Sermon Illustrations on Missions


Eating With Sinners

Why did it disturb the religious leaders that Jesus ate with “sinners”? To eat with someone is an important symbol of fellowship. And in those days, the Jews had a rule: one is not to have such fellowship with outsiders until they are changed. If and when outsiders came to repentance, and when they had proven they were sorry by acting like insiders, the Jews could join with them and eat with them—and not a moment before.

After all, God’s people had no business mixing with unbelievers, right? Jesus appears on the scene with a new approach. He introduces a brand-new idea. He connects with sinners before they repent, before they change, so that they will change. He goes to those who need him even before they know they need him! He seeks out the least, the last, and the lost so that, hearing his voice, they can experience new life. Rather than keeping them at arm’s length, he embraces them.

David Schuringa, Today: The Family Altar, May-June 2002, June 2, 2002.

What it Means to Be Sent into the World

[Jesus] sends us into the world as he was sent into the world (John 17:18; 20:21).  We have to penetrate other people’s worlds, as he penetrated ours: the world of their thinking (as we struggle to understand their misunderstandings of the gospel), the world of their feeling (as we try to empathize with their pain), and the world of their living (as we sense the humiliation of their social situation, whether poverty, homelessness, unemployment or discrimination).

Taken from The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor by John R. W. Stott Copyright (c) 2007 by John R. W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


Beautiful Feet

A missionary was preaching in the village market, and some of the people were laughing at him because he was not a very handsome man. He took it for a time, and then he said to the crowd, “It is true that I do not have beautiful hair, for I am almost bald. Nor do I have beautiful teeth, for they are really not mine; they were made by the dentist. 

I do not have a beautiful face, nor can I afford to wear beautiful clothes. But this I know: I have beautiful feet!” And he quoted the verse from Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace” (Isa. 52:7). Do you have beautiful feet?

W. W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition CommentaryVictor Books.1996, (Vol. 2, p. 26)

How To Practice the Presence of God with a Full Schedule

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling shares the powerful story of the missionary Frank Laubach:

Frank Laubach, a missionary to the Philippines known for his Letters by a Modern Mystic, began to experiment with practicing God’s presence when he first arrived on the mission field. In those early months, Laubach described himself as “a lonesome man in a strange land.” He had a lot of time on his hands with which to give focused time to noticing God’s presence and work. After a while, the demands of ministry began to increase, and Laubach was with people every moment of every waking day. In that context, he wrote:

Either this new situation will crowd God out or I must take Him into it all. I must learn a continuous silent conversation of heart to heart with God while looking into other eyes and listening to other voices. If I decide to do this it is far more difficult than the thing I was doing before. Yet if this experiment is to have any value for busy people it must be worked under exactly these conditions of high pressure and throngs of people.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Jubilee Church

From the outside Calvary Church in Holland, Michigan, looks like a typical large church that many Americans attend. The church developed the typical way: it started small and then began to grow. As the church grew, it had to accommodate worship and programming for hundreds, then more than a thousand people. Which means it needed to build. Which means the congregation has to pay for these buildings. Which means capital campaigns to encourage people to give.

For twelve straight years Pastor Frank Wevers led capital campaigns on the $4.5 million project for Calvary, a church of mostly working- and middle-class members. The good news is they finished phase one of the building project. They were ready to celebrate completing the worship space and retiring their debt by having a mortgage-burning banquet. The bad news is that finishing phase one meant they soon had to start phases two and three of the building plan, which included more space and a Starbucks-like coffee area. Wevers was tired.

The congregation was tired. Yet there was more to do to keep up with the ministry vision. Wevers went on a three-day personal retreat in anticipation of the mortgage-burning banquet. While on the retreat, he started thinking about the biblical idea of jubilee, in which Israel was to rest and reorder resources between those who had more and those who had less. This idea connected with feelings of guilt he’d experienced throughout the process. “Any pastor who oversees twelve years of capital stewardship campaigns and spends millions of dollars on a facility should feel some guilt,” he says. “I thought, How can we be spending so much money on this with all the other needs in the world? ”

The need to mark the end of the project, the idea of jubilee, and guilt about having spent so much on themselves led Wevers to an idea: Let’s proclaim a year of jubilee as a church. For Calvary, this decision meant they would pause for a year and not raise any money for their own buildings. Instead, they would help build structures in places like South Africa, Haiti, Ecuador, Palestine, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and New York. And they wouldn’t just send money: members of the congregation would visit these places.

The congregation would celebrate finishing their own home church by sharing their resources with people around the world. The following year they gave away $370,000, and 250 people from their church went on these trips. When they came back, everything changed. In Wevers’s words, they felt “ambushed by God.” Their attention shifted from themselves to the world beyond. What they thought would be a brief sabbatical in fact became the new commitment. After these trips people decided they didn’t merely want this to be a year of jubilee—they wanted to be a “jubilee church.” This journey continues eight years later.

