by Ralph D. Winter
The concept of “the indigenous church” is widely emphasized today. But how much do we hear about the indigenous mission agency? The task of church planting is fairly well known. But what about the art and science of mission planting? We study the strong and weak points of different types of church policy.
The concept of "the indigenous church" is widely emphasized today. But how much do we hear about the indigenous mission agency? The task of church planting is fairly well known. But what about the art and science of mission planting? We study the strong and weak points of different types of church policy. But where is there equivalent scholarly inquiry into the nature and structure of different types of missions? We may not have enough handbooks on how to start a church, but we have no handbooks at all on how to start a mission.
At a time when the nature of the church among the peoples of the world is extensively discussed, is the end of the vast world-wide mission apparatus so near and so inevitable that we do not really need to do more than politely ignore all this machinery as it properly and dutifully fades away? Are missions like colonialism or like hereditary monarchies? That is, are they lingering, anachronistic vestiges of an outmoded past which we must go beyond as soon as possible?
Even if we were to conclude that missions were in fact inherently objectionable, it is astonishing that there would not be more scholarly discussion of how the empire of the missions might best be dismantled. In such a case should we not at least try to head off the formation of new missions? Yet 145 new mission agencies have come into existence in the U.S.A. since 1945, as well as over a 100 or more in India. Fully half of all missionaries sent from the U.S.A. work for agencies that are not related to U.S. church governments in any direct way. These represent the fastest growing sector by far in missions today. Missions are not fading away, either at home or abroad.
Furthermore, all types of missions, for many different reasons, are now in a period of rethinking, restructuring, expanding, contracting, changing in ways unparalleled in history. Well-known is the example of the United Presbyterians who have tried to eliminate the colonial posture of the older mission in favor of a church-to-church relationship involving the mutual exchange of not "missionaries" but "fraternal workers." The head of another denominational board, Louis King (Christian and Missionary Alliance), is known for his clear-cut views on the nonintegration of church and mission. Still another approach is seen in the attempt by the Assemblies of God to give greater emphasis to their International Correspondence Institute, which is now not only moving beyond mere correspondence methodology to direct extension contact with students, but is also moving its headquarters outside of the U.S. in order to continue its mission in a helping yet nonpaternalistic relationship to non-Western national churches. It would almost seem that a denominational board is becoming a service mission. Another pattern is demonstrated by some international missions which are becoming multinational (like multinational business corporations, with no home office), others that were nearly multinational are becoming national, that is, unilateral again.
But all these details are not worth the effort of analysis if the category of the mission agencies is itself in question. Thus one reason for the apparent neglect of the subject is the strong feeling on the part of many that the church is the central and basic structure, whereas the mission is somehow secondary or perhaps merely a temporary aid in establishing churches: the scaffolding must come down when the building is done. But is this an adequate analogy?
No investigation of the proper present or permanent role of the mission agency can proceed very far, however, without going beyond the confusing variety of meanings possessed by the conventional terms church and mission. We can say, for example, that churches start churches, churches start missions, and that missions start churches, but do missions start missions? Churches, they say, are missions yet missions are not churches. The church has a mission, churches have missions and missions have churches. Churches are part of the church; are missions part of the church? Can we say that, as a seed gives up its life to a new plant, the mission must die when the church is born? At this point we must try to get at some underlying distinctions, even if we end up with two new terms.
At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the important characteristics of a church as contrasted to a Rotary Club, an Inter-Varsity chapter, a mission agency, a men’s Bible class, or a Christian Businessmen’s Committee, is that a church (whether Baptist or Episcopalian) includes whole families; membership in these other groups has some age or sex limitation.1 Anthropologists call such fellowships sodalities.2 The differences between sodalities we may call sodal differences. (Other structured groupings which have no age or sex limitations, such as churches, may then be called modalities; differences between them are modal.) Church governments, whose territorial bounds overlap those of other churches (as in the U.S.), ordinarily ignore or oppose those sodalities they do not themselves institute. In the case of the United Presbyterians, for example, the National Mariners organization could die and probably denominational officials would not weep too much. Even the United Presbyterian Women, as an organization, could blow away and not too many would notice – except for the millions of dollars which these women pour into the major denominational agencies each year.
On the whole Presbyterians have been more alert to the role of interdenominational sodalities than many other denominations, especially the newer, smaller groups. However, it is certainly fair to say that in general, interdenominational sodalities like the YMCA, the now defunct Student Volunteer Movement, Christian Endeavor, and even the American Bible Society have not been very precious in the eyes of denominational officials.
