Why Guilting People into Missions Ultimately Fails

missions motivations
When you think about your involvement in missions, are you motivated by the law — by a sense of duty — or by the grace of the Gospel? Photo by TEAM

In our Sending Church Training events, I often lead a session about “embracing spiritual conviction.” Every time I facilitate this session, I knowingly disappoint the attendees. Here’s why.

In a room full of church missions leaders, everyone thinks “embracing spiritual conviction” means they’ll learn ways to motivate their congregations toward missions. In that environment, I let everyone down by refusing to talk about behaviors and focusing instead on affections.

When it comes to mission motivators, it doesn’t really work to only think about behaviors — what people do — without also thinking about affections — why they do what they do.

If I can get someone to engage with missions (give money, go on a short-term trip, pray for missionaries, etc.) without helping them arrive at a corresponding love for God’s mission, how much good have I really done? They may give once, go a handful of times, pray sometimes, but their behavior will ultimately revert back to where they started because their heart won’t be in it.

Worse, focusing on behavior without addressing affections can lead to hard hearts that, over time, become larger obstacles to even the smallest engagement in missions.

All of this talk about behaviors and affections comes from a simple conviction: Most attempts at missions motivation fail because they rely on law instead of leaning into the Gospel.

But there’s a better way.

Today, I’m going to share two ways law-based approaches distort our attempts to motivate God’s people, along with two ways the Gospel counters these distortions and can plant an unshakable love for missions in our hearts.

Fear, Shame and “Ought”

How many of our missions motivators have a subtle undertone that disapprovingly asks people, “Don’t you care about the lost?”

How often have we used Matthew 28:19-20 as a biblical trump card, effectively telling people that whatever else they might be inspired by, God commands global mission?

When we share statistics and stories of unreached peoples, do we aim at people’s guilt centers to try to move them to our side of an argument?

These and other common missions motivators are powerful because they draw on our feelings of fear, shame and duty. They capitalize on what we feel we “ought” to be doing and what we feel bad for not doing. But they ultimately fail because God, in His wisdom, created us to be more powerfully moved by positive motivators than negative ones like fear and guilt.

In the Gospel, Christ takes all of our guilt, shame, fear and “ought” on Himself, nailing them to the cross and killing them forever. In their place He gives us His Spirit, who in turn replaces fear and guilt with “power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7), making us sons of God rather than slaves to the law (Rom. 8:15).

By His Spirit, God replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26-27), empowering us to love God from the heart and to live as His children.

My Performance. My Responsibility

How often do we approach missions as if it all depended on us and our obedience?

We invite people to consider the “high calling” of missions work as if those called to be missionaries are more spiritual and more Christian than others. We parade missionary families in front of the church, hoping to draw others to follow their example.

We treat missions as something that depends on us and our excellence for its completion. All of this plays to our natural sense of pride and ambition, and it subtly encourages us to look at ourselves as the primary character in the drama of missions.

As the law always does, these appeals may inspire us to charge down the road toward mission activity, but they leave us crushed when — as will always happen — we run up against our own limitations.

Dry seasons of fruitlessness come. Visas fall through. We struggle to adjust to new cultures. If our motivation is our own excellence, those moments leave us vulnerable to the accuser’s voice telling us we’re not good enough, smart enough or spiritual enough to be missionaries.

This approach also tells us that missions is only part of the Christian calling for some who have been specially equipped, alienating whole segments of the body who have critical roles to play.

However, the Gospel invites us to think about missions in terms of what God has done, what He continues to do and what He will always be doing.

From a Gospel perspective, our activity is always preceded and superseded by God’s missional activity. He created and sustains all things. He has been in the work of redemption since Genesis 3. He calls a people to Himself, redeeming and empowering them for His work. In the end, He will bring the new heavens and new earth to fruition.

Our activity, then, should be understood to be for His pleasure and our privilege, for His glory and our own good.

Motivated by Joy

What would mission motivators look like if they reflected the joy of what God has done for us instead of the fear, shame and performance of the law? What if we focused our efforts on framing global opportunities in light of the Gospel’s beauty and the freedom that comes from living in that truth?

What if we met people in their joys and passions and helped them see how their gifts can be harnessed for global missions work? What if we let people in on the secret that God’s mission isn’t just a duty to be endured by a handful, but is the delight into which all Christians everywhere are called?

