by Charles H. Troutman
Since the chief concern of this article is the differential in the growth rates between the missionary society oriented churches and the lower-class churches, it is now time to look at these missionary churches.
Since the chief concern of this article is the differential in the growth rates between the missionary society oriented churches and the lower-class churches, it is now time to look at these missionary churches. There are few internal studies to help us here. It is assumed that these churches are middle-class oriented and that their lack of outreach is due to the limitations of a middle-class oriented gospel. This is partly true. However, it seems that the great majority of missionary society oriented churches are not middle-class churches. If they were they would have little trouble with self-support, in paying their pastors a living wage, maintaining or constructing their own buildings, operating their own Sunday schools at a high level as well as supporting evangelical welfare institutions. These are characteristics of middle-class churches in both Europe and North America even in depressed years. The inability of most churches to do these things seems to indicate confusion in the way they are classified sociologically and in what is expected of them.
North American missionaries, out of their own backgrounds, unconsciously have developed a middle-class religious structure and program for groups of lower-class believers. Where the economy itself provided for rapid upward mobility, the difficulty was not so obvious as in areas which have developed more slowly. Psychologically such a situation is bound to produce tensions, frustrations and confusion, and a form of debilitation. It robs believers of a confidence that what they have is entirely their own, in spite of the reality of their spiritual experience: They lack the assurance that what they are doing and learning can be communicated understandably to their friends. It forces them to concentrate on something foreign.
If these missionary society oriented churches were truly middle-class, the problem would center on ways of revitalizing their own members so that they in turn would reach out to their peers in their own way. As it is, too much structural debris must first be cleared away.
If these observations are correct, then some means must be sought to help missionaries and pastors rethink their attitudes and goals. Latin congregations need to understand the wide biblical vision in order to adapt their structures and programs to the needs of outreach. For example, this might mean a specific reorganization of congregations around lay pastors as the ideal rather than a second best. It could mean the relocation of the trained ministry from a single congregation to help in a larger area. This would be but a beginning.
It is quite unfair to criticize the lack of outreach and growth of these missionary oriented churches when in reality we as missionaries are largely responsible fir the situation. The remark is often heard that "these older churches have lost their original enthusiasm and are coming to resemble the average North American Protestant church." Precisely, and for the same reasons, except that we as missionaries are more responsible for the Latin American condition. The North American situation has been described in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church as due to the subservience of the churches to accept middle-class values. The Latin problem is further complicated because there imposed North American middle-class values are not completely compatible with Latin middle sector values. It is no wonder that this confused situation is detrimental to effective evangelism and church growth. As individuals we missionaries have not been sufficiently aware of our own cultural traditions, nor have we understood that a new man in Christ in Venezuela does not always express himself as a new man in Christ in Illinois, in spite of the fact that we have expected him to do so. The fact that the best educated, the best equipped and the oldest established churches are often the least effective in outreach and growth, in other words, the churches which we consider the most advantaged, should cause us to consider seriously what we are doing.
Our present confusion is illustrated by a situation to which Dayton Roberts has called attention as a result of his personal involvement in the spiritual and economic conditions of rural Costa Rica. The vast majority in this particular community live from day to day, thinking only of the present. For a middle-class person this is not indicative of a relaxed attitude toward life, but rather moral irresponsibility toward the future. But for the person involved time means nothing, as one day is as good or bad as another. Consequently he is usually generous with his time and what he possesses, feeding a friend "lavishly" even though there will be little for his family to eat the next few days. We tend to call this attitude childish or immature, but we must admit that it provides an ideal situation for the extension of the gospel. After all, this attitude is not without textual support (Matt. 6:25-34).
Now when such a person becomes a Christian, he is in an ideal position to volunteer for Christian witness. At any time of day or night he is free to spend time with friends who are themselves similarly situated. In rural areas the crops can wait. He can go two days into the country as the Spirit moves. In any emergency there is nothing to keep him from helping. Such freedom is not found again in the social scale until it emerges at the very top among the traditionally wealthy.
