The foolishness of preaching in missions

Some missionaries today are foolish, and some are not. Some are considered foolish, who in reality are not. Others are considered not foolish even though they are.

Many believe that a missionary is foolish who insists that his work is chiefly the work of preaching the gospel. They say it is foolish for a man to devote his life to preaching the Word of God. How foolish to spend forty or more hours each week making and preparing sermons—there are much better and much more important things to be done. How foolish for the missionary to make preaching central in his work and central in the worship services of churches, groups of believers, or any gathering of interested individuals. How foolish for him to stand behind a pulpit and explain a few verses of the Bible for fifty minutes or so. And how foolish for him to expect people to sit and listen to two of those lengthy sermons each Sunday.

The reason many consider this foolish is that they believe it is ineffective. According to them, the missionary’s method is flawed. They question whether the missionary is really in touch with the people. Does he truly understand what their real needs are? If he did, surely he would be busy addressing those needs in more concrete ways. But he thinks he must preach. What possible good does the preaching of lengthy, doctrinal sermons accomplish? How can preaching help people who are poor and suffering? How can exposition of the Word of God benefit a broken family or a corrupt society?

Their conclusion? The missionary who devotes his time and work to preaching the Word of God is foolish. And preaching itself is foolishness. It is all a senseless and useless exercise. It is a waste of time—the missionary’s time as well as the time of those who come to listen. It is utter folly.

Those who think this way will then claim that the missionary who is not foolish is one who is up with the times. He is wise because he is focused on addressing the earthly circumstances and needs of people and society. He is smart enough to realize that the people find sermons boring and irrelevant. He is wise enough to know that the need of the hour is social work among the poor and oppressed. He therefore concentrates more on building houses for the poor, establishing orphanages, and such things. He also wisely adapts the worship services to include much more exciting activities, such as music, testimonies, and movies. These things will be much more uplifting than preaching. These activities will attract those who are lost, will stir up the souls of the listeners, will produce great changes in people’s lives, and will result in greater numbers being saved.

But which of these men (missionaries) is, in reality, a fool? And which one is wise?

The fool is the one who does not make preaching central in his work in the church and on the mission field. In contrast, the truly wise minister and missionary is the one who preaches Christ Jesus and Him crucified. He is wise who always preaches the Word of God, and who in every sermon sets forth the gospel that gives hope and comfort. He is wise who continues to preach it, and never sways from his purpose to do so, even when he is called a fool for doing so. In spite of the ridicule, he always preaches the Word to any and every audience the Lord is pleased to give him.

The reason such a man is not foolish is that God Himself says so. The preaching of the gospel by a man whom God has called and sent to do so is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). The lost sheep must hear the voice of their Good Shepherd (John 10:4). In John 10:16, Christ said, “Other sheep I have…them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice.” In this verse Christ declares Himself to be the true missionary who brings the elect into His flock. The way in which He does that is by causing them to hear His voice. And that voice of Jesus Christ is heard, not through music or choirs or movies, but through the faithful preaching of the Word (Rom. 10:14-15). The way in which Christ gathers and builds up His church is not by means of social work or community projects, but by the faithful preaching of the Gospel.

So why then does the Word of God speak about the “foolishness of preaching” (I Cor. 1:21)? Is this pas sage teaching that this is, in fact, the truth concerning preaching? Is Paul, who wrote these words, stating that he considered preaching to be foolishness? Does God consider preaching to be foolish? Must we view preaching that way?

In I Corinthians 1, Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, is not stating what he or God think about preaching, but what the opinion and judgment of the ungodly world is. The wicked consider preaching to be foolishness. The preaching is foolishness “to them that perish” (I Cor. 1:18).

That this is so is understandable, for the wicked know nothing of the mighty power of the gospel to save. It should be no surprise that the wicked ridicule the missionary who is determined always to know and to preach Christ and Him crucified. It is to be expected that the world mocks those who are interested in and who return each Sunday to sit under the sound preaching of the Word.

However, sad to say, it is not only the world who does this. The idea that preaching is foolishness is becoming more and more the opinion (even the prevailing one) of all too many so-called Christians, churches, and missionaries. They laugh at preaching. They ridicule preachers. They judge preaching to be old-fashioned, boring, and mostly ineffective as a means to save the lost. They therefore abandon it and replace it with other methods—methods that are the fruit of their own imaginations. All too many churches and missionaries consider themselves to be wiser than God.

What they fail to realize is that their methods are doomed to fail. It may be true that what they do results in some interest in Christianity. But entertainment does not save people. Music does not save people. Community projects do not save people. These methods do not humble sinners. These methods do not comfort, nor sanctify, nor preserve sinners in salvation. Those who use these methods may think that preaching is foolishness, but in reality what they have invented in the place of preaching is foolishness.

God eternally decided to save a people from all nations on earth and from all ages of world history. He decided that He would save that people through the death of His Son on the cross. But God also eternally decided the method He would use to make that salvation a reality for them. He did not leave it up to man to determine how best to make salvation real for those who are lost. God Himself determined the method that would produce Spirit-worked faith, that would turn from darkness to light, and that would give personal assurance of forgiveness and life eternal.

God’s method is preaching. God makes plain that preaching is not foolishness, but wisdom. If it is abandoned and replaced, there is no hope of salvation. But if we stick with the method He has ordained, marvelous things are accomplished—things that have eternal ramifications. God’s Word will serve as a savor of life unto life, and a savor of death unto death. Preaching will produce the marvelous fruit of the salvation of the elect.

God could have decided on a different method. God’s hand is not powerless to save in other ways. However, it is not a question of what God is able to do, but a question of what God has decided to do. He has determined to use the preaching of Christ crucified. What the world considers foolish is what God says is wise. What many churches today say is ineffective is what God uses to accomplish the mighty wonder of transforming a sinner into a saint.

There is a significant reason why preaching is the God-ordained method. That reason is that preaching honors and glorifies God. If the salvation of men and women depended on and resulted from such things as movies, music, entertainment, or moving testimonies, then the praise for man’s salvation would be for those who perform these things. But when men and women are saved by preaching, it is very clear that their salvation is not the work of man. For God uses what the world labels as foolish and weak, namely, a man who is himself a sinner simply standing in front of fellow sinners speaking about the Son of God dying on a cross. God uses weak means. God uses a method that makes the man who preaches seem foolish in the eyes of men—doing a pointless work of giving a powerless speech. God uses this method so that it is clear that the work of giving new, eternal life to a sinner is not man’s accomplishment but the mighty work of God alone. God’s method ensures “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Cor. 1:29). In the end, the missionary preacher is nothing. What stands out is the work of God, so that He alone receives the praise.

May we, by the grace of God, be wise in our mission work. Let us always preach the gospel, the whole counsel of God. Let us always focus on preaching Christ crucified. For that is what God has determined and promised to use to save those whom He has ordained to life eternal.