Taken from Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World by Kent Annan Copyright (c) 2016 by Kent Annan. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Little Girl and The Founding of World Vision

In 1947 huge crowds came to hear a thirty-two-year-old Californian preach at mass evangelistic rallies throughout China. Although Bob Pierce had no knowledge of Chinese language or culture, his message of American old-time religion was warmly received, reportedly reaching tens of thousands and even converting twenty members of General Chiang Kai-shek’s personal bodyguard. But despite these impressive results, Pierce’s trip to Asia would be most remembered for his brief encounter with a single little girl.

In Xiamen, Dutch Reformed missionary Tena Hoelkeboer invited Pierce to preach to four hundred girls at her school. When one of her students, White Jade, informed her father that she had converted to Christianity, he beat her and threw her out of the house. Hoelkeboer was distressed at the prospect of taking on yet another orphan and demanded of Pierce, “What are you going to do about it?”

Deeply moved, Pierce emptied his wallet of the five dollars it contained and promised to send the same amount every month. When he returned to the United States to report on his evangelistic exploits, Pierce told the story of White Jade in churches across the United States. In 1950 he founded World Vision in order to sponsor more needy Asian children like her. By the turn of the century, World Vision had become the largest privately funded relief and development NGO (nongovernmental organization) in the world, and White Jade’s story continued to be used both in advertising and in recounting World Vision’s history.

Even at the time of this writing, White Jade remains central in defining World Vision’s identity and approach for its employees and donors. Because of its deep rhetorical resonance and staying power, Pierce’s encounter with White Jade and Hoelkeboer might possibly be the single point at which North American Evangelical Christians began to reprioritize compassion for the poor.

Soong-Chan Rah and Gary VanderPol, Return to Justice: Six Movements that Reignited our Contemporary Evangelical Conscience, Brazos Press, 2016.

Loving Others

 Let me tell you the story of a great missionary named Frank C. Laubach (1884–1970). He grew up in the farming community of Benton, PA, and served as a Congregationalist missionary in the Philippines.

Where he was a total failure. He tried to bring the gospel to the Moros people and they were completely uninterested. So one day he’s praying and he yells at God, “What can I do for hateful people like these: murderers, thieves, dirty filthy betel nut chewers – our enemies?”

Laubach said his lips began to move and it seemed to him that God was speaking. These words came out: “My child, you have failed because you do not really love these Moros. You feel superior to them because you are white. If you can forget you are an American and think only how I love them, they will respond.” 

Laubach’s life was gradually but dramatically transformed in his understanding of the “others” he was called to love, and his work grew from a private to a public mission. Here’s what he said he learned he had to do: “I choose to look at people through God, using God as my glasses, colored with His love for them.”1 

Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed.

A Mission-field Tragedy Turned to the Glory of God

Sometimes what seems like a failure is actually the seed of God’s work. As Mark Batterson tells the story, it started with David and Svea Flood. Sent to the Congo by a church in Sweden, they helped establish a mission station in a remote village. Things didn’t seem to be going well at first. The local villagers were not receptive to the gospel—though “that didn’t keep Svea from sharing the love of Jesus with a five-year-old boy who delivered fresh eggs to their back door every day.” [1] Things took a turn for the worse when Svea came down with malaria while pregnant in 1923, dying shortly after giving birth. David left the country, shattered by grief, and left his newly born daughter, Aina, with another missionary couple, the Ericksons. The Ericksons, too, died while Aina was very young, poisoned by the locals. Aina was taken in by American missionaries Arthur and Anna Berg, who renamed her Agnes.

When they returned to America, she went to Bible college, was married, and served in a number of churches. After twenty-five years of marriage, Agnes went to Sweden to seek her father—who she found on the brink of death, having turned to drink in his bitterness after losing her mother. They were reconciled shortly before his death.

Only five years later, Agnes attended the World Pentecostal Conference in London, England. One of the speakers was Ruhigita Ndagora, superintendent of the Pentecostal Church in Zaire. Agnes was interested to learn that he was from the same region of the Congo that her parents had been missionaries to. Through an interpreter, she asked him if he knew the village her parents had served in, to which he replied that he had grown up in that village! Batterson continued,

She asked if he knew of missionaries by the name of Flood. He said, “Every day I would go to Svea Flood’s back door with a basket of eggs, and she would tell me about Jesus. I don’t know if she had a single convert in all of Africa besides me.” Then he added, “Shortly after I accepted Christ, Svea died and her husband left. She had a baby girl named Aina, and I’ve always wondered what happened to her. [1]

Ruhigita sobbed when Agnes revealed that she was the baby girl. Ruhugita said, 

Just a few months ago, I placed flowers on your mother’s grave. On behalf of the hundreds of churches and thousands of believers in Zaire, thank you for letting your mother die so that so many of us could live. [1]

Though the Agnes Flood endured tragedy after tragedy with no apparent reward, God was working behind the scenes to turn sorrow into something beautiful.

