Why Loving People and Place Is the Heart of Missions

As one born in 1958 and deeply involved in Christian ministry since 1974, I’ve seen a few things by now. I like to think I’ve also learned a few things, though you might have to ask my father, siblings, teachers, and colleagues about that.

Growing up in rural Southwest Missouri, I learned the patterns of big families, small churches, small farms, education for migration, and local culture shaped by our elders’ memories. As I’ve tried to fulfill my vocation as a pastor-teacher in Christian education and local churches, I’ve learned the patterns of cities in the US and in several foreign countries. These patterns are often ones of small families, large churches, big corporations, education for industrialization, and general culture shaped by leaders’ visions of the future.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard and shared the dream I first heard declared in my home church of presenting and inculcating the love of Christ around the globe. By now I’ve learned from the Bible, from good missionaries, and from experience that it’s impossible to love people without loving their families, homes, churches, and communities. In short, you can’t love people without loving their places. By now I’ve also learned that we will not see the biblical connection between people and place in mission until we see and turn from industrialism, our culture’s default philosophy.

Profile of Industrialism

Everything in American culture, including Christian ministry, has moved in the wake of industrialism since at least the late nineteenth century.

As writers as diverse as Wendell Berry and Joseph Ratzinger have argued, industrialism is a mindset, not a method of carrying out a mindset. Industrialism’s adherents value cheap, quickly achieved, quantifiable, and profitable production supremely.

Thus, they value immediate results over long-lasting ones.

They value low labor and production costs, so they tend to prefer machines over people once slavery isn’t an option.

They like products that have short shelve lives.

“Industrialism’s adherents value cheap, quickly achieved, quantifiable, and profitable production supremely.”

They’ve learned to market their approach as “progress,” “the future,” “efficient,” and claim they base their methods on “objective science.”

They believe people and places fit plans, not the opposite.

They’re willing to exhaust people and places and then move on to the next plan involving a different group of people and places. Sustaining people and places is only considered as long as they have a positive impact on the bottom line.

All of us comply somewhat with industrialism. Some of us embrace it, many of us without knowing it. It is simply the cultural air we breathe.

The Industrial Mind and Missions

What does any of this have to do with people, places, and missions? In my experience, too many discussions about missions assume industrialism.

Here’s what I mean. When I started in ministry, my denomination rightly wanted all people everywhere to hear the gospel. We then rolled out a strategic plan worthy of General Motors, industrialism’s organizational gold standard. We planned to find a certain number of missionaries who would perform certain amounts of programs that would gain access to the right number of people who would then know and (hopefully) accept Christ. Our organization (denomination) would hire and send workers (missionaries) that would scour places (the world) for products (new believers and churches). The plan built in everything General Motors would include except obsolescence.

Still, in those days, medical missions, education, and other community-building ministries were included. So there was some attention to places where the people lived. Later, church plants and baptisms became paramount products, so plans changed. There was much talk about getting the most “bang for your mission buck,” since consumerism is the child of industrialism. My denomination wasn’t alone in emphasizing such things.

“‘Passion for the nations’ is only a slogan if it does not work place by place and family by family.”

Time passes. More recently there has been an emphasis on “following your passion” for mission. Thus, we’ve moved on from imitating General Motors to following the models of technology companies, the new gold standard of Industrialism. I’ve heard people speak freely and passionately about their “love for the nations,” as if “the nations” weren’t specific people living in particular places the Creator made. Like “a passion for justice” and a “passion for peace,” a “passion for the nations” is only a slogan if it does not work place by place and family by family.

Why am I so certain that people and place have to go together in missions? Why am I so adamant that industrialism and its ways are incompatible with Christian missions? Hopefully because biblical theology demands it.