THE SODALITIES OF THE CHRISTIAN MISSION
When in 596 A.D. Gregory the Great as the Bishop of Rome sent Augustine to England, it was the case of a diocesan modality calling upon a Benedictine sodality to do a certain job. On their journey north through France, Augustine and his companions crossed the path of another distinguished missionary named Columban who had already gone from Ireland to work in Southeastern France. Both men were part of monastic fellowships. However, Augustine’s ultimate mission was not merely to extend his own sodality, but to erect territorial organization under diocesan bishops, that is modalities. Columban, on the other hand, was extending merely the typical sodality of the Celtic form of Christianity. The most prominent structural feature of the Celtic Christian mode over the many centuries of its existence was not its rare or perhaps mainly absent diocesan structure but its selective, highly ascetic monastic fellowships, that is, its sodalities. The ability of the Celtic mode to survive as a vital faith without the help of modal structure is no doubt the main reason why the Celtic sodalities planted all over Europe typically clashed with the diocesan bishops on the continent: back home the Celtic sodalities did not have to contend with church structures.
This is an early example of the prominence of sodalities in the extension of the faith. Latourette confidently affirms that England was won mainly by the Celts, despite the almost entire absence of the modalities which today seem so essential to the Christian movement.3 Nevertheless, these early events were a portent of coming conflicts between two inherently different structures the modalities and the sodalities.
At the time of the Reformation, sodalities (the Catholic orders) were so powerful and so wealthy that they were a chief target of the new, nationalized churches both in England and on the continent. The international relations of the sodalities were also a threat to the new nationalism. Luther at first abolishes both modalities and sodalities, but eventually Lutheranism restored a diocesan modal structure. However, for almost 300 years the Protestant movement had no effective mission sodalities. When they finally appeared, they were not created by the Protestant modalities, but sprang up spontaneously as "voluntary societies," that is, as sodalities. In the United States, however, two things happened within a few decades: (1) the resulting maze of voluntary societies gained astonishing momentum, and (2) the church governments began zealously soliciting and even demanding control over them.
In the United States, "state" churches transplanted from Europe to American soil found themselves with overlapping territories. Once they adjusted to this pluralism, they were called denominations. It is probable that only because these disestablished churches had a high proportion of committed people were they willing as modalities to give unified support to foreign missions. As a result, over a hundred years ago virtually all U.S. denominations joined the trend toward official boards of missions. These new boards provided denominations with new unity and their headquarters with new energy and purpose.
The first Baptist mission in the U.S. actually rallied a Baptist denomination into existence around the challenge to support it. Half of the Presbyterians, reacting in part against the nondistinctive polity of the interdenominational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, pulled away from those who were committed to cooperative mission and established an official Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions.4 However, of the hundreds of voluntary societies that had sprung up, only those that were church-planting were of special interest to the denominational governments. Others, like the YMCA and the American Bible Society, remained interdenominational, independent, and not so much opposed as neglected.
THE NEW SITUATION
Granted that in the early period in the U.S. church leaders came to feel strongly that church-planting should be done by church boards rather than by interdenominational missions. Such a stance is understandable where denominational distinctives are jealously guarded. Yet both then and crow we find an amazingly large sector of missions supporters who honestly do not propose to perpetuate denominational distinctives in the foreign countries. In this sense the laity has often been ahead of church leaders. Unfortunately, the theological thinking that would undergird the concept of new, truly indigenous overseas denominations has only fairly recently become prominent, whereas the interdenominational mission, which by its nature cannot readily carry over denominational distinctives (and would therefore seem to be ideally suited to the development of indigenous churches), has long been frowned upon in denominational circles.
As a result, instead of moving back (or ahead?) to interdenominational autonomous agencies, the thought in some quarters today is the multi-denominational and if possible multinational (but church-related) agencies should be developed.5 The idea behind this thinking is that if the church itself can continue to sponsor the mission, but now jointly with churches in other countries, the resulting mission effort will be less partial, less European and less colonial. Such agencies lack both the denominational distinctives that are now no longer cherished so much in high places, and they also lack the close relationship to the grass roots which is the hallmark of the voluntary society.
Modalities are characteristically impotent apart from careful maintenance of consensus, whether they are civil or ecclesiastical structures. Not all sodalities are prophetic, but prophetic influences will likely derive mainly from sodalities, not modalities. This is why prophets and politicians are very different breeds. The prophet launches out and his voluntary followers constitute potentially a sodality. Politicians, on the other hand, must watch the people who constitute the fixed, unchanging membership of their modality. The politician can only suggest what he hopes the majority will approve.
