Recently, we heard another missionary in our general area claim to have planted 300 churches in his twenty-five years of ministry in Zambia. My word, I don’t even know what to say to that. Maybe it’s true, but it sure raised questions in my mind.
Three hundred, gospel-centered, Bible-preaching, worldview-shaping, culture-transforming churches started since the late 80s? Most Zambian denominations can’t claim this. With all the excellent pastors we have in the Reformed Baptist churches, this fellowship can claim about 10% of that figure. I’ve never heard another missionary claim anything like this. I hope you’ll pardon me if I doubt the veracity of such a profession.
It made me think in lots of other directions... way beyond the truthfulness of his claims.
Churches, denominations, mission groups and supporters need to hold missionaries accountable for their lives and for their work. That is a real necessity in the days of a secularized church, Internet pornography, failed and failing marriages, and an antinomian gospel. The antinomian gospel preaches faith without repentance and grants assurance without obedience. It’s one of the curses under which we labor in Zambia and it’s pretty common in the States, also.
While a missionary can’t have a relationship of intimate accountability with all of his supporters, someone has to hold me accountable for the details of my life and work. I well remember the time when the men from southern Africa (with our mission) met on a retreat in South Africa where we talked about these issues and looked each other in the eyes and asked painful questions about obedience and failure. That’s good and missionaries need that. I certainly do. Home churches need to do that with the missionaries they send out.
Someone also needs to hold missionaries accountable for telling the truth about their work. Years ago, some ministers involved in the healing revival of the 1950s in America used to boast about the conversions that had taken place under their preaching. When they went to foreign lands, things especially got out of hand. Historian David E. Harrell, Jr. has written about the case of several evangelists who claimed 3 million souls had come to Christ in Jamaica under their ministries. A fellow Pentecostal took up the uncomfortable task of pointing out that the entire population of the island at this point in time was only 1.6 million (All Things are Possible). The startling claims of conversions in Africa coming as a result of watching the Jesus Film also come to mind. Exaggerated claims are certainly not a new phenomenon.
Let’s keep expecting great things from God and praying toward that end, but let’s also be modest in our claims. And let’s not encourage our missionaries to make claims that are open to so many questions. Really, even the supporters back home who have never been to Africa know such claims are ridiculous. Allowing them to go unchallenged put lies at the foundation of one of the most vital works of the church today: mission support and prayer. Who needs it? Certainly not the God Who warned us to watch out when all men speak well of you.