  1. Mark Batterson, All In: You are one decision away from a totally different life, Zondervan, 2013.

William Rowley

Saving Souls Without Discipling?

I had just finished presenting much of the material in this chapter [on the role of the Church helping the poor] to an audience in Africa. A very tall and muscular African man in the audience approached me with tears in his eyes. He said, “This is not what the missionaries taught us. They told us just to do evangelism to save people’s souls. But you are saying that Jesus cares about all of creation and that He wants us to minister to people’s bodies and souls. I can’t argue with the Bible passages you cited. But now how am I supposed to feel about the missionaries? They are my heroes.” He was visibly shaken. “I am not fit to carry the shoes of those missionaries,” I assured him. “They packed their coffins in the ships that brought them to Africa, and many of them were martyred for the sake of the gospel. They are worthy of your highest admiration. But like all of us, they had some weaknesses.”

Unfortunately, this man’s experience was not unique… Often lacking an appreciation of the comprehensive implications of the kingdom of God, many missionaries have focused on evangelism to save people’s souls but have sometimes neglected to “make disciples of all nations.” Converts need to be trained in a biblical worldview that understands the implications of Christ’s lordship for all of life and that seeks to answer the question: If Christ is Lord of all, how do we do farming, business, government, family, art, etc., to the glory of God?

Failure to include this “all of life” element in the gospel has been devastating in the Majority World. There is perhaps no better example of this than Rwanda. Despite the fact that 80 percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christians, a bloody civil war erupted in 1994 in which the Hutu majority conducted a brutal genocide against the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates. Over a three-month period, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, the vast majority of them Tutsis. How could this happen? In their book Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?missiologists James Engle and William Dyrness explain that the answer lies in the Rwandan church’s failure to apply a biblical worldview, a kingdom perspective, to all of life.

For most Rwandans, Christianity was “little more than a superficial, privatized veneer on a secular lifestyle characterized by animistic values and longstanding tribal hatred and warfare…. The church was silent on such critical life-and-death issues as the dignity and worth of each person made in the image of God.” In other words, the church in Rwanda lacked a Christ-centered, fully orbed kingdom perspective and hence was not equipped to fulfill the Great Commission by “discipling the nation.”

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Moody, 2014).

The Story of Eric Liddell

Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman” was made famous by the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire. He was born to missionary parents in China in 1902 and educated in the United Kingdom.

Though he made the British Olympic team for the 1924 Paris Olympics, he withdrew from his best event, the 100 meter dash, when the heats were held on a Sunday. A Sabbatarian, Liddell would not participate. Instead, he ran the 400-meter, an event he was not favored to win. In a surprising turn of events, Liddell beat the favored American runners and set an Olympic record that stood for 12 years.

Shortly after his stunning victory on the field, Liddell returned to China as a missionary and teacher. He served there until the Sino-Japanese War overtook the region he lived in. He was imprisoned by the Japanese army in 1943 in the Weihsen Internment Camp.

He is remembered as living an exemplary witness under trying circumstances, especially for his care for the children and the elderly.

He succumbed to a brain tumor in 1945, only five months before the liberation of the camp. His last words are reported to be, “It’s complete surrender…”

William Rowley (various sources, including https://ericliddell.org/about-eric-liddell/)

Packing a Coffin with Your Belongings

Imagine being so committed to going to the mission field that you bought a one-way ticket to your destination and packed your worldly goods in a coffin, knowing you’d never come home. That is what A. W. Milne did. His destination was the New Hebrides, a destination that had already claimed the lives of every missionary that had gone before. Mark Batterson points out that he “did not fear for his life, for he had already died to himself.” His ministry lasted for 35 years. When he died, the tribe “buried him in the middle of their village and inscribed this epitaph on his tombstone: When he came there was no light. When he left there was no darkness.” [1]

  1. Mark Batterson, All In: You are one decision away from a totally different life, Zondervan, 2013.

William Rowley

The Payoff

If we are honest with ourselves, for many of us who celebrate the sacraments on a regular basis, at times we take them for granted. We lose sight of their nature to inspire and remind us of our covenant relationship with the Triune God. Thankfully, there are examples, especially from Missionaries to remind us of just how significant they are to those who get to experience them for the first time. Take for instance, the example of John Paton, a missionary in the 19th century to a cannibalistic tribe in the New Hebrides archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean (modern day Vanuatu):

For years we had toiled and prayed and taught for this. At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism but now stretched out to receive and partake the emblems and seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well-nigh broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus himself.

