by C. Peter Wagner
One of the virtually unquestioned axioms of missionary orientation through the years has been that an effective missionary must constantly strive to “identify with the nationals.”
One of the virtually unquestioned axioms of missionary orientation through the years has been that an effective missionary must constantly strive to "identify with the nationals." But largely because the axiom has been unquestioned, some of the dangers inherent in the over-identification of a foreign person or organization with the life style and norms of the second culture have not always been as clearly indicated as they might have been.
My purpose here is not at all to deny the validity of the axiom. Paul’s ability to be made "all things to all men" that he might "by all means save some" (1 Cor. 9: 22 ) was the very thing that made him a missionary, in contrast, for example, to Peter who did not have the same gift. Because Paul could identify with the Gentile "nationals" he was called the "apostle to the uncircumcision," while Peter found himself more effective as the "apostle to the circumcision," his own kind of people (Gal. 2:7,8). Both, of course, were apostles and evangelists, but in modern missiological terminology Paul specialized in E-2 evangelistic work (in a second culture), while Peter specialized in E-1 evangelistic work (in his own culture).
Today’s missionary orientation programs do an increasingly adequate job in preparing new workers for the crosscultural implications of their task. Modern linguistic techniques, extensive bibliographies on customs and cultures, new depths of anthropological sensitivity, well planned cross-cultural field involvement situations, and other training methods help teach missionaries how to identify with a speed and precision that is the envy of many old-timers on the field.
All this has been immensely helpful. However, a fallacy has crept into the picture and has been perpetuated to the detriment of some missionary work. The fallacy goes like this: the more you identify with the nationals, the more effective a missionary you will be. Be careful of this. It is almost as foolish as arguing that the more salt you put into the soup, the better it will taste.
Soup, of course, needs salt. But the right amount is more important than the greater amount. The same applies to missionary identification. This is true both on the individual and on the organizational (or structural) levels.
THE MISSIONARY’S IDENTIFICATION
The social sciences have made us increasingly sensitive to the importance of human roles. Every person behaves to a large degree as if he were an actor in a play with his role defined, not by a script, but by society itself. Because we learn our roles so gradually and perform them so automatically in our own society, we are often unaware that they exist at all.
The most important fact about social roles for missionaries is that they are defined from within a culture, not from the outside. Furthermore, each culture establishes the behavior patterns for each role differently. The role of a mother in Eskimo culture, for example, is significantly different from that of a mother in, say, Dyak or Swedish or Japanese culture. This fact poses few problems for the person born and brought up in only one culture. But it presents severe problems to missionaries who, by definition, move from one culture to another.
First of all, a deceptively complex task for a new missionary is to distinguish the kinds of roles that the new culture has developed for itself. The more of a cultural jump the missionary takes, the more difficult (but at the same time the more crucial) this phenomenological process becomes. This is one reason why missiologists find it convenient to distinguish between E-2 missions (involving only a slight cultural jump) and E-3 missions (involving a more radical cultural jump). An obvious problem arises, for example, when the second culture as yet has no role at all for "missionary," or advocate of religious change.
Second, it is very helpful for missionaries to distinguish between inside roles and outside roles. Every society has established certain behavioral patterns for insiders and certain other ones for outsiders. The crucial question for the missionary then becomes: Should I, in order to communicate the gospel most effectively, seek an inside or an outside role in the second culture?
An uncritical extension of what we could call the "salty soup fallacy" would argue that the missionary should always seek an insider’s role in order to identify most completely with the nationals. More often than not, however, this is the wrong decision. The risks involved are simply too high.
If you look hard enough, you can find cases of missionaries’ identifying with the people, assuming insiders’ roles, even "going native" and seeing wonderful spiritual results. But these cases should be likened to attempting 30-foot jump shots in basketball. Some will go in. Some players can make them fairly consistently. But if the game plan depends on 30-foot jump shots, the team will seldom win. Attempting to assume an insider’s role is a "low percentage shot" in missiology.
The dangers inherent in insiders’ roles are well known to social scientists. Since roles themselves do not operate in a vacuum, each role has a web of complex relationships to numerous other roles in the society. In other words, a missionary cannot choose just one inside role, such as wife for example, and hope to avoid what will eventually be expected of insiders in all the other contingent roles. Citizenship, source of income, economic level, children’s education, furloughs, and many other commonplace problems of missionary life present serious difficulties for an outsider trying to behave as an insider.
Even if one recognizes these problems beforehand, the chances of success are still very slim. Cultural behavior is best learned through growing up in the culture itself. With rare exceptions, the outsider will never cease to bumble his way through. Bodily motions, facial expressions, and attitudes, as well as more obvious linguistic errors, are frequently interpreted by others in ways the missionary didn’t intend them at all. The resulting frustrations and disappointments may prove to be too high a price to pay for any benefits that an insider’s role might provide. Observers of missionary behavior have frequently seen the pathetic case of a missionary who perceives himself to have made it as an insider, but who quite obviously is not regarded as such by the nationals. Not only does he suffer from selfdelusion, but he often is more despised by the nationals than he would be as an outsider.
By assuming an outsider’s role, in categories of behavior already defined by the second culture itself, the missionary is not failing to "identify with the nationals." He has merely chosen a certain kind of identification. In it he is more likely to use the right proportion of identification salt for the cultural soup. As an outsider, his cultural blunders will more readily be excused, the differences in life style will be understood (but on the nationals’ terms), and fewer obstacles are likely to clutter the channels of gospel communication. As William Henry Scott points out, the term "foreign missionary" itself ought to remind us that "at least half of the missionary task is being a good foreigner" (1973:383).
