The Great Mission of the Church

May/June, 1998
Volume 33, Number 3


In 1989, Annual Conference approved a missions theology and guidelines paper which encouraged us to missions, and reminded us that the Church of the Brethren is to be a “global church.” A query came before the 1990 Annual Conference in Milwaukee, asking the Church of the Brethren to consider a new mission field in Korea. Brethren were again presented with the opportunity to witness in a new area where the Church of the Brethren could have a unique impact.

It appears, however, that those charged with carrying out Annual Conference directives remain interested primarily in political and social action, and the idea of reaching out in a spiritual way to another culture is thought quaint. There is more interest in pursuing World Council and National Council of Churches priorities–which we believe are alien to historical Brethren understandings–than in taking “the power of God unto salvation” to those who are lost. While Brethren cannot ignore the social implications of the Gospel, we also cannot ignore that millions of people are entering eternity without hearing about the Christ who offers His people hope which extends beyond the simple pleasures or necessities of life.

Brethren have underscored a concern for those in physical need. This cannot be the only goal of missions. The social side of missions is but a secondary end to sending men and women to preach the Gospel. In 1983, eighty villages in India turned away from the Christ who had been introduced to them many years before. The “Christ” which they had known consisted simply of social services and a good moral code. When something better came along, they took it without giving a second thought. They were what are called “rice Christians”–followers of Christ as long as some physical need is supplied. If Brethren go into an area with a message of social change in reflection of the latest theological fad sweeping the Western church, then our impact will be but a passing wind.

We cannot afford to ignore or reject any opportunity to take the Gospel to the many who have not heard. If we take the Bible seriously, and believe in Jesus’ words, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” then we are under a mandate to do just that. We cannot excuse ourselves by relegating the Great Commission to a past era of colonial imperialism. The Gospel transcends our human impulses and frailties. We cannot allow the mistakes of past missionaries to hinder us in proclaiming Jesus Christ to one and all. We cannot, as some seem to imply, think of missionary work as an extension of American culture. The New Testament is our creed, and the Great Commission is as much a part of that creed as is the Sermon on the Mount and the letters of John. Brethren cannot pick and choose the parts we want to believe and to obey. The New Testament must be obeyed in its entirety.

While Korea seems to hold much attention at present, why not consider other fields as well? In North India, where the Church of the Brethren joined with the Church of North India, 700,000 villages have yet to hear the name of Christ. We may not be able to send Western missionaries, but there are other means of reaching the lost for Christ. Have we retreated into a kind of religious isolationism?

We must be bold to confess our own biblical distinctives, and to encourage others to follow our lead. If these distinctives were enough to lead Alexander Mack and the other seven of the original Brethren to begin a new movement; if they were enough to bind Peter Becker and the colonial Brethren together in the New World; if they were enough to encourage John Kline to persevere through a terrible civil war; and if they were enough to direct Christian Hope to Denmark, Wilbur Stover to India, and W.S. Kulp to Nigeria, then aren’t they enough to guide us today to step out in bold faith to reach the world for Christ?

Perhaps it is easier to involve ourselves in political and social action; after all, politics and social work do not involve the eternal aspects. It is one thing to be a political “witness” and lose a battle, but it is quite another to witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and then see a soul reject that message and face eternity separated from God. The stakes are just not that high when we concern ourselves with only the material welfare of our hearers.

Then again, maybe the stakes are high. Those of us who know Christ personally will give an account for the way in which we used our knowledge. If we are watchmen set to warn of the impending danger, and we fail to warn, then the blood of the victims of our negligence will be on our hands. If, however, we are diligent in our calling, and we proclaim the message of salvation through Jesus Christ alone to this lost world, then we will be fulfilling the command of our Lord.

Do we have the luxury to do anything less? Brother Martin presents a powerful, uncompromising defense of the importance of evangelism in the following article.

–Craig Alan Myers

The Great Mission of the Church

By Harold S. Martin

The theme of the 1998 Annual Conference to be held in Orlando, Florida, centers around the concept of “faithfulness.” The word “faithfulness” speaks of loyalty, of undeviating allegiance to a cause or a person. Faithfulness is an unwavering determination to achieve one’s goals. The current issue of the Witness lifts up the need for faithfulness in carrying out the one great mission of the church.

