Every year for the last 20 years or more, America's mainline denominations have cut back on the number of missionaries they send. Why? Are missionaries no longer necessary? Or have these churches lost the way?

The question calls to mind a discussion Jesus had with the disciples near the end of his earthly life. Although he had said that he would prepare places for them in his Father's house, ever-skeptical Thomas asked, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" (John 14:5).

In this age of skepticism and doubt, Thomas's plea rings with relevance as today's mainline denominations similarly lack confidence in the way. The implications are grave for the future of Christian missions. If we have lost the way, how can we expect to show the way to others?

Despite any questions that may have lingered in the minds of the early Christians, they did not need to re-examine or re-imagine their commitment t world missions every three or four years. In fact, until the great theological depression in mainline churches, even more recent Christians had no need to ask about the purpose of missions.

For these believers, Christ's command was simple and urgent: save souls from a Christless eternity. Or at the very least, give them the chance to know that they are lost. Faced with this straightforward challenge, the church exploded into the modern missionary movement, a race against time and the Devil for the eternal salvation of humanity.

Many people consider this the classic and most familiar theology of mission: salvation free for all, but only in Christ. Solidly evangelical, it was the theology of my parents and is not as old-fashioned and outdated as some may think. This same theology is also today's theology of the South Korean Presbyterian church, which gains three or four times more members every year than Presbyterians in America lose every year. Moreover, the vast majority of Third World churches follow this theology, and they are growing, unlike many of our mainline denominations.

This theology sent one of my brothers to the inner city, another to India, and still another into medical missions. As for myself, I was drawn into missions by the words of Robert E. Speer, then chairman of the board at Princeton Theological Seminary. In the middle of a talk he was giving to me and my classmates, he stopped, took out his watch, and said, "This watch could tick for nine and a half years without numbering the unbelievers in China alone." I could not get this picture out of my mind. Five years later, I was in China to find some of those unbelievers.

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Emphasizing the lostness of the unsaved and redemption in Jesus Christ alone, this theology is responsible for sending more missionaries around the globe than any other theology of mission. Through time, however, the foundations undergirding this theology began to shake. Old urgencies were denied, or at least ignored, and no one seemed sure of anything eternal anymore.

Instead of emphasizing eternal life after death, proponents wanted a theology that redeemed the millions upon millions living in misery and filth by providing the life abundant that Jesus came to give them. The challenge became to create a future in, not beyond, history, without hunger and without hate, without sickness and without tears; where men and women were all brothers and sisters together, justice rolled down like the waters, and the nations studied war no more.

Called a theology of the kingdom, this was considered the second theology of missions, a more modern, practical mindset that emphasized "works" over "grace." In its most popular form, it has become liberation theology. At times, it has come dangerously close to building the kingdom without the King. But kingdom theology has its merits, and its roots are biblical: the Jesus who said, "I am the way … " also said, "I am the life" and "As you did it to one of the least of these"-the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the prisoners-"you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40). This is a kind of liberation I can never ridicule.

But in recent times, the paralysis of skepticism has struck those desiring to be liberators. Wars, holocausts, depressions, brutalities, scandals, aids, drugs, and failed revolutions have created a disheartening crescendo of defeat. Worst of all, these events happened right here in the "Christian" West, in what too many had believed was the kingdom. But the kingdom refused to stay built, and the liberators lost hope.


These are the two familiar descriptions of the missionary: as evangelist and as social activist. One emphasizes the saving of souls; the other, the building of the kingdom. Both are needed. The problem is that neither alone can motivate the whole church for missions. Critics of the Left still caricature the evangelical promise as "pie in the sky by-and-by," while critics from the Right even more devastatingly point out that the "paradise-here-and-now" activism of yesterday's failed revolutions has given us more hell on earth than hope of heaven.

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Thus the question: Have we lost the way? How does the church fulfill its mission in this kind of a world, and in our kind of a discouraged church? Where can we find a compelling motive to unite and renew the whole church in Christian mission?

Both the unfairly caricatured evangelists and the well-intentioned but much criticized builders of the kingdom need to take a step toward a more biblical, Christ-centered theology of missions. Christ should define our mission; anything more is idolatry, and anything less is no longer Christian. The Bible reminds us that the evangelist can no more save souls than the social gospeler can build the kingdom of God. Souls are saved by the Holy Spirit, whose witness is never separated from Jesus Christ as the only way. And only God can build the kingdom, whose promised King is Jesus Christ, Lord of all of life.

In their basic motivation, the evangelist and the reformer are actually not that different. At their best, both sincerely believe that their motive is Christian love. But love has lost much of its biblical meaning in today's post-Christian world. America's modern culture-captive theologies use the word love in such a warm, loose, or fuzzy way that I question how far we can use it anymore to describe our motivating base in Christian mission.


I would like to suggest instead that the original motivation for missions in the church was not love, but obedience-more specifically, obedience in love. As C. S. Lewis once observed, "[We] do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because [we] have never attempted obedience."

Of course, love, as described in the New Testament, is fundamental, still the first and greatest commandment. Love began the mission: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life." Love was the motivation of God the Father. But what was the motivation of God the Son?

