by Doug Priest Jr.
Experiences with changing missionary strategies.
When our family went to Ethiopia back in 1966 the missiology of Donald McGavran was foremost in the minds of my parents. They had just finished studying with Donald McGavran at the Institute of Church Growth and were quick to say that they wanted to follow his principles. They were not interested in duplicating the “mission station approach” so common throughout Africa. They wanted to start indigenous churches. They were going to Ethiopia to join a team of missionaries who had all studied McGavran’s church growth principles. As new church planters, their devotion to these strategies gave them the confidence and unity to focus on their goal.
I recall one incident of my father answering questions at a church meeting during the fund-raising period prior to departure where he had been talking about the strategy he wanted to follow in Ethiopia. He was questioned quite deeply by a woman who was put off at his criticisms of the mission station approach with the consequent concentration on institutional work rather than the planting of churches.
Even as an eighth grader, I was well aware of Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours and McGavran’s The Bridges of God. This is not at all to say I had read those books — my first reading of McGavran was to come three years later when as a senior in high school I read How Churches Grow for a class paper.
Through Bible college and seminary I became a firm proponent of church growth principles. Sitting in the classroom in the States, such conviction is easy to understand. My growing ideas of mission strategy were supplemented by the teaching of Alan Tippett and Charles Kraft. These two helped me to better understand the notion of culture and its effect on any mission work.
My own family went to Africa as missionaries in the latter days of 1978. In those days we were all firm believers in the homogeneous unit principle. We were going to work with the Maasai — to the exclusion of other peoples. We wanted to learn the Maasai language, and our mission was exemplary in this task. We wanted to study the Maasai culture in great detail, which we all did. Some of us kept copious notes about traditional Maasai culture and engaged in credible anthropological research. Our goal was to know the Maasai inside and out — at least the Maasai that lived away from the towns and cities.
The Maasai of Kenya in those days were divided between the majority who chose to live in the traditional villages and those who had been educated in Kenyan schools and who lived in the urban centers of Kenya. My bias was definitely with the traditional or rural Maasai. I am ashamed to admit that in my fervor I was suspicious of the educated Maasai as abandoning their culture. Though academically I knew full well the dangers of romanticizing a people, I was an incurable romanticist. The educated Maasai wore Western clothes, spoke in Swahili rather than Maasai, and some even looked down on their traditional brothers and sisters. I remember once when an educated Maasai pastor refused to drink a cup of tea in a Maasai village because a fly had landed on his cup. My disgust at such an insult was deep, and confirmed for me that we missionaries were right in our appeal to the traditional Maasai. When another educated Maasai once asked me why I so wanted to keep the Maasai in their backward state, I bristled and could not even comprehend how such a question could be asked of me.
Against this backdrop, our family went to Tanzania in 1984 to initiate a work with a Maasai-speaking group there. Using our mission’s Kenya work as our model, we sought to locate out in “the bush” where the Maasai were, rather than in town where the rest of the missionaries lived. We already spoke Maasai.
In Tanzania’s independence she chose a different route from Kenya. In Kenya the national language was English, which was taught in all the schools. It was easy to get around in Kenya knowing only English. When we were with theMaasai in Kenya (who did not speak English), we spoke to them in Maasai. And since we were not working with other groups, it really did not matter that we did not know Swahili.
Tanzania chose to make Swahili the national language. The majority of the people in the country spoke Swahili rather than English. With the Maasai this presented no problem—we just talked to them in Maasai. However, we were not able to converse with most of the people of Tanzania. Years later I realized that our intransigence in learning anything but the barest minimum of Swahili was an affront to the Tanzanians who were proud that they spoke “pure Swahili,” rather than the “illegitimate form” which was spoken in Kenya.
When new missionaries came to Tanzania to join us, following our Kenya example, they began to learn the Maasai language. Now not only did I, the experienced missionary, not speak Swahili, I encouraged my fellow missionaries to follow my lead rather than the example of other missionaries in Tanzania who opted to begin with Swahili.
