SFM: Practical Discussions Toward the Year 2000
I was very shockingly pleased at the attitude of the people who were present at the SFM (Society for Frontier Missiology), said Larry Allmon, general director of Gospel Recordings and moderator of the SFM meeting held the last weekend of September.
Yes! With new structures like the SFM, people normally come with a wary, sit-backish attitude. But at SFM, people came with a lets get into it approach. There was a lot of electricity. It was a very highly-charged meeting. Motivation was high. There was a lot of stimulation and cross-pollination going on.
Strong words for an organization that was formed just a year ago with 19 members! Today the Society has 103 members from 61 agencies and nine countries.
Ralph Winter kicked off the second annual meeting of the SFM with a rousing call to see that everything possible is done to complete the task of world evangelization by the year 2000. He stressed the urgency of the moment by harkening back to 1885. It was at that time that A.T. Pierson challenged an audience of more than 300 people to complete the task by 1900.
It took a few . . . years before what was a feasible proposal (became unfeasible), Winter said. (It was) like Kadesh Barnea for the children of Israel. God said, Go in and take the land. The children of Israel said, It cant be done.
Who was right? I dont think the people were right. I dont think the ten spies were right. I think the minority was right.
I think the minority in 1885 was right; I think it could have been done. The fact that it was not done was explained in part by the (fact) that the 1890s were a period of unprecedented festivities. A lot of evangelicals got caught up in these.
Some of the parties that were thrown in the 1890s cost, in todays money, $100 million. And using money in that way instead of (for finishing the task of world missions) is the nature of our own affluent age.
Is it just a technicality that we cant do this or that? Winter challenged his audience. Or does this move us to our hearts concerning what God expects of us? To me, this is not purely an academic subject.
Apparently, hes not alone. Eighty-five others were present for a full days worth of presentations, prayer, and discussion all centered on the year 2000 and completing the task.
One of the highlights of the meeting was a presentation of the Adopt-A-People prayer program by Wesley Tullis, Mobilization Division chairman at the USCWM. If prayer is the key to our work, he said, we need to mobilize the churches.
Tullis informed conferees that Wycliffe Bible Translators has 10,000 Christians involved in its Bibleless Peoples Prayer Project. Theyve completed their list of Bibleless peoples once, and theyre on their second time around. Further, he said, a brochure describing the AAP program will be distributed at this years Urbana convention.
He expects a major groundswell in prayer and when the letters and calls start coming in asking for a people group to pray for, our agencies will need to be prepared.
With typical candor, Allmon said, To be honest, I normally dont expect prayer to be a major part of the thinking of mission leaders. But the people at SFM really bought into the idea that we need to mobilize the churches to pray.
Apparently, the excitement was building prior to SFM. In a special workshop at the IFMA meeting held immediately prior to SFM, Allmon proposed that agencies should use a generic slide/video presentation in order to promote prayer for specific unreached groups. Each agency could then add its own customized trailer promoting its own work.
Theyre all waiting, Allmon said. Theyre asking, When can we get a hold of it? Lets use it, lets get on with it! Ed Walker (president of Worldteam) took the rough, unfinished copy I had in order to show it to a group this week. David Hesselgrave, professor of missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said he was impressed that though the SFM was scheduled at the tail-end of the week-long joint meeting of the IFMA and EFMAthe two largest mission associations in North Americapeople were not only there, they were wide awake and participating.
But so what? Its just another meeting, isnt it? Arent there other forums for discussions like those that went on at the SFM?
Charles Wickman, vice president of research with World Literature Crusade/Every Home for Christ, said no. He is of the opinion that if were going to do anything significant, weve got to network and communicate, and that networking and communicating took place at the SFMmore so than at the IFMA/EFMA. At IFMA/EFMA there was talk of this networking, but no vehicle, he said. SFM provided that vehicle.
One executive who asked not to be named said, By its very nature, IFMA has to deal with all manner of subjects: business administration, tax laws, the IRS, personnel recruiting, counseling . . . . At the SFM, however, we could focus seriously on the business of the frontiers.
Said another: In the (IFMA/EFMA) meeting there was more the sense that My mission is as good as yours: a tendency to promote uswhat were doing. In SFM, no one even paid attention to what mission you were from. It was as if we were all from the same organization. These comments, despite the fact that at least two speakers talked about the specific goals and steps their agencies have taken toward the countdown to the year 2000!
