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Is Missions Mandatory?

In America, everything seems to have a half-life of a McDonald’s hamburger.  Marriages are swallowed alive by the pace and pressure of modern life.  Today’s beloved Christmas toy is tomorrow’s landfill.  TV’s herky-jerky treatment of even the most serious subjects renders us numb (…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

In America, everything seems to have a half-life of a McDonald’s hamburger.  Marriages are swallowed alive by the pace and pressure of modern life.  Today’s beloved Christmas toy is tomorrow’s landfill.  TV’s herky-jerky treatment of even the most serious subjects renders us numb (“God and existential neurosis, what can be known?  More in a moment…Having trouble with irregularity?  Occasional discomfort is normal…”)

Thus it is when we bump up against someone or something which doesn’t reek of superficiality, we’re jolted into a state of wakefulness which produces questions such as:  “Just how much of this cultural Christianity has rubbed off on me?”

I experienced such a jolt the other day.  I found myself in a south Texas backwater called San Juan.  As I sat in the living room of Clara Jarvis, the widow of Fred Jarvis, I found myself entering the world of another generation of missionaries.  Fred Jarvis started a mission called New Life League.

As I listened to Clara explain how he started it, I began to see Mr. Jarvis as representative of a generation of people possessed by an unrelenting passion for the lost.  Here was a man who had forsaken all so that he might identify himself with the millions around the world headed for a Christless hell.

His passion lives on in the tracts that his mission continues to print.  He asks us, “Do you know Jesus Christ as the Lord of the harvest?  Once you have a meeting with Him you will never be the same.  Each morning you will awaken and ask, ‘What can I do today to help meet the needs of a dying world?’ Have you seen a perishing world with His eyes of compassion?  And have you wept over lost souls with His heart of love?  What are you doing to reap a spiritual harvest of precious souls in all the world?”

Fred Jarvis’ approach to missions recruitment had all the subtlety of a head-on collision.  Clara told me how it didn’t matter to him what age you were.  He’d button-hole the 74-year-old retiree and the high school student alike with the question, “Have you ever considered answering God’s call to the mission field?”

This bluntness challenges my modern sensibilities.  There is this voice in my head which says, “Yeah, but had he really earned the right to confront people like that?”  Perhaps behind that voice is an unspoken question, “Is missions really mandatory for everyone?  I mean, how does this fit with the balanced Christian life?”

On the other hand, thanks to Fred Jarvis, I’m troubled by the thought that maybe this balanced Christian life stuff is all a bunch of bunk.  Look at the many instances in which we see Jesus throwing people off balance. 

He seemed to want only those followers who were able to stay permanently uncomfortable.  His was not a call to comfort, it was a call to gonzo off-kilter radicalism.  When comfortable people came to Jesus with the plaintive question, “Can I be comfortable and know God?”  Jesus answered, “No way, baby.”

I see a lot of young Christians today who don’t even bother with the question of compatibility between God and a comfortable lifestyle.  Growing up in a culture that places a premium on comfort, they just assume that the answer is “yes.”  Having never asked God the question, they graduate to adulthood embracing the premise that it’s OK to embark on a career which is founded on the incentive to become more comfortable.

Fred Jarvis would say they’re leaning ladders up against the wrong building.  In an article entitled Crime of the Century, he jabs a rhetorical finger against the sternum of a generation of Nintendo addicts:

“It’s the crime of the century.  Plainly spoken, it is the murder by neglect of the world’s millions; but it is not the murder of lives – much worse – it’s the murder of men’s souls.  They are sinking into a lost eternity, not because they couldn’t be saved, wouldn’t be saved, or shouldn’t be saved, but because we don’t care – or if we do, we don’t care much. 

Resist the charge if you will.  Get mad if you must.  It is better to have some emotion than none.  You will be conscience-stricken in heaven, if you aren’t soul-stricken now.”

Jarvis had an agenda that he was committed to advance no matter the cost. 

True confession time:  I’m neck deep in missions, and I find that his words make me sweat.  Perhaps I respond to guilt-based pleas more than most, and perhaps this is one.  But is guilt all bad?  I’m haunted by the hungry faces of children growing up without Christ. 

Several years ago, I led a project in Mexico.  The biggest guy on our team was a fellow named Mike.  Mike had a heart to match his pumped-up body.  On the last evening of our project, just as the sun was setting, a couple of Mexican kids came walking into our camp.  Mike and others had touched them with the love of Christ during their vacation Bible school.  So they walked five miles just to see Mike one last time.

