When I was in college the first time around, I had a history professor who was the son of Methodist missionary parents in China. Consequently, he was born in China and spent much of his childhood there—before Mao’s revolution. Like a good preacher, he drew upon this personal experience to illustrate points he wanted to make in his lecture.
During each of the five or six times he mentioned growing up in China to missionary parents, he immediately inserted this qualification: “My parents were medical missionaries, not proselytizing missionaries.” All of us students got his drift: His parents’ life work was all about doing something useful—offering modern Western medicine to an impoverished people. They weren’t there to convert anyone. After all, what good is that?
A couple of thoughts: I’m not in a position to comment on the fairness of this characterization of his parents’ work. The fact that they were Methodist missionaries implies—I hope—that regardless of their actual work in China, their motivation was explicitly religious and specifically Christian: they were so inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ that they wanted to share Christ’s love with others, using the gifts he gave them for medicine. I’m sure they felt called by God to do this work. If, in part because of their efforts, some Chinese people became Christians along the way… well, it seems likely that his parents wouldn’t have minded, you know? They might have even welcomed it.
Besides, what’s wrong with proselytizing? Not only is there nothing wrong with trying to persuade people to become disciples of Jesus Christ, there is everything right about it, no matter what our culture says. This is the heart of the church’s mission. (I would only qualify this by saying that “becoming disciples” is more of a lifelong process than a moment of decision. We’re always becoming!)
How do we go about this mission? Again, at the risk of pointing out the obvious: by sharing the gospel. And when I say “gospel,” I mean the plain, unvarnished gospel. In other words, we speak words and live lives that communicate what God has done for the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and describe how God’s saving work relates to our present situation.
The gospel, according to Paul in Romans 1:16-17, is “the power of God,” which is not just another way of saying that it’s a powerful message—the way Schindler’s List is a powerful message. And it’s not even saying that it’s the most powerful message, although it surely is. No, from Paul’s perspective, the gospel is power itself. It’s God’s power. And it’s enough. Or at least it ought to be.
I’m writing the words of this blog post to myself… For the next time I’m sweating over a sermon, searching for just the right words, trying too hard to be clever or funny or endearing. Just give them the gospel, Brent. It’s all you need!