We had another strategic value which separated us from many missionaries living in East Africa. Our desire was not to build church buildings until we had a congregation of believers to help in the task. Other missions often built church buildings in an area when there were just a handful of believers. The missionaries usually paid for the entire building. We felt such an approach was a denial of a major tenet of the “indigenous theory”—self support.
“Correct” didn’t work
While there were other factors involved, our correct mission strategy in Tanzania landed us in hot water. To the local government officials we were just too unbelievable. “Do not missionaries live in town? Yet you live in this miserable place.” (And it was not an attractive place, especially during the rainy season when we would be stuck for weeks on end due to impassable mud.) “Do not other missionaries learn Swahili? Yet you do not know Swahili even though it is our national language. You even insult us by speaking in Maasai to these people in front of us and we do not know what you are saying.” (Since these conversations were in English, and the Maasai present did not speak English, I interpreted for them.) “Do not other missionaries build churches? Where is your church? Why do you choose this backward Maasai people to work with rather than a more advanced group? Our conclusion is that you are not missionaries. You are surely here for some other reason.”
Our carefully crafted missiology, honed in Pasadena and practiced with admirable results in Kenya, did not work in Tanzania. Under government pressure, we all left Tanzania wondering where we had gone wrong. We had followed the textbooks to the best of our abilities. Who could have guessed that following the LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical) method of language learning and other incarnational approaches would get us into trouble?
Proven missionary strategy is only as good as where God last honored it. It is incorrect to assume that missionary principles which work in one area will automatically work in another. Not only do we need contextual theologies, we also need contextual strategies.
Let us now venture to Indonesia, where missionaries from our mission arrived in 1979. They went as partners with a group of missionaries from the same church background from America. Some of our missionaries went to Indonesia after mission experience in Ethiopia. This is important to note, because our work in Ethiopia was with rural farmers who all spoke the Oromo language.
Indonesia in the 1970s was primarily an agricultural country. Some 80 percent of her huge population lived in rural villages. It was among these villagers that a rapid turning to the gospel had taken place between 1965 and 1971. According to Avery Willis (Indonesia Revival: Why Two Million Came to Christ, William Carey Library, 1977), during that time two millionJavanese were baptized.
The missionaries from our church already at work on the island of Java were pursuing a strategy common to most other missionaries in Java at that time. They lived in the cities and itinerated to the nearby villages. The target group was almost exclusively the receptive Javanese farmers. Such a strategy fit in very well with our Ethiopian-experienced missionaries who had practiced much of the same thing before coming to Indonesia. Our missionaries learned the Javanese language as well as Bahasa Indonesia, the national language. Their approach was contextual—they identified with the villages as much as possible. Some of our people moved out to the villages and became villagers themselves in their attempts to evangelize and plant churches.
While I cannot vouch for this supposition, I imagine that many of the missionaries of Java during the late 1970s were helped in forming their mission strategy by reading the book by Avery Willis. The author lists various methodologies which contributed to the amazing growth of the church in Indonesia. Here are some of the factors he stressed: acculturation that allowed Christians to remain Javanese; emphasis on responsive groups; nurturing of people movements; and planting of hundreds of new congregations. He then went on to list methods that hindered growth. Some of those include the neglect of Javanese culture; restriction of spontaneous expansion; lack in training local leadership; and miscalculation of opportunities.
When it came to suggestions for the future work on the island of Java, Willis noted:
The worldwide trend toward urbanization is influencing the direction Indonesian society is moving. Yet, over 80 percent of Indonesia’s people still live in rural areas, and the majority will probably continue to live there for the remainder of this century. Therefore, the Javanese churches cannot allow their emphasis to center only in urban areas. They must continue to go to rural areas, where the Javanese people live in greatest numbers, and where they are most responsive (p. 205).
On my first trips to Indonesia, I saw many of the things that Willis was talking about. I recall being taken for a ride up to a rural mountain area and being told to look at all of the villages—dozens of them, and not a one with a church. Having lived in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania in rural areas, I was quick to agree that this is where we ought to concentrate our missionary efforts.
