The Primacy of Proclamation in Missions

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Editorial Comment: This post is the second of 10 articles explaining Reaching & Teaching’s 10 Missiological Distinctives.

We believe the gospel is the power of God for salvation; our task is to represent Christ by faithfully and verbally proclaiming God’s Word to the world.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith, and we believe its proclamation is central to the missionary task.

As ambassadors for Christ, his love compels us to make the gospel known to those who haven’t heard. But proclaiming the message of Christ is important for more than just the lost; it promotes the health of the church and transforms the way Christians live in the world. Though some today may question the primacy of gospel preaching, we believe it remains a priority, since the gospel itself is of first importance.

God’s Power in the Gospel

What is this gospel that we preach? It starts with God as our powerful Creator and good Provider (Acts 17:24–25). But ever since Adam, all humanity has failed to honor God rightly, falling short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). By birth and by choice, every human being is a sinner. Human rebellion results in our corruption, guilt, and shame. We’re separated from God, culpable for unrighteousness, and under God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18). The just consequence for our sin is death and hell.

But God, in his great love, sent his Son to take our sin, bear our shame, and cleanse us from unrighteousness. Through Christ’s atoning work—by his sinless life, substitutionary death, powerful resurrection, and priestly ascension—he has provided a way for us to God (1 Pet. 3:18). Now, all who repent of their sin and trust in Christ are reconciled to the Father and promised eternal life with him.

Christ not only saves individual sinners; he reconciles all things to the Father through his cross (Col. 1:20). By his victorious death, the Son disarmed the spiritual forces of evil (Col. 2:15). Meanwhile, the earth that was subject to futility because of Adam’s sin will be renewed and perfected through Christ’s resurrection power. All creation groans for this rebirth; for the end of sin, suffering, and death; for the final defeat of Satan; and for the revealing of God’s sons and daughters in glory (Rom. 8:19–23).

God’s saving power is on display in the gospel. However, the gospel is only good news for those who believe (Rom. 1:16). The joy and glory of the new creation are reserved for those regenerated by the Spirit. For those who remain rebels, the message of the kingdom is decidedly bad: the King is coming to judge the world (Acts 17:30–31).

Priority of Preaching

Since the King of creation deserves the worship of all his creatures, it’s right to proclaim the gospel among all peoples. Likewise, because of humanity’s impending judgment, there’s a need for people to repent before the close of this age. As Paul says, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11). Furthermore, unless missionaries are sent to preach this gospel, the peoples of the world will not believe and be saved (Rom. 10:14–15). Therefore, as we await the consummation of all things, our missionary task is to proclaim God’s Word to everyone.

We can see the primacy of this task modeled in the apostolic ministry of Paul. Whenever he entered a new place, he preached the gospel. In Thessalonica, he reasoned from the Scriptures that Jesus was Messiah and explained why he had to suffer (Acts 17:2–3). In Athens, he called on everyone to repent (Acts 17:30). In Ephesus, Paul testified to Jews and Greeks, teaching publicly and privately (Acts 20:20–21). In Corinth, he prioritized the simple message of Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). In Rome, he proclaimed the kingdom while under house arrest (Acts 28:31). Even his plans to go to Spain were motivated by his ambition to preach to those who hadn’t heard (Rom. 15:20). 

Such gospel proclamation was vital to apostolic evangelism, and it’s also central to the life of the church. When we look at the ministry of Paul, we find his missionary labors included preaching to unbelievers and believers (Acts 20:20–27). Once individuals were converted, Paul gathered them into local churches where the gospel was rehearsed, explained, and guarded (2 Tim. 4:1–2). He also raised up local leaders who were expected to follow his example of preaching, then to pass the baton to other faithful teachers (2 Tim. 2:2). This is why we believe gospel proclamation is essential to make mature disciples, establish healthy churches, and train local leaders.

Different Perspectives

In contemporary missiological conversations, there’s a hesitancy among different groups to speak of the primacy of gospel preaching. Some emphasize “faithful presence” or “living like Christ” more than faithful proclamation that speaks for Christ. They look to Jesus’ ministry that included care for the poor, deliverance from demons, and works of healing as paradigmatic for the missionary task. As such, they embrace an incarnational over a representational approach.[1]

Similarly, others seek to locate the church’s missionary task within the overarching mission of God, or missio Dei. They point to the entire scriptural witness, including the law and the prophets, to demonstrate God’s unchanging character and concern for justice and mercy. They view any approach to ministry that would prioritize the Great Commission over the Great Commandment as reductionistic. If the mission of God includes the comprehensive renewal of all things, then the church’s mission should, too. By promoting values such as social advocacy and creation care alongside gospel proclamation, they encourage holism instead of prioritism.[2]