Another result of this new-found faith is that this man begins to be more honest, certainly sober, and is usually considered a better worker. He desires to read the Scriptures, and takes steps to learn. At his work and in the church he is given increasing responsibility. His own new motivation to learn is usually projected to his children and in order that they may have the education which he failed to get, he does something which he has not been able to do previously – he begins to plan. One sociologist has stated that this is the watershed between the two classes. Now the emergent image of the middle class which he has seen in a missionary or church begins to make sense. He still has a long, long way to go, but now he is beginning to think as a North American middle-crass person. In order that his children may go to school, he will work harder and longer, and with his added responsibilities, he finds himself with less time to spend in outreach. He cannot be as lavish with his hospitality and it is only a matter of years until this man, and certainly his children, will be typical middle-class evangelicals, bound by the very virtues that brought them out of the misery of their former life. This dilemma may be stated in another way: to the degree in which he accepts responsibility for others, he becomes less free for the type of outreach which is so effective for the growth of the churches, and there is considerable textual authority for a Christian life of responsibility (1 Tim. 5:3-8).
We must be careful here of the human tendency to oversimplify. If we denounce these end products of the work of the churches, we are in danger of criticizing the direct effects of the gospel. If we despise the so-called middle-class virtues, we also despise some of the characteristics of a New Testament Christian. If we extol the lower classes because of the greater, church growth potential, we are not being sufficiently biblical in connection with the irresponsibility so often characteristic of this class. If we advocate pentecostalism as the solution to the problem, we ignore the instability of some of their congregations. It seems to be a more biblical position to try to do a new thing: to integrate these so-called middle-class virtues with other New Testament characteristics which may be more common to the lower classes, such as spontaneity, generosity, openness, etc., always striving to keep them in creative tension.
The typical middle-class virtue of thrift which can so easily develop into stinginess needs to be kept in tension with the virtue of generosity. Seriousness in the use of time which can so easily depersonalize, needs to be balanced by a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and the need for spontaneous obedience. The desire for education which can lead to snobbery needs to be countered by a strong motivation to give out. The motivation towards social and economic improvement which often leads to a sense of superiority needs its counterpart in a strong desire to serve. Middle-class acquisitiveness needs to be balanced by the Christian urgency to give, and give liberally. Strong middle-class individualism with its own characteristic virtues needs to be held in tension with the need for collective action.
It is easy now to see what has happened. Latin American evangelicals, under missionary influence, have taken those Christian virtues compatible with the North American middle class coupled with upward mobility, and have sanctified them without knowing that the New Testament provides a more extensive pattern. This selective sanctification has confined the outreach of the gospel to those who are already conditioned to these particular sociological presuppositions. The spiritual and educational task before us is first of all to reorient our own attitudes and practices. Then we may be used to redirect the cultural overtones which we have unwittingly introduced into the missionary society oriented churches of Latin America, thus stifling their growth and restricting the acceptance of the evangel.
Most individuals are so immersed in their own subculture that they find it impossible to stand aside and look at themselves objectively. Missionaries are no exception. Yet there are tools in the new sciences of psychology, sociology, political science and anthropology to give us this very thing we need – a look at ourselves and what we are really doing.
A subject as large and complex as the relationship between middle-class evangelicals and the rate of church growth needs much more extensive study than is possible here. Consequently, any recommendations must be confined to concepts which may provide resolutions rather than to any specific suggestions of program. Two matters underlie these recommendations:
1. Missionaries, either Latin or Anglo-Saxon, with rare exceptions, will never be able to identify completely with their new culture, whether the change be from Illinois to Costa Rica or Argentina to Colombia. This is said in face of the usual declaration that "one’s effectiveness as a Christian depends upon the degree of identification." This is only a half truth. Partial identity on the part of missionaries need not be a great handicap, provided their life and work are controlled by adequate personal and cultural understanding; they are content to be themselves without artificial professionalism; they need the compulsion of love; and they understand the part they are to play in the development of the Christian community, especially in evangelism and church growth.
The missionary’s very foreignness may be of real value to the national churches. He can bring a different perspective to their lives; he may be able to introduce new ways of operating; and hopefully he will look at a situation with more objectivity. His foreignness ought to be exploitable by the churches for their own advantage. It is interesting to note here the strong, dominating influence which North American and Swedish missionaries have had on the development of pentecostal-type churches in South America.1 In another context, the tremendous impact of European scholars driven to the U.S.A. by Hitler is a matter of record. Foreignness need be no great problem if there is no usurpation of position.
