When things get tough, missionaries are bound to ask, What are we doing here? Why did we come? What can we accomplish by staying? The answers either rekindle zeal and determination to stay on, or send the missionaries home.
When we present the missionary challenge through speaking and writing it is important to be clear about the motives of missionary endeavor. Biblical answers must be given to such questions as, Why are missionaries needed? By whose authority, and to what end, do missionaries work? Are there wrong motives as well as right motives for becoming missionaries?
In society at large missionary motives are always suspicioned and criticized. There is a certain amount of antimissionary spirit in the church as well. Missionaries are accused of being religious bigots, trouble makers, cultural aggressors, ecclesiastical colonialists and spiritual imperialists. For everyone that idolizes missionaries there are ten others vilifying them.
It is particularly sad to see certain newer organizations that in their fundraising subtly try to discredit missionaries. These organizations promote the kind of overseas ministries that make extensive use of nationals, which is good. But they discredit missionaries and paint a false image of their work. By advertising a "more economical" approach to missions these organizations try to shift financial support to their own programs.
Motives are Never Perfect
Admittedly, no missionary has ever gone out with utterly pure motives. Some missionaries return home earlier than planned because they come to realize that their reasons for going were wrong and their missionary vocation misconceived.
Even when their motives are correct, missionaries make mistakes. Pure motives do not insure good judgment or prevent problems from rising. The most common problem is maintaining harmonious relations with fellow workers. Even people with similar motives can be difficult to get along with.
But some motives are definitely wrong. Among the wrong motives for becoming missionaries are such things as seeking honor for themselves, pursuing selfish "fulfillment," escaping problems back home, working off feelings of guilt by trying to earn God's favor, desiring to dominate other people, and bringing glory to a particular church or denomination.
Critics relish pointing out missionary shortcomings. In an effort to discredit missionaries, every perceived flaw is investigated and exaggerated to the limit. The secular media portrays missionaries as intolerant fools and their work at best as nonsense. No matter how carefully missionary goals and motivation are explained, critics are never silenced. Because as the Scripture says, some things can only be spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14) and people that are spiritually dead cannot appreciate them.
Motives that are Right
Right motives for becoming missionaries are motives taught or implied in the Word of God. Right motives and the missionary "call" are closely related. Missionary vocation involves a deep sense of compulsion to spread the gospel, a recognition that God has supplied the necessary gifts and abilities, and a basic understanding of what the Bible teaches are the proper motives of missionary endeavor.
Biblical motives are universal, applying just as much to missionaries going out from Asia, Africa and Latin America as to those going from North America or Europe.
1. To Glorify God
The final and highest goal of missions is to glorify God. God's glory is everything revealed about God, His name, His holiness, His sovereign power, His saving love, mercy, grace and righteousness. Missionaries yearn to fill every corner of the world with the knowledge and worship of God and His glory.
The chief end of all human existence, says the Westminster Catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. But more than three billion people in today's world do not do this, and that thought stirs missionaries to action. Christians on whom God lays His hand cringe at the thought that God's name is dishonored and His glory denied by people worshiping idols. They are compelled to spread the gospel, their highest motivation being that God's glory will shine when knees bow and tongues confess Jesus as Savior and Lord (Philippians 2:11).
2. To Obey God, Out of Love and Gratitude
This motive naturally follows the first. "If you love me," said Jesus, "you will obey what I command" (John 14:15). Genuine love for God translates into a life of obedience, witness, and fruitful service. Nothing is plainer than Christ's command to go and make disciples of all nations and peoples.
Missionaries sense in their hearts that the particular form of grateful obedience God wants from them involves going out with the gospel to the unsaved, unchurched and uncared-for. In my own life, I became personally aware of God's call to missions on a September evening in 1954. I was a college student heading for seminary, and in the back of my mind to a comfortable pastorate. But unexpectedly the thought burst on my mind that Christ who gave His life for me wanted the whole world to know the gospel, and if I really wanted to live for Christ, I had to be part of the missionary endeavor.
3. To Win the Lost
Listen to Paul describe his missionary motivation: "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law ... so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law ... so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).
Likewise, missionaries are moved to go near and far, searching for the lost, winning as many as possible, and using every possible means to "save some" from Satan's snare and eternal damnation.
4. To Plant Churches and Extend the Kingdom
"Thy Kingdom come," which is the second petition of the Lord's Prayer, conveys missionary motivation. God's Kingdom comes wherever people are ruled by God's Word and Spirit and the devil's works are destroyed (Heid. Cat., A. 123).
Churches are assemblies of people who live by God's grace and are directed by His Spirit and Word to lives filled with good works. In a sinful, troubled world, faithful churches are lighthouses of God's Kingdom of truth, love and righteousness. They oppose Satan's bondages of whatever sort, and set prisoners free.
Missionaries are motivated to actions of many kinds both by the eschatological vision of God's great Kingdom and the strategic importance of faithful, fruitful churches planted among all nations and peoples.
A Persistent Sense of Urgency
Missionaries as a class are a restless people, always on the go, studying maps, investigating unevangelized areas and unreached people, discussing plans and strategies, and telling stories of changed lives and terrible misery that make you want to drop everything and join them, or run away fast.
Missionaries simply refuse to leave sluggish churches and complacent Christians as they are, but persist in challenging them to more prayer, wider outreach, more giving, and additional workers. Always there is that sense of urgency with missionaries, as though precious time were slipping away and eternity begins today. It springs, I think, from the issues at stake and the urging of the Spirit who rests not until all God's elect have heard, believed, and are gathered in.