Is your missionary wasting money...

... and time on humanitarian projects?

This could be a question that you have pondered, about the relationship between practical help and the gospel. You support a missionary. Is that money well spent? Is their time well used? Missionaries now days have such a variety of roles from IT specialists to school teachers to medical workers to engineers. How do they fit in advancing the gospel? Can it even be a smokescreen of good works while merely appearing to advance the gospel? I ask these questions from an engineering perspective and as a missionary with Sonset Solutions.

This problem came up in the early church. In Acts 6:1-7, where practical needs existed but weren’t to be neglected or to detract from the ministry of the gospel. A priority is set when limited resources are available: gospel first, practical help second. “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” So they chose Stephen and six others to carry on the practical help. Interestingly, another clue in answering the question of practical helps verses the gospel is that even practical help required faith and the Holy Spirit. It was more than just humanitarian work, somehow.

Throughout church history others have posed and answered the question. Reformer Martin Luther would stop at, “God doesn’t need your good works but your neighbor does.” Do good works, just because they are needed, and expect nothing more. This version of practical help comes short and almost leans towards facilitating a social gospel, that is eventually void of the gospel altogether. Others give us a second perspective and take the priority of Acts 6:1-7 too far, like Paul Seger in ‘Senders’ who claims that practical helps, like clean water, can only follow after evangelism. That is, compassionate work as a result of the gospel. Compassion follows but is not a strategy for evangelism, writes Seger. The gospels and Acts both record acts of healing and feeding before and after evangelism. This second perspective also seems inadequate to answer the question.

A third category (which I personally subscribe to) is from William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. He was criticized for using “soup and soap” to attract people and appearing to drop the gospel in the process. He responded, “I have no intention to depart in the smallest degree from the main principles on which I have acted in the past. My only hope for the permanent deliverance of mankind from misery, either in this world or the next, is the regeneration or remaking of the individual by the power of the Holy Ghost through Jesus Christ. But in providing for the relief of temporal misery I reckon that I am only making it easy where it is now difficult, and possible where it is now all but impossible, for men and women to find their way to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That “relief of temporal misery” can be an essential door into places that are hard to reach. A missionary might do engineering in a restrictive country, or operate an eye clinic in a war-torn area, or teach children English as a second language. These tent-making ministries go places where we cannot and open doors that otherwise remain shut. This is the right question to ask of your missionary, “How is your ministry of practical helps advancing the gospel?”

At Sonset Solutions we seek to use technology based solutions to advance the gospel worldwide. This has historically been through Christian radio stations. Close to 500 radio stations have been set up by Sonset Solutions around the world and are directly related to advancing the gospel. But what about our other work? Our ministry, like many others, has branched out to other areas of need, and they are practical needs. It appears to be led by the Lord and be more than just humanitarian engineering. In my case it is helping with 330 clean water projects in fourteen countries. In answering the question of practical helps verses the priority of the gospel, at least from my perspective, a conclusion can be reached. I hope that these three brief testimonies encourage you to put practical helps and the gospel together, and to maybe think through the options from Luther, Booth and Seger. And then ask that same question of those missionaries you might be supporting.

Kenya, on a hill overlooking Lake Victoria some 20km away. At that distance and for these thirsty people, a fresh lake is no better than a picture in a book. We installed a deep well hand pump for the village in the morning and had that distinct joy of seeing people access cold, fresh water for the first time in their lives. It was marvelous to see. I wish everyone could have seen it. That afternoon, as we sat around and celebrated, the opportunity came up to preach. After all, why were we there, they asked? What better place to start than John 4:14, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” It is easy, even across language barriers, to communicate the Living Water in contrast to this “temporal relief from misery”. That village was open to the gospel after their physical needs were met.

Ecuador, in the Amazon jungle about 45 minutes flight from the nearest road. Reach Beyond installed a community water system and I had gone with them to install a remote monitoring system. Their goal was to monitor the system via a Sonset Solutions designed satellite monitoring system to make sure the water supply met their needs. We never made our flight out that night so stayed and shared our testimonies. The Pastor in the village ended the evening with an unusual testimony himself. To my amazement, Pastor Edwin explained the challenges they face in their village with literacy and that three people came to him the week before and had said, “We cannot read our Bibles. Is there a way to listen to them?” In my pocket, at that very moment, were three audio Bibles, loaded with Spanish and Shuar, ready to be given at the “right time”. Although we left the next day, we left more than clean water. We left them with the right solution to their hunger for God’s word. Now I always take audio Bibles with me in local languages. There is always a “right time” to meet that need.

Haiti, in a drought-stricken region in the north-west corner where the only rain comes via destructive monsoons. We installed two hand pumps in two days and then started asking later that week if it makes a difference in their lives. What initially appears to be nothing more than humanitarian work (installing the pump) yields results that stagger those involved. When asked how the pump impacts them, here is how they responded, “Now we get to go to church”. I was shocked, that merely enabling a savings in time allows these folks to attend church. Instead of using time to get the basic daily need of water, that time is used to worship the Lord! That Sunday in church, it was reported by the Pastor that six people were saved as a result of clean water projects enabling village contact and relationships. Who would anticipate that excess time allows people to do that which they could not before, go to church. 

I believe that Booth was right and that Acts 6 sets an authoritative pattern of priorities to follow. Missionaries need to be filled with the Holy Spirit and faith even when extending beyond the first call of duty – the gospel – and engage in practical helps. I hope that these three examples show what many missionaries are already doing. They are engaging in some form of practical help that forms a bridge to a hard place or hard to reach people. The gospel, in these cases, can only be carried across a bridge built by that practical help. 

Stephen & Monique 
(Day 18 DPG)