By Patricia Magness
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:22, 23, New Revised Standard Version).
It is an exciting time to be involved in Christian missions. There is a sense of energy and urgency accompanied by creativity and joy. Christians of all types—from teens to retirees, educated in seminaries or engineering schools, serving cross-culturally from a week to a lifetime—are involved in missions.
As with so many things that seem new, this creative approach to missions is really quite old; it began with that great Christian missionary Paul who said he had become “all things to all people . . . all for the sake of the gospel.”
One exciting approach to mission work today is sometimes called bivocational missions. Other people prefer the term “tent-making ministries,” specifically honoring the apostle Paul who supported his preaching and teaching by working as a tentmaker.
Ten years ago I could never have imagined a young woman trained in engineering and management would help start a factory in a country closed to traditional missionaries, or that in that factory there would be Bible study groups, literacy training, education of children, and even worship. I would never have imagined a congregation with the vision to see that sometimes the best way of spreading the gospel is through helping to finance a factory. And who could have predicted missionaries would start a fitness center as a means of evangelism?
Today, of course, it makes sense to me: people who are actively trying to make their lives better come to a fitness center looking for something. If that something they find is Jesus, the life change is for eternity. What an unexpected gift and blessing they have received!
Not Just Preachers
• As a teacher of literature, with a special love for novels, I have often felt slightly displaced in the company of preachers or Bible teachers. Yet in some parts of the world, an English professor is more welcome than a Bible professor. And as a guest lecturer on the topic of Appalachian literature, I have shared poetry with references to things like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the beauty of creation.
In a question time that followed, a questioner once asked, “What does this word creation mean?” As a one-time visitor, my brief answer could only be the beginning, but other Christian brothers and sisters were there in the lecture hall, specifically to reach out to those with a hunger for spiritual food and to continue the conversation.
• Missionary doctors are not a new phenomenon, but increasingly we are recognizing we can’t preach the good news and send people away sick and hungry. James makes it clear we should not say, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill” and yet not supply their bodily needs (James 2:16, NRSV). And so we are developing AIDS ministries, community health ministries, educational ministries, ministries to the hearing impaired around the world, and on and on the list goes.
• One of the joys of my life has been meeting many Bible translators. We may think of a new translation as a way to enhance our understanding of the Scripture, but Bible translation is also an important means of evangelism. In some cases translators can enter countries closed to other types of missionaries.
Have you ever wondered why a non-Christian (or even anti-Christian) country would welcome a Bible translator? A Bible translator is a highly trained linguist, often working with a people group that lacks a written version of its language. Many countries welcome translators not so much for the Bibles but because they actively learn a language and its culture, help people develop an appropriate set of symbols to represent their language, and in the process help preserve language groups and cultures that would otherwise be lost. Translators are joined in their efforts by literacy workers, and because the importance of reading in the contemporary world is well-known, literacy workers are highly valued even where a traditional missionary might be unwelcome.
The precise interconnection of Bible translation with evangelism varies widely. In some contexts the nationals who work with the translator are not Christians, and it is in the process of translating that they are introduced to Christ. The years of living Christian witness by the translator and family also play a key part in evangelism. In many cases, it will be a small group of Christians who invite a translator in, and through the process of translation, their own faith is deepened and they are able to evangelize others in their language group through the use of their own heart language.
To understand the impact of hearing Scripture in your mother tongue, try praying the Lord’s Prayer in a language you studied in high school, and then pray it in English. There is just no comparison!
In recent years Bible translators have been speeding up their efforts with computer-assisted translations, with clustering translations in related languages, and with increasing assistance from well-educated national translators. One exciting dimension of Bible translation is its impact in areas influenced by Islam among people who already have a high view of Scripture and an admiration for Jesus as a prophet. But to have the gospel in their own language creates a new dynamic for evangelism.
• Another exciting dimension of Christian missions today is the idea of international campus ministries. I’ve always thought of missionaries as people who go to a foreign land for a lifetime, raise their families there, and minister primarily to and through families. So it was a real eye-opener to be introduced to the idea of a global youth culture, particularly a culture identifiable with a university campus—whether in Atlanta, Georgia, or Santiago, Chile. The vision of Globalscope has generated exciting ministries on university campuses around the world as college-age young people respond to the gospel in a context of, well, food, of course, and music and retreats and work projects, but also Bible studies and prayer meetings and close relationships.
Last Sunday in my Sunday school class in East Tennessee, I sat beside a beautiful young woman who came to seminary because she wants to be a missionary, and who became a Christian through a campus ministry in Chile.
Last fall my husband and I had the privilege of giving a series of lectures at the Prague Christian Library in the Czech Republic. From its beginnings, this library has been planned as a place where people can explore and discover the truth of Christianity. We lectured on images of Jesus in the arts. In the audience were a filmmaker, an architect, two painters, and a magazine editor, among other interested people. Christians and curious non-Christians sat alongside each other. Our time in Prague was very brief, but through our visit people were brought together to encourage and support each other for the long haul.
Although Prague has a long Christian history and noted Christian leaders, including the 14th-century reformer and martyr Jan Hus, in the 20th century the people suffered under the oppression of the Nazi regime and then communism. The voice of Christianity was never silenced, but it was muted, and the percentage of Christians in the Czech Republic today is very small.
The Czech people, however, have a very high regard for education, scholarship, the arts, and intellectual pursuits. Thus a library is a great means of reaching the hearts and minds of the Czech people with the gospel of Christ.
By All Means
We will always need traditional church-planting missionaries, trained missiologists, and Bible scholars. But part of the excitement of missions today is our expanding understanding of what Paul meant by using “all means.” In my involvement with missions and missionaries today, I see a commitment to live out the words of Paul to “become all things to all people so that [we] may by all means save some.”
Pat Magness, professor of humanities and English at Milligan College in Tennessee, has also taught at Mountain Mission School in Grundy, Virginia, Boise (Idaho) Bible College, and Mount Carmel Christian School in Decatur, Georgia. She is a graduate of Milligan College, Vanderbilt University, and Emory University. Pat currently serves as the chair of the board for Christian Missionary Fellowship, and she has been on the board of Pioneer Bible Translators for nearly 20 years. In addition, she and her husband, Lee, have been able to travel and teach on behalf of Seminary of the Nations in a number of international locations. They are active in the Hopwood Memorial Christian Church located near Milligan College. Working with coauthor Joyce Potter, Pat has written A Guide to Children’s Bible Story Books, and she is currently working with Lee on a book tentatively titled For Glory and for Beauty: Images of Jesus in the Arts.