by Jim Reapsome
I wonder if in our approach to missiological research we may have missed a few crucial steps in the process.
Every time I hear a TV news anchor authoritatively declare, “According to the latest research . . .” I wince. That’s because I remember a great story from an old book, Science is a Sacred Cow. It seems that the subject of some research got drunk when he drank ginger ale and rum, ginger ale and gin, and ginger ale and whisky. Research conclusion: Ginger ale was the culprit, because it was the common element in all of his drinks.
Research has contributed mightily to the science of missions. Not just in technology, but also in understanding people, their cultures, and their values. Research in communications has enabled us to develop more sensitive and effective tools for spreading the gospel. Missiology is an infant science, but our libraries are packed with the results of painstaking research by thousands of missionaries.
But I can’t get that old story out of my mind. Not that I question the huge gains we have made through research. But I wonder if in our approach to missiological research we may have missed a few crucial steps in the process. Part of the reason for my concern is that young practitioners, untrained, untaught, and unskilled in true scientific research, are rushing around the world doing “research.”
The word research itself is self-validating. If I tell you, or a supporting church, that I’m doing research in missions, many people will fall back spellbound. This person is a researcher; that’s almost like Moses going up to Mount Sinai. So we sit and wait, hoping that somehow my research will reveal a startling new discovery like the Salk polio vaccine.
The pressure to find something new comes from new generations of workers who are not sure the previous generation was very creative in evangelizing the world. Pressure also comes as we approach the 21st century. Wouldn’t we be ecstatic if some young researcher found the key to unlock the hearts of resistant and unreached people?
Without dampening for one second the idealism and eagerness of youth to be the Thomas Edisons of world missions, let me trace a few steps in what research is all about. Not being a scientist myself, I’m indebted to John Gabor of suburban Chicago, a friend of missions who has been a government researcher in nuclear physics for 34 years. My purpose is not to throttle anyone’s ambitions, but to make sure that in world missions we don’t fall for the old ginger ale syndrome.
Scientific discoveries generally are achieved by advancing in small steps from the current state of knowledge. This requires the would-be missions researcher to be well aware of the current state of knowledge. In other words, don’t roam the world looking for clues until you are thoroughly familiar with what is already known. The researcher must be up to date on the work of others, and have sufficient experience to be able to interpret the data—either his, or that of others. This fact alone would require that valid missions research must be done by veterans, not novices. Significant breakthroughs are the result of an accumulation of knowledge.
An open mind is essential to good research. The researcher’s bias can influence the interpretation of the data. Truth is truth and must not be skewed for personal advantage. Unfortunately, we have seen so-called missiological breakthroughs trumpeted for the benefit of one particular theological slant, or organizational platform.
Of course, researchers in the physical sciences have a great advantage over missions researchers. Their experiments can be repeated by other workers. Therefore, they can’t hold out a false position very long. Remember cold fusion? What missions researchers look at cannot be put in a test tube, that is, repeated for observation.
Many times researchers are surprised in the course of their work. An unexpected phenomenon can be discovered while another topic is being researched. Columbus found America while looking for a route to the Orient. Discoveries are made when the researcher accepts the data, even though unanticipated.
In world missions, we cannot afford to doresearch to prove something we already believe. How hard it is when our research disproves what we commonly accepted. But our cause will advance only when we come to our subjects cold, without any preconceived notions.
Our cause will only advance when we get on our knees and confess our need of the Holy Spirit. Even our most mature judgments resulting from fair, objective research must be guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth, and I believe that includes the results of our missiological research. Prayer and pure, objective research—carried out by missionaries well versed in the current state of knowledge—will be powerful tools used mightily by God in the 21st century.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 1. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.