Actually the problem is not so much one of identification but of relationships, finding a place in the new culture that is comprehensible to its members so that they will know how to relate meaningfully to the newcomer. For the gospel’s sake, we need to know what rote our Latin friends expect us to fill. For example, North American society would find it very hard to know what to do with a Chinese "marriage arranger" who came to propagate his views. At the present time there is no slot for him to fill in North American courtship patterns. The present tragedy, as stated above, is that we from the North have brought and imposed our cultural patterns on Latin American churches and in a sense are asking potential converts first to become middle-class gringos and then the gospel will make sense to them.
2. No single missionary society, except perhaps in areas where comity agreements still prevail, can be expected to deal with all the sociological strata in every area of its field whether they be national or regional. Pluralism among missionary societies and denominations is a fact of life no matter what our preferences may be. Therefore a recognition that other institutions and groups are in the same ball park is a prime necessity. The Spirit of God in our day is using a number of different types of his people, from varying backgrounds, to build the body of Christ in any one place. It is only good New Testament policy to recognize this. The goal towards which we are moving is the growth of the evangelical community in all its parts, yet national in scope and international in its relationships.
This will mean that geographically every town, village or hamlet must be looked at as part of the world for which Christ died, lest we tell the people that the gospel is only for city dwellers, or more frequently, only for peasants or Indians. It will also mean that sociologically every social and economic class will be considered as part of the field, lest we tell the peones that the gospel is only for the educated, or the educated that it is only for the illiterate. In the past our concentration on one place or one level of society has shouted more loudly than we knew that the gospel is only for certain groups.
In very few countries is there an adequate institutional mechanism to provide for this consideration of the whole. Nevertheless each mission is responsible before God to know the whole field and to be aware of what and where other parts of the body of Christ are serving. The question that each mission must ask is this: What can we do and where can we work so that the whole gospel may be presented to the whole country? We need to avoid that natural tendency to suppose that the success of "our mission" is the primary solution to the growth of the church in our area. Therefore in trying to meet the present situation, to utilize personnel most effectively in the light of the decreasing interest in missions in North America, to carry on continuous evangelism and to strengthen the churches, the following three recommendations are made:
1. Research and Planking Council. In order to provide the kind of help any mission needs to face honestly and constructively the situation presented in this article (although its scope may carry it further afield), a Council for Research and Planning should be formed. As such a council develops, it would serve as an informed body which could orient old and new missionaries to the changing scene and act as a check upon the unconscious transference of irrelevant or harmful cultural patterns.
Such a council should be composed of people who have special talent to contribute. As far as possible it should include a theologian, evangelist, administrator, psychologist, sociologist and educator. Such a group should be free to explore possibilities and situations and to bring their own gifts to bear on the problems. Not all missions will be able to provide professionals for such a council from within their own ranks but will find some of their members whose pre-seminary or Bible institute training was in anthropology, psychology, education, etc.. God’s gifts need to be exercised. In addition to mission resources, the council could utilize the services of competent evangelicals or sympathizers in the community and of government and university officials. Perhaps several missions could pool their resources.
Such a council could collect available data from government surveys, university theses, embassy reports, UN publications, relevant literature and special lectures. It would analyze this data in the light of the mission’s goals and especially to introduce the spiritual dimension which is so often deliberately excluded. It could carry out research on special needs in new areas or in places of difficulty, i.e., What special attitudes in Town A has the Holy Spirit used? It could explore and do the initial survey for the opening of new work. It could review projects for effectiveness and future planning and conduct its own sociological surveys. Obviously the work of such a council will be most effective if its members use only part of their time in its activities.
2. Task Forces. The basic strategy of the modern missionary movement for the past two centuries has been based largely on the station concept – a center from which activities and growth radiated. The compound developed to accommodate the foreign workers in the program. As the national church grew and colonialism waned, local Christians were expected to take over established institutions as well as the churches. In many places this has not been possible for personnel or financial reasons. In others the energies of local believers have been so absorbed in institutional management that church growth has suffered. And yet some current church planting schemes are only a variation of the station theme.
