by Jim Reapsome
Fifteen years later, how have we done?
Fifteen years ago, at a Green Lake, Wis., conference on mission-church relationships, leaders of evangelical mission agencies confessed their failures and urged remedies. They had failed "to work more consistently toward the development of a fully responsible church at home and abroad." They confessed their "tendency toward paternalism, authoritarianism, and lack of trust in (their) relations with (their) Christian brethren." They confessed their "slowness in building scriptural bridges of unity and fellowship between North American and overseas churches."
They called for new "forms of church-mission-church relationships that allow for the fullest scriptural expression of the missionary nature and purpose of the church."
They urged mission agencies "to share with their missionaries and their constituencies what is being done around the world to develop new patterns of church-mission-church relations."
They appealed for an evaluation of "their relations with home and overseas churches through fellowship and consultation in biblical and related studies."
They said that we ought "to foster reciprocal ministry between churches at home and overseas on the basis of mutual love, acceptance, and oneness in Jesus Christ."
Fifteen years later, how have we done? Have we mended our ways? Have relations between North American sending churches, mission agencies, and overseas receiving churches improved at all?
To find out, we asked a number of key figures at Green Lake ’71 what they thought. In a word, we have made progress, but problems remain. All of them felt that Green Lake ’71, along with Wheaton ’66, were significant milestones in missionary thought and action. Ian Hay, general director of SIM, and program chairman of Green Lake ’71, suggests that it is time for another consultation to assess where we are in our relations with North American and overseas churches.
Where have we done well in the past 15 years? Missiologist George Peters sees progress in partnerships with overseas churches "in most places" and in integration with churches "in some places," without complete loss of mission identity.
Louis King, president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, in showing how the Alliance implemented programs that fit the spirit of Green Lake ’71, reports that all Alliance national churches are now independent from the mission and are sovereign, autonomous bodies, both in government and finances.
Ian Hay says that Green Lake ’71 was a stimulus that affected SIM’s relationships with the Evangelical Churches of West Africa in Nigeria in 1975 and 1976. Since then, he has seen "dramatic developments, with failures and successes." Last January, an agreement was signed, identifying present relationships and showing both the church’s growth and stronger bonds with the mission. Overall, according to Hay, SIM enjoys good relations with churches in its 10 countries (eight in Africa and two in South America), "with the exception of one country where there are definite strains caused by material and theological differences."
As far as relations with North American churches are concerned, Peter Stam, U.S. director of AIM, points out a significant development: the increasing number of U.S. church-overseas church agreements whereby U.S. churches send teams of missionaries to specific areas for ministry. He also finds more overseas church leaders studying in North America and developing ties with churches. The rapidly increasing number of laymen’s missionary tours and service projects has also contributed to stronger understanding between North American and overseas churches. Ian Hay says that SIM has introduced Nigerian church leaders to North American churches that are "significant to SIM, in particular, and to the missionary outreach in general."
Louis King notes that the Alliance World Fellowship, formed in 1975 to meet every four years, represents churches in 51 countries and provides for the exchange of information, inspiration, and fellowship. "This has built a fine sense of unity between our North American and overseas churches," he says. These "new bridges for unity and fellowship" have not only improved church-mission-church relationships, they have also brought about "an enormous spirit of church growth." The Alliance reports an average net membership increase of 126,262 per year for the past eight years.
With significant progress in hand, nevertheless, as George Peters observes, "further work needs to be done to resolve tensions and frustrations which could lead to explosions, much to the hurt of both parties."
Ian Hay says we still fall short in developing "fully responsible" churches at home and abroad and in building bridges of unity and fellowship between them. Peter Stam cites problems arising out of direct church-to-church mission endeavors. Some U.S. churches want to send people to unreached areas where there are no churches. They don’t screen people well enough, and when they get into an area overseas where the missions already work, "authority problems" arise.
Paternalism, authoritarianism, and lack of trust-intolerable attitudes, we all agree-nevertheless persist, although here again some perhaps imperceptible changes for the better have come about. Louis King says that by holding negotiating sessions every five years to work out cooperative mission-church plans, these attitudes have been "largely erased."
Peter Stam concludes that "old colonialist attitudes die with difficulty, and in some cases they have only died with the missionaries espousing them." With the younger generation of missionaries has come a diminishing of the old attitudes, because most of them now realize that they must take direction from national church leaders.
The Green Lake ’71 Affirmation praised God for "new facts and new hope upon which to develop our future relationships with the churches." No doubt each mission agency could recount how they built upon the Green Lake discussions. In this brief overview, we have highlighted some of those efforts, for which we can thank God.
This 15-year-old affirmation reminds us, however, of sensitive issues that we must continue to discuss frankly with both North American and overseas churches. As Ian Hay reminds us, "The stage of growth, the political background, the spiritual and material aspirations of church leaders, and the general milieu all affect the relationships." These variables constantly change.
Therefore, perhaps it is time to assess in a major missions conference, not only what we have accomplished in the past 15 years, but also how the context has shifted since 1971. Certainly, North American churches and their attitudes toward the missionary task have changed, especially in light of the unreached peoples emphasis and the new note of accountability injected by the Association of Church Missions Committees. Overseas churches have not only grown numerically, but also in maturity. Perhaps the most dramatic change overseas is the huge number of missionaries coming out of the churches. Education and evangelism are different. Politics, economics, and religion have changed in many countries. Churches and missions have changed leaders. Famine, oppression, revolution, and poverty have changed the church-mission setting in many places.
Beyond assessment and strategy-making, however, we all need to be reminded afresh that God continues to call us to develop stronger bonds of unity and love-especially love. You can’t write love into a contract. No piece of paper guarantees it. But love, in the end, will determine not only the lasting value of our work, but also its impact on an unbelieving world. Love must be the cement that solidifies the church-mission-church equation.
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