In the spring of 1861, the newly-constructed Metropolitan Tabernacle opened for services. This magnificent building in London was constructed debt-free and provided a home for the thousands who were coming week after week to hear pastor Charles Spurgeon. But even as Spurgeon celebrated the new meeting space, he was also burdened by a massive spiritual need that existed far beyond London. Preaching in March of 1861, Spurgeon declared,
At this very moment China is open to Christian enterprise… Now, I do honestly avow, if this place had not been built, and I had had nothing beyond the narrow bounds of the place in which I have lately preached, I should have felt in my conscience bound to go to learn the language and preach the Word there; but I now know what to do. I must here abide, for this is my place; but I would to God some were found in the Church, some in London, who have not such a gracious tie as this to keep them in their own land…
Again, in the following month, Spurgeon repeated the same concern,
I have made it a solemn question whether I might not testify in China or India the grace of Jesus, and in the sight of God I have answered it. I solemnly feel that my position in England will not permit my leaving the sphere in which I now am, or else tomorrow I would offer myself as a missionary.
Even as he and his congregation and the broader evangelical community had just built a beautiful new building devoted to his preaching ministry, Spurgeon was wrestling with this important question: Why should he stay? Why shouldn’t he spend his life preaching among those who have no access to the gospel? As he prayed and discerned God’s providence, Spurgeon was convinced that God had called him to pastor this church and continue preaching from the heart of the British empire.
But even if he could not go, Spurgeon would do all he could to mobilize other workers for the harvest. How did he do that? Here are three ways:
Preaching a big vision of God and his victory
Week after week, Spurgeon confronted his congregation with a big vision of God. God’s glory as revealed in Jesus Christ deserved not only the praise of English-speaking people but people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Not only that, but Spurgeon showed from Scripture that the day is coming when all nations will bow in worship before God.
God hath gotten unto himself the victory over false gods, and taught their worshippers that he is God, and that beside him there is none else. Are there gods still worshipped, or idols before which the nations bow themselves? Wait but a little while, and ye shall see them fall. Cruel Juggernaut, whose ear still crushes in its motion the foolish ones who throw themselves before it, shall yet be the object of derision, and the most noted idols, such as Budha and Brahma, and Vishnu, shall yet stoop themselves to the earth, and men shall tread them down as mire in the streets; for God will teach all men that he is God, and that there is none else.
Christ’s victory over the nations is guaranteed. Therefore, missions is not some fanciful, hopeless task. No, missions is the church’s privilege. Christians on this side of the cross have the opportunity to play a part in the work that God is doing to call the nations to himself.
Jesus Christ said there will be many that will come from the east and from the west. There will be a multitude from that far off land of China, for God is doing a great work there, and we hope that the gospel will yet be victorious in that land. There will be a multitude from this western land of England; from the western country beyond the sea, in America; and from the south, in Australia; and from the north, in Canada, Siberia, and Russia. From the uttermost parts of the earth there shall come many to sit down in the kingdom of God.
Preaching the gospel and clarifying missions
Week after week, Spurgeon presented the gospel powerfully and clearly to his people, and this message clarified what the task of missions is. Missions is bringing the gospel cross-culturally to people without the gospel and seeing a gospel witness (i.e., local church) established in that place. In his day, many Christians confused missions with British imperialism. Spurgeon declared,
I do firmly hold, that the slaughter of men, that bayonets, and swords, and guns, have never yet been, and never can be, promoters of the gospel. The gospel will proceed without them, but never through them. “Not by might.” Now don’t be be fooled again, if you hear of the English conquering in China, don’t go down on your knees and thank God for it, and say it’s such a heavenly thing for the spread of the gospel—it just is not. Experience teaches you that, and if you look upon the map you will find I have stated only the truth, that where our arms have been victorious, the gospel has been hindered rather than not.
Though some argued that these wars were paving a way for the gospel, Spurgeon did not believe that the ends justified the means. Such violence actually undermined the message of the gospel and made things more difficult for subsequent Western missionaries. Instead, the gospel that Spurgeon preached every week called the nations not to war, but to repentance and trust in the Prince of Peace.
Preaching a call to missions and helping people discern it
Spurgeon regularly pointed his people to the unique opportunities of their time. Even as he spoke out against the oppression of British imperialism and the wars of nations in foreign lands, he also recognized that these world events created new opportunities for Christians to take the gospel abroad. These opportunities were a stewardship for the Christians of his day.
We are at this time blessing God that great doors have been opened for the spread of the gospel. Hindostan, China, Japan, many lands we hope shall soon be visited by the Christian missionary. But are we not conscious that our opportunities are greater than our strength? Must not the Christian church confess that she has now a greater field, but she has, perhaps, fewer laborers than ever? The harvest is greater, but the laborers are fewer.
Therefore, Spurgeon called every Christian not only to pray but also to consider the missionary call for themselves. “Has God called me to the mission field?” Just as Spurgeon wrestled with this question, so should every Christian.
“Well,” says a young man, “I have been arguing with myself whether I should go.” I will tell you another thing to argue. Take it for granted that you ought to go unless you can prove that you should not. Every Christian man is bound to give himself to the Master’s work in that department which most needs him, and that is foreign missions, unless he can prove to his own satisfaction that he ought not, and that he has not the gift. I wish that could be learned by our men. You want a call to the ministry. I believe that is right, but those who can speak well ought rather to try and show that they are not bound to preach, and if they can show that they are excused; but they ought to go through that process first. You are bound, brother, unless you can show that God in his providence has utterly prevented you.
At the same time, Spurgeon knew that mere ambition was not enough. The church also had to role to play in discerning the call. Many young men in his congregation admired the stories of Judson and Carey and pictured themselves preaching heroically to natives as tears streamed down their cheeks. They would come to Spurgeon ready to be sent out, and here’s how he would respond:
I have no wish to discourage them, but a great desire to try the genuineness of the call. I therefore say, “Yes, there is an excellent street-corner down the Old Kent Road, or away by Finsbury Square; go and try your abilities next Sunday.” Very frequently the task is declined. Do you believe that a crowd of Hindoos are more accessible to the gospel than a company of Englishmen? You are very greatly mistaken if you do… Do not fall into a spiritual Don Quixotism, and neglect usefulness within your reach in order to dream over imaginary wonders of heroism. If you feel a call to India, seek to prove it by working successfully at home first, for India stands in no need of men who would be useless in England.
In calling all Christians to missions and coming alongside them in discerning the call, Spurgeon sought to mobilize gifted, qualified workers for the mission field.
Though Spurgeon never became a missionary, his nearly 40-year ministry in London would mobilize men and women for the harvest and produce missionary efforts a hundredfold beyond what he could have done alone. Pastors and churches today have the same task in front of us: to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. How will you be faithful to the Great Commission?