I had the privilege of translating for Mike as he asked them if they knew Jesus as Savior.  Jose admitted that he didn’t.  Mike asked Jose if he would like to accept Jesus into his heart.  Jose seemed very eager to do so, despite all the distractions around.  So, Mike led little Jose in a prayer of salvation. 

Later, as he began to describe for the group how Jose had walked five miles just to say goodbye, and that in doing so, Jose find Christ, Mike was overcome with emotion. 

He couldn’t get the words out.  Mike has probably never heard of Fred Jarvis, but he has felt the same passion that so stirred Jarvis’ soul.  Jarvis understood the precariousness of man’s position; he understood that we hang by a thread over eternity’s abyss.  The notion that in our country comparatively large numbers would have such clear access to the truth made Jarvis a blunt man:

“When America, which has one minister for every 514 people and churches with billions of dollars already invested in brick and mortar, plush pews, expensive organs, lavish stained glass windows, is still foolish enough to spend more than a million dollars a day to construct still more and fancier churches, do you wonder why we think it is not fair?

When you can turn on your radio on Sunday and find nine or ten religious programs all competing with one another, and yet realize that the unlimited opportunities on the mission field go unexploited, and that some of the programs that already exist are forced to retrench for want of funds, do you wonder why we boil?”

Back at home, I’m sucked back into the easy lifestyle which Jarvis railed against.  I haven’t seen my wife for almost two weeks.  We go out for a rare treat:  a movie and a nice restaurant.  I’m splurging, it’s true, but the total bill after tax, tip, and baby-sitter is $80. 

I know a family of thirteen in Mexico whose mother makes $3 a day.  Their newborn son is sickly.  The garbage around their home attracts flies that buzz around the baby.  What is my obligation to this family?  Is “balance” realistic?

At least it’s a struggle.  If my world is constantly shifting underneath me it is because I’ve got one foot firmly planted in suburbia and the other in the Third World. 

But what about a generation of young people weaned on Diet Pepsi and Star Wars?  Many are expected to pick up the shards of their own shattered families.  To many of them, Jarvis’ appeal may sound like the hiccup of an old broken record.  How do we really expect them to respond to Jarvis when he says:

“The logic is inexorable.  The guilt is clear and is piling up indictments against us.  This selfish withholding of Christ from the nations is nothing less than the grossest form of cruelty and wrong. 

You still have time to join us in reading and weeping, praying and repenting if you want to – but to ask for revival and blessing without repenting of this monstrous sin is an insult.  There is a time when the Bible says that even our prayers are an abomination.”

Yet the Joses of the world continue to walk five miles and more. 

Jesus said, “The fields are white unto harvest.  Pray therefore to the the Lord of the Harvest that He would send out laborers into the Harvest.”  Fred Jarvis saw the Harvest so clearly.  The terrible urgency of the matter cut him to the bone.  You can almost see his tears when he writes:

“God give us men – brave men, heroic men, self-sacrificing men with a new sense of their solemn and neglected task, who will shove everything aside and run to the rescue.

If we can’t go in person, we can prevail in prayer or provide financial support.  Let us lay down our treasures on earth that we may lay up treasures in heaven.  Don’t ask, ‘What can I do?’  Rather, determine, ‘This will I do!’  Then do it now!”

Some of us who are more rooted in a social gospel or who are perhaps simply encumbered by a bunch of barely committed kids in our group will find Jarvis’ urgent call to be quaint or anachronistic. 

Others like myself will be stirred to ask the question, “OK, how do we sell today’s youth on this urgency?”  The only adequate answer I’ve found is that we can’t. 

If we truly believe that missions is mandatory, then the most we can do is to give them a missions experience and give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to bring a little Jose into their life.  When your students’ hearts are broken as was Mike’s, then perhaps they’ll begin to catch a glimmer of Fred Jarvis’ passion.

Comments (15)

  • Lord, forgive my hard heart. I repent. I want to care much more than I do. I want to live like I care. Help me.

  • I was at a beautiful wedding of two of my former kids (I’m a high school teacher)a few weeks ago. After the ceremony and while everyone was headed to the reception, I noticed the bride’s grandomother and I were the only two remaining in the room. Early in our conversation, Grandma said “I hear you are leading mission trips to the slums of The Philippines…”

    Then suddenly she looked up and around at the church building we were sitting in and she said “it took millions to build this… and it takes hundreds of thousands per year to keep this operating… I find myself giving most of my money to people in real need – people who are hungry, diseased, and in need of real help instead of to the local church…” A few moments later and to my surprise, I found out that this was her home church!

