by Jim Reapsome
Things have changed but throughout the world. But some missionaries have not caught on.
Two visitors—one from Uganda and one from India—both came bearing the same message: missionaries are fine, but . . . These men are respected church leaders, not wild-eyed radicals. They are friends of missionaries and full of appreciation for what missionaries have brought to their countries. But they also are frank enough to say that some missionaries are making a mess of things in their countries and they wish they would stay home.
To sum up their main point: Things have changed, not only in Uganda and India, but throughout the world. But some missionaries have not caught on. They’re still acting like Hudson Taylor and David Livingstone. They still get great visions of the vast unreached multitudes. They get a burden and share it in their home countries, to raise funds. They arrive in a country to carry out their vision and look for nationals to help.
Nothing wrong with their vision to reach the lost masses, these brothers told me, but the means of doing it is totally backwards. The basic flaw is that such missionaries head for the receiving country, apparently with little, if any, recognition of the status of the churches there and the leadership those churches would prefer to exercise in the evangelism of their own people.
In other words, these church leaders say: Please come and help us carry out the vision we have to meet the needs of our people. Please don’t come and ask us to help you carry out your vision. Initiative for mission, they say, has passed from outside their countries to the churches inside their countries.
That’s a bitter pill for us to swallow. For more than 200 years we’ve had the money and the power to do what we want to do anywhere in the world. We have been terribly slow to recognize that colonialism and paternalism in missions have died and we should bury them. Uganda and India are fully independent, for example. They have mature, well-functioning, evangelizing churches of virtually every stripe. They are so mature, in fact, that they are big enough to welcome people from outside churches to work side-by-side with them in the tasks of evangelism and church maturation.
But for our part, most of us haven’t caught up with the change. We still act like the Western nations did prior to World War II. We act like Africa and Asia and Latin America are ours to plunder and rule. After all, we have the money, the people, the technology to do it. And we say among ourselves-never to the churches in those countries-that since they can’t or won’t reach the lost, we will.
This is missionary imperialism of the worst kind. Probably for most of us it’s unconscious rather than deliberate. As Westerners, we’re programmed to think that way. We are the best, we know the most, and we can do it better. How could it be possible that some church in a poor country, with poorly educated leaders, could be better informed about what to do than we are?
On the other hand, it would take so very little for us to mend our ways. Instead of barging into a country, setting up shop wherever we please, and doing our own thing, we could first sit down with our brothers and sisters and ask them where and how we could help them to do the job they think should be done. The initiative, leadership, and responsibility are theirs immediately. We are their servants right from the start. Look how that solves the problem of "turning things over to the nationals" at some later date. If the work isn’t ours from the beginning, there’s nothing to turn over later on.
Both of these brothers assured me that there are vast needs that missionaries can fill in their countries, as well as critical needs for financial sharing of the load. But the leadership and direction must come from the churches, not from agencies outside their countries. The missionary must come as a true servant leader, one who exercises leadership not because he is a wealthy, well-trained Westerner, but because he has learned how to take a subsidiary position under church leaders.
The attitude of servant leadership must be developed at the earliest stages of missionary interest. This attitude should also infuse ail of our brochures and sermons. It should come from the top down, so that U.S. churches and young people can begin to understand how the ground has shifted. We must tell them that the days of missionary colonialism and paternalism are finished, and that we are recruiting people who are quite willing to work alongside dedicated, capable church leaders overseas.
In our corporate strategy sessions, we must invest huge amounts of time and money in order to listen to church leaders. It is the height of arrogance for us to sit in our U.S. board rooms and decide on strategies for a country, without inviting and paying the plane tickets for a number of church leaders. They must sit down with us, we must take them seriously, and we must ask them to tell us what they would like us to do. We must cease telling them what we’re going to do and asking them to help us.
The time is late, but not too late, for us to develop a new breed of missionary enterprise. We need a new model to replace the old, free-wheeling one of unrestrained American free enterprise. It will be much tougher to develop this new model, just like it was tough for U.S. car makers to develop new models that got 30 miles to the gallon instead of 12. But we must do it. The times demand it and other brothers and sisters overseas require it of us. It’s the best thing we could possibly do for them and for the cause of building Christ’s church around the world.
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