As a general principle, if we hear a criticism repeatedly, we should take it seriously, no matter how unfounded or painful it may initially seem. I had an opportunity to practice this principle when a thoughtful student recently asked in class, “Why don't Calvinists care about missions?” I believe the charge is largely unfounded, so I wish he had asked, “Why do people say Calvinists don't care about missions?'” Still, however we phrase the question, it persists. Is there something in Calvinism that weakens the urgency of evangelism? We can easily think of several answers why maybe it does.
Calvinists and a well-trained clergy: Reformed leaders insist on well-trained ministers, which prevents rapid deployment when a mission field opens. There were four Methodist ministers in America in 1771 and 2,000 by 1816. That mass had not attended seminary. Rather, Francis Asbury and his allies commissioned them for itinerant frontier work. The story in the South Sea Islands is similar. Congregationalist missionary John Williams placed native teachers, “often with the slenderest of qualifications,” on remote islands in the South Pacific. The work seemed too urgent to wait for seminary grads.
Some say that the doctrines of divine sovereignty and predestination undermine the urgency of evangelism and missions. At a minimum, it seems that Calvinists are less likely than Arminians such as Charles Finney to press for a decision “this very day.” In his lectures on revivals of religion, Finney said, “Revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical [i.e. scientific] result of the right use of the constituted means—as much as any other effect produced by the application of means.” This conviction led Finney to develop a system of high-pressure evangelistic methods. The Calvinist disagrees, and, citing Romans, affirms that revival and conversion depend ultimately on the work of the Spirit. We care about means but believe that the Spirit uses a variety of means. We can take our time, too, since we don't worry that a man will die the day before he comes to faith, trusting that God will bring his people to himself.
I'll let the reader judge whether there could be some truth in these three points. Calvinists might show their concern for missions more readily if, for example, they were more willing to commission workers to go to lands that where evangelists don't need to know the effects of the Enlightenment and World War 1 on liberal European theology.
Nonetheless, Calvinists do care about missions and evangelism. The evangelical and Reformed denominations plant churches in cities and towns that lack sound churches and sponsor many works overseas. Our seminaries send impressive numbers of grads into church planting, campus work, and missional work on all continents.
That said, Calvinists must admit that Catholics, not Protestants, first sent missionaries to Asia and the new world. The Jesuit Francis Xavier led the way, reaching India by 1542. Many followed his lead—all over the globe. Whatever their failings, they went. Protestant missions didn't really get started until the early 1700s. Early Protestants didn't talk about missions much either; the Westminster Confession of Faith famously lacks a section on missions.
But there is more to the story. The first Protestants stayed home because they saw their own countries as mission fields. German, English, Scottish, French, and Swiss Protestants knew the gospel was almost unknown in vast swaths of their lands. At the time, church services were typically conducted in Latin, so the message was incomprehensible to the vast majority of people. Even in lands with Protestants leaders and evangelical creeds and catechisms, many areas had no competent preachers, so they were Christian in name only. The reformers gave themselves to evangelism and missions in their own lands.
Consider Calvin himself. He was forced to leave France under the threat of persecution and settled in Geneva, Switzerland. He soon founded a seminary. Great numbers of his students came from France and returned to France. More than 150 of Calvin's graduates planted churches in France, under a real threat of death. By the late 16th century, scholars estimate that 5 percent to 10 percent of the French populace worshiped in Protestant churches, until persecution scattered them. Similarly, while the early Puritans didn't send missionaries overseas, they trained pastors and sent them to every corner of England, in a time when many churches had no faithful gospel preaching.
In the great revivals of the 18th century, the Arminian Wesleys are perhaps most famous for their preaching in open fields and town squares, but George Whitefield, the Calvinist, had just as much influence in his day as the Wesleys. Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, another Calvinist, were surely the leading lights of America's Great Awakening.
In short, history shows that Calvinism was missional and evangelistic at the start. By our nature, all evangelicals care about missions. The question is, are we true to our essential nature, or do we follow secondary strands that can lead away from evangelism? Are we so intent on engaging and transforming our culture that we are slow to challenge it with the gospel? Are pastors so intellectual that they are content to make disciples after others convert them? Does our proper confidence in the Spirit invite sloth? If our churches see less evangelistic fruit than we hope, we must ask ourselves these questions.
Perhaps the biggest question is this: Are today's Calvinists true to our historic nature and evangelical calling? If we are enthusiastic about God's worldwide mission, how do our actions show it? How blessed it would be to answer these questions so convincingly that no one thinks to ask; all will know that Calvinists really do care about missions.