Whatever happened to Missions Sunday?
Does anyone else remember when almost every evangelical church devoted one Sunday every quarter, if not every month, to world missions and world evangelism?
Sure, I know, a lot of our evangelical practices were what would now be called culturally insensitive if not “colonial,” but at least we sent many well-intentioned if not especially well-trained people to tell the good news of Jesus Christ where it was virtually unknown.
Many of my close relatives were “foreign missionaries” to places like Liberia, Guinea, Cuba, Spain and Mexico.
Missionaries not even related to my family stayed in our home on many occasions – as they “itinerated” around to churches while on “furlough.”
My parents had a large bulletin board in our home with pictures of missionaries attached to a world map.
We prayed for “our missionaries” often – even ones not related to us. In a way, they seemed like relatives – even if not by “blood.”
Even as a child, I knew scores of missionaries’ names and where they “labored for the Lord.”
I also read books about missionaries, such as Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson and Amy Carmichael.
Our church, like many others, always had a large “missionary barrel” in the foyer. People were encouraged to fill it with nonperishable items.
Once it was full, it was shipped overseas to one of our “mission stations” to be unpacked and the gifts distributed to needy people. Some of the goods were for our missionaries – items they needed but could not buy where they lived.
On Missions Sunday, a visiting missionary itinerating on furlough would preach. Often it was a married couple with both speaking.
In the denomination in which I grew up, married pastors were a couple; both were considered ministers equally even if only the man was ordained to serve as a lead pastor.
Occasionally, though, it was the wife who was ordained and commissioned to lead and preach. When they came to our church for Missions Sunday, they both spoke.
The visiting missionary would show slides of the “field,” and the slide show would always end, of course, with a sunset over mountains or ocean.
As a child growing up in a pastor’s home surrounded by literature about missionaries, knowing many “close up” because they stayed in our home, I learned geography and world events through the eyes of missionaries.
But I dreaded Missions Sunday because the service – sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the evening – always ended with a passionate plea for young people to come forward and dedicate their lives to “foreign service.”
I can vividly remember literally trembling in my pew and picturing walking through an African jungle and encountering huge snakes. I have always had a phobia of snakes.
Recently, I’ve been thinking of some of the missionary hymns we sang. They’re very “old school.” I suspect nobody sings them anymore.
But, then, does any church have this side of evangelical church culture anymore?
I have attended and visited numerous evangelical churches around the United States over the past 40 years and rarely encountered or heard of a Missions Sunday or anything like it.
I have perused hymnals and found very few, if any, of the old missionary hymns or new ones.
Here are some that still come to my mind: “Ready” (“Ready to suffer grief or pain, ready to stand the test…”), “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go, Dear Lord,” “Speak My Lord” and so on.
One that I especially remember, probably because of its startling, even perhaps offensive lyrics, was “No Man Careth for My Soul”: “Far away on distant shores, many souls are in despair, bowing down before their gods of wood and stone. Can you hear them crying there, for relief from all their cares, persecutions from without and fears within?”
The chorus says: “‘No man careth for my soul,’ thus cry the millions; ‘no man careth for my soul,’ o hear their plea. Won’t you give your life today to spread the gospel, so that Christ can save their souls and set them free?”
Wow. That was powerful – even if offensive to today’s sensibilities.
In my home church in the 1950s and 1960s, it was usually sung by the missionary couple or by a ladies trio.
I see on YouTube an Asian youth choir sings it; perhaps they are thinking of America as their mission field? Our “gods of wood and stone” are, of course, “shiny objects” of conspicuous consumption.
Sometimes I wonder, am I just nostalgic or has American evangelical Christianity radically changed?
Sometimes I don’t recognize it. I’m sure it was not just the tradition I grew up in. I’m sure most American evangelical Christians in the mid-20th century placed great emphasis on world missions.
Then came the “word” (message) that our mission methods were all wrong; that they were culturally offensive, oppressive, even colonial, patronizing and even imperialistic toward indigenous cultures.
Maybe so. But did we throw the baby out with the bathwater? I think so.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.