It appears more and more tacitly assumed in missionary circles these days that the gospel message in and of itself is a rather difficult thing to introduce unadorned in non-Christian cultures and that humanitarian aid—e.g., clinics, clean water wells, schools, business-as-mission projects—can act as a helpful icebreaker to ease everyone (or at least the maximum number of people) into the conversation.
The strategy is hardly new, but the origin of its entry into the mission conversation has rarely been noted.
The idea originated in the strategy conference between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness. The two met to discuss a number of cogent proposals from Satan regarding how Jesus might proceed with his pending mission. Satan offers Jesus three very practical and easily implementable ideas, each of which is rooted in the conviction that Jesus’ message will benefit from some kind of practical outworking, some kind of inherently understandable appeal, in order to achieve maximum receptivity.
Jesus’ responses are in many ways more cryptic and troubling than Satan’s actual proposals. When Jesus says that we live by God’s word more fundamentally than by bread, that we should focus single-mindedly on God rather than on our fellows, and that we should not require God to offer any outward proof of his existence, he actually runs afoul of a number of our strongly-held contemporary convictions. When later in his ministry (as recorded in Luke 10) he insists that the gospel be adorned only with the poverty of the messenger (who is not allowed even a personal wallet or spare clothing or shoes to accompany the message), he runs dramatically afoul of nearly every major mission organization in operation today. What about holistic mission? What about capturing interest and building relationships? What about simply getting a visa and ensuring the safety and security of the missionary?
It must hasten to be noted that Jesus is not condemning humanitarian aid. In Matthew 5-7 he strongly insists that it be our constant engagement. However, he insists that it be rendered non-strategically and largely covertly, a message to no one other than ourselves that our Father acts this way and that as his children we are naturally to reflect his character.
Perhaps the problem with missionary work today is thus not that it is not strategic enough but rather that it is too strategic. Many missionaries do not believe it is realistic or effective simply for them to go and live Christianly, humbly, and simply among the people they are called to reach, learning their language and culture and sharing the gospel with them as naturally and plainly as breathing, adding nothing to the local resource pool other than themselves, their message, and the manifest Spirit of God.
Is such an approach dangerous? Yes, though it is not always clear for whom it is more dangerous: the missionary or the principalities and powers that oppose the missionary’s message. Jesus guarantees tribulation for both but promises the missionary that, having removed the barrier of death, there is nothing to prevent Jesus from accompanying the missionary all the way forward to Jesus’ own throne.
Satan likewise pledges to accompany those who employ his methods, and it is one of the few pledges of his that is trustworthy. Wherever humanitarian aid has been used as an icebreaker for the gospel, Satan has faithfully disrupted the uptake of the message such that what is ultimately received is what Paul would later describe as “another gospel,” not quite identical with the original. By contrast, as Paul would himself affirm, Jesus calls his missionaries to be personally unimpressive, only carrying about with them in the physical realm what Paul describes as death, so that even the palest, faintest glimmer of the truth might not go undetected.