The Son surely came on his mission with no less love than that of the Father. However, it is interesting to note that the Bible does not say so. Although the life of Jesus on this earth was undeniably filled with unbounded love and compassion, we are not told that he came into the world because he loved it. Insofar as the Bible distinguishes between the Son and the Father in reference to the mission, it tells us that the Father founds the mission motivated by love, while the Son goes on the mission motivated by obedience.

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Paul reveals a rare glimpse into the mind of Christ before the mission of his incarnation. Through the apostle's writings, we see that it is not love, but humility and obedience "unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:5-8) that compels Christ to sacrifice himself. He loves the world, but he goes to the cross because he obeys: "Not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:42). God is love, but it is obedience that forges, focuses, and incarnates that love into a mission.

The same theme applies to the apostles, the first missionaries of the church. Was it love for a despised and rejected race that sent Philip to the Ethiopian? Not according to the record. "An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, 'Arise and go' " (Acts 8:26, NKJV). And he went. Was it love that sent Peter to the proud and unclean, to the Roman centurion? Not if you read Acts. The Spirit told him to "Arise and go" (Acts 10:20). And he did.

Was it a passion for millions of lost Gentile souls dying without hope and without Christ in this world that made Saul into Paul "the apostle to the Gentiles?" He loved his own people, the Jews, too much for that, as the record shows. But the Spirit said in Acts 13, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them," and thus the apostle almost reluctantly obeyed to reach the Gentiles. In the "strange new world of the Bible" (Barth), apostles and missionaries are made not by looking at the world in love (though that they must do), but primarily by listening to God in obedience.

At this point, many are inclined to change the subject in embarrassment and go on to more practical missionary matters concerning techniques, methods, cross-cultural relations, and fundraising appeals. How can we wait around to listen for the voice of God when there is a whole world out there that needs to hear the good news and see it practiced?

Back in my college days, I knew an earnest and intense young woman who wanted desperately to be a missionary in Africa. But she thought that God had not called her because she had heard no supernatural calls, only silence. So one night a realistic and practical-joking friend gathered a group of girls together, robing them in white sheets. At midnight, they stole into the troubled girl's room, moaning in hollow tones, "Come to Africa, come to Africa."

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This woman, paralyzed in her waiting for the voice of God, was partly right, but partly wrong. Wrong in her stereotyped notion of how God ought to speak to her, but completely right in believing that without the positive assurance of God's leading she would never be a missionary even if she did go to Africa. And although her joker friends were wrong to pose as substitutes for the voice of God (a temptation for preachers and professors as well), they were right in portraying a God who works in his own mysterious way through imperfect human means.

This is especially true in missions, which is why our theology is so important. It keeps us on the right way. We are only dressing up in white robes and stealing in upon the unwary with false guideposts and lesser challenges if we settle for anything less than truth, love, and through it all, obedience, as according to the Scriptures.


Two years ago we had a surprise call. A Korean pastor from the Sangdo Presbyterian Church in Seoul wanted to fly us to Chile for the groundbreaking of their new missionary project. The church was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary and wanted to commemorate it by undertaking a missions project in Chile. Recalling the words of Jesus to be his witnesses "unto the uttermost parts of the earth," they pulled out a globe, put a pin in South Korea, and stretched a string as far as it would go all the way to the opposite end of the globe, which turned out to be Chile.

Although there were already three Korean evangelists at work in Chile, there was no Korean missionary doctor. Remembering the legacy of the first missionaries to Korea, who had initiated a wide range of social reforms, these Koreans said, "Let's celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary by building a Christian hospital for the Mapuche Indians in southern Chile." The hospital was dedicated this spring.

For these Koreans, it was as simple as that: having a firm faith and displaying cheerful obedience. If this sounds too simple for us sophisticated, Western evangelicals, I suspect we may be getting too academic, like the professor from Yale who visited our mission in northern Korea years ago. He wanted to preach in a country church, so the mission sent him with a missionary interpreter to a rural Korean village. The professor began his sermon, "All thought is divided into two categories, the concrete and the abstract."

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The Korean interpreter looked at the tiny congregation sitting with eager attention on the floor of the little church-toothless grandmothers, barefoot schoolboys-and made a quick decision. "Dear friends," he translated, "I have come all the way from America to tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ." From that point, the sermon was firmly in the interpreter's hands.

I vote for more simplicity and theological integrity in the church's approach to mission. How will people remember us 50 years from now? Will it be, "Oh yes, those old churches. They lost it. They gave up on missions. They talked about 'the concrete and the abstract,' about gods and goddesses, and who knows what else. And no one understood."

More non-Christians, refugees, and homeless live in the world than ever before in history, including in our own cities. At the same time, membership in many denominations is hemorrhaging at a shocking rate. The day of the missionary is far from over. We need to allow the Holy Spirit, the Great Interpreter, take over here and now with grace and power so that the world takes notice that the church is spreading the good news of Christ.

Jesus responded to Thomas's doubts by saying, "I am the way." Nothing could be clearer for us than to follow Christ's example in all circumstances, including our approach to missions.

We know the way. God promises the power. Our part is to obey.


Samuel Moffett is Princeton Seminary's Henry Winters Luce Professor of Ecumenics and Missions, emeritus. Born in Pyongyang, Korea, he spent over 30 years in the mission fields of Korea and China. This article is adapted from a talk given at the Presbyterians for Renewal breakfast during the 206th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), June 1994.

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