Interview with Greg Livingstone
Greg Livingstone is dynamic. He motivates people. People who spend time around him seem to absorb new ideas, new goals, even new energy!
Though he is only in his early 40's, he is a 20 year veteran of missionary work in the Muslim world. As a young missionary, fresh out of Wheaton College, he pioneered Operation Mobil zation work in the Middle East.
Later he was asked to head the home office of the North Africa Mission, the staid old standby of evangelical mission work which had become synonymous with faithful service despite only very modest fruit. In several years, he succeeded in injecting massive doses of new life into the ever¬enlarging constituency of that organization.
Under his direction, a bold new thrust to recruit and deploy teams to plant 25 new congregations across Muslim North Africa was adopted.
Last year he was made chairman of the new Frontier Peoples Committee of the IFMA (the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association). His was the very first mission to set a prayer partner goal (of 1,000) in the Frontier Fellowship movment.
Earlier this year, Livingstone stepped up from his post to assume new responsibilities as deputy to the General Director of NAM. His major focus now is on developing new approaches to church planting in all 17 Arabic speaking countries, where militant opposition to any Christian testimony precludes most traditional approaches. More about this below.
His most recent additional "hat" is that of Director of Mission Agency Relations of the U.S. Center for World Mission. He is also an effective counsellor of the many younger people who are becoming leaders in the NSMC (National Student Mission Coalition) and the TSFM (Theological Students for Frontier Missions) .Mission Frontiers interviewed Livingstone shortly after his return from the annual meeting of the IFMA to glean his ideas about what is happening in mission agencies today.
MF: Greg, this is 1982. Are mission agencies still needed by the church today?
Livingstone: I used to feel somewhat uncomfortable about that kind of question. I felt that congregations were "Church" and we in mission agencies were "parachurch." Ralph Winter changed my thinking on that point. He pointed out that the New Testament Church consisted both of stable congregations and mobile missionary teams. Both essential. Both "Church."
MF: But some churches today are sending out their own missionaries. They don't need a mission agency. Isn't this becoming a trend?
Livingstone: Most churches that try to do that quickly become overwhelmed, unless they are just huge and stay with it quite.a while. Some local congregations are bigger than some smaller mission agencies, and if they are prepared to set up all the superstructure to administer a program of cross cultural outreach, that's great. Most churches, though, just don't have that kind of muscle that's where agencies fit in.
MF: What do mission agencies do?
Livingstone: Well, if you look at the individual missionaries as the players on the field, the mission agency provides the coaches, the general managers, the trainers, the equipment handlers, everything that is needed to get the team together and ready to play.
The mission agency is the facilitating arm of the Church to get people to focus on the areas of the world where there aren't any churches. Working closely with congregations wherever possible, they stimulate recruits and guide them through their training using their special knowledge and expertise get them on the field, and then continue to coach them to the point of effective ministry.
MF: Is there anything mission agencies should avoid?
Livingstone: I don't think the mission agencies should become part of the final product the national church. I think they should remain in the role of catalyst, and I think we may have a tendency to stay around a little too long. I have to confess, though, that my own perspective may be a bit tainted by the fact that my mission works where there have not been any national churches.
On this subject, however, along with many other executives today, 1 am beginning to see that the final product of the mission agency is not just the national church, but a national mission. That is, we must not just produce national Christians, but national missionaries who can go to still other frontiers.
MF: How are the mission agencies doing?
Livingstone: We have to limit the scope of our discussion now. I, personally, am best acquainted with the Interdenominational missions, like the one I am associated with.
MF: Let's talk about those then.
Livingstone: I feel like the guy who is looking at a half glass of water. Is it half full, or half empty? Do I look at all the good things agen
cies are doing or look at the tremendous amount of work to be done that we haven't even started on?
There is no doubt, though, that God has used Dr. Winter and the emphasis of the U.S. Center to bring the IFMA back to its original mandate the people groups of the world where there isn't any church. I know Dr. Jack Frizen (Executive Director of the IFMA) has been very moved to see the missions really allocating their resources money, people and research to that priority. This most recent meeting has really given us a giant shove in that direction.
MF: So things are moving rapidly in that direction?
