I am finding more and more that there are lots of people out there that want to “serve God” but not by taking the gospel to people. They think they are serving God as missionaries if they are only fulfilling people’s physical needs such as fresh water, jobs, medical help, etc. How do you talk to such people and what do you say?
This is definitely a good question to consider. There are numerous professing Christians that do good things (as is mentioned above) without promoting the gospel. The question pinpoints missionary work. This is traditionally understood to mean the mobilization of Christian workers to go to a region, oftentimes far away, in order to bring the gospel to folks. Oftentimes physical needs are met alongside of spiritual needs. (I just want to note in passing that missionary work is not limited to those who board a plan and land on another continent. Missionary work is gospel-centered Christian work that aims to bring the gospel to all peoples. This work could be going across the street or across the sea.)
I remember back in the days when I worked at Mutual of Omaha, there was this guy who was overly nice and extra involved in doing community stuff with the company. He was always about doing ‘good’. I had intended on evangelizing this guy. My initial impulse was that the guy was a Mormon. As I talked with him and found out that he was a Christian I was shocked. I remember asking him why he didn’t let people know that the reason for his service was to magnify God. I came away scratching my head. Most people in that office attributed his good deeds to morality not Christianity.
This guy was a Christian missionary to a Fortune 500 company and he was doing the same type of thing that is described in the question; meeting needs without promoting Christ’s gospel.
The most important thing to remember here is that you are not being a faithful missionary if you are not on point with the mission. The clear mandate by Jesus is that all his followers become missionaries to wherever God takes them (at home or abroad). We cannot fulfill the responsibility of the Great Commission without bringing the gospel. It simply does not make sense to claim to be a Christian missionary while not having the chief goal of bringing the gospel to people. To abdicate this prime responsibility in favor of other (albeit legitimate) needs reduces missionary work to humanitarian work, which I believe falls a bit short of what Jesus commands in Matthew 28:
Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Furthermore, if the goal of missionary work is the glory of God and the conversion of unbelievers then we cannot fail to pack the gospel, which is the exclusive means of bringing conversion. It is not by providing medical care or building houses that people are converted but by the preaching of the word of Christ (Rom. 10.13-17). So if we fail to preach the gospel then we are not very good missionaries and we’d have to call into question the level of commitment that we really have to these people when we hide the only means of life-giving, peace-obtaining, hell-removing grace.
Does this mean that Christians should not do things like meet physical needs? Of course not, we are called to love our neighbor. This may chiefly be done by the proclamation of the gospel but it is not exclusively done in evangelism. Many times the physical and social hardships that are experienced by folks become great avenues to express Christian love and compassion. These avenues may open up great doors for the gospel. So it is paramount then to make sure that we are on point with the priorities and mission of Jesus when we as followers of Jesus go into the world.