by Robert Bowers
In one week I heard three references to the importance of nationalization in mission. During a meeting, one of our missionary staff said, “If our sole purpose for being on the mission field is nationalization, then…” Later, another missionary asked, “Isn’t nationalization our primary reason for being a missionary?”
In one week I heard three references to the importance of nationalization in mission. During a meeting, one of our missionary staff said, “If our sole purpose for being on the mission field is nationalization, then…” Later, another missionary asked, “Isn’t nationalization our primary reason for being a missionary?” The third statement came from a missionary doctor: “The goal of our hospital is nationalization. That’s the reason I came to the mission field.”
On another occasion I was at a missionary gathering and the topic went to nationalization. As the conversation developed, each person made progressively stronger statements of personal commitment to nationalization until it seemed as though the foundation of our spiritual commitment rested on our stated commitment to nationalization. I went back to my room to review the Great Commission call. Had I missed something? Did Jesus really say, “Go into all the world and nationalize?”
Indeed, the history of some earlier missionary work is often marred by a less-than-adequate commitment to teaching and training new converts to where they in turn could teach others. Increased responsibility which resulted in independence (the natural evolution of spiritual maturity) was often retarded or neglected. The modern day emphasis towards nationalization is a much-needed redress of earlier neglect. However, is it possible to lose perspective on this issue in our effort to make up for previous deficiencies?
A trusted missionary friend advised me not to discuss or write on this issue in missionary circles. He felt the issue was too emotionally charged and that no matter what I said, I was bound to be misunderstood and misquoted. Nationalization seems to have gained the status of a missionary Shibboleth, a word necessary to say often and vigorously to prove and maintain one’s missionary credentials and a concept that when incorrectly addressed and/or insufficiently emphasized can cause one to become a missionary outcast.
In reality, is not the conventional perception itself a misunderstanding of the place of nationalization? Let me illustrate this point using the example of a basketball game.
Because the coach knew the forwards on the opposing basketball team were weak on defense, he devised a strategy of passing the ball to the corners and driving from the baseline. This worked well until the final seconds in a close game when the opposing players recognized the strategy and sagged to the baseline. One of the coach’s guards had an open lane in the middle of the court and could have easily scored; however, he decided to follow the original game plan. He passed the ball to a corner full of both offensive and defensive players. By focusing on the strategy rather than the goal, he ignored the easy lay-up and lost the game.
Sometimes it is possible to become so focused on strategy that we either forget our goal or begin to see our strategy as our goal.
Our commission in the Gospel of Matthew is to go and make disciples. In the book of Acts, we are commanded to be witnesses. The missionary’s first goal or purpose is evangelization. Only then are we called to disciple new converts to become mature believers. These new believers will in turn (as explicitly stated in 2 Tim. 2:2) begin this process all over again. Everyone has different spiritual gifts, so some individuals may be more involved in evangelism and others in discipleship. However, the Great Commission is not ultimately fulfilled in a given area or church until both functions have been achieved.
The New Testament concept of discipling includes training another individual both in doctrinal knowledge and in a way of life. They do this by formal teaching, offering examples and equipping disciples with skills for responsible Christian service. Spiritual maturity is the goal and one natural outcome of spiritual maturity is increased responsibility. Increasing spiritual maturity is an endeavor that all Christians are to be involved in, whether overseas or in the home land, whether ministering to someone culturally similar to us or not.
In an effort to compensate for a past lack of emphasis on discipleship (by handing over responsibility to nationals), are we in danger of allowing the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction? Are we substituting the strategic goal of nationalism for the Great Commission goal of discipleship?
THE TRUTH ABOUT NATIONALIZATION
Nationalization is a natural part of the spiritual reproduction process. Someone who knows the language and culture of a people group can evangelize and disciple more effectively than someone who does not. Apart from any spiritual imperatives, nationalization is very much a part of the social and political fabric of much of the developing world. But it can also lead to dubious thinking, improper goals and harmful application which may result in viewing it as more important than the Great Commission call. Consider the following three examples:
—In one African mission hospital, the nurses’ training school was seeking to nationalize the teaching staff. A careful search resulted in the hiring of a qualified, spiritually-mature woman from a neighboring country. Although she was a foreigner who did not speak the local language or did not understand the local customs, she was black and African. Because of these two latter characteristics, the missionary staff saw the position as having been nationalized and were ecstatic. But was the position nationalized? Any qualified African nurse of another country can be a great asset (just as a qualified Canadian nurse might be), but this does not qualify as nationalization.
—The dedicated, mature, Christian, African doctor was everyone’s hope to eventually become director of a certain mission hospital. One day he announced he was leaving for a remote city to open his own clinic. His vision was to start a Christian medical and spiritual ministry in that town. The missionaries were not only devastated, they were outraged and blamed the hospital administration for ruining their chance of having the doctor head up the facility. They reasoned that if the administration would have given the African doctor more money or more responsibility, he would have stayed.
