Without the Gospel, It’s Not Missions

By Jerry Rankin (guest blogging for Trevin Wax), president emeritus of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. He blogs at The Rankin File.

The gospel and missions. This subject would appear to be a no-brainer and elicit a yawning “Duh, what’s the point?” Everyone knows missions is about proclaiming the gospel. Or do they? It is amazing the discussions I have had over the years with leaders of mission agencies, denominational executives and church pastors about what is missions.

I fought the battle in Southern Baptist circles for years on the need to give specialized emphasis to missions. The retort was that this was unnecessary since everything we do is missions. In reality, if missions is everything, then it is nothing. If it is everyone’s responsibility, then it is no one’s responsibility.

The issue has been complicated in recent years by the emerging of the term “missional.” What does it mean to be missional? I think the common connotation is that whatever is done outside the internal focus of church programs is missional. Outreach to unbelievers and evangelism would certainly be considered missional. Involvement in a church plant in another community, somewhere in unchurched North America or among an unreached people group in Africa would fit the designation.

But so would disaster relief, building a home for Habitat, ministering to the poor through a food pantry and clothes closet, helping to build a church in a pioneer area or passing out water at a public event on a hot day. These activities are not about our church’s worship, discipling members, Bible study classes and youth ministry. They are focused outside the church and are therefore “missional” whether or not the gospel is shared.

Certainly we ought to be doing these things, as Jesus taught us to care for widows and orphans, minister to the poor, heal the sick, and visit the prisoner. He even commended the Pharisees for being conscientious about tithing, but admonished them for neglecting the more important things.

We can do a lot of good things that we ought to do, motivated by love, compassion for the needs of others and accruing no personal benefit, but is it missions? “Missions is the activity of God’s people to fulfill God’s mission.” And God’s mission, from before the foundation of the world, has been to redeem a lost world. It is why Jesus came and died on the cross and rose again. It is why the Holy Spirit gathers believers into a local church.

And obviously, without a clear presentation of the gospel, God’s mission is not being done. In the early 20th century, missions was sidetracked by a paradigm shift to social ministry. Amazingly, the conversation goes on. Missions is relief ministry, it is advocating justice, feeding the hungry, stopping human trafficking, providing education, or digging water wells.

Christians should be doing all these things and more, but if it is missions it will include a clear presentation of the gospel that the lost, the hurting, and the needy might be saved from sin and reconciled to God. Why would we try to improve the temporal, earthly life of others and deny them the knowledge that meets their need for eternity?

I will never forget hearing a missionary public health worker in West Africa testify of a very successful ministry of bringing pure drinking water and sanitation to destitute Muslim villagers. At the conclusion of an impressive presentation he broke into tears and confessed that he had been a failure for he had yet to see anyone embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. I will never forget his closing remark: “Healthy in hell doesn’t count for much.”

Without the gospel, it is not missions!


Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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