James Paton, ed., John G. Paton—Missionary to the New Hebrides: An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891), 376, quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 915.

Rolling the Stone Away

The renowned musical scholar and musician Albert Schweitzer’s life was turned upside down one summer morning in 1896 while reading his Bible. He came upon Matthew 16:25: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (KJV). At that moment Schweitzer knew that he was about to give up his extremely successful career as a musical scholar and organist and become a doctor, to ultimately work in the jungles of Africa. This meant not merely leaving a successful career, but going back to school to study medicine, an area of study that by no means came naturally to him. Struggles mounted, including his ability to affiliate with a medical missions organization out of France, who disagreed with Schweitzer’s Lutheran theology.

His ultimate goal, as one source has noted, was “to spread the Gospel by the example of his Christian labor of healing, rather than through the verbal process of preaching.” Schweitzer would reflect on his calling, saying “Anybody who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll any stones out of his way, and must calmly accept his lot even if they roll a few more onto it. Only force that in the face of obstacles becomes stronger can win.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

When Helping Hurts: An American in the Philippines

An American woman visiting the Philippines, observed an elderly woman on the outskirts of Manila. She looked poverty-stricken and walked with the help of a cane down into a ditch alongside a  main road. The American observed the woman struggling and assumed she needed help.

As she approached the elderly woman, the woman began to shake her cane at the American, hurling curse words and a barrage of threats. While somewhat unsure of the situation, the American continued to pursue the woman. It was not until she got close enough that she realized her mistake: the woman was not in trouble, she was just attempting to have her daily “bathroom” visit in peace without the help of an over-anxious, do-gooder American.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material: Cross-Cultural Servanthood by Duane Elmer.


Confess Your Mixed Motives

In U2’s song “One,” Bono sings, “Have you come here to play Jesus / To the lepers in your head?”2 Yes, if you are involved in justice work, you probably have. So have I. This isn’t bad. Just honest. We can find freedom confessing that our own need for healing is part of why we work for the healing of justice.

We come to the work of justice not as purely altruistic people, but, as Luther said, we are simul justus et peccator, simultaneously saints and sinners. I’ve always found it important to be upfront about this with myself and with others.

We want to help lepers, but we also seek to heal the lepers in our own heads. Confessing like this can disarm the power of my desire for success, or my ego, or my search for meaning, or the way pain from my past motivates me. For example, I’m freed to practice respect (which we’ll discuss more in chapter four) with other people and avoid using them as tools in my own search for meaning or success.

… While living in Haiti I kept needing to examine my conflicted motivations. From a North American view, what I was doing looked self-sacrificial—without electricity, running water or many comforts. But how much of it was for me, and how was that infecting my work?

Confessing this along the way (especially through writing in a journal late at night by the light of a kerosene lamp) opened the way for deeper relationships and serving in a complex place in need of justice.

I’ve found healing when I honestly confess the many conflicting voices I hear so that I’m freed to follow the call of my vocation, which the novelist Fredrick Buechner put so well: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”4 God and neighbor, I confess my mixed motives. Help the fruit of my efforts to be beautiful and just.

A few weeks after the Haiti earthquake I was walking through an airport hanger in Florida that was a drop-off center for the generous donations pouring in. Pallets stacked with supplies stretched in every direction, and volunteers busily prepared life’s staples—food, water, shelter, medicine—to be transported to people whose lives had collapsed in forty-five seconds. People in the organization, some of whom I knew, were working hard on little sleep.

As I walked through the hanger past one stack of boxes, I heard a staff member, who was orienting a dozen new volunteers, say in a tired monotone, “Over there is a pallet full of cases of donated barbecue sauce.” He then added, saying what he probably would have kept to himself under less sleep-deprived conditions, “Haitians are dying. They do not need barbecue sauce.” One hopes the barbecue sauce wasn’t a cynical corporate tax write-off. But even if donated with the best intentions, it’s a reminder that helping well takes our hearts and our heads.

Taken from Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World by Kent Annan Copyright (c) 2016 by Kent Annan. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


When Helping Hurts: An American in the Philippines

An American woman visiting the Philippines, observed an elderly woman on the outskirts of Manila. She looked poverty-stricken and walked with the help of a cane down into a ditch alongside a  main road. The American observed the woman struggling and assumed she needed help.

As she approached the elderly woman, the woman began to shake her cane at the American, hurling curse words and a barrage of threats. While somewhat unsure of the situation, the American continued to pursue the woman. It was not until she got close enough that she realized her mistake: the woman was not in trouble, she was just attempting to have her daily “bathroom” visit in peace without the help of an over-anxious, do-gooder American.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material: Cross-Cultural Servanthood by Duane Elmer.

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