The right answers to these questions will look different in different church contexts. But starting with Gospel instead of the law makes us more likely to push people towards Christ and His mission than away from them.

In a follow-up post, we’ll look at two more ways law-based approaches exploit our natural fallenness  — and how the Gospel can redeem them.

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About the author

Josh McQuaid

Josh McQuaid served as TEAM’s former Director of Organizational Engagement and lives in Knoxville, TN with his wife and two children. He has previously worked as a pastor and missions mobilizer. The son of missionaries, he grew up in Bolivia and Paraguay before returning to the United States to attend Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College Graduate School.


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  • The guilting approach does not always fail ultimately. Sometimes it works for God’s glory. However I agree with you point. It’s just that the 500 year old dominant system of church is not setup to deal with affections properly. The pulpit and pew routine is setup to deliver facts and call for an emotion driven response that is almost always devoid of intimacy and mutuality. This is the dynamic of the affections. The “habit of meeting” believers are “not to forsake” is specifically instructed as “stirring up one another to love and good works” and “encouraging one another”. This is God’s formula for “love and good works” which is what reaching all nations is.

    The current leadership of church is in a DEEP rut of forcing the Biblical terms “preaching” and “teaching” into the form of strict one way communication by one man for the whole time. This is as non-relational and non-participative a dynamic as can be designed to deliver the most important truths in the universe. Can you exposit “preach the word, in season and out of season” into lecture the Word? Can you exposit “equipping the saints” into lecturing the saints to do the work of the ministry? I know you can’t but you should think about this stark expositional corruption. This form of “leadership” also forces God’s people to consume 84% of their “giving” to buy hired Bible experts and facilities to bless mostly themselves. Only 16% of the “giving” goes beyond the “needs” of the “givers”. This is systemic consumer church. Jesus said “…where your treasure is, there will you heart be also.” When believers consume most of their “giving” their hearts (affections) will be focused on themselves.

    In my search of scripture I found that God has designed a way, revealed very clearly in scripture for believers to practice 100% of what God instructed for practicing church life so that 100% of giving goes beyond the givers. Can you imagine what God could do with this in reaching every tribe and tongue?

    What are your thoughts on my challenge to the status quo form of faith?

    • Thanks for this comment! I don’t think I can respond to everything you’ve raised in this format, but here’s a start.

      First, while I disagree that “the guilting approach doesn’t always fail ultimately,” it might be that we’re just defining success and failure differently? I agree that guilt-based approaches often lead to short-term success–that’s one of the reasons why they’re so attractive and pervasive. But I’m convinced that guilting people towards missions (or any other good thing) will encourage their involvement to be either short-lived or borne out of a skewed belief system which, ultimately, causes more problems than it solves. So, I don’t think guilting is ever the right approach. But it sounds like that’s what you’re saying too.

      Second, I think it’s really hard to talk about whether our “system of church” is broken since “church” is so varied in its traditions, denominations, and local expressions. People are also terribly varied, so the ways in which we individually experience different church expressions, including things like styles of preaching and teaching, are too diverse for broad strokes to do much good (in my opinion). It does seem to me that God has faithfully used the preached word historically, and he certainly has in my life, so I’m not ready to write it off. I’m all for participation and dialogue, but I still think there’s a time and place for sound preaching to address things like affections and motivators. In fact, the conclusion to Part 2 of this post will touch on my conviction that the word-rightly-preached is the right way to motivate people towards global work (so be sure to come back to read Part 2!). Why throw out preaching when you can also have other complementary forms of teaching?

      Where I really resonate with your comments, though, is the idea that we should resist the (in my opinion, all-too-common) view that “church” is a place where I go to be fed, to receive from others, and to be built up, rather than seeing it as a community where mutual encouragement and building-up should be the norm. And while I don’t think it’s inappropriate to spend money on the shepherding and care of our own community members, I do think individual bodies should carefully consider whether their spending reflects God’s heart for the lost as well as his love for his people.

      Thanks, again, for your comment. Appreciate the lively dialogue on these important issues.

  • I love this: What if we met people in their joys and passions and helped them see how their gifts can be harnessed for global missions work?

    Inspiring article, Josh–challenges us to connect to the heart of God.

  • Josh, thank you so much for such an encouraging and true perspective. These words are such a breath of fresh air.

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