Recently I came across this quote (below) by famous British missionary to China J. Hudson Taylor. As Amber continues her healthcare for our neighbors, and as I dig deeper into the Ik language with a group of ten Ik men (in an orthography workshop being held here in Timu), this quote provides a challenging perspective to our endeavors. Please read:
"Let us feel that everything that is human, everything outside the sufficiency of Christ, is only helpful in the measure in which it enables us to bring the soul to Him. If our medical missions draw people to us, and we can present to them the Christ of God, medical missions are a blessing; but to substitute medicine for the preaching of the gospel would be a profound mistake. If we put schools or education in the place of spiritual power to change the heart, it will be a profound mistake. If we get the idea that people are going to be converted by some educational process, instead of by a regenerative recreation, it will be a profound mistake. Let all our auxiliaries be auxiliaries---means of bringing Christ and the soul into contact---then we may truly be thankful for them all...Let us exalt the glorious gospel in our hearts, and believe that it is the power of God unto salvation...Let everything else sit at its feet..."
It's true, so often things like education or health & sanitation or access to clean water or you-name-it are touted as near-means of salvation for the developing world. I remember a couple of years ago being at a 'peace gathering' between the Ik, Karimojong, and Turkana. One of the guest speakers was an official high in the district government. He gave an impassioned plea for education, holding it before the people as the ultimate solution to inter-tribal conflict. At the time I thought, "No, education is not the gospel. Education can also get you more educated criminals and ordinary selfish, greedy, or cruel people." Off to the side I was asked if I wanted to speak. I declined because the anthropologist in me much prefers to be a fly on the wall. By nature I prefer to observe rather than interfere. But any good missionary would've taken the opportunity to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to that crowd as the only true means of peace in this violent land.
Knowing what good missionaries are supposed to do, Amber and I have tried to use our 'secular' platforms of healthcare and language development as 'auxiliaries' to spreading the gospel. I recall those times when we tried to pray for each patient that Amber saw. I remember having an Ik pastor be in the examination room to pray for and 'share the gospel' with the patients. I also remember the uncomfortable and ambiguous replies when patients were asked if they wanted prayer. I remember the trapped feeling I felt when the pastor 'cornered them' before they could leave and pedantically 'presented the gospel' to uninterested ears. In workshops and translation sessions, I've tried praying as a group, having spiritual meditations, and offering spiritual advice. These too were met with awkwardness and apparent apathy and so quickly became formal and perfunctory. Such things were eventually abandoned.
There has often been a strict dichotomy drawn between 1) evangelism, discipleship, Bible teaching, preaching, in short: 'gospel ministry', and 2) 'secular' activities done a) as means of expressing the love, life, and grace of God and b) to the glory of God through Jesus Christ. The first is what 'real' missionaries do, and the second is what liberal or unspiritual or backslidden or worldly Christians do instead. But I wonder, how valid is the distinction? Now, I believe that bringing 'the soul in contact with Christ' IS the most important thing we can do and have done to us. Many missionaries are naturally gifted at doing that---that's why they're missionaries in the first place. I happen to be really bad at 'sharing the gospel' in an active evangelistic kind of way. But put me in a conversation with an educated or disillusioned or skeptical kind of 'seeker' (because I have been all those) and I'll feel released to speak of Christ, what he's done for me, and what's he's doing in the world. But I have a strong natural aversion to trying to convince people to want something they don't want (it's why I make a horrible salesman). If an Ik person approached me wanting to know about Jesus, I would gladly speak all I could. But no one has ever done that, not even the Ik Christians.
In view of my failures and inadequacies as a standard missionary type, I have had to take a different perspective on what we do. Amber and I are foundation-layers and way-openers. We blaze trails, we build buildings, and we forge relationships. Amber's work as a community nurse communicates love, care, and concern to her patients. Though she may not often get to connect it overtly with the love of Jesus, the evidence is still being lain down, the data still being created. Hopefully, when those who receive a critical mass of human kindness, hearing the message of God's kindness will make sense. After all, how many of us believed the gospel in a vacuum of neutral life experiences? Was not our acceptance of the love of God preceded to some degree by human kindness? I know at least in my case it was, to a massive degree. How then can we expect people steeped in a life of hardship and misery to believe in a good, kind God at first hearing? (I know it can and does happen all the time, all over the world, but I haven't seen it happen here, not even once). My work as a linguist and language learner also hopefully communicates love, interest, and dignity to the people whose language I study. I want the linguistic and language development work that I do to erect the cognitive scaffolding, to lay the mental latticework for the social and spiritual growth of the Ik by any language-based means. Might the personal and relational and intellectual and chronological sacrifices I've made demonstrate to the Ik the inherent value of their language, and by extension who they are as people. And might that also point to a God who would be so interested in them, too, that he would lay down his life for them.
We see ourselves not as part of the main wave of missionaries to the Ik, nor even those on the 'front lines'. We see ourselves as far in front of the front lines, preparing the ground, tilling the soil, clearing trails, pouring foundations. All that, so that when the others arrive, they will find structures and paths in which to operate. I was asked recently in Kampala by a visiting American evangelist if I too 'preached', namely to the Ik, like he ostensibly would if he was here. I said, "No, I'm just trying to lay a foundation for those who come after to preach, teach, disciple, etc." His loss of interest was apparent as he replied, "Well, we need those kinds of people too." Do we? Is it a legitimate form of 'making disciples of all nations'? I certainly hope so; otherwise, we're making a profound mistake.