This is an article from the April-June 1999 issue: Strategic Partnerships

The Rise and Fall of the IMC

The Rise and Fall of the IMC

Observations on the International Missionary Council among other cooperative mission structures, recognizing the significance.

The International Missionary Council (IMC), during most of its 40 year history, contributed more to the understanding and progress of the missionary task than any other organization in history.

What was it? How did it come into being? What parallels might there be today? What did it do right or wrong? How did it finally mutate into something quite differentas the result of success?! Why was it phased out? What can we learn today from its experience that may be helpful at the beginning of a new century? Are we now building on a similar, and major new push to the ends of the earth? Questions like these cry out for answers.

Since the Norwegian Missionary Council played an unique role in this drama, much as it is playing in the present meetingthe Global Evangelization Roundtable of 1999 held in Hurdal, Norway (MF News March '99)a skeletal account of these questions may be of interest.

What follows here is exceedingly brief, written at the conference itself purely from memory without access to literature, and intended to concentrate on the dynamics of the development and demise of the IMC rather than to try to record all the names and dates and details of this fascinating, intricate, and significant story.

The IMC: What Was It?

It was one of several valuable outcomes of the famous World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910the jewel of the Student Volunteer Movement. The Continuing Committee of the 1910 meeting did not formally generate the International Missionary Council until 1921 due to the massive confusion that erupted in the First World War. But between 1910 and 1921 the CC did sponsor many of the functions of the later-to-be IMC, as well as sponsor the valuable chronicle begun in 1914 under the name, International Review of Missions (IRM)note the "s" on the final word (see "The Significance of One 'S'" below).

The membership of the IMC originally consisted of a few of the many mission agencies which had gathered in 1910. However, it did not continue for long as a council of mission agencies but became a council of councilsa council of the various national-level councils (networks) of mission agencies. One of the "great" accomplishments of Mott in his own eyes was to catalyze the establishment of 22 councils of missions in the various countries receiving missionaries.

It is crucial to note that from the start the national-level councils were not all of the same kind. Some of them, as in the mission-sending countries of the West, were like the Norwegian Missionary Council, that is, they were councils of sending missions based in the country where the council took place. Other councils, the majority of them, included the famous "Twenty Two" councils set up in the missionary-receiving countries, and they consisted of gatherings of field executives of most of the missions originating in the Western countries.

Thus, for example, the National Christian Council of India was composed of executives of missions sending missionaries to India from virtually all of the Western sending countries.

This fundamental difference between the Western and non-Western councils of the IMC will help to explain the totally unexpected development which later led to an unchallengable rationale for the IMC itself to be transformed into a far less influential mere appendage to the World Council of Churches, despite the fact that the WCC itself came into being long after the IMC was founded. I am particularly well acquainted with this transformation as I was asked to write up the story of the final meeting of the IMC where the decision was made to yield to that fateful transition into the World Council (Winter 1962).

At that final meeting in Ghana not just the Norwegian Missionary Council strongly resisted the move. So did the British and German councils in the West. But I am getting ahead of myself.

What Did the IMC Do?

It became a nerve center of global mission intelligence. Kenneth Scott Latourette, for most of the history of the International Review of Missions (IRM), contributed an annual summary of global missionary advance, usually in the January issue.

The Significance of One "S"

One of the earlier and quite valuable missions-specific publications published in the states, The International Review of Missions was many years later renamed the International Review of Mission, that is, without its final "s," roughly at the time the IMC passed over to the World Council of Churches. This tiny change of spelling was considered to be of weighty important, signifying the transition from the sending of missionaries in various "missions" to the situation where the national churches were in place and "mission" was now to be conducted by the churches themselves. This concept essentially legislated against mission sending organizations in general, replacing them in favor of the normal evangelistic activity of the various existing national churches.

Though this was a fine idea for the locations where national churches existed, it inevitably ignored by-passed peoples not yet possessing a relevant church movement within them and tended to the concept of political boundaries being more important than ethnic boundaries. For example, the name "The Church of Pakistan" (sounding a bit pompous) represented a much despised minority group, not the 97 percent of the Muslim population. No less a scholar of missions, R. Pierce Beaver wrote a small book entitled From Missions to Mission which essentially announced a new era which would turn its eyes from frontiers beyond the ethnic groups which by that date (1962) possessed their own church movement.

