As an Independent Baptist intimately involved in missions, I have heard this assertion made on many occasions: "The people in (you supply the name of the country)are hungry for the Gospel." This claim is most often made in the hope of encouraging people to give financial support to a missionary or to a mission project. The missionary often backs up his claim by showing pictures of people eagerly accepting tracts, or he tells of the numbers of professions of faith he has had in evangelistic outreaches while on the field. Since independent missionaries are always in need of support, he seeks to put an image in the minds of his audience of multitudes of previously un-evangelized people clamoring for the Good News of salvation.
I don't mean to sound cynical here, but I think that the statement mentioned above, if examined by the Scriptures, will be seen to be false. Let me say right up front, that I DO believe:
A) That the Gospel is to be preached to everyone.
B) That Jesus has sheep in every people group and every language group. They are His sheep, and when they hear His voice, they WILL come to Him.
C)That there are times when the Spirit of God begins to work among people, through the faithful preaching of the missionary, so that numbers of people are swept into the Kingdom of God in a very short time.
However, I am compelled to say that both Scripture and my own experience disproves the assumption that unregenerate men are hungry for the Gospel. The Word of God is clear, at least to my understanding, that men in their natural condition are "...dead in trespasses and sins..."(Eph.2:1). The Bible says in Jn.6:44"No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him..." Also in Romans 3:11, Paul quotes Psalm 14:1-3 and 51:1 when he gives this Divine assessment of man in his natural condition: "There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God." Since the Word of God is our final authority, these passages make it abundantly clear that, even though many will be eager to accept a free Gospel tract, their attitude toward God and His Gospel may well be a different matter.
In my own personal experience, I have seen how this false assumption has been perpetuated. In January of 1984 I moved my family to Mexico to work with some veteran missionaries who had been on the field for a long time. They already had a large work going, so we were able to start to work immediately with them. They were good and sincere people. They loved the Mexican people and sacrificed much in order to bring the Gospel to them. I do not criticize them personally, however I am critical of their methods.
Being located in the northern part of Mexico, this work was easily accessible to church groups who wanted to visit a missionary and experience, first hand, what goes on on the mission field. When a group of visitors would come, the lead missionary would plan the time so that there would be very little time for rest. He would always make plans to take them to a village where we had never been before. This wasn't difficult because these remote villages abound in Mexico. He would always take a film, presumably to make it easier to get permission from the village chief, to have a service there. We would go around to all the houses witnessing and inviting the people to the evening service. The missionary would begin the service with a 'thank you' to the jefe for allowing us to have the meeting, and to the people for coming. Then he would start the movie(The Life of Christ or The Burning Hell or something similar). At the mid point of the movie he would stop the projector and tell the people that a pastor from the United States was going to speak to them about the Gospel. The Preacher would step forward and preach in English as the missionary interpreted in Spanish. This was strategic, in that the people wouldn't leave because they wanted to see the rest of the movie. When the preaching was concluded, the missionary would restate the Gospel, then ask:" How many of you want to go to heaven when you die?" Or, "How many of you want to be saved?" Usually a large number would raise their hands, sometimes the whole bunch would.(Even Catholics want to be saved and go to heaven when they die.) They would be divided into groups and be instructed to repeat a prayer after the missionary. To the missionary's credit, he did say,"If you meant that prayer you are saved."
While this is happening, the visitors are walking in the clouds. The pastor is thinking,"Man! I preached and a whole village got saved! That would never happen in the U.S. Just wait till I tell the folks back home about this." He, along with the rest of the group go away with the impression that this is the common, every day experience of missionaries. He goes back home and tells his Church and everyone he knows," In Mexico the people are hungry for the Gospel. We need to get all our resources channeled into this work because they are getting the job done!"
What this poor mistaken pastor doesn't know is, that a few days later, when a rookie missionary like yours truly, would go back to that same village(without films or gringos) to follow up on those professions of faith; it was almost impossible to get even one or two to come together for another preaching session. What happened? They seemed so eager at the first presentation of the Gospel. Why aren't they as enthusiastic now?
There are many minor reasons why they aren't willing to continue in their profession of faith. Some of them, no doubt, only came because of the novelty of the situation. They lived lonely, difficult lives, normally, and this was a welcome diversion from the daily grind. Others probably made a profession of faith simply because it seemed everyone was doing it. Still others, assumed that we were preaching the same thing that they had always heard. After all, we used the same terminology and names that their religion used. However, when they told their priest about what they had heard and done, and found out from him that it was not consistent with the teachings of Roman Catholicism, they abandoned their profession.
Those are minor reasons. The main reason, however, is that they had not been enlightened by the Holy Spirit as to who Jesus really is and what He demands. They had not been convicted of their wretched and hopelessly lost condition. They had not been irresistibly drawn to Him by the Spirit in repentance and surrender to His Lordship. There is no substitute for that. That only comes through faithfully praying for His power and anointing, and by the faithful proclamation of His Gospel, which is "...the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes..."
I don't like to say it like this, but I feel that I must. Both the villagers and the visitors became unwitting participants in the perpetuation of a false assumption. The assumption that it is much easier to "get people saved" in foreign lands. The reason many missionaries encourage this false-hood is financial.It speaks of quick results. That is what we want in our American Churches, and we will pay well for them. The truth is, that even on the foreign mission field, they need the same patient teaching, the same convicting work of the Holy Spirit, the same miracle of grace that so-called 'Gospel hardened' Americans need.
I know this has been a longer than normal post. There are still many things that I could say on this subject, but I guess I had better conclude for now. I want to close this post by sharing with you my reply when people would ask me how the people responded to my ministry on the mission field. I said:"They normally respond to my preaching exactly like Adam and Eve, after they had sinned, responded when they heard the Voice of God in the Garden of Eden: They try to hide in their own religion. Every once-in-a-while, though, He will follow them and call them to Himself."