Livingstone: Well, with our mission candidates we used to say, "It's a long, long way from the pamphlet to the plane. And it's even a longer way from the plane to becoming an effective church planter." However, the recent IFMA meeting certainly drafted a ringing "Frontier Declaration" (see page 9) showing where their hearts are.
Yet, things certainly don't change overnight. That's especially true for the larger, more stable mission boards. In the Navy they have both destroyers and battleships. The destroyers are quite maneuverable, but they are also susceptible to attack and sinking. On the other hand, you can hardly sink a battleship but you can't get one turned around very quickly either.
The older, larger mission agencies are more like the battleships they aren't worried about going out of business next year but they aren't able to drop everything they are doing and move to new priorities as quickly either. And they shouldn't.
What we really need are new approaches to these new "frontier" challenges on the part of older mission agencies.
MF: Are these new approaches being tried?
Livingstone: We're doing something like that in the North Africa Mission we call it NAM Associates. This is like having a brand new agency and a 101 year old one, all at the same time.
We call this the "plastic liner" approach.
MF: Plastic liner?
Livingstone: Yes. Someone asked John Gration, "How can you hold new wine in an old wineskin?" His response: "It's simple, just put a plastic liner into the wineskin."
That's what we're trying to do in NAM. We've been given the freedom to try a lot of new or different ways of doing things within the framework of the older, more stable organization.
A number of the mission leaders have told me that they are watching this "experiment" closely. If we fall on our faces, we'll probably hear, "I told you so." But if we are able to really do something, we'll probably see some of the other older groups start new "rapid deployment" divisions of younger people who haven't necessarily had all the theological training, etc. required today.
MF: What do mission agencies need right now?
Livingstone: I see two things coaches and pioneers similar to our missions' founders.
I think the main bottleneck in missions today is the lack of competent, qualified "coaches." These are people who are able to facilitate the grass roots ministry.
I think far too many people are sent to a field and left on their own. By the time they figure out what to do and how to do it, they've wasted years. Non Christians don't handle their most important business that way!
We face the same lack of "coaching" on the home side of things in the area of recruiting and supportraising. We must have people who can help new recruits come on board, and then actually grow in faith and enthusiasm rather than falter during the traumatic period of raising support.
This whole issue of supportraising is even a bigger problem today than years ago. Young people are taught by parents and society to "stand on your own two feet." They look at the missionary support system as a state of perpetual dependency a confession of personal weakness. We must have coaches help them communicate and feel right about this whole process.
Coaches are important because most people are "joiners" rather than "starters." You don't have a lot of candidates to whom you can say, "There's Afghanistan. Why don't you have a go at it?"
I think that's the reason organizations like Campus Crusade have been so successful at recruiting. They have their ministry leaders in place, so there is something on going for others to join.
MF: You said the other need was pioneers. What do you mean?
Livingstone: When I look at the business world, I see people risking to build a business from nothing. We are constantly reading about entrepreneurs who gave up their security and ate beans for two years to start a new business, or to invent a brand new product.
There's a lot of risk in that approach. I don't see too many churches or mission agencies today willing to risk everything to get a job done. We call ourselves "faith" missions, but we usually take a very "safe" approach to things.
I'm afraid it would shock the Christian world too much if a mission agency really failed went bankrupt.
If I did not believe in taking risks, I wouldn't have located the offices of the new NAM Associates here at the U.S. Center.
MF: Where are you going to get these risk takers for mission agencies?
Livingstone: One place is out of the business world. There are highly successful men out there who could make a significant contribution to the task of world evangelization. Unfortunately no one has helped them see that starting churches where they do not exist is a bigger challenge than starting banks!
SIM International has made good use of some of these men. Their Director of Finance is Eldon Howard, a businessman who has come in and done a great job for them. Their Canadian Director Howard Dowdell is another innovator. He has made a tremendous impact on their ministry in Canada, coming to them out of the business world. MF: But what is going to motivate mission agencies to want to take risks?
Livingstone: Ralph Winter always takes us back in history and for most of the mission agencies that means going back to their roots. No agency starts out big. For most of them the "good old days" were days of terrible risks but the objective was worth the risks.
It's the objective today (the penetration of the final frontiers) that makes risk taking not only desirable, but absolutely mandatory.