by Jim Reapsome
How much objective truth, so to speak, can you really tell your supporting constituency at home?
"Tell it like it is!"
Apart from being bad grammar, is this contemporary slogan also bad advice for missionaries and mission boards? How much objective truth, so to speak, can you really tell your supporting constituency at home? What risks do you take if you allow as how "the work," after all, might not really be growing?
Or, to ask it another way, has the American missionary enterprise been built on the glamor of glowing reports from "the fields"?
Obviously, in the last twenty-five years especially, the strategies of secular public relations organizations have been used to promote the cause of missions. Some would say this is not necessarily bad, that missions have been notoriously under-promoted. But along with all of the modern PR tools — direct mail, slick magazines, radio and TV appeals — has come the temptation to overdo the job, to oversell what is actually being accomplished overseas.
Then the pendulum has also swung in the opposite direction. We have had a spate of books and articles exposing the weaknesses and failures of individuals and their missionary organizations. Even Hudson Taylor had to be shown as a human being after all.
But this swing did not remove the pressure on mission executives who have to make annual reports and on the missionary who has to write letters home. In fact, if anything, the "tell it like it is" philosophy has increased the demand for missionaries and their boards to be more realistic in their public presentations.
The response by some to this is to suggest that the average Christian doesn’t want to hear about problems, he wants to hear about successes. Well, for one thing, you can’t base your strategy on whatever an "average" Christian is, but you can be sure that most Christians today are smart enough to know that problems do exist, whether the mission board wants to tell them or not.
Further, it belittles the individual believer and his local church to suggest that support levels are somehow tied in to performance levels. The church and her mission agencies have no reason to compete in something like a "missionary miles per gallon" competition.
Therefore, if we are to err, we would rather err on the side of reporting the good and the bad, the positive and the negative. It is possible to arrive at a balance between the opposite points of the pendulum’s swing. We need not feed the missionary constituency a steady diet of successes and hide the failures, nor do we need to muck about in the continual problems and obstacles the Enemy throws our way.
For example, here is an excerpt from one mission’s annual report, which I think measures up to the demand for balance: "Numerical Numerical growth in . . . has fluctuated for the past four years. This past year it was up 22 percent, almost at its level of two years ago…. Though 68 percent of the total number of believers are full (baptized) members, the number of baptisms is low compared to the number of professions of faith. Only one-third of these decisions for Christ have led people to baptism and integration into church life…During 1974 communications were improved fairly well between the field director and the missionary staff, but general leadership in the churches hit an all-time low. Unless God undertakes in the solution to this problem, our work will be affected for many years…."
That, and other facts—including graphs—give the U. S. constituency an honest picture of what is going on in that particular country. We commend that mission for its straightforward approach. Its annual report of 50 pages (8-1/2 x 11, mimeographed) is a storehouse of facts for the concerned church and individual Christian.
There is a way out of this dilemma. Mission boards and missionaries need not be either secretive or glamorous in their reporting. Rather they must emulate the apostle Paul, who could tell the Corinthians, "Our dealings with you have been absolutely above board and sincere and have not been marked by any ‘cleverness’" (2 Cor, 1:12, Phillips).
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