Are 90% of Our Missionaries Serving in the Wrong Places?
Presented at the 1991 annual meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society
In the past two centuries, due to the widespread success of evangelical mission agencies--virtually everywhere they have worked around the world--an enormous overseas church movement has resulted which is now the apple of the eye of both the mission agencies and supporting churches. This is truly the glorious result of a virile enterprise of faith coupled with the miracle-working power of God.
(Note that this type of pioneer church planting was a distinctly different and more difficult task from that of multiplying more congregations within our own Western world.)
This now-vast phenomenon of the so-called "younger churches" or "daughter churches" (more precisely "pioneer churches"), however glorious it is, is also now soaking up 90% of all mission energies and monies due to an all-absorbing relationship between the Western sending churches and the precious daughter churches. It is as if the Great Commission has been rewritten to say, "Go ye into all the world and work exclusively with the existing churches."
At the same time, events all over the world are bringing to our attention the remaining frontiers--many of the world's nations or ethne within which we have not even begun to disciple.
One response to this unfinished task is that we must drag all or most of our missionaries off the well-established fields and send them to the frontier peoples. Another response is that we ought to channel all our new missionaries to the frontiers, and consider all other missionaries mere international church workers.
I have never agreed with either of these ideas, however well- intentioned they may be. These ideas do indeed focus on a serious problem--the location of most missionaries primarily in successful fields. But these proposals give the wrong answer, I believe, or at least, they surely do not give the best answer to the unfinished task.
Such proposals have understandably churned up a lot of heat and not a lot of light. One true but irrelevant defense is that people who are lost are just as lost if they are citizens of Wheaton or jungle tribesmen, citizens of Asian megacities or dwellers in a remote rural mountain vastness. This is not a good answer because people who are equally lost may not be equally difficult to find. Populations equally needy may not have equal opportunity to hear.
Missions--in contrast to evangelistic organizations--are in the lock-picking business. They are the only organizations whose unique skill is pioneering--"getting inside of" a culture that is bafflingly strange. Other kinds of evangelism may not require linguistics and anthropology. Missionaries in the past two hundred years have been the primary source of data for the very development of the two academic fields of linguistics and anthropology. They have not only cracked the most exotic languages and penetrated the strangest world- views, they have enabled such skills to be taught to others.
The pastor of a congregation made up of his own people does not need such special skills. The evangelist to his own people does not need such skills. Even missionaries no longer need finely honed pioneer skills whenever they are working within well-established fields. Is it not far easier to come into a second-generation mission field and learn a language earlier missionaries have already reduced to writing than it is to begin from scratch?
Thus, it is some kind of a tragedy if mission agencies forget their first calling, their unique experience and expertise, and get so tangled up in the internal politics and growing pains of an overseas church that their special skills, their primary vision falls into disuse or is not passed on to the daughter churches.
Yet, I hold to my position: I do not believe it is the most strategic thing to call for either mass redeployment of existing missionaries or mass diversion of new missionaries going out from the West.
One of the little-noticed paradigm shifts in missions in the past few years is the widespread use made by Wycliffe Bible Translators of non- Western believers as front-line Bible translators. Few things are as demanding and technical in mission work as the proper translation of the Bible. Yet, tribal Christians are now being trained for such tasks. Thus, for me the most exciting reality in missions today is the gradual discovery of the vast unrealized potential of our precious sister churches as the source of new missionaries to go further out. I am not talking about "checkbook missions" whereby U.S. believers sit back and send checks to hire foreign mercenaries. I am talking precisely about our existing missionaries (as well as those who join them), right where they are--wherever they are--catching a new vision. For what? A new perspective on whatever they are doing, making sure that prayed into and breathed into everything they do is a new vision for the so-called younger churches to get involved in their own mission sending. That means national churches sending out evangelists not only to their own people but training up pioneer missionaries with the special skills to go to truly frontier people groups.
Does it really matter whether Western or Non-Western missionaries go? Isn't it more important that more of the unreached peoples are reached? We are talking about mobilization, aren't we? Isn't it fairly obvious that if all missionaries, wherever they are, plunge in to help national Christians to get into missions that it would practically jump-start this whole new era of Third World Missions that is at present dawning so slowly, and with such difficulty? Is it possible that the biggest stumbling block is the relative non- existing involvement of missionaries in creating new missionaries out of the national church believers with whom they are in intimate contact?
I am not at all excited about arguing whether or not "reaching all nations" has to happen before Christ's return, or whether reaching all nations is possible or not, or whether it will ever happen or not. However, I am very excited to be alive at a moment when--in view of the enormous resources of the global Christian movement--the completion of the specific pioneering mission can conceivably be completed by the year 2000! That this is quite conceivable (not inevitable) is a fact. That this global state of affairs exists is no credit to me. But I somehow feel I will have missed out terribly if I am not heart and soul part of the move to the ends of the earth. That is what it means when I pray, "Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." Is this not "the Lord's prayer," too?