by Stan Guthrie
Asia’s pride now in ashes, financial crisis challenges promise of missions success.
As Bible college teacher Bill Hekman slowly drove his wife Young Sook from one smoldering end of Jakarta to the other, he was reminded of Rotterdam and Berlin at the end of the Second World War. Seemingly every shop, bank, restaurant, and hotel lay in ruins. The couple saw Chinese families "sitting on the ground, some weeping, others talking on their cellular phones, most just sitting and saying nothing," Hekman recalled.
One man told them, "We are all finished; there is nothing left. We can thank God we are alive."
Left amid the rubble last May was a large sign erected in better days by Indonesia’s former government. It promised, "Hard work brings success."
Little more than a year ago, such a promise seemed self-evident across Asia. Economic soothsayers spoke seriously about the 21st century belonging to Asia. Asian political leaders,buoyed by eye-popping economic growth and surging bourses, touted the superiority of "Asian values" over "Western values."
Not surprisingly, the general giddiness found its way into the worldwide missions community. Many have expected Asia’s contribution in the new millennium to eclipse the West’s.
Today, many of the Asian tigers, declawed by collapsing currencies and reignited inflation, are just hoping to make it to the 21st century with their economies and societies intact. The crisis has already claimed one autocrat and more than a thousand lives in Indonesia.
What impact will it have on the oft-heard promise of successful missionary work and churches in Asia? While many ministries are facing short-term pain in the crisis, some see the possibility of longer-term gain. Given the Asian church’s size and dynamism, there is little reason to doubt that this missionary tiger will come roaring back, leaner and more nimble than before.
Ministries affected and effective. To the extent that they have been linked to the region’s economy, evangelism and missions efforts have been hard hit. South Korea’s evangelical community, which is sending more than 5,000 missionaries outside the country, has taken it on the chin. The national jobless rate has shot up from 2 percent a year ago to nearly 7 percent today. The economy is "worse than what you hear in the news; worse than predicted," said Billy Kim, president of the Far East Broadcasting Company’s Korea field. "I was just in a meeting where Koreans who have been very involved in missions … were forced to make cutbacks in their support," Paul McKaughan, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, told the National Association of Evangelicals’ Leadership Alert newsletter.
Interserve says that its branch in South Korea now must raise twice as much money to support its 35 workers. The mission’s International Council has agreed to give Interserve Korea up to $9,000 a month during the crisis.
Some Christians in South Korea, along with other parts of society, are starting to rethink their priorities, a leader with the Korea InterVarsity Christian Fellowship says.
"After a decade of affluence, South Koreans are embarrassed by the sudden economic crisis and political instability caused by the devaluation of the won," stated Shin Ung-Seop, national general seretary. "Discerning God’s message in this situation is the challenge for the Korean Christian community. Materialistic values have pervaded every part of society, even the churches. Proclaiming and living a simple lifestyle as disciples of Jesus has not been a major emphasis among Korean churches and Christian leaders in the last decade."
A missionary to Indonesia reports that the C&MA-related Kalam Hidup publishing house "has been devastated" by skyrocketing paper and ink costs, and the sudden hardship of its customers. "Until the economy stabilizes, Kalam Hidup is unable to publish any literature," the missionary says.
The Far East Broadcasting Company reports that its partners in Indonesia and South Korea have made "major changes" to keep operating. FEBC Korea has temporarily cut the output of stations HLAZ and HLKX by 10 percent, saving several thousand dollars a month but reducing the effectiveness of broadcasts in interior China, Mongolia, Manchuria, and Pacific Siberia.
However, no FEBC field has had to cut the number of broadcasts. "The effect on FEBC is mitigated somewhat in that some major funds sent from the U.S. office are sent in U.S. dollars," stated Jim Bowman, FEBC’s president. "But the cost of fuel will eventually have a major effect on electricity prices, a major expense of FEBC operations. So, inflation may put an additional burden on all fields, sooner or later."
The Christian and Missionary Alliance, meanwhile, says the currency crisis in the Philippines is crippling some missionary work there. The peso’s value against the dollar has fallen by almost 50 percent. The C&MA church in the country has recalled its missionaries from Hong Kong and cut the support of its workers in Thailand by a third.
In mid-February, Opportunity International, which in the name of Christ provides microcredit loans in poor areas of the world, met in Manila with officials from the nation’s central bank. With little credit available and commercial loans as high as 31 percent, the approach is even more attractive than before.
"Many of these businesses are thriving because of a sharp increase in customers," Opportunity stated. "Microloans to these small enterprises can prevent a downturn from becoming a disaster."
Shaken attitudes. Disaster has already struck Thailand, where the crisis originated. One official for the C&MA told the NAE, "In Thailand, the bottom has fallen out. It’s devastating for a lot of people. People have lost their entire fortunes. People are losing their jobs."
This official noted that the crisis came right on the heels of 40 days of fasting and prayer by Thai Christians who were seeking a new openness to the gospel among Thais. "This current instability could lead to that openness," the official said.
The general director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, David Pickard, who worked for 14 years in Thailand, reports a sense of disillusionment. "My colleagues in Thailand tell me that the economic crash has very severely jolted many, many Thai people," Pickard said at a Billy Graham Center seminar in Wheaton, 111. "Some are out of work. The little people suffer. The business people have come to a place of realization-among some, at least-No. 1, that consumerism isn’t a stable place to invest your life; No. 2, that Buddhism doesn’t seem to have an answer to the questions that economics creates."