THE MISSION’S IDENTIFICATION
The "salty soup fallacy" of overidentification can be applied to mission-church relationships as well as to interpersonal relationships. This, however, is a much more sensitive area, and with mission-church debates holding center stage in a good deal of contemporary missiological discussion, categorical conclusions are probably premature at this point.
But a fascinating study in contrasts has been emerging in two similar U. S. missionary organizations. In the 1950’s, tender the leadership of the late Kenneth Strachan, the Latin America Mission began a process of what it called "Latinamericanization." In our terms, the leaders chose for the mission structure an insider’s role. More recently, Overseas Crusades, Inc., has adopted the "apostolic band" approach as its official policy. This mission has decided to maintain an outsider’s role.
Both missions are originally United States missions, as contrasted, for example, to Overseas Missionary Fellowship or Andes Evangelical Mission, which were international in origin (mixing workers from the U.S. with those from British Commonwealth countries). Both are "faith" (or interdenominational) missions. Both are theologically evangelical. And both are "service" missions in the sense that they do not relate primarily to any one national church on their foreign fields (with the exception of the LAM Colombian field). These similarities serve to heighten the significance of the different roles they have chosen.
The Latin America Mission story has been told in detail elsewhere (Cf. Fenton, 1972). In brief, the plan was to change the nature of the mission from a North American based and controlled agency to a Latin American based and controlled agency. The first stage was to permit Latin Americans to join the mission with status and salary equal to that of the U.S. missionaries. A number of Latins took advantage of the opportunity, and one even rose to the position of assistant director for a time. On a lower level, key administrative posts in the several departments of the mission such as the Biblical Seminary, Evangelism-inDepth, the hospital, and the radio work were turned over to Latins.
But the controlling body at the top of the organization continued to be the U.S. Board of Directors, and the senior administrative officer was always an American. In spite of many second-level Latin leaders, the mission could not assume an insider’s role and still be controlled from the U.S.A., at least according to the way the Latins themselves perceived an insider’s role.
So the entire structure was reorganized in August, 1971, and the control moved from U.S.A. to Costa Rica. The former board of directors continues legally in the U.S.A., but only as one member among equals in the Community of Latin American Ministries. It now functions largely as a recruiting and fund-raising agency rather than as a policymaking mission. The American missionaries are now employed by one of several Latin American agencies.
It is still too early to evaluate the success or failure of this missionary policy. In any case, the LAM is to be commended for its courage and creativity in such a pioneering venture. If the experiment fails, many more timid observers will learn from its mistakes. If it turns out to be a success, the question then will be asked: Is it a 30-foot jump shot, or a sound game plan that others would do well to imitate?
A dual problem seems to be surfacing, related to the insider’s role. The question arises: If the community is truly a Latin organization, how long will it still need (1) U.S. funds, and (2) U.S. missionaries? This question is being asked both by the U.S. supporters (the outsiders) and the Latin Americans (the insiders), although it has a different meaning for each group.
Such questions as this were prominent in the discussions among Overseas Crusades leaders held in June, 1973, when they found themselves faced with making decisions that would determine their future structure. Their conclusion, based on a great deal of biblical, historical, and missiological input, provides an alternative to the phasing out of a U.S. directed mission and turning it over to the nationals.
As research into church-mission relationships accumulates, increasing evidence warns that much caution needs to be exercised in choosing an inside role. In 1957 in Thailand, for example, the Presbyterian mission integrated with the Church of Christ in Thailand amidst much fanfare. The document of agreement stated that "the Thailand mission of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. is dissolved and its life and work are placed under the direction of the Church of Christ in Thailand." Missionaries became "fraternal workers," and theoretically were working under a Thai organization, not an American organization. But before long a strong reaction developed among some Thai leaders. One said, for example, "After integration, foreign influences have increased in the Thai church because the missionaries are inside the CCT and formerly they were outside the church. The Thai church is now dominated more than ever by the dollar and the missionaries" (Kim, 1974, Chapter 3).
Undoubtedly the missionaries would deny this. But they may well be committing the error of evaluating their new role as an outsider would define it, while the Thai leaders evaluate it as an insider would define it.
Overseas Crusades decided that it could be most effective as an "apostolic missionary team sent primarily by the churches to other countries" (Overseas Crusades, 1973). This policy frees the mission from "struggling with the organizational and financial problems of integration and evolution into a multinational or national team" (Ibid.). The mission feels that in such an outsider’s role it will be in the best position to be used by God in the fulfillment of its own apostolic ministry. As a part of the total program, Overseas Crusades intends to stimulate the formation of similar apostolic bands on its several fields. But none of these bands will be dependent on U.S. funds or U.S. personnel.
Happily, neither of these two outstanding missions has claimed that it has the final answer, or that its pattern is normative, even though each has accumulated convincing biblical precedents for its decision. Each of them feels that it has made the most appropriate decision under its particular circumstances, and that it has been faithful to God’s calling. But the dual model they provide is a valuable point of reference for the scores of U.S. missions that have yet to make such policy decisions.
As they make their decisions, they would do well to remember that "identifying with the nationals" is like salting the soup. Do it enough, but beware of the dangers of overidentification.
Fenton, Horace L., Jr., "Latinamericanizing the Latin America Mission," in Church/Mission Tensions Today, C. Peter Wagner, ed., Chicago: Moody Press, 1972, pp. 147-162.
Kim, Samuel I., "The Unfinished Mission in Thailand," unpublished D. Miss. dissertation, Pasadena: Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Mission, 1974.
Overseas Crusades, Unpublished study document, 1973.
Scott, William Henry, "The Missionary as a Good Foreigner," in Missiology: An International Review, Vol. 1, No. 3, July, 1973. pp. 383-387.
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