    The Holy Spirit came over me and used this special lady to encourage me that I am on the right track – that God is happy with my desire to make a difference around the world as I minister and give to those who are hungry, naked, sick, orphaned, and husbandless.

    I believe that God is up to something, and he desires for a radical transformation of what we call the “local church”. We all intellectually know that the church is you and me, but here in America, we get so messed up and caught up in identifying the church as a building on some street corner!

    I identify now more than ever with Fred Jarvis’ words (quoted from above):

    “When America, which has one minister for every 514 people and churches with billions of dollars already invested in brick and mortar, plush pews, expensive organs, lavish stained glass windows, is still foolish enough to spend more than a million dollars a day to construct still more and fancier churches, do you wonder why we think it is not fair?

    As a seminary educated man, I have for many years argued (from my mind and the bible) the case and biblical mandate of giving of money to pay for bricks, mortar, comfy chairs, carpet, heat, air condition, electricity, pastor’s salaries, secretaries, nurseries, cribs, chairs, desks, and all the other things that comprise a typical American “church”…

    …and then I get all “messed up” witnessing people dying (all they needed was an inexpensive shot in the butt to keep them alive!), seeing precious children’s extended hungry and wormy bellies, and people in need of life’s basic needs…

    I find myself asking “why in the world are we spending hundreds of millions of dollars on buildings and…?”

    Like Fred Jarvis said “it is not fair!”

  • Amen, Let us, not just the next generation but my generation, go. Go and love in Jesus name. As you know, as you go to serve, to be Jesus to our brothers and sisters across the oceans, WE are touched.

    I do believe there are goers and senders. Folks who financially support missions and pray faithfully for the missionaries who go. And then the folks that are “called” to go. Missions are mandatory! Jesus tells us to go! I think everyone should go at least once in their lives, and lives will be changed, yours and those you serve.

    As far as this generation, I think we need to lead by example. How are we living our lives??? People are watching, especially our children. Are we touched by the things that touch Jesus, is our heart broken by the things that break God’s heart. If not, we might need a heart check.
    I have been very convicted by the baby boomer mentality, and how my family has spent what God has given us in the past. I am ever so aware TODAY that 16,000 children die every day from starvation when MY fridge and pantry are full. 5,000 children die from water related issues, when I spend $60. a month on Culligan water. I am very sensitive to the fact that I Can make a difference in the lives of my family members around the world. A difference that might mean life or death, physically and spiritually. I think Jesus is asking us to make a difference. When we are praying for those children w/o maybe God is saying to you go, go and make a difference. It is amazing what God does when we just show up!

  • Keep reminding us there IS a harvest. It’s hard to relate to that imagery when surrounded by “been there done that” attitudes in America.

  • Following World War II a generation of war veterans took lifechanging experiences on the battlefields and an evangelsitic fervor and wanted to expand the Kingdom of God. They went to countries around the world, started mission organizations and gave their lives to service. The enterprise we call the “mission sending” world was birthed in part during this season.

    Much has been written about this “greatest generation” including the wonderful missive by Tom Brokaw. And what they lacked in missiological training and cross cultural sensitivity they more than made up for with hard work and a “never say die” attitude.

    Today we have emerging generation who may want to be “selectively sold out” and “taste” full commitment but avoid all the courses in the meal. The smell of spiritual battles. The joy and wonder of spiritual breakthroughs. The firm sense of being in God’s will. These things hide off in the shadows as we live by the notion that God cares more about our comfort than out character. That is a lie.

    So we must reward the sold out, go deep in fewer places with handfuls of people and remember that the story of the Gospel is a drama of the “humble remnant”.

  • “At least it’s a struggle. If my world is constantly shifting underneath me it is because I’ve got one foot firmly planted in suburbia and the other in the Third World.”

    Oh how our world is shifting! I think actually we’re in the midst of a *massive* societal transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. And the new realities of the Information Age will considerably lower the barrier between suburbia and the Developing World. We’ll all be connected in amazing new ways. Case in point, I’ve worked in refugee camps where almost everybody has cell phones and internet connections – young people twittering and updating their facebook profiles from behind barbed wire. It’s surreal but it’s reality. This, of course, brings up many challenges to missions (another blog post for another time) – how to wisely and skillfully navigate these rapidly changing times between the Industrial and Information Ages.