Lastly, some missiologists will maintain a priority for evangelism yet simultaneously discourage authoritative teaching by the missionary. They’re concerned by discipleship models that emphasize doctrine over obedience and reproduction. They worry that proclamation by the missionary, whether to unbelievers or believers, can impose foreign cultural assumptions, create unhelpful dependence, and hinder the development of indigenous leaders. Most of all, they’re concerned such structures slow the multiplication of disciples and churches. As a result, some are opting for movement methods rather than a strictly proclamational model.[3]

Answering Concerns

While we can agree with these groups on some points, we reject any missionary method that deemphasizes proclamation. We understand missionaries to be representatives of Christ, and our task is clearly narrower than his. But we also recognize a priority for preaching even in the ministry of Jesus. As he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Thus, following Christ’s example and serving as his ambassadors, we appeal to others to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). Of course, we recognize both our words and our way of life matter. But the primary task of the ambassador is to relay the King’s message.

Having said that, we recognize the crucial role of love and good deeds in the Christian life. Good works are the natural and necessary outflow of Christian love by the Spirit, and they accompany all genuine faith (James 2:14–17). Living justly and loving mercy are essential to true Christian religion and are intrinsically valuable on their own, not merely as instruments to others’ salvation (Mic. 6:8). Nevertheless, we’re called to pursue such good deeds because they adorn the gospel and authenticate our witness (1 Pet. 2:12).

Furthermore, while good works are the result of saving faith and can be instrumental in the faith of others, they are insufficient to bring about regeneration. “Faith comes from hearing” (Rom. 10:17). Thus, we believe the gospel—and by implication, its proclamation—is truly “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1–4). We cannot love God or neighbor well without communicating Christ’s message. Although we affirm the appropriate place for all kinds of Christian works of love, including social and political action, we recognize these efforts are secondary to the church’s mission of proclaiming the gospel.

Reasons for Gospel Primacy

There are at least two reasons, then, for retaining the primacy of gospel preaching in missions. First, gospel proclamation has a temporal priority. There’s an urgency to evangelism while it’s still called today because hearing the gospel is necessary for eternal salvation. Sinners must be converted before the judgment—before it’s too late. Therefore, any missionary encounter must prioritize gospel preaching.

Second, gospel proclamation has a causal priority. Communicating the gospel is the only sufficient means to bring about personal and social transformation. In the church, gospel preaching is vital to the ongoing life and health of the body. Furthermore, lasting change in a community is only possible as more and more people embrace the gospel and become faithful followers of Christ.

Of course, Christians should seek to address immediate human needs and alleviate suffering that results from poverty, disease, corruption, disasters, and war. But ultimately, we should be concerned with the greatest injustice in the universe—our sin against God. And we should be concerned with humanity’s greatest suffering—eternal torment separated from his presence. The only way to resolve such injustice and alleviate such suffering is to preach the gospel so that sinners are reconciled to the Father through faith in Christ, which God has ordained to happen primarily through the proclaimed gospel.

Yet the gospel does more than eliminate eternal suffering; it results in present flourishing. It transforms parents and children, homes and neighborhoods, workers and workplaces, countries and cultures. Gospel proclamation is primary in Christian missions because it’s the means God has ordained to bring about individual salvation and heart transformation, to produce church growth and sustain church health, and even to contribute to lasting social and cultural improvement.


Church history shows that a conversionist focus can lead to a truncated missiology that cares little for the implications of the gospel or for issues of love, mercy, and justice. But to affirm the primacy of gospel preaching is not to argue for mere evangelism. This is where a healthy ecclesiology comes in. It’s in the context of the local church that believers are reminded of the gospel and are taught to obey all of Christ’s commands—where they learn to love one another, their neighbors, and even their enemies.

Therefore, any approach to missions that diminishes the primacy of gospel proclamation discourages the very means God has ordained to bring about personal salvation, church multiplication, and societal reformation. Ironically, such views of missions are themselves reductionistic.

Ultimately, we understand the gospel is the power of God for salvation, but only for those who believe. It’s through faith in Christ that God justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. That faith comes only by hearing. It’s through the preached gospel that God draws the nations to himself, brings us into conformity to Christ, and initiates the renewal of all things. Therefore, we must faithfully and verbally proclaim this message to the world.

[1] See David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 141–165.

[2] See Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

[3] See Ted Esler, “Two Church Planting Paradigms,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 30:2 (Summer 2013): 67–73.

Elliot Clark

Elliot Clark has served in cross-cultural ministry since 2009, first as a church planter in Central Asia, and then as a teacher equipping international church leaders. In 2023, he joined Reaching & Teaching. He is the author of Evangelism as Exiles (TGC, 2019) and Mission Affirmed (Crossway, 2022).

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