Yet many Thais are seeking solace in their Buddhism. "Indeed,Buddhism’s detached acceptance seems to permeate people’s response to the crisis," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Instead of anger and violence, the mood is a mixture of frustration and quiet bemusement, worry and confident self-sufficiency."
This spring the mood became decidedly more violent in Indonesia, from which many missionaries were forced to temporarily evacuate in May. Foundering economic growth, unrelenting haze from out-of-control forest fires, and El Nino-related drought have ground down the patience of all but the most optimistic. Millions have been thrown out of work, inflation has spiraled past 30 percent, and student protests against government corruption turned fatal. An additional 35.5 million people are expected to be thrown back into poverty, and the country’s development is predicted to collapse to levels not seen in nearly a quarter of a century.
While Christian and Chinese businesses and churches have felt the wrath of their frustrated Muslim neighbors, Christians apparently have not been special targets. However, Hekman says that many of the protesters chanted the ominous Muslim slogan "God is great!" while they rampaged through the streets. One observer stated, "It’s a powder keg as a nation." Whether the change in government will end the crisis remains open to debate.
The globalized church. The Asian crisis points out the intercon-nectedness not only of the global economy, but of the church. "The integration of the market worldwide is certainly going to have a big impact on a lot of mission agencies," said P.J. Hill, an economics professor at Wheaton College. "It affects both the relationship here of a U.S.-based agency and what’s going on over there, but it also has a direct effect on the missionaries in the field."
EFMA’s McKaughan has issued a call for "new ways of doing things." Richard Cizik of the NAE’s Office of Governmental Affairs in Washington, D.C., states, "Globalization is here, and it will profoundly affect not only our economy but how we as a Christian movement express our mission overseas."
Noting that by the year 2000, an estimated 25 percent of the global missions force will be Asian, Pickard says the Asian church is poised to contribute not only with its money and its people, but with its unique insights about creative-access missiology for the region-a region where, in East Asia at least, 83 percent of the population lives in countries that do not grant missionary visas.
"Most of our theories and most of our practices have come in open-access countries," he stated. "I think we have yet to develop a creative-access nation missiology that is true to what we need to have in presenting Christ to the people of East Asia."
Pickard says humble service done in the name of Christ can provide a platform from which to build relationships in which Christ can be shared. James Taylor, the great grandson of J. Hudson Taylor and the former general director of OMF, is part of a medical team in China. The Taylor name, according to Pickard, still raises red flags in China. Yet this avowedly Christian program has opened some doors. Officials with the Religious Affairs Bureau even asked Taylor to provide training to a group of 2,000 new Miao Christians in Sichuan Province.
"The older Chinese who went through the Cultural Revolution with the fire for change and the slogan ‘Serve the People’ are saying today, ‘We haven’t got that, but we see it in you,’" Pickard said.
A look on the bright side. Plenty of vitality remains in the Asian churches, of course, despite their economic bloody nose. China, South Korea, India, Indonesia, and East Malaysia, among others, have all seen masses of people turn to Christ in recent decades.
In Singapore, Pickard noted, perhaps 70 percent of the medical students and 30 percent of the teachers are Christians. Ninety percent of Singapore’s churches, according to a recent survey by OC International, have missions committees. All in the survey were giving more than $10,000 annually to missions. A Korean church in Los Angeles that Pickard visited recently has established a fund to support 500 Korean missionaries with $200 a month over a 12-month span.
And doors continue to open in Asia, according to Saphir Athyal, a citizen of India who is director of mission and Christian witness for World Vision. "Along with the numerical growth of the church, areas of Asia formerly dosed to the gospel have been opened," Athyal said. "Restrictions imposed upon Christians in Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and Mongolia have been lifted. There is now greater freedom for Christian work in these countries, resulting in people coming to Christ."
Strateties for success. Thailand, Pickard notes, has several churches among tribal peoples that also can be found in Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and southwest China. Christian leaders attending the second Asian Missions Congress a year ago in Pattaya, Thailand, focused a good deal of attention on cooperative work in a region of seemingly borderless networks and states.
Pickard said, "One of the big challenges for us in reaching creative-access nations is to work with the church in north Thailand, where God has established a church among a number of the tribal groups that can be found right across what we call the ‘springboard window.’"
Noting the massive business-related shifts of people across borders in Asia and the mobility and economic strength of groups such as the 57 million overseas Chinese, Pickard says deploying Christian professionals is a missions key for the 21st century.
"I think on the heart of God is the mobilizing of the people of God, the laity," he said. "It is the whole church with the whole gospel to the whole world."
So when it comes to Asian missions, is it true that "hard work brings success" after all, that the church can live by bread alone? Pickard thinks not.
"Unless the Spirit of God moves within us and brings a quickening, an empowering, and lays upon our hearts the thoughts, the heart, and the intent of God, we will fail," he said. "It comes down to men and women who are full of the Spirit of God and are able to share the fragrance of Christ by their lives and by who they are, as well as what they say. Perhaps, therefore, our greatest strategy still has to be prayer."
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