But it is also true that if we fill the bellies of the hungry but leave their souls empty by not proclaiming to them the crucified and risen Christ then we have neglected to give them what it is they need above all else. In other words, to alleviate physical suffering (a good thing) but withhold the Gospel is actually to be guilty of spiritual violence against the ones we presume to help. Doing good deeds apart from the clear proclamation of the gospel will not draw the suffering to Christ. Rather we will be pointing only to ourselves.
In his article, How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire, Greenberg writes:
The 1910 World Missionary Conference was a watershed moment for Protestantism. Meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, the assembled 1,200 Protestants believed that Christianity was on the cusp of spreading to every corner of the world, and that Christ would come again once every ear had heard the good news of salvation. Their master plan for missions would hasten his return.Greenberg goes on to cite David Livermore, Executive Director of the Global Learning Center at Cornerstone University who believes it is a good thing to shift away from "proselytizing." He says that the "millenials" see efforts to convert unbelievers to Jesus Christ as "al Qaeda in Christian wineskins." And, in the context of his comments, Livermore seems to agree with this assessment.
But Edinburgh 2010, the centenary conference that concluded last month, drew only about a quarter of the crowd and received attention only from a few Christian publications. The modern master plan was less ambitious as well: a call to global missions and "to witness and evangelism in such a way that we are a living demonstration of the love, righteousness and justice that God intends for the whole world."
This dramatic change was summed up at a small gathering of academics and missions professionals at Fuller Theological Seminary in late May. "At (1910) Edinburgh, people thought they were going to take over the world," said C. Douglas McConnell, dean of Fuller's School of Intercultural Studies in his opening remarks. "And now many of our students wonder if they should even try."
Indeed, colonialism is dead (thankfully). But the term "missions" itself now carries with it a negative connotation, even in politically and theologically conservative circles. Christians today typically travel abroad to serve others, but not necessarily to spread the gospel.
While meaning well and certainly doing good, this form of outreach has allowed the pendulum to swing too far from 1910. Today, Christian missionaries need to balance both actions and words. The overwhelming majority of American missionaries today are "vacationaries." Joining mission trips of two weeks or less, they serve in locales where Christianity already predominates.
The purpose, then, of their visit is to battle the ills of poverty and to stretch their own spirituality. According to studies by Robert J. Priest, a missiologist and director of the doctoral program in intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 82% of short-term missions today go to countries in the most-Christian third of the world. Only 2% land in the Middle East.
Greenberg also cites Scott Moreau of Wheaton College who estimates that nearly half of his graduate students once believed that planting churches overseas was a top priority. "Today, it might be 10%." It is clear that the good work of alleviating suffering, instead of being an accompaniment to, is now replacing the matter of first importance - the proclamation of the Gospel.
Spreading Christianity through deeds alone aligns with a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words." But research suggests that non-Christians often miss the message without the words.
A 2006 study by Calvin College's Kurt Ver Beek found "little or no difference" in the spiritual response between two groups of Hondurans—one which had its homes rebuilt by missionaries who did not proselytize and the other by local NGOs. Intuition would suggest as much. Unless foreigners explain that they are motivated to help by their religious beliefs, locals may be grateful for the new home but they should not be expected to connect dots that they may not even know exist.
The reality is the Church should be doing both: serving the needy and spreading the gospel. This is what makes the humanitarian work of Christians different than that of the American Red Cross. Both are motivated by the desire to help others, but Christians are spurred by that Jesus thing.