This is an article from the March - April 1998 issue: Laying a Firm Foundation for Mission in the Next Millennium

Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment

Dear Reader,

This has been for me the most difficult issue of Mission Frontiers.

Here at the Center in Pasadena we try to promote the entire Cause of Missions, mentioning specific agencies from time to time, both positively and negatively—and gingerly. This is true in all of the other fifty Centers for World Mission all around the world which, in one form or another, are promoting the cause. We are at least neutral in structure. We can at least try to be objective and fair in perspective.

NEVERTHELESS, I have struggled and struggled with the whole matter of trying to be 1) completely fair to the different kinds of missions and at the same time trying to be 2) completely honest about what is lacking or needs improvement. I have even gone so far as to suggest what the future ought to be. To some this will sound very pompous and superior. It is not intended to be. It is, of course, in this one issue very thin and incomplete. It would take a thick book to be comprehensive.

In any case, there is at this time no normal forum in which the pros and cons of the kinds of missions are normally and frankly discussed by knowledgeable people.

Except for Christian Aid’s unremitting and deceptive criticisms of standard missionary work (see page 42), mission leaders in general are just—well—very polite about other agencies. Furthermore, there are very few “unattached” mission scholars. Ninety-nine percent of the sage, experienced missionaries are attached to one or another mission, and they do not regard it their duty to make general or specific criticisms of other agencies.

This issue of Mission Frontiers is not supposed to be a “What the Missions Won’t Tell You” piece, but rather something like “What Everyone Needs to Understand about the Different Types of Missions.”

I am referring specifically to the section that talks about the Six Spheres of Missions Overseas (pp. 9-20). But I am also referring to some of these editorial remarks which attempt delicate generalizations that would seem to apply to all or most of the six spheres—and to the donor base.

And, remember, “faithful are the wounds of friend.” The cause of missions is an exciting, virile movement. I am not usually critical of it. In missions you will find high-minded, deep dedicated, level-headed, cheerful, sacrificial people, working patiently in dangerous situations and with incredible impact across the world. There is no other sustained cause that has changed the course of history to the extent that the relatively small army of missionaries has, working mainly behind the scenes, off the front page.

In fact, one of the most extensive weaknesses of the mission movement has nothing to do with the missionaries themselves.

Let me start out right here with an explosive dictum which may upset a lot of people:

1. Our knee-jerk strategy of trying to extend our type of church life into radically different cultures will fail to the extent that it may seem to succeed.

Put it this way: in most mission fields, only if we avoid developing American style congregations can we be hopeful of success. We tend to have an appalling blindness about the weaknesses of our own pattern of “gathered-family-fragments” type of urban Christianity. In America, where the extended family structure so common overseas has broken down, it may be a marvelous idea to fall back on the local church as a substitute for the functions of a three- or four-generation extended family. However, this substitute family idea does not usually go far enough. We have tried to uphold the extreme individualism our culture expects and at the same time promote the complete autonomy of the so-called “nuclear family”—with disastrous results. Our in-church Evangelical divorce rate is a global scandal, etc. See page 45 for further discussion about taking our church life overseas.

It is not a question of Sunday congregations getting too big. The world’s largest congregation with over 800,000 members does its most important work of spiritual accountability at the block level where 52,000 house churches are meticulously at work! There is where you find the extended family and its wholesome resilience.

2. Also, our assumption that we must export into radically different cultures our U.S. pattern of residential graduate studies for all ministers will fail to the extent that it may seem to succeed.

Don’t look now, as they say, but 90% of the 25,000 newest churches in America don’t have seminary trained pastors. They would be better off, maybe, if they had, but there is no clear connection between the seminaries and the gifted local leaders of these new churches. For all such people, “graduate school” is not accessible. It is easier for the seminaries to work with younger, mainly untried students who find their way to their doors.

And, all around the world the many rapidly growing Christian movements do not employ residential graduate schools for their ministry. Are seminaries a handicap? Yes and no.

Like no other institution, the seminaries are the guardians of the Christian tradition. Their libraries and their faculties are absolutely essential to the survival of our faith. They must exist. But the fact that they are basically trying to support their work by taking in students for study is practical but most unfortunate since by that process (unnoticed and unintentional) we are leaving out most of the truly gifted potential leaders in the local congregations.

No one is more supportive than I am of serious theological training for church leaders (not just pastors), but the accessibility of that training is just as crucial as the content. However, in America our zest for quality education—and the ponderous institutions that have grown up with that goal—has hammered out a system which tends to filter out the truly gifted leaders in the local churches. It is the old story of what is easier for the doctor rather than what is easier for the patient.

