By Seth Barnes, Founder of Adventures in Missions
The pace of modern American life has pushed us into the shallows. Thus it is when we bump up against something that doesn’t reek of superficiality, we are jolted into a wakeful state that makes us wonder, “Just how much of this has rubbed off on me?”
I experienced such a jolt awhile ago. I was sitting in the living room with Clara Jarvis, and in the process found myself entering the world of another generation of missionaries. You may know of Fred Jarvis’ mission, the New Life League. I listened to Clara explain how it began.
Fred was a man who had forsaken all so that he might identify himself with the millions around the world who did not know Christ. 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? Have you seen a perishing world with His eyes of compassion? And have you wept over lost souls with His heart of love?”
Fred Jarvis’ approach to missions recruitment had the subtlety of a head-on collision. It didn’t matter what age you were. He’d buttonhole the 74-year-old retiree and the student alike: “Have you ever considered answering God’s call to the mission field?” This bluntness disquiets me. Had this man really earned the right to confront people like that? And perhaps behind that question is another: Is missions really mandatory for everyone? I mean, how does this fit with the balanced Christian life?
On the other hand, thanks to Jarvis, I’m troubled by the thought that maybe this “balanced Christian life” stuff is a bunch of bunk. There are many instances in which we see Jesus throwing people off balance. His was never a call to comfort. When comfortable people came to Jesus with the plaintive question, “Can I know God and stay comfortable?” Jesus answered, “No way.”
I meet a lot of Christians who have never considered the incompatibility of God and a comfortable lifestyle. Having grown up in a culture that places a premium on comfort, they assume that the two go together. They graduate to adulthood embracing the premise that it’s OK or even honorable to embark on a career founded mostly on the incentive to become increasingly comfortable. Jarvis would say they’re leaning ladders against the wrong buildings. In an article titled “Crime of the Century,” he jabs a finger against the sternum of a generation of Nintendo addicts:
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.
True confession time: I’m neck-deep in missions, and yet those words make me sweat. Perhaps I respond to guilt-based pleas more than most, and perhaps this is one. But is guilt all bad? Several years ago, I led a mission project in Mexico. The biggest guy on our team was a fellow named Mike, and he had a heart to match his body. On the last evening, just as the sun was setting, a couple of Mexican kids came into our camp. Mike and others had touched them with the love of Christ during 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. Jos admitted that he didn’t. Mike asked if he would like to accept Jesus into his heart. Jos was eager to do so, despite the distractions around us. So, Mike led little Jos in a prayer of salvation. Later, as he began to describe for the group how Jos had walked five miles just to say goodbye, and that in doing so, had met 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 stirred Fred’s soul. Jarvis understood the precariousness of man’s position; he understood that we hang by a thread over eternity’s abyss. And the fact that our nation had 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 quickly sucked back into the easy lifestyle against which Jarvis railed. I haven’t seen my wife for almost two weeks, so we go out for a rare treat: a movie and a nice restaurant. I’m splurging. 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, it’s 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 Coke and Star Wars? Many are picking up the shards of their own shattered families. Can we really expect them to respond to words like these?
This selfish withholding of Christ from the nations is nothing less than the grossest form of cruelty and wrong. 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.
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 will find Jarvis’ call quaint or maybe even out of touch with the times. Yet, the Joss of the world continue to walk five miles and more. Others will be stirred to ask, “How we sell today’s youth on this urgency?” The only adequate answer I’ve found is this: We can’t.
If we truly believe that missions is mandatory, then at most we can take them to the mission field and give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to bring a Jos into their life. When people’s hearts are broken as was Mike’s, then perhaps they’ll begin to catch a glimmer of Fred Jarvis’ or, more accurately, the Lord’s passion.
Seth is the executive director of Adventures In Missions — an organization that sends people on short-term mission trips around the world. He lives in Gainesville, GA with his wife Karen. You can visit his blog “Radical Living in a Comfortable World” at sethbarnes.com.