Monday, November 7, 2011

What Missionaries Do

Charles Leonard devoted an entire chapter in his book, Repaid A Hundredfold, to what he called ”Varied Activities and Responsibilities.” This really is an insightful chapter about what missionaries were able to do during the first half of the 20th century in China; but even more, it is a testimony to the unflagging devotion that many American missionaries demonstrated in their efforts to spread the gospel around the world. The chapter is 23 pages long, but it seemed much longer—perhaps because of the breadth, depth, and intensity of the work. The missionary’s days from sunrise to late into the evening were filled with a multitude of activities often complicated by difficult travel, economic hurdles, and struggles with foreign languages and strange customs. Daily these missionaries faced multitudes who were plagued by poverty, disease, superstition, ignorance, and exploitation.

I was most impressed by the breadth and balance of the missionary efforts in China. In a time when mission boards have shifted to a narrow focus on evangelism and starting churches, the mission in China was broad-reaching and comprehensive. Compassionate ministry to every aspect of human need was central. Economic, social, physical, vocational, and spiritual needs were in focus. Establishing preaching points and starting churches was a central strategy; but schools, hospitals, and publishing ventures also were integral to the comprehensive efforts undertaken. Indigenous workers were trained, equipped, and employed to multiply the missionaries’ efforts. Cooperation with Christians of every stripe was evident, from the Russian Orthodox to the Presbyterians to the YMCA. No area was neglected if it held the hope of making life better for people whose needs far surpassed the narrow spiritual focus that often consumes contemporary missions and ministry.

I suspect that few missionaries today can be as open and visible in their ministries as were the Leonards and other early missionaries to China. Political restrictions certainly are more severe. Nationalistic and Islamic influences raise restrictive barriers. An awareness of the secularization of our own society is too obvious through worldwide access to the media. The “do-it-all-on-our-own” mentality restricts cooperative efforts with other Christian groups and agencies. Evangelistic apathy infects many of our churches, and many other churches are infected by a narrow focus on saving souls with little regard for the whole person.

We still need a comprehensive and balanced vision of missions; and missionary pioneers like Charles Leonard can provide an inspiring model of the kind of selfless dedication, expansive compassion, visionary focus, and cooperative effort that will stretch our own missionary endeavors.

I was pleased to see an Associated Baptist Press release last week of a modern-day missionary to China, Judy Sutterlin who, working under the aegis of the American Baptist International Ministries, continues to work with the broad perspective of pioneers like Charles Leonard. She recently received the Charity Award in the Jiangsu Province of China for her work in improving people's lives and promoting social harmony. May more follow in the footsteps of Leonard and Sutterlin.

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