Doing Missions Like It’s 1930?

by Gary Corwin

History seldom repeats itself in exactly the same way, although there are times when things look eerily similar. This present period looks a lot like the early 1930s.

History seldom repeats itself in exactly the same way, although there are times when things look eerily similar. This present period looks a lot like the early 1930s. For one thing, there was a cultural and attitudinal change that took place when the excesses of the 1920s morphed into the hard times of the 1930s. It is not fully verifiable, yet; however, there are already signs that we too may be experiencing something similar. Have you noticed, for example, that frugality is making a comeback and conspicuous consumption is becoming uncool? Peggy Noonan even wrote of “Rectitude Chic” in one of her pre-Christmas editorials.

Some other parallels (besides the obvious economic ones) that might be mentioned include: (1) the rise of cruel and violent ideologies and personality cults around the globe and (2) an almost unilateral disarming of many Western democracies in the face of them. There also seems to be the beginnings of what looks like a once-a-century shift in the global power equation, with U.S. economic and military supremacy going through a period of relative weakening, much as the U.K. experienced in the early to middle years of the last century. It is not that the bottom is falling out all at once; however, there is discernable erosion that is hard to deny. So what will all this mean for missions in the coming decades? While there are no definitive answers, there are some reasonable conjectures that can be offered based upon human nature, as well as what happened in the 1930s. These might include the following:

1. Agency economic survival will depend upon a somewhat different criteria mix than it has in the recent past. For one thing, the “casual donor” is likely to be a lot less reliable as a source of mission income than was previously the case. Only strongly committed churches and individuals are likely to continue their giving at high levels with their own economic situation much more precarious—and it will be less wise than ever to take them for granted. Likewise, the heavy-lifting major donors (both individuals and foundations) are likely to have far fewer market profits to send toward the agencies. It will be more important than ever to be able to show the logic and impact of one’s endeavors, and to live leanly.

2. The profile of the missionary harvest force will change. The already vigorous trend toward higher and higher percentages of the global missionary force coming from the South and East rather than the North and West is almost certain to continue. But if the 1930s are any indication, the numbers may have a boost in the North and West as well. Harder economic times at home and a greater sense of seriousness about what is really important in life certainly had an impact in the earlier period, and they could once again. The ratio of those going for longer commitments versus short-term trips is likely to start moving back (ever so slowly) in favor of longer terms. There are already small signs of this happening. It is not so much that vastly higher numbers in the West are signing on for longer terms; rather, short-term trips are being reduced or cancelled by many churches in the face of their own economic uncertainties and the higher threat levels to personal safety emerging in many parts of the world. Churches outside of the West have from the beginning had a more long-term approach to missions.

3. Missions will be a far more dangerous enterprise for cross-cultural workers—more like what it has been for indigenous believers in many places. The annual statistics on martyrdom and the incessant reports of violent persecution coming out of places like India, China, Iraq, and Nigeria are heartbreaking. Being an expatriate in this kind of context will be less and less an assurance of safety in the future. Such violence, however, didn’t stop the harvest force of the 1930s, or even the wartime 1940s. God willing, it won’t stop the harvest force of the 2010s, either. But this must be recognized as a rather formidable deterrent, particularly in combination with the economic headwinds currently blowing.

This is a fascinating time to be alive and to be involved in God’s work. It appears that it will also be a most revealing time in the years just ahead. The great investor, Warren Buffet, once said about risk-taking in investments: “You don’t know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out.” The tide going out is likely to show some interesting things in the mission enterprise as well: Who has counted their income chickens before they were hatched? Who can live leanly? Who has operated more in tune with fleeting cultural trends than out of firm conviction? Who is trusting their passport rather than their God to protect them? May the days ahead find our nakedness well clothed in the master’s robes.


Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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