The IMC also engineered the global network of "comity" agreements which insured that the several incoming mission agencies in each of the non-Western territories not overlap each other, except perhaps in the major cities. Thus, when China closed, the (now CBI) Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society politely and routinely consulted the IMC and its relevant members concerning the relocation of CBFMS missionaries in Taiwanan area which had been outside of its own earlier "comity" territory.

The massive global shake-up following World War I occasioned one of the earliest contributions of the IMC when friendly societies within the global fellowship of mission agencies in the IMC had to try to take temporary care of the fields which had been occupied by German missions. Indeed William Richey Hogg's definitive treatment of the history of the IMC (which does not include its final years) pours out the story of an ocean of good works performed by the nerve center constituted by the IMC (Hogg, Ecumenical Foundations, Harper & Brothers,1952).

The Mysterious Mutation of the IMC

This is not the kind of mystery which is kept mysterious by some sinister force which does not want the truth told. It is, however, a story that is clouded by more than one factoras might be expected. The emergence into the mission scene of liberal theology was only onesecondaryfactor. True, Hocking's famous Rethinking Missions report had sent a shock wave throughout the global mission community. But liberal theology was not the largest factor.

The major, truly irreversible factorto which the GER kind of network may be exposedwas the decision, wise or unwise, in one field council after another, to allow the emerging national church leaders to become voting members at the meetings of the field councils. This development was hard to oppose because it was entirely reasonable in once sense. The "Younger Churches" were the apple of the eye of the Western missions, the result of painful, sacrificial and often outstanding results of mission work. There was every reason to include these emerging church leaders, and to invite them to sit down in the strategic sessions of the various councils that had been formed in the receiving countries, councils most of them called "National Christian Councils." The hope often was that a single unified national church would result from the various mission agencies' efforts. The Presbyterian church, for example, uniformly urged that to happen. And it did in the Philippines, in Thailand, India, Guatemala, etc.

So far so good, but over a period of years without anyone planning the development, those national church leaders grew more and more numerous such that in the various NCCs they both gained the majority vote and tended in one way or another to ask the original sending agencies not to vote at all. The agencies were often quite willing for this to happen. It was a sign of successthat the church would increase and the mission agencies would decrease. (The problem was the bypassed, minority or majority ethnic people groupsto which the "national" churches had built in resistance, and often with deep animosities.)

However, in this way these strategic partnerships were transmuted into councils of churches, and this happened long before all the ethnic groups were penetrated. Furthermore, the growth of mission efforts on the part of the national churches was practically never even envisioned, and had that development been envisioned (what are now often called "Third World Missions") those agencies had no council to join.

This did not happen suddenly. Had all of the "Younger Church" executives appeared all at once, it is very possible that someone would have proposed then and there that this new category of non-missionary executives form their own Council of Churches rather than take over a council composed of mission entities. For lots of understandable reasons this did not happen. Having admitted a few church leaders fairly early on, courtesy alone may have impeded clear thinking as their number gradually increased.

In any case, one by one all of the "twenty two" National Christian Councils evolved into what were in most cases finally renamed National Councils of Churches. What a transformation!

Now, it is true that India did not rename its councilit is still the National Christian Council of India (not a "National Council of Churches"). However, it decisively changed its function in 1947 by ruling out formal participation (the voting) of all foreign mission executives (and inadvertently even ruled out the participation of the already-emerging "third world" type of mission agency in India itself, such as the two Bishop Azariah had founded even before 1910!).

Notice that the more recently developed Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand (EFT), the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia (EFA), and the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) itself are all "mixed" councils, which combine church leadership and leadership of so-called parachurch agencies, even though the dominant force is constituted by the church structures.