Thus, the “average” mission field consists of, say, 100 churches but only four or five properly trained “pastors.” Missionaries may even say that the rest of the churches “don’t have pastors.” They don’t mean that there is no local leader in those congregations functioning as a pastor but rather that without the proper training those leaders should not be called pastors. But they may be in the process of building a seminary that they hope will solve the problem. It won’t. The problem is that the really gifted leaders won’t be able to get to that seminary for training.

The dread result: they end up training nice but not especially gifted younger men, and the church movement gradually slows down and may even die under this kind of “trained but not gifted” leadership. It puts the cart before the horse.

By contrast, the rapidly growing movements depend on other ways for

their leaders to pick up essential theological training.

Major example: take the Southern Baptists in the U.S.A. They are simultaneously employing two different mechanisms of pastoral training. They are training about 10,000 in each channel. Their six official seminaries are one method. Their amazing Seminary Extension office is another, equally large. The basic difference is that the standard seminary model tries to guess who will turn out to be gifted and trains them before they are pastors. The Extension Office doesn’t guess. It reaches out skillfully to train people who are already pastors and already have planted a church.

Fortunately, there is a convergence. The standard seminary today is reaching out with branch campuses and evening and weekend classes like never before. The average student age is rising. Pretty soon the drastic (and tragic) differences between the two systems may be completely eliminated through convergence and cooperation.

Overseas schools will not go this route unless U.S. seminaries clearly approve of off-campus selection and training-in-ministry. This issue is one of the most important in the entire world of missions. It is a case of exporting an existing model that does not work well even at home. There’s more on this in the speech I gave recently at the annual meeting of ACCESS (Assoc. of Christian Continuing Education Schools and Seminaries). You can check off on the cover response sheet to receive the cassette tape of that message.

3. Missionaries (and their work) will suffer to the extent that they are not effectively supervised because “He who manages himself has a fool for a boss.”

Many missionaries work mainly on their own. The painful results of this are not readily noticed because it is also true that missionaries are well-known to be hard-working, conscientious, and highly dedicated. Doesn’t that solve the management problem? Alas, for most people, no.

Missionaries work early and late and fall into bed exhausted but they do not necessarily get the right things done in a given day—any more than you and I can always make skillful use of a free Saturday. They are often hardy individuals to whom the need for supervision does not enter their minds. But they need someone else to “pace” them, to hear what their highest priorities are, to encourage them, to appreciate their daily or at least weekly progress. The Syndrome of the Self-managing Missionary is not a widely recognized “disease.” But it is cruel and tragic.

Add to that the typical near-constant interruptions of a needy but disordered outside world…

4. Frontier Mission outreach will dwindle to the extent that church-planting success is achieved within any one ethnic group.

Missionary breakthroughs and the resulting marvelous, growing movements all around the world have diverted attention from additional frontier outreach just because the needs of a growing church do not diminish but seem to demand more and more help—dental work, education, medical attention, pastoral training, etc.

And, churches back home are so thrilled by the appearance of churches on the field that for a while this massive transition seems to be unavoidable. But the idea that the national church sprout its own mission outreach, or that the mission agency ought to make sure further outreach is undertaken somehow—these are difficult to handle.

But if every mission that breaks through (and most of them have) sits down and attends the new national church rather than continuing its original pioneering function, we will suddenly discover a massive fall off of new cross-cultural outreach. Evangelism will take the place of mission.

This kind of success-syndrome is rapidly changing. In the last 25 years an astounding new, second wind has appeared and pioneer outreach is now relatively prominent all over the world!

5. The cause of missions will suffer creeping amateurism to the extent that it succeeds in tapping into brand new springs of interest at home.

This happened before when the Student Volunteer Movement a century ago blasted into orbit. It is happening now. Thousands of young people and adult tourists get involved in kind of “drive-by missions” which may educate them but offer little to the serious, complex opportunities the cause of Christ worldwide faces today. Amateurism is a new and special danger in all of the Six Spheres, especially in the last four.

But, what if every congregation wanting to be serious about mission would make sure that at least one person in the congregation or ministerial staff were to get an in-depth exposure to sound missiology? How?

Today, most self-respective Evangelical seminaries offer serious mission studies. If you can’t get there or if you want to study under a local mentor (even on the field) you can now do that. After six years of work here at the Center we now offer a solid foundation which includes college, seminary and missiology all tightly interwoven with high efficiency. Fully accredited colleges now offer it on both the B.A. and M.A. level.

With over 100 texbooks, 2,000 additional readings, carefully engineered daily studies, weekly meetings with a local mentor, this is a powerful antidote to amateurism in missions—just right for a cause that is the most complex challenge of any profession. Look for the World Christian Foundations Curriculum on the cover response page.