Perhaps it had to do with the presenters themselves. Though necessarily self-centered in contents, their presentations were made with an obvious desire to be of service. Neither Phil Starr of Foursquare Missions International, nor J. Allen Thompson of Worldteam gave the impression they thought they knew it all. They simply told their stories. As Starr put it when recounting the story of a breakthrough among Muslims on Mindanao Island, Philippines: It happened. Not, We did it. Simply, It happened. God did it.
SFM was more than presentations, however. As Allen Finley of Christian Nationals Evangelism Commission put it, SFM brought together people willing to go beyond a presentation to wrestling with issues; beyond buzz-words to what does this mean?
Frank Underhill, representing the Tentmaker Training Center at the Midwest Center for World Mission, said he believed his organization needs a forum in which it can receive not only the operational input of mission agency personnel, but the objective theological and philosophical input of academics. We received that at the SFM, he said.
But couldnt his organization have received that kind of input elsewhere? No, he said, the difference between the SFM and other forums is that we took a full day to interact. The only other place this happens is in the strategy working groups of EFMA/IFMA. But they only meet for two hours, once or twice in a week, one week out of the year.
Further, he said, if there is going to be a place where restricted-access tentmaking is going to be discussed, it has to be in a group focused on unreached peoples and closurethe SFM.
Participants felt that the SFM has a bright and useful future. The best indicator for this was the planning session for next years meeting, said Allmon. It was originally suggested we ought to piggy-back on another major meeting, but the consensus of the group was, forget about piggy-backing, lets just meetthe SFM is legitimate and necessary in its own right. A sizeable majority were in favor of that.
One of the most hopeful aspects of the SFM to Hesselgrave was that most of the leadership is from younger men and women. The older participants, leaders though they may be, are moving on out of the front lines. Its one of the things that has to be done if (the SFM) is going to be significant.
To this observer, the brightest light in the SFMs future is its diversity of membership. Ron Iwasko, secretary of Foreign Missions Personnel for the Assemblies of God and newly-elected member of the SFM executive committee, cautioned, Sometimes a person will have a particular idea about how we ought to do missions. He doesnt have a forum for talking about it, so he sets up a society where his views can be aired. All the papers, presentations, etc., are then focused on promoting his methods.
Promoter-type people often seem unable to see the difficulties. There is a place for stirring the nest, but one needs to see the difficulties as well. Im concerned that there should be no elitisman attitude that the people in the know are the people who attend our meetings. Its been laughingly said, We bow every morning to (the U.S. Center for World Mission in) Pasadena. Its happening out there. We forget that there are people with other perspectives.
According to those who were present at SFM, however, theres little likelihood of such an elitist forgetfulness lasting very long among their number. Underhill was not the only one to realize a broad spectrum of opinions was represented at the meeting.
With respect to the Adopt-A-People program, for instance, the group had a wide enough range of experiences to avoid the pitfalls. Some real positive things were said, but then in discussion, people brought up a range of concerns.
Actually, thats the beauty of the society. It finally provides a place where, as Tullis put it, cutting-edge issues, things that are right now and crucial to the future of frontier missiology can be discussed.
In fact, it would probably surprise no one if some of Iwaskos concerns make the agenda of next years SFM meeting. Among the items that bother him:
What is the proper balance between study and action? (It has often been said that if the federal government has a problem, it throws money at it; when evangelicals have problems, we tend to throw knowledge. Knowledge is a part of the solution, but not the whole thing. Were forever calling for meetings and more information, but the reality is, we have more data right now than we can say grace over!)
Is the unreached peoples movement, in looking to the final frontiers, overlooking macro groups that are right before our eyes? (In Africa, 41 to 46 percent of the population, depending on country, are kids under 15. This is a different grid than the standard hidden peoples approach. What are we doing to reach those kids?)
Does the frontier missions movement pay more heed to the behavioral sciences than it does to Scripture? (I believe the basis for missions is in the authority of the Word of God. We must be careful not to overlay the Scriptures with our behavioral sciences stripeof whatever type.
The behavioral sciences can help us discover, but what is normative is the principles in Scripture. We must not inadvertently slip into a mode where we base our decisions on polls and are more concerned about whether our constituency is for or against something than whether its right or wrong.)
Such questions are the stuff of which SFM is made. And perhaps next year well have some answers.
Next year, the SFM plans to hold two meetingsone for the Canadian chapter, on or about the time of the IFMA meeting in Toronto; another for the U.S. chapter, on or about the time of the EFMA meeting in Colorado Springs.
For further information on the Society or next years meetings, contact Darrell Dorr, Secretary/Treasurer, P.O. Box 40638, Pasadena, CA 91104. (818) 398-2229