But as I began to visit Indonesia often, to read and study, and to ask questions, I came to a different understanding. I felt that our missionaries, like many of the other missionaries of Indonesia of the 1970s, had two prominent values that guided their mission strategy. One was the value of concentrating on the rural villages, and the second was to uphold the indigenous theory, with its goal of establishing self-supporting, self governing, and self-propagating congregations.
The indigenous theory with these three “selfs” goes back to mission executives Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson, who proposed the theory 150 years ago. Venn was the general secretary of the Church Missionary Society based in London, and Anderson was the foreign secretary of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. One must remember that the England and America of the mid-19th century was a vastly different place than those countries are today. The rest of the world where this theory was to be carried out was also a much different place than it is today.
In the 1990s (and probably even in the 1970s) these two strategic values of starting indigenous churches and doing so among the rural Javanese were mutually exclusive. One cannot start self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating churches in the villages of Java. Oh, yes, churches could be started in the villages—we had started some 25—but nary a one of these was self-supporting.
Withthe world economic situation as it is, I doubt that there can be self-supporting churches in most of the developing world. What developing nation currently gets by on its own without securing loans from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, or donor nations? If governments with access to all the resources of the entire nation must secure such outside assistance, why should we Westerners expect that the churches in such countries can be self-supporting?
If churches in the developing nations cannot be self-supporting in terms of finances, should they be self-governing? Many Christian donors want to have at least some say in how their funds are used. Is this so wrong? Is not partnership a better strategy than the old indigenous theory model?
What about self-propagating? Many churches in the developing world are self-propagating, and for this we are grateful. But there are also many churches that want assistance as they attempt to carry out the evangelistic mandate. Is this so bad? Is not partnership a better alternative than insistence upon self-propagation?
This is not to say that there should be no effort to plant churches among the rural Javanese. Not at all. But in carrying out such a plan, let us not hold tenaciously to outmoded standards of self-support, self-government, and self-propagation.
It is possible to have churches in the developing world that are indigenous churches in the sense of the three selfs. This I found to be true in Indonesia. But these churches were not rural churches made up of peasant farmers. Rather, they were urban churches, largely made up of members of the middle class. Many of these churches have never received funds from overseas. They have paid their own way from their inception. Many of them have never had a foreign missionary working with them, save for offering the occasional seminar. They are self-governing. They have rapidly planted daughter churches throughout Indonesia, including the rural areas.
Avery Willis could not foresee back in the 1970s the coming changes that make his strategic suggestions outdated today. In the last 15 years in Indonesia there has been a tremendous move toward urbanization. People are flocking to Indonesia’s cities. Students who finish their schooling are most reluctant to return to village life. Opportunities do not abound there. They prefer life in the city. Some Indonesians have gone so far as to say that the villages today are the homes of only the very young and the very old. A smaller percentage of the population till the soil each year.
Access to these rural villages has been severely restricted. Westerners must be invited to come into the villages. Such invitations are hard to come by. Without an official invitation, they are not welcome.
Indonesia has embarked on a process of Islamization that curtails missionary freedom much more than in the past. Each year there are fewer missionaries in Indonesia, hence, there is less opportunity for concentrating on the rural Javanese, as Willis espoused.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Modernization is rapidly displacing traditional Javanese culture in Indonesia. The winds of change are blowing, and contextual churches in Java today are not defined by the use of Javanese language, Javanese melodies, and Javanese instruments. Contextual churches in the Indonesian cities look quite a lot like churches in cities in many other parts of the world. I am amazed as I travel from city to city in Asia, sit in Sunday services and hear the same choruses over and over again, each time in yet another language. But the song is the same, it is Western, and the instruments which accompany the song use the same forms of amplification.
We must not identify contextualization with such things as Maasai sheets covering people in Sunday services rather than coats and ties, using the gamelan instruments rather than guitars with amplifiers, and eating curried chicken rather than Kentucky Fried Chicken, now popular throughout Southeast Asia. Strategies need to be thoughtfully and regularly examined, even the strategic suggestions of the well-known and widely read missiologists. Those strategies God blesses in one setting may be a hindrance in another. There are no universal missionary strategies.
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