Speaking specifically of the church, then, it is notorious (but not really scandalous, as some say) that the churches as churches have never in history cut a very impressive prophetic role, either at home or abroad. Many church leaders have been great souls, and prophetic at times. But, as with the hammer, they have worn themselves out on the anvil when they have not acknowledged and fostered the mobility and striking power of mission sodalities.
U.S. denominational leaders, we have noted, have not been outstandingly successful in their relationship to sodalities. They recall that the Methodist "connection" of the Methodist Church (originally a sodality) developed into a mode and then a separate modality. Presbyterians recall that an "alliance" of churches especially interested in missions broke away to form the separate modality of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, essentially a new denomination. Their caution is thus understandable, but their unusual remedy of mere opposition is questionable.
The state churches have learned to live with at least some mission sodalities. For example, the membership of the State Church of Norway is practically identical to the citizenry of the country itself. Yet, within a church of only 700,000 communicants, the three largest of the some 15 mission sodalities officially recognized by that church together support over 1,000 foreign missionaries. It seems inevitable that a single, centralized, denominational board cannot by itself fully express the vision and energy of the whole constituency of that denomination, especially as the tradition becomes older and more diverse internally. It is likely that the most creative structural changes for U.S. denominations in the near future will be in this area.
What is happening in the U.S. is paralleled by developments in the new national churches overseas. These new modalities may resent the continued presence of the mission sodalities that helped them into existence. In their lean newness they may also be slow to allow any kind of sodalities to form within their own membership. Many a national church, for example, is unfriendly to the development of either women’s work or youth work. Yet a high proportion of the leadership in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala came out of a young people’s sodality that never had much modal support. Ironically, now that those young people have grown up and have the reins of the church itself in their hands, they in turn frown on the development of a new young people’s sodality!
Most crucial of all is the need for mission sodalities within the younger churches. Here the example of the U.S. denominations is no great help. However, where a "sending" church does have internal voluntary societies, as in the case of the Anglican church, they tend to appear in the foreign field as well. Two facts are not wholly unrelated: (1) the highest percentage of church membership of any large non-Western region of the world is found in Oceania; (2) there also is the outstanding record of islanders going to other islands as missionaries – over 1,000 are on a list recently compiled.6 One of the key features of this outreach is the (Anglican) Melanesian Brotherhood, which is an indigenous voluntary society. This helps to explain why we may need only "fraternal workers" in church-to-church relationships, and yet still need missionaries in mission-to-mission relationships.
We cannot be content with church-to-church relationships, however, because of the massive, persistent call of those "two billion" who are beyond the reach of any existing Christian modalities, whether "older" or "younger" churches. We cannot overlook the new fact of our time – the younger church – that small beachhead on the shores of the vast, exploding non-Western population. But some agencies of mission are so enthralled by this new fact that they are busily modifying their "initiative" structure so as to focus nonpaternalistically and "responsively" upon the one sheep that has been found, rather than on the ninety-nine that are still lost.
The existence of a national church, here or there, merely proves that mission sodalities can be successful, not that they should be dismantled. Church-to-church "relations" are appropriate for those peoples within whose midst an active, evangelizing national church exists. But "missions" are no less appropriate for the vast ethnic groups in whose midst there is not yet any adequate national church, much less internal mission sodalities reaching out to undertake the specialized tasks of mission. Churches need missions, because modalities need sodalities. This fact has the gravest consequences for our fullest response in mission in this hour.
1. Membership in a Baptist church does not extend to infants in a technical sense, but they are formalled inducted by "dedication" and considered part of the church in a much more definite sense than are children who are related to members of Inter-Varsity groups, Rotary Clubs, women’s associations, or even mission societies. Furthermore, a church does not retire you from membership at a certain age, as a mission society does. Finally, you can be a member of more than one nonchurchly fellowship, but people normally are not members simultaneously of more than one church.
2. In Roman Catholic usage a sodality is generally a lay society for religious or charitable purposes. In our usage here the Catholic orders would also be sodalities.
3. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol. II, (New York, N.Y., Harper and Brothers, 1938).
4. There were 1221 ministers in the group that opposed the voluntary societies and 1200 in the group that was read out of the kingdom, some 400 of the latter being employed by the American Home Missionary Society, others by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Marsden, George, M., The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience, (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970), p. 66.
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