The primary mission of the church is evangelism-the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There needs to be a loving concern for those who have not yet learned to know Jesus Christ as a personal Savior, and for those who know Him in only a partial way. After all, if Jesus is the only door to salvation, heaven, and eternal life–then all those depending on any other means of salvation are hopelessly lost (John 10:9; Acts 4:12). Faithfulness to Christ means that we must make evangelism one of our primary duties.

The theological concept of “missions” is closely related to “evangelism.” The two terms are interrelated. Missions and evangelism are generally disconnected when discussed in the local church, but they are essentially the same. In the broader sense, missions constitute a sub-division of evangelism. The word “missions” refers to evangelism carried out by missionaries serving elsewhere, whereas evangelism (as it is ordinarily understood) speaks of soul winning activity locally. In this article we are looking more specifically at missions.


A growing number of mission policymakers are shifting the focus in mission away from confrontation between the Christian and the non-Christian, and instead, are promoting cooperation between Christians and persons of “other living faiths.” Historic Christianity has always insisted that the gods of other religions are mere idols (Psalm 96:5), and that all who die without trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, are destined for eternal destruction (John 3:36). Early Brethren missionaries regarded the non-Christian religions as false religions. They believed that Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims were in bondage to Satan, and that they could escape the wrath of God only by repenting of their heathen practices and accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and ruler of their lives.

The traditional view of missions finds its roots in the Scriptures. The emphasis is on evangelism. The aim is to produce a new people in Christ Jesus, who is the only Savior. It views the church as a spiritual entity and stresses the vertical relationship between humans and God. The ecumenical view of missions finds its roots in the current world situation. The emphasis is on involvement in political issues. The aim is to enable people to enjoy human life to the fullest here on earth. It views the church as a sociological organization and stresses the horizontal relationship between groups of people.

Brother Paul Brubaker, in a message delivered at an Insight Session at Annual Conference in 1977, said that there is a serious fault in our view of missions. He said, “We have somehow come to the place where we no longer think of the world’s masses in two categories–either saved or unsaved. There has been a shift in our theology from personal evangelism to that of subtle universalism. We have come to the place where we no longer believe that the world’s masses need a personal encounter with Jesus Christ in order to be saved! But Acts 4:12 is still true:’There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’”

Brother Brubaker continued by saying, “My wife and I have several missionary friends who are serving on foreign fields with independent groups (who of course are very aggressive in their missionary zeal). And quite frankly, when these friends of ours question us concerning the mission program of the Church of the Brethren, we have to hang our heads in shame. There’s nothing the matter with feeding and clothing and providing shelter for those who are less fortunate in life, but I contend that if we do only that, we are merely helping these folks to go to hell–well fed, well clothed, and well housed.

Brother Brubaker concluded with this caution: “The easy thing to do is to blame ‘Elgin,’ but let’s not do that. Let’s admit that we have not been very much interested in personal evangelism on the local level, so why should we be concerned about the souls of the dying masses somewhere halfway around the world? Those of us who are old enough to recall the very beautiful and very moving services of consecration for missionaries at Annual Conferences of yesteryear, become a little nostalgic when we recall the strong, flourishing mission program of the Church. Do we have a right to call ourselves a truly New Testament Church if we have taken the Great Commission and replaced it with mainly a social concern?”

The above words spoken more than twenty years ago are very appropriate for us today. Many Brethren are troubled by the fact that during the restructure process it was decided to discontinue funding the proposed church planting project in South Korea. The Annual Conference in 1990 voted to create a Bible teaching evangelistic ministry in South Korea. During the restructure, that ministry was no longer funded, but the relationship with the National (and World) Council of Churches continues at full speed. Almost every issue of Newsline and Agenda and Messenger contains news about Brethren involvement with the ecumenical councils of churches–with all their emphasis on environmental pollution, on being more tolerant and more inclusive, and on supporting land mine treaties. It is absurd to discuss whether or not the Church has any social responsibility. Genuine Christians have always helped to alleviate suffering, and establish educational institutions, and promote good health and sanitation practices–but our primary mission is to participate in spreading the Good News about God’s offer of pardon for sin, through faith in the work accomplished by Jesus Christ on the Cross.


