It is the aim of foreign missions that is to be defined, and not the aim of the Christian Church in the world, or of the Christian nations of the world. There are many good and Christian things which it is not the duty of the foreign missionary enterprise to do. Some things are to be laid, from the beginning, upon the shoulders of the new Christians; some are to be left to be discharged in due time by the native Christian churches that shall arise; and there are many blessings, political, commercial, and philanthropic, which the Christian nations owe to the heathen world, which are not to be paid through the enterprise of foreign missions. It is the aim of a distinctive, specific movement that we are to consider.

It will help us in defining it to remind ourselves, for one thing, that we must not confuse the aim of foreign missions with the results of foreign missions. There is no force in the world so powerful to accomplish accessory results as the work of missions. Wherever it goes it plants in the hearts of men forces that produce new lives; it plants among communities of men forces that create new social combinations. It is impossible that any human tyranny should live where Jesus Christ is King. All these things the foreign mission movement accomplishes; it does not aim to accomplish them.

I read in a missionary paper a little while ago that the foreign mission that was to accomplish results of permanent value must aim at the total reorganization of the whole social fabric. This is a mischievous doctrine. We learn nothing from human history, from the experience of the Christian Church, from the example of our Lord and his apostles to justify it. They did not aim directly at such an end. They were content to aim at implanting the life of Christ in the hearts of men, and were willing to leave the consequences to the care of God. It is a dangerous thing to charge ourselves openly before the world with the aim of reorganizing states and reconstructing society. How long could the missions live, in the Turkish Empire or the Native States of India, that openly proclaimed their aim to be the political reformation of the lands to which they went? It is misleading, also, as Dr. Behrends once declared, to confuse the ultimate issues with the immediate aims; and it is not only misleading, it is fatal. Some things can only be secured by those who do not seek them. Missions are powerful to transform the face of society, because they ignore the face of society and deal with it at its heart. They yield such powerful political and social results because they do not concern themselves with them.

Article continues below

It will help us also to remind ourselves that we must not confuse the aims of missions with the methods of missions. It is an easy thing to select ȧ method with a view to the accomplishment of some given end, and then, because the end is difficult of accomplishment, because the method is easy of operation, because its results, apart altogether from the main aim, are pleasant and useful in themselves, it is easy to exalt the method into the place of the end. Have not many of us seen this same happen, to be quite frank, in our schools? We establish a school with a view to the realization of our aim; the aim becomes a difficult thing, the maintenance of the school is an easy thing. It is a good and civilizing thing in itself, and by and by we sacrifice for the lesser good the greater aim. Our method rises up into the place of our end and appropriates to its support for its own sake that which the aim had a right to claim should be devoted to it for the aim’s sake alone. Let us once and for all distinguish in our minds between the aim of missions and the results and methods of missions.

Having cleared the ground so far, what is the aim of foreign missions? For one thing, it is a religious aim. We cannot state too strongly in an age when the thought of men is full of things, and the body has crept up on the throne of the soul, that our work is not immediately and in itself a philanthropic work, a political work, a secular work of any sort whatsoever; it is a spiritual and a religious work. Of course, religion must express itself in life, but religion is spiritual life. I had rather plant one seed of the life of Christ under the crust of heathen life than cover that whole crust over with the veneer of our social habits or the vestiture of Western civilization. We go into the world not primarily as trustees of a better social life; we go as the trustees of His life who said of himself: “I am come that they might have life, and might have it more abundantly.” “The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

“The aim of missions,” to borrow President Washburn’s phrase, “is to make Jesus Christ known to the world.” You can adopt other phraseology, if you please. You can say the aim of missions is the evangelization of the world, or to preach the Gospel to the world. And if we understand these terms in their scriptural sense, they are synonymous with the phrase which I have just quoted. But many of us will persist in using them at less than their scriptural value. And to make perfectly clear what the aim of missions is, I paraphrase them in these other words—the aim of foreign missions is to make Jesus Christ known to the world.

Article continues below

And almost any method, almost any agency, may be recognized as legitimate which subjects itself with utter fidelity to this supreme aim. As Alexander Duff said years and years ago, in a conference in this city which was the prototype and forerunner of this:

The chief means, of divine appointment, for the evangelization of the world are the faithful teaching and preaching of the pure Gospel of salvation by duly qualified ministers and other holy and consistent disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, accompanied with prayer and savingly applied by the grace of the Holy Spirit; such means, in the providential application of them by human agency, embracing not merely instruction by the living voice, but the translation and judicious circulation of the whole written Word of God, the preparation and circulation of evangelical tracts and books, as well as any other instrumentalities fitted to bring the Word of God home to men’s souls, together with any processes which experience may have sanctioned as the most efficient in raising up everywhere indigenous ministers and teachers of the living Gospel.

I call that fair and broad. It sets out openly a range of mission effort that will throttle and restrict no useful missionary enterprise, and it exalts to a predominant and royal place the supreme end of making Jesus Christ known to his world.