If the African doctor had stayed and taken over the mission hospital and a missionary doctor from the hospital moved to that distant city and started a new medical and spiritual work, that would have been acceptable, even laudable, to the staff. The only difference was that seemingly-mandatory values of nationalization had been violated.
—Asked about his long-term plans, a missionary stated his lifetime commitment to the country and work in which he was involved. This statement eventually reached the highest level home country mission council and was perceived as evidence that the missionary was anti-nationalization. His statement was interpreted as a lack of commitment to seeing the people nationalized.
These examples illustrate the problems which can arise when we try to make nationalization an overriding biblical mandate. Nationalization is not a doctrinal position of the Church. It is a strategy—a good strategy—often pursued in the early Church and certainly not biblically suspect. However, it should never be confused, approached or treated by itself as a biblical command.
WARNINGS OF MAKING NATIONALIZATION THE GOAL
In addition to generating dubious thinking, an unhealthy view of nationalization can lead to harmful practices and beliefs. Five negatives beliefs and practices are stated below.
1. Putting spiritually-immature people into leadership positions. Our goal in discipleship is to produce spiritually-mature, qualified people who can move into positions of responsibility and leadership. Given the advantage of local people in ministry, our strategy would be to have a national in these positions. However, in our enthusiasm for nationalization, we may place people who do not have the necessary spiritual qualifications or maturity into a position because nationalization becomes an end in itself. We must remember that what we really want are spiritually-mature people in these positions. When cases arise where nationalized leadership is unqualified, overbearing, vindictive or self-serving, the problem can often be traced to having nationalization as our goal.
2. Putting people in leadership positions too early. When nationalization is the goal, it logically follows that we move people into positions of responsibility quickly. If the Lord Jesus took three years—and Paul took ten to fifteen years—to get to a certain level of leadership, is it reasonable to expect that we train and produce a spiritually-mature and qualified person in one or two years? I say no. How often is our timetable based on expectations and plans, rather than on the natural Spirit-led process of preparation?
On the other hand, gifted and spiritually-mature nationals often go unrecognized for years, their leadership potential unused or underused. This too can be caused by the missionaries’ career expectations (or simply inattention) and is a great impediment to discipleship and church growth. Having wisdom and humility to step aside at the appropriate time is a necessary grace.
3. Using money as incentive. Paul used the gifted people he came in contact with and trained them to move into positions of responsibility. However, we never find Paul using money, wealth or material benefits to entice people into taking or staying in positions of responsibility. His goal was not simply to have local people in charge. His goal was to have mature leaders in the church.
4. Training in secular areas. Nowhere does Scripture address the concept of training and turning over jobs in the secular arena (school teaching, medicine, technology, etc.). Although this is not a scriptural command or imperative, it certainly seems like a wise policy. It is neither scriptural nor anti-scriptural. Following or not following this policy would not in itself come into any area of right or wrong as far as God’s revelation to us.
5. Believing our service completion ends our responsibility. The basic concept of nationalization is that we train someone to take our place. The result of this strategy is that when we successfully train someone to take our place, we are able to move on to other needy areas and thus continue to expand the kingdom. In missions today, where nationalization has become the goal, the thinking often goes something like this: When we train a national to take our place, we have fulfilled our obligation to the Great Commission. Thus, we can go back home, get a job and forget about “going into all the world.”
Here is an example of this: A short-term (two-year) missionary arrived at a mission institution with the idea that she had to train a national to take over her post before her service was completed. Her goal was not to have a spiritually-mature individual take over the job (although she would have been pleased with that). Her goal was nationalization. When her service was completed, no one spiritually-qualified was ready. Therefore, she proceeded to put a spiritually-unqualified national in the position. She returned home and pursued her normal career. Her colleagues were left to pick up the pieces.
Nationalization was an end in itself and not part of a world evangelism strategy.
If we go back to our home countries and become reestablished in our routine jobs, we have not multiplied ourselves. We have only replaced ourselves. Nationalism thus has replaced the Great Commission. Nationalization is an excellent strategy; however, it is only a strategy. It should not be allowed to function as an end in itself.
As I write this, I am working in Albania. Since the day I arrived, my supervisor has been a spiritually-mature Albanian. There is no nationalization hype in the missionary or the Albanian community. We are working together with the goal of advancing Christ’s kingdom. Did I say Shibboleth wrong?
Robert Bowers has been a medical missionary in Africa with SIM (Serving in Missions) for over twenty years. He is currently serving as a surgeon at LAMB Hospital in Bangladesh.
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