Your head is swirling. It’s sweltering hot and your mind is in overdrive as every single sense is overwhelmed. Traffic zips by at a pace and volume to which you are unaccustomed, hawkers are selling their goods in a language you don’t understand, and you smell the stench of garbage and diesel fumes mixing with fragrant spices and the aroma of frying dough. You see people going about their lives, but lacking much that you consider basic—people drinking water you wouldn’t consider safe and shouldering loads you would put in the trunk of your car. Your overwhelming sense is that everything is broken (though if you stick around you’ll realize sooner or later that many things are just different, not broken.) Then something happens.
Someone penetrates your daze. A cute little girl, maybe four or five years old, is tugging at you and asking something, signaling she needs food. You feel like you yourself are drowning, so how can you help her? You can’t help but feel for her. How much should you give? $10? $100? How much are these bills worth again? She thanks you and walks away.
This particular situation is fictional, but for many people, this is what their first time in the developing world feels like. It’s natural to need time to adjust and it is right to reach out in compassion to those we see in need. The question is what you do in response. There is no lack of desperate needs or noble causes to support: clean water, education, social justice causes, medical care, environmental care, and the list goes on and on. All of these and many more are good causes about which Christians should be concerned. However, if we believe that all human beings are sinners who stand condemned before a holy God with no hope except that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, then far outweighing all these physical needs is their spiritual need.
Tragically, many live without access to a faithful gospel witness. Therefore, as we support the work of missions with our money, time, skills, and careers, we should prioritize the work of evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. This is actually the best way for Christians to engage the most desperate needs in the world.
Gospel Proclamation is the Church’s Top Priority
When we think about how we are to use our time and money, it is important to ask what our goal is. What is the work to which we have been called? If we aren’t sure what we are supposed to do, we are very unlikely to accomplish it. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus gives his disciples their job. He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey his commands.
When we look at the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels and the ministry of the apostles in Acts, we see a lot of healing and other works of compassion. However, there is a singular focus on the work of proclaiming the gospel. Sometimes there are miracles, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes there is healing and sometimes there isn’t, but the proclamation of the gospel and the ministry of teaching and disciple-making is never absent. Miracles and acts of compassion, where they are present, exist largely to confirm and point to the gospel, not replace it. They are subservient and secondary to the work of gospel proclamation. Acts 6:1–6 makes this very point.
Among the earliest Christians, there was a practical issue of how to care for the widows in the church, a glorious task. But what did the apostles say? “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (v. 2). They appointed men full of the Spirit to lead and provide for the widows, but this work of mercy was secondary to the work of proclamation. Likewise, when we are raising up, training, sending, and supporting missionaries, the clear focus should be on proclaiming the gospel, building up disciples, and planting biblically healthy local churches. Where other things are present, they should be serving this cause, not replacing or distracting from it.
A Surprising Way to Address Physical Needs
It is right for missionaries and churches to be concerned for the physical needs of those who are suffering and far from Christ. Focusing on gospel proclamation as a matter of first importance does not mean that people don’t need clean water, quality education, decent medical care, and a host of other things. However, I actually believe the best way to work towards those things in a manner that is sustainable in the long run is by focusing on evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. God’s children take after his character. They love like he loves. And when the church is growing, the people of God can use their various gifts for his glory in the world. This allows for works of mercy to increase all the more. I’ll give an example from my own life.
My family and I have lived in India now for several years. When we arrived, we determined to focus on gospel ministry in just this way. In rural north India there are more needs than I could even name, but we determined to focus on the spiritual need, which far outweighs any physical needs. Now, several years later, by God’s grace, there is a fledgling church filled with growing disciples in a village where there wasn’t one before. My focus has been on the ministry of the Word from beginning to end, but as people are born again and filled with the Spirit, the members of the church have identified a number of urgent needs that they are meeting joyfully and to which they are giving sacrificially.
One of our members has led out in providing clothes and blankets to tea plantation laborers earning less than $50 per month. Another has led in bringing food to a leper colony. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed us down, but we are working on plans to provide some business training and startup capital to give employment to people within the leper colony. And by God’s grace, these ministries (and others) have provided gospel opportunities. We have baptized members now from the leper colony and the tea plantations! All of this is the overflow of the lives of forty blood-bought saints who are looking at the world around them with new eyes. If I attempted to tackle these issues on my own, I would have been less effective and there would have been no church planted. But by God’s grace and in his wisdom, there is now a church where there was not one, and his people are overflowing with love and good deeds.
The world is full of urgent needs, and we can be tempted toward “mission drift” by looking at the world with merely human eyes. I want to encourage you to continue to show compassion for the world but to do so by looking with spiritual eyes, recognizing that the greatest need anyone could possibly have is the need for reconciliation with God. And as you think about what to do and how to give, do so considering that obedience to the Great Commission through evangelism, discipleship, and church planting will result in growing a people who will live as salt and light in the world in obedience to all that Jesus commanded.