The word “evangelism” speaks of the activity of Christians by which they seek to make known the Gospel message and persuade people to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord. This activity may be private and personal, or public and massive in its outreach. Evangelism involves preaching, proclaiming, or telling the Good News. The angels evangelized; they brought “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). Jesus evangelized; He preached the “glad tidings of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). Paul evangelized; he said, “I preached the gospel of God to you” (2 Corinthians 11:7). Philip evangelized; he “preached Jesus” to the man from Ethiopia (Acts 8:35). Evangelism in the Bible was a ministry of the spoken word. Evangelism means “to make known the message of the gospel.”

Evangelism generally occurs on a one-to-one basis. Throughout His ministry, Jesus placed emphasis on the lone individual. Nicodemus came alone by night and Jesus talked with him about the necessity of being born again, born from above. When Jesus met the woman at Jacob’s Well, He spoke to her about personal morality. Zaccheus, the man in need of salvation, was counseled alone. The rich young ruler came running to Jesus and he was dealt with on an individual basis. Jesus ministered to the centurion (who had a servant that was dying), not as a soldier in the hated Roman army, but as another pathetic individual with a human need. Jesus listened to the cry of the individual. He was not a revolutionary trying to change the social and political system. Jesus was a compassionate Savior ministering to the individual person who had deep spiritual needs.

Evangelism is presenting the story of Jesus, how He died, was buried, and was raised again on the third day. It is the story of God’s redeeming love, in that He arranged for a Substitute to take our place on the Cross. Evangelism is not the mere testimony of a good and consistent life. Being friendly, helpful, and neighborly may be a necessary preparation for evangelism, but it is no substitute for evangelism. Christianity cannot be radiated; truths about God and His Son have to be communicated by proclaiming a message. Good deeds do not convey the actual content of the Gospel; the Good News must be expressed in words.

Evangelism is the simple presentation of the message that Christ’s death upon the Cross propitiates (turns away) God’s wrath which abides upon each person in the unregenerate state (Romans 3:25; John 3:36). Evangelism is the presenting of Jesus Christ in such a way that people will see their sinful condition, repent of their self-centered rebellion against God, and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior from the guilt and power of sin, declaring Him Lord, as they seek to follow Him in their daily lives. The Apostle Peter spoke clearly when he said, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). That is the great evangelistic message that every person needs to hear.


What is it that compels us to want to share the message of salvation? What moves us on? Why even bother setting up a missions program and ask people to give to missions?

a) The masses of men and women are without God.

There are still many places on earth where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a strange story. While the church has grown rapidly in much of Africa and parts of Latin America, there are countries where followers of Christ are in a very tiny minority. This includes countries like Japan, Thailand, Turkey, and Nepal. China’s millions have become a billion, still waiting for the power of the Gospel to liberate multitudes from despair. Egypt’s throngs of Muslims still heed the calls to prayer from hundreds of minarets everyday, and are in woeful ignorance of Him who is the only Savior. Israel has raised the six pronged Star of David over the city of Jerusalem, but Israelis for the most part spurn the Messiah. There are still language and culture groups throughout the world in which there is not a single Christian. Somebody will have to study their language and culture, before a witness for Christ can be given to them.

Even in countries where the message of Christ has made deep inroads, there are multitudes who could care less about their eternal destinies. Most Western societies have only the leftover trappings of the Christian faith. People still sing “Silent Night” at Christmastime, and some wear crosses on chains around their necks. But even in the United States of America, forty percent of the people profess no religious affiliation at all, and for many who do make a profession of faith in Christ, there is little commitment to following Him in life. We read in 1 Corinthians 15:34, “Some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.”

b) Apart from faith in Christ humans are lost.

