As our Senegal mission team was making final preparations for our annual November Medical Mission Team trip to the village we’ve partnered with for years, all hell broke loose late last week. It began in Nashville, Arkansas, where six persons from that church were slated to join us again for this trip. Because Ebola is in four countries in West Africa, panic ramped up when people heard we were going to Senegal (a West African nation but one with no Ebola. As I write this, Senegal has had only one Ebola case. That was in August with a man from Guinea who came to Senegal, was treated, and returned home. Currently, there is more Ebola in the United States than there is or even has been in Senegal. I’ve chuckled to myself envisioning a scene where our team tried to enter Senegal and were told by Senegalese authorities, “You’re from the United States. I’m sorry we aren’t letting anyone into our country who comes from a country that has Ebola.”
But don’t confuse people with the facts when their minds are already made up. Word got out we were going though it’s been public knowledge in the church for months. And the vitriol, the threats to person and property, and the abuse began to flow in ways that you wouldn’t believe if I told you. Social media blew up. The phone rang off the wall. Even some people from out of state piled on. When people are armed with fear instead of facts, holy cow! What’s troubling on a personal level is in 179 years of ministry in Hot Springs, First Baptist Church has done nothing but love this community well. And suddenly, people acted as if our real mission with this trip was to bring Ebola to Hot Springs. Really? Really. (By the way, our team leader monitored conditions every day and would have delayed the trip up to the last minute if Ebola cases were identified in Senegal.)
Sadly, the uproar got so bad that we determined to delay our trip for now. Some have faulted us for that: “Don’t give in to persecution!” I understand that critique. But, as I mentioned, we love Hot Springs. The church in Nashville loves their city too. And it’s not like we were told, “You can’t preach the gospel.” Certainly, we would never stop doing that. We determined it was in the community’s interest at this point to calm things down and postpone the trip. We can send another church team when Ebola is not such a concern. And we know that God can do something good for our friends in Senegal and in us even in our delay.
Anyway, I felt the need on Sunday to clarify our philosophy of missions at First Baptist Church. It’s good for our own people to remember what we’re about. And for those outside the church that are curious about why we do the things we do around the world and here at home, here’s our rationale:
Let me say a word about missions at First Baptist Church. We are serious about the Great Commission. We believe it applies to this church and every believer. For us, missions is not about tourism or convenience. We don’t flit from here to there just to see new and interesting places in the world. We establish strategic partnerships and develop deep relationships for the purpose of making disciples of all nations. We go to hard places. We do hard things. We ask people to sacrifice their time and treasure to get it done. It’s not always safe. It’s sometimes risky. But we go. We go where God has led us. We go because God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear and because perfect love casts out fear. We go in the power of His Holy Spirit who goes before us. We go because we love God and we love the people He loves. We go because we believe Jesus is the only way to salvation and that in Jesus people can live a fuller, more meaningful life than they can live without Him. We go in the confidence that God’s word doesn’t come back empty and that every act of kindness we show becomes a gospel seed that God can blossom into eternal life. We go because when those we reach out to trust Jesus, they become reproducing disciples with the people in their villages and culture. We go in the sure and certain hope that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and we want to be part of the answer to Jesus’ model prayer.
The Coast Guard has a motto: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” We have to go out. It’s not an option. It’s not a luxury. It’s a command, and a joyful command at that. Missions is not a side show at First Baptist Church. Missions is not an auxiliary ministry. Missions is who we are and what we do—in our neighborhoods and our city and our nation and our world. And because we seek to be more concerned for a lost world than we are for our own comfort and safety, when, someday in heaven, we join the multitude from every nation, tribe, and tongue praising God around his throne, we will know some of those people. And they will be there, in part, because God said, “Go,” and we went. And every dime we ever spent, every hour we ever sacrificed, and every risk we ever took will be worth it.