Three factors call for a new approach to missionary strategy. First, the situation described in this article of the confinement of the gospel within class structures, especially where this has been due to foreign impositions. Second, the proliferation of missionary societies forces us to recognize that the Spirit of God is pleased to work in a number of ways and that some form of operation which recognizes this fact is necessary. Third, and most important, the existence of organized national churches requires a missionary strategy which takes these churches into account as the chief factor in church growth and the spiritual life of the country. Whatever may have been true in the past, we as missionaries are now secondary factors in God’s work.
These new developments suggest that a task force strategy, a term borrowed from the military, may provide more effective means for deploying missionary resources. At first sight it may appear to be a retreat from the grand concept of the "whole country" or the whole of society; but as in a military sense, a task force functions as a part of a master strategy. The Lord’s master strategy includes the existence of all missionary societies and the national churches as well as the work of the Holy Spirit in general providence. Under these circumstances then, a task force should have the following characteristics:
(a) A task force undertakes a specific objective which is clearly delineated enabling its members to concentrate all their ability and resources in achieving the specific goal. This assumes full coordination with all missionary and church activity in the area and full support of the sending mission.
(b) A task force has a specific time limit set for achieving its goal, though this may be altered as the project develops, requiring its members to make maximum use of their resources in the time available. Conceivably this time limit could be five months or fifteen years.
(c) The membership of a task force is made up of those especially trained to contribute to the goal. When that particular assignment is completed the mission should consider that further training may be necessary, in preparation for the next and possibly different task force assignment.
(d) Membership in a task force can provide to an unusual degree a sense of identity, accomplishment and fellowship. It encourages high achievement and avoids the debilitating sense of being mere pawns in a casual employment pool.
3. The new missionary image. So much misunderstanding exists in North America about the rote of Christian missions that it often amounts to a definite distortion. And being a distort?on it is a falsification. This is not so much the fault of missionary supporters in North America, although they may be guilty of lethargic thinking, as the missionary societies themselves which are content to let the image of past centuries drift on. The task has not changed, nor has the gospel, but the current image of missions is antiquated. The rejection of missions by modern youth should provide ample evidence.
A drastic statement such as this needs explanation. In the early years of the modern missionary movement in the 19th century, medicine – and later, education – were accepted as legitimate tools of missionary work. A century and a half later, as national governments began to take over these fields, the accepted tools came to include radio, literature and mass evangelism, although not without opposition on the home front. If, as Charles Denton suggests, hunger and unemployment are the coming twin spectres in Latin America,2 then it would seem logical for mission organizations to face these potential situations as opportunities of "doing good to all men" and as tools of evangelism and church growth. This would mean, then, that agricultural improvement, housing development, food processing and rural and urban community development could become the live concern of evangelical missions.
But it takes only a superficial knowledge of North or Latin American evangelicals to realize that these activities are suspect. They are considered either substitutes for, or compromises of, the New Testament gospel. We fail to realize that today’s challenge to evangelical missions is not from the old Social Gospel but from the Political Gospel of the New Left. Most Christians today understand the place of a dedicated teacher, doctor or nurse in the evangelization of the world. We forget that in 1790 this was considered heretical. William Carey’s voluminous correspondence testifies to the struggle he had to expand missionary work beyond the confines of the ordained clergy.
Yet at the beginning of the 1970’x, how few missionaries, national church leaders or North American constituents have any real understanding of how an agriculturist, an organizer of cooperatives, a credit union manager or a community worker can augment the teacher and the doctor as effective tools of evangelism. Today in countries where education and medical services are no longer solely dependent on missionary sponsorship it is more to the point to encourage Christian fellowship groups of doctors or teachers, working and witnessing in their secular framework.
The solution for this very serious problem of misunderstanding affects the heart of the mission enterprise of the church. It is not merely the responsibility of the public relations department or the deputation secretary, but of every member of each mission and local pastors as well, both in North and Latin America. Ideally the task should be born by the great associations of missionary organizations, but perhaps God’s way will be to push one or two societies to pioneer. And when this happens we must not be surprised if evangelism and church planting and growth come to include the immigration of missionaries, development of all sorts of economic enterprises, social action and involvement in national life which was unknown to former generations of missionaries.
1. Followers of the New Faith, by E. Willems (Nashville: Vanderbilt U. Press), 1967.
2. La Politica del Desarrollo en Costa Rica, by C. F. Denton (San Jose, Costa Rica: Novedades de Costa Rica), 1969.
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