I choose this language because it does not lift off our shoulders the burden of responsibility that we cannot escape, and it does not lay there a burden of responsibility that we cannot bear. We dare not say that we have done our duty when we have spoken Christ’s name to the world, or that we have made Jesus Christ known to the world when we have given the world such a proclamation of Christ as would suffice for us who already know him to take in the full meaning of the message. Neither, on the other hand, dare any man tell us that we are to struggle, hopeless, under the burden of the world’s conversion. We cannot convert one single soul; how shall we convert the world? Yet, midway between the position of no responsibility and of all responsibility, we stand sharing something with God, sharing also something with our brethren of the world. We cannot sever ourselves from that link of loving sympathy which binds us to His life. We are meant to be, between His life and their death, channels of the grace and salvation of God.

Article continues below

The aim of missions is to make Jesus Christ known to the world with a view to the salvation of men for that eternity which embraces alike the time that is to come and the time that now is. We cannot narrow salvation to but one world, this one or the next. And yet, even so, I have not exhausted the statement of our real aim. It is not a purely individualistic gospel with which we are charged. Our duty lies certainly to our own generation, but it does not stop there. We are bound to preach to every person in the world the Gospel that Christ is his Saviour; we are bound also to make known to the world that there is a body of Christ, which is his Church, and to gather up these saved men into visible churches which shall be outward evidence of the body of Christ, and shall secure to the Gospel an influence and perpetuity which institutions and not individuals must supply. We owe it to Henry Venn, one of the strongest minds that has ever worked on this missionary problem, we owe it to Dr. Warneck, to Rufus Anderson, that this element in missionary policy and duty has been properly emphasized. We are to establish and foster native churches, self-extending, self-maintaining, self-directing, which shall carry out to their own people, whom we may not reach, the message that has come to them, and shall carry down into the generations that are to come after them the blessings which we have given them as their own. This is the aim of foreign missions, to make Jesus Christ known to the world with a view to the full salvation of men, and their gathering into true and living churches in the fields to which we go.

And this is our supreme aim. It is a just thing to challenge the world to sympathy with missions, because of the philanthropic and social results that missions achieve, and the heroic spirit which they display. But our supreme aim is neither to establish republics or limited monarchies throughout the world, nor to lead Chinese or Hindu people to wear our dress, nor to remodel their social institutions where these are already wholesome and clean. Our supreme aim is to make Jesus Christ known.

I make room in my view of the world for all other forces than ours. I believe that God is King, and that as surely as his hand is upon us today, and upon the work of missions, it is upon all the great forces that are making this world. I will not acknowledge that the force of political influence has escaped from his control, that he stands impotent before the commerce and civilization of the world. I believe his hand is upon those things; that they play at last into his mighty purposes; that they are but part of his tremendous influence; that they and all the forces of life do but run resistlessly on to the great goals of God. But I believe also that these things are but as chaff before the wind, are but as “the fading dews of the morning before the roaring floods,” compared with the power that we hold in our hands from His pierced hand, who died and rose again, and who is King of them that reign as kings, and Lord of them that rule as lords. This is the supreme aim of Christian missions.

Article continues below

It is also its determining aim. We must confess that we have lost sight, too often and too sadly, of the determining character of our mission aim. We have sometimes allowed ourselves to drift into methods of work that presuppose a quite contrary aim. When we lift off the shoulders of a new native church, for example, the burdens that it must bear, if it is ever to grow, we think we are dealing kindly, while we are taking its life and are false to our own supreme aim. We are here to do our own work, and not other people’s work, or the work of other agencies or other forces. Our methods of work, in their proportion, in their perpetuation, should be ruled as with an iron hand by the supreme and determining aim of our work.

And not alone the methods of missions must be brought into utter subjection to their supreme and determining aim, but our spirit and the spirit of the enterprise must be ruled by that aim. We propose for ourselves no promiscuous and indefinite project; we have set before ourselves, sharp, distinct, and clear, the aim and purpose that have been given us to pursue. We have our own clear piece of work to do, and with a spirit as clear as our work, fruitful, persistent, indomitable, we are to go out, our spirit ruled, as well as our plans, by the aim and purpose of the work that has been committed to us by our Lord.

And, my friends, many of you not distinctively and technically related to the mission work, there is a relation between this aim and your spirit, too. Those who, in the Christian churches at home, are responsible for this enterprise, are not summoning the Christian Church to any miscellaneous and undefined task; they are calling it to a project plain, clear, simple, practical. The Church could do the work if it would, if this aim ruled its spirit.

Article continues below

I was glad to read on the first page of our program those dying words of Simeon Calhoun: “It is my deep conviction, and I say it again and again, that if the Church of Christ were what she ought to be, twenty years would not pass away till the story of the Cross would be uttered in the ears of every living man”; and there came back across my memory this morning the words of a resolution of the American Board, adopted, I believe, at its annual meeting in Hartford, in 1836, that in view of the signs of the times and the promises of God, the time had arrived to undertake a scheme of operation looking toward the evangelization of the world, based upon the expectation of its speedy accomplishment. Sixty-four years have rolled by since then. The promises of God have not been abrogated. Each passing year has only given them fresh authentication, has only touched with new hope and glory the signs of the times. We stand here today before these same promises, vindicated by two generations more of trial, face to face with an open and appealing world. Has not the time now come at last, for action, for great action, for a serious attempt by the whole Church to attain our aim?

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.