6. Mission work will tend to fail to the extent that field strategy is determined or dominated by donors’ home-informed perspectives.

Beyond any other force what donors do or don’t like—or respond to—is a relentless force that shapes and carves for better or worse what mission agencies do or don’t do. Yes, almost everything that happens in missions is affected to some great or small extent by the point of view donors possess—or are capable of believing in, or will fall for. And, pastors and local mission leaders are tyrannized by the same force.

Wait a minute, you will say. What’s wrong with donors’ perspectives controlling things? They have earned their money. They possess a legal right over it. They don’t have to give it to anyone. They can buy junk food if they want. Why can’t they buy junk missions if they want? (Actually, in missions it is not a case of junk but second best, or fifth best.)

In general, the closer donors are to the mission activity the less effective that work will be. Take, for example, the durable (blockhead) rule of many of the so-called “Home Mission Boards,” which for over a 100 years actually expected and required their missionaries to the Native Americans NOT to learn the language! The long-standing assumption was that the Native Americans would (or should) soon give up their language for English.

Furthermore, in so far as donors may merely give what they give out of a sense of duty or to satisfy their conscience, they will tend not to bother to find out precisely what their money does at the other end. Someone observed that if mission donors in general were as concerned about the field impact of their giving as they are concerned about their stock market investments the whole world of missions would be turned upside down—in good ways and bad. Why?

For one thing, if all donors were suddenly to demand a precise accounting of where their money goes—and act on their present understanding in determining things—two things would happen: 1) a huge amount of amateurism would result and, 2) a huge amount of very essential and strategic mission efforts would skid to a stop.

Example: If you want blatant evidence about the defects of what many donors really understand mission to be, take a look at the crude rules many churches are forced into regarding whom to support. Their rules often simply reflect what will sell to the congregation more than what is most needed on the field.

Specifically: local congregations, often decide, “We can’t support any missionary who does not actually live and work in a foreign country.” This is a well-intentioned emphasis on “real” missionary work. But, oh so blunt a rule! Why?

Every major mission I know of would give its right arm to be able to follow up its overseas work by assigning missionaries to work in the U.S.A. to pursue further the key ethnic groups they are working with “overseas.”

Nope. They can’t do it. Why? Very few churches or donors are willing to support missionaries who work in this country—no matter how strategic their assignment might be! They are not thinking in terms of the goal of missions but in terms of the activity of a stereotypical missionary.

Well, not all foreign students or visitors or immigrants to this country are strategic to the cause of missions, granted, but some really are.

• Right here in the U.S. you can find handfuls of people from the strangest overseas groups around the world, groups very much more difficult to reach in their home country than here. Nope. Forget it. Most donors and churches will not touch that with a ten-foot pole. Why? Because they do not sufficiently understand the cause of missions. Even if a congregation concerns itself with “foreign students,” they usually do not stop to think which students come from high-strategy groups and which come from groups that are already highly missionized.

7. My personal problem with the already wide scope of global mission activity today is that it is not wide enough. Note the virtual absence of mission focus on the origins of diseases which kill off a high percentage of the people missions have set out to save.

Jimmy Carter, “the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher,” is an exception. His “mission,” called The Carter Center, has boldly plunged in to “wipe from the face of the earth” the gruesome guinea worm. It is working on River Blindness, as well.

Could the standard missions get the donor backing for working on this kind of thing? Or, is the Evangelical concept of mission something that excludes glorifying God by fighting Satanically destructive disease?

Ironically, many of the animistic peoples missionaries reach out to are sure that there are spiritual forces behind disease. Our Western “scientific” missionaries have the unbelievable idea that if they can explain disease in terms of germs they have explained away the role of Satan. In fact, Satan’s initiative at the germ level is confirmed (not denied) by the existence of what even secular scientists call “malicious parasites.”

Now, here is the point: if our theology were to be expanded to include the presence of evil at the level of the incredibly cruel and destructive guinea worm and the malarial plasmodium we would have no excuse for $2 billion of mission money not to be confronting these horrible evils. Missionaries could honestly say that God sent them to fight evil at that level rather than to assume that the Christian’s God is not concerned to thwart Satan at that level. It is bad enough for people to get the impression that God cannot eliminate malaria overnight; it is worse if by our behavior we leave the impression that our God does not care, and has not asked our help in that battle.

In the March issue of Discovery, a serious article on malaria states that “The mosquito-borne parasite (malaria) may have killed one out of two human beings that ever lived on this planet.” Just as (theoretically) some preach but do not heal, isn’t it possible for some to heal but not to conquer the source of a disease?


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