God’s Strong Nurturing Love for People and Places

Scripture stresses nurturing people and places. Industrialism is foreign to the Bible. Genesis opens with God creating a lovely home for creatures (Gen. 1:1–31). He made people in his image, and he entrusted them with the responsibility (not the same thing as privilege, in today’s English) of caring for creation, as well as for living with and from it (Gen. 1:26–31). He declared rest and worship creation’s weekly goals (Gen. 2:1–3). He placed people in families to provide the nurturing environment necessary for nurturing stewards (Gen. 2:4–25). While sin mars humanity’s relationships with God, earth, and one another (Gen. 3:1–24), it doesn’t negate people’s responsibilities. In fact, God’s redemptive work revolves around the absolute need to love God (Deut. 6:4–9) and to love neighbors as oneself (Lev. 19:18). It stresses the necessity of land use that promotes forgiveness and restoration rather than acquisition, must less exploitation (see Lev. 25; Isa. 5:1–24).

The fact that Jesus, the incarnate son of God, came to earth in the form of a baby in a family deeply rooted in Galilee underscores these points. Jesus was a thoroughly country person thoroughly ready to die for rural and city folks. He loved Bethsaida, Capernaum, Nazareth, the deserted places, and Jerusalem enough to visit and mourn over them all. Citing Moses, he also stressed love of God and neighbor as the heart of faith in God (Mark 12:28–32). Alternatively, the apostle Paul, a thoroughly city person, cared for places small and large, though he seems to have gravitated to the larger ones. Like Jesus, he stressed a whole gospel that encompassed faith in the Lord Jesus that lovingly permeated families and specific communities (see Eph. 5–6).

“Scripture stresses nurturing people and places.”

In short, Jesus and Paul (yes, Paul!) teach a strong nurturing way of life. Jesus had little use for the Sadducees, who were power-hungry, acquisitive, and ruthless abusers of religious authority. Paul had stern words for those who distorted marriage, refused to work, preferred celebrity apostles, and loved money. If anything, the apostle James, Jesus’s brother, who often reflects close acquaintance with the book of Proverbs, makes Paul look soft on these issues. And by comparison, Amos and Isaiah make James look soft.

They do so because such activities cause and spread spiritual death in people and their places. Nurturing persons, homes, communities, and thus cultures one place at a time spreads life. Jonah learned that God is concerned for all of Nineveh, including its people and animals (see Jonah 3–4). To be clear, nurturing love doesn’t neglect the saving of souls. Rather, it puts people in their right mind, takes them out of graveyards, and sends them home (see Mark 5:1–20). It puts believers in households of faith that consist of brothers and sisters in Christ, which is a primary biblical definition of “church.”

Of course, emergency situations exist. The thief on the cross had no time or opportunity to think about places. A friend of mine’s father recently professed faith at death’s door. However, Christ and Paul built ministries on the norm, not the emergency.

Some Tentative Conclusions

As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve become more compassionate—though, again, you might want to ask those close to me. Thus, I choose to believe that many Christian people are industrialism’s unknowing captives. These folks are frustrated as they try to live by their God-given nurturing mind while using the methods of the mind of industrialism. Ends and means are inextricably linked. Under the best circumstances, these friends can’t succeed for more than a short time, and we need long-term nurturing of people and places now.

We can do better if we’ll consciously choose the nurturing over industrialism. But we’ll probably not do better overnight. We’ll need time to begin to rethink our ministries, including our local, national, and international mission ministries. We’ll need patience to love people and their families and friends in all their unity and diversity. We’ll need discernment to know how to love their varied communities, row by row or block by block as needed. There will be planning, but let the planning follow the Bible’s wisdom, not the wisdom of Detroit or Silicon Valley.

I have no doubt that the way of industrialism does not lead home. I also have no doubt that the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into every aspect of our nurturing work. Regardless, the day is coming when God’s servants will live with him in a renewed heaven and earth (Isa. 65:17–­25; Rev. 21:1–8). I’d like to see more of us head in that direction.

Paul House has been a professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, since 2004. Previously, he taught at Taylor University, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Wheaton College. House is the author or editor of fifteen books, including Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together