A major difference between these two kinds of structures and leaders is not that church leaders are necessarily less committed to evangelism and missions than the mission leaders (after all the missions produced the churches in the first place), but that the constituencies of the church leaders eventually include a vast number of people who may have merely grown up in the church and are not necessarily mission and evangelism-minded people, while the members of the mission agencies (the foreign missionaries) have made an additional, separate decision to follow Christ as full-time workers, usually being so highly committed that, compared to pastors who stay home, all they ask is living expenses varying with the size of their families, not a salary varying with a measure of the output of their worksuch as the number or size of their congregations.

What Should Have Happened?

Granted that the (welcome) rise of the non-Western churches wrecked the IMC's original functionthe comparison of notes between mission leaderswas that something that could have been avoided? It may be theoretical to look back and say what should have happened. However, it is instructive to note that there are a few basic, seemingly essential functions which every country might well need, and even anticipate the need of.

An example might be the surge of mission efforts of all kinds into the suddenly opened country of Mongolia. From early times the missionaries for the most part found ways to meet together to pray and fellowship, but also, in a different setting, to compare notes strategically, the former being a foreshadowing of what is often called an "Intermission Fellowship," while the latter is what Mott and Co. called National Christian Councils.

In the case of Mongolia the brilliant Interdev "Strategic Partnership" movement soon firmed up the kind of in-coming (or "expatriate") mission collaboration that was helpful. But, in addition, I understand, the need for emerging church leaders to meet together was foreseen and the presence and extension into Mongolia of the World Evangelical Fellowship was encouraged. This then allowed for three kinds of meetings. There is not yet a meeting designed to bring together the "Third World" kind of Mongolian initiatives in mission, although that soon needs to be contemplated.

Four Structures

Thus, we can generalize that every country will benefit from at least four kinds of quite different structures, each allowing a different dimension of the dynamism of the Christian movement to flourish. To summarize:

  1. It has been clear that the incoming (expatriate) missionary constituency can be nourished and edified by annual fellowship meetings. These, as mentioned, have been called "Intermission Meetings" and they tend to invite annually a famous pastor from one or the other of the missionaries' home countries to come and minister for a week or a few days both to acquaint a leader from home with the field realities and also to regain something of the culture loss which foreign missionaries commonly undergo.
  2. In the early years we can readily see the value of meetings together of the incoming mission leadersnot for fellowship but to prevent overlap, to compare notes and instruct each other, perhaps to arrange for joint language study programs, medical work, etc.the early NCC type of meeting. With the demise of the IMC such meetings have all but disappeared until the emergence of the somewhat different "Strategic Partnerships" Interdev has been assisting into being. Meetings like this existed even before the 1910 meeting and functioned as a model for Mott and others in the setting up the 1910 meeting which first did that at the world level, that is, brought together mission executives (not church leaders).
  3. It is obvious, as both the world-level structures like the WCC and the WEF manifest, and structures like the national-level NAE portray, that there is real value in church leaders in each country gathering together. For reasons partially similar to those of the mission leaders. These structures are sometimes called Councils of Churches or Alliances, and, more recently, Fellowships (Evangelical Fellowship of India, Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand, etc.) although the latter, confusingly, have tried from their inception to embrace more than church leaders. Indeed, as with the NCCs in Mott's day, in most cases they emerged as initiatives of incoming missionaries.
  4. Historically more recent and highly desirable is the valuable fellowship of leaders of the outgoing or so-called "national" missions of a given country, agencies which may work cross-culturally within their own multi-ethnic countries and/or beyond national boarders. These agencies are often involved, confusingly, with both what could be called mere mono-cultural evangelistic thrusts (where a church is expanding within the same cultural tradition) and true cross-cultural mission efforts which require the workers to learn a new language and involve the culture shock and the inevitable mistakes where work is within a distinctly different culture. Examples of this kind of a structure are the Norwegian Missionary Council, as well as the IFMA and the EFMA in the United States and the marvelous India Mission Association in India.

Note, then, that we have now listed four different kinds of valuable structures. One cannot take the place of the other. And they ought not be too closely coordinated or merged, either. It would be unfortunate if any of them assumed the necessity of dominating or replacing one or more of the others.

Furthermore, these are not the only helpful structures. We could note the value of meetings of Christian school administrators or missiology professors. In their case as well, one cannot substitute for the other.


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