For some persons, nobody is lost in the eternal sense. Nobody is perishing. Nobody is destined to spend eternity in hell. But Jesus taught the reality of eternal punishment as well as the certainty of eternal life. In describing the last judgment, Jesus says, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).

There is a break in relationship between every human being and God, and there must be a reconciliation in order to meet God in peace (2 Corinthians 5:19). The only person capable of effecting a reconciliation between the guilty soul and a holy God is Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; John 14:6). And thus, Christians need to approach Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Marxists, white American materialists–all people everywhere–with the hope of convincing them to receive Christ as Savior.

c) We glorify God when we obey His commands.

Christians are to take the mandates of Scripture seriously. We believe that we are to practice what the Bible teaches. We exalt the Lord God (we glorify Him) when we obey His commands, and one of His commands is that we “Go…and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things” that Jesus commands us (Matthew 28:19-20).

Since the day of salvation is “now” (2 Corinthians 6:2), and there is “a night coming” when none of us can work (John 9:4), and the second coming of Jesus is “the blessed hope” of every believer (Titus 2:13)–one of our major goals is to appeal to others, inviting them to share in that hope.

Brethren have historically maintained a strong evangelistic thrust. Alexander Mack and Christopher Hochmann went up and down the Rhine Valley in Germany, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was the continued interest in evangelism that accounted for our phenomenal growth in the United States. Early Brethren moved to new frontiers and established churches wherever they went. The entire male membership of the Germantown congregation set forth on an evangelistic tour of “Penn’s Woods” in 1724, and their expedition led to the formation of two new congregations. In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, Brethren made bold attempts to evangelize on a more worldwide basis. They established mission churches in India, China, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Nigeria. The very nature of our view concerning the mission of the church prompts us to believe that God’s people should be continually winning more people to faith in Christ. The primary task of the church is to seek to bring people to faith in Christ and then nurture them in the Christian faith.

The theme of the 1998 Annual Conference in Orlando centers around the call to “Faithfulness.” Brethren Revival Fellowship is calling the larger church to faithfulness in carrying out the one primary mission of the church. We urge the Mission and Ministries Planning Council (MMPC) to give priority to the encouraging of personal evangelism and to overseas missions. This will involve making an increased financial commitment toward planting Church of the Brethren congregations outside the United States, as well as challenging Brethren to become enthused about evangelistic missions. Our Commander In Chief says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,” and when the disciples are baptized, we are to “teach them to observe all things” that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).

We are looking for action, not for mere words. Our missionary outreach should show a concern for the eternal salvation of all persons, and also the temporal well-being of the human family–in precisely that order. And if soul saving, disciple building evangelism is going to be a major part of our mission activity–then we propose that our leaders and curriculum writers and staff persons say it and print it and publicize it and keep on saying it, instead of subjecting our people in the pews to a steady flow of sociological vagueness.

Social service is a vital part of the mission of the church (Luke 10:29-37; Galatians 6:10), but it is not evangelism. Many of the people in the world will go to bed hungry tonight. That kind of hunger cannot be the complete will of God (when so many of us have so much). Therefore it is our mission to help feed them. In many countries, thousands are sick because of undeveloped medical facilities. Such sickness cannot be the complete will of God. It is our mission to try and help minister to their physical needs. But even if we feed the hungry and educate the illiterate and help to tear down unjust political structures, still we have not evangelized. Atheists also feed and teach and help and heal. That does not make their mission a “Christian” mission. Multitudes of people in the world have never known salvation through Jesus Christ, and so to evangelize, is to tell them that our sins have evoked the displeasure of God, but that God is favorably disposed and ready to forgive. He is eager to reinstate–on the basis of our willingness to repent and believe the Good News (about what Jesus did for us on the Cross). Telling that message is evangelism. It is a serious mistake to equate evangelism with social action. The two concepts are related, but they are not identical.

True biblical evangelism is the central mission of the church. When interest in evangelism declines, believers become introspective and lack purpose. Church growth stagnates, worship becomes superficial, and the church is a less beneficial force in society. Faithfulness calls us to evangelism.