    But, to your post…I think the suburbs are full of people longing for something greater than themselves. They are longing for a purpose and identity even beyond their comfortable lifestyles. Our consumeristic, narcissistic culture creates an incredible hole in the human soul – a vacuum that screams out for something greater. For example, look how young people are filling up the military’s ranks out of a sense of adventure and belonging – today’s soldiers truly want to make a difference – just follow their tweets & blogs! And where is the church?? Are we offering them service to a different, greater Reign – with fruit that will last?

    I hear what you’re saying abt men like Fred Jarvis easily offending our postmodern sensibilities with his directness. But, perhaps with some minor cultural adjustments (haha!), I think that’s *exactly* what will awaken and motivate today’s searching suburban youth. The medium is the message!

  • Passion is what makes the difference. Jarvis’s words drip with passion. That is what makes him different from some angry preacher shouting condemnation. He feels God to the very core of him and he cant get it to the world fast enough.
    Young people do not need to be told of this urgency, the response will only be the same. Words will fall on deaf ears, or ears that are too busy listening to noise.

    Change will only come through tasting it. People need to see people like Jarvis living it out. People need to experience Jesus, not just know about Him. Young people are incredibly hungry for something genuine, and that’s really why we spend some much time on Facebook and Nintendo. We are desperately searching but think this is the best we can get. True change comes from experiencing God. A decision to do better will not last. Ive heard tons of sermons that convict me for a few minutes, but it doesn’t last. But after having seen Jesus and felt Him and come to know Him, I can’t help but know in my core that Jarvis is a model of what we are all ultimately charged to do.

    Im stirred by this blog. Im bothered by these words. Im made rather uncomfortable by all this. And for that, I thank you.

  • This is brilliant. Does anyone know where can I find general current facts/trends or stats about Short-term missions? Such as whose out there, how many go, impact, rate of return etc.

  • This stirs my heart … I love people who are so radical, so passionate that Jesus is front and center of everything they say and do … in the world of giving, my favorite donor was a Midwestern guy who lived modestly, drove an old beat-up car and gave away 90% of his annual income. 90%. Keep preaching Seth and may we all keep taking steps to become more radical in our love for Jesus. We know in our head that every person we encounter is immortal, rushing headlong into an eternity with or apart from God. I can’t help but think each of our lives will begin to look different as that reality makes its way from our head to our heart …

  • Christianity is a religion based on “others”. Jesus gave his life for others, not for himself. The disciples were charged to give their lives for others, to stop living for themselves. We are told to look out for others needs first before our own. Therefore, we are all called to be “missionaries” if we want to live the life that Jesus wants for us – an other-centered life. Living other-centered is the opposite of what our culture wants us to do, and isn’t talked about enough in churches. I am certainly more often a hypocrite in that arena than an example. Is missions mandatory? It’s supposed to be our purpose for being the church. The location of your mission only opens your eyes to others who need to hear, whether its people in the US who need to know there’s more to life than stuff or in Swaziland who have to trust God to provide their daily food. Just my 2 cents.

  • I struggle sometimes with motivations.

    Is it ok to be motivated out of guilt? (yeah, I guess if I want to be perfect I really ought to be doing all this “stuff”)

    Is it ok to be motivated out of a desire for personal eternal rewards? (storing up treasure in heaven)

    Or shouldn’t I instead be motivated only and simply out of love for Christ? I think of when Jesus drove the legion of demons out of the man from the Gadarenes. Jesus told the man to GO and TELL others about what he had done for him. I imagine this man did go and wasn’t motivated out of guilt or a desire for personal rewards but rather out of a desire to share what had been done for him with others.

  • Hi Nick, good comments.

    Motivation is something I think Jesus purifies while you’re busy giving it a try, not something that happens before you reach out.

    There’s probably a bit of guilt in there for a lot of people, but I reckon Jesus can sort that while you’re in action. Personal reward? He said “build up” your treasures in heaven so I think that’s not a bad motivation to have. Better to aim for eternal rewards than temporal ones that won’t last.

    You are motivated at some level out of love for Christ or you wouldn’t be asking the questions. Just do it and let Jesus deal with you as you walk it out. He loves to use the imperfect, it shows it’s Him. And I am glad about that!

  • I actualyl go to church with Mrs. Jarvis. The only thing I can say about her is I know God has a special place for her in Heaven. We need more people like Clara Jarvis. To contact her you can e-mail me at [email protected].

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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