Can you be a missionary in a place that has no apparent physical needs? In 1998, I was on a seminary mission trip to a Central American nation and worked with a translator. He told me that he wanted to be a missionary and that he was going to an island nation in the Caribbean. He said that the island was the only place open to him because it was the only place in the world poorer than his own country. When I asked if he had ever considered Uruguay or Costa Rica, he said that it would be impossible to be a missionary in either of those countries because they had the best economies in Latin America.
Bryant Myers discusses poverty from several different angles; lack of resources, brokenness, and as spiritual want (Perspectives, 2009). My Central American coworker equated poverty with comparative financial need, and it is logical that he would want to find a way to alleviate poverty, but it raises a question about how we think about missions. If poverty alleviation is a major part of a call to missions, can a believer from the poorest of nations be called to missions?
An examination of the Scriptures offers insights into the subject. The Great Commission, as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 reads,
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The priority is given to proclamation – “go and make disciples.” The natural result of people being disciples is that they will want to identify with Christ through baptism – “make disciples of all nations.” The Great Commission does not have any direct correlation of a missionary call to alleviation of poverty, although Jesus’ teachings on the poor come to mind if we are to teach those disciples “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 5-7).
If economic poverty determines where we will go as missionaries, if we only go to a nation poorer than our own, we are missing out on seeing God’s economy at work. When a person follows Jesus they are being reconciled with God, and while that does not promise wealth and prosperity it can mean a change of priorities and passions. The model must be that the greatest need is the eternal and that the call to missions is for all followers of Jesus. I hope my friend was able to follow God’s call to be a missionary whether it was in a place with lesser or greater economic need. Charles Spurgeon is credited with saying that sharing the Good News of Jesus “is like one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” It does not always take great funds or even a passport to do that.
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