must say, however, that the move to make "the glory of God" the primary "motive" so far has not increased missions passion in churches, if we gauge that passion by the numbers of new pioneer missionary evangelistic church planters.

We can express our love for God in many ways. But the proof of love, said Jesus, is that we obey his commandments. And the commandment he returned to over and over following his resurrection? Go and proclaim the good news of redemption (Mark 16:15), go and preach repentance and remission of sin (Luke 24:47), go and disciple the nations (Matt. 28:19) to the uttermost parts (Acts 1:8).

Let us not forget the unreached as we strategize, and let us not neglect God's own motive of rescuing people from hell. By all means, we glorify him by sending, going, and finishing the task, but we are also moved, as he is, by love for those who are perishing.


Mr. McQuilkin makes a great point. Hell, as a concept, is so offensive to the postmodern, pagan mind that churches consciously and unconciously avoid talking about it. The result is a tangible loss of Christian zeal for the lost. Bad theology has repercussions.