by EMQ editor
An Interview with Ajith Fernando.
Q: What are the main difficulties faced by today’s missionaries?
The memory of colonial rule is still quite fresh and there is growth of anti-Western sentiment in countries like Sri Lanka. We are still economically so dependent on Western countries. This makes people fairly hostile to white faces. Coupled with this is the modern quest for national identity, in which the West figures in a very negative light.
Even the church tends to resist foreign domination. The church is straggling with its own quest for national identity, particularly because we are embarrassed about having colonial ties. Perhaps in the colonial years, Christians would submit to foreign domination quite readily. But the mood is different today.
And then — this is a sensitive issue — but I think North Americans are some of the most large-hearted people in the world. Their generosity and genuine concern for others is a real challenge; it has been to me personally. But at the same time, I think North Americans are among the most unwise diplomats in the world, because they are often insensitive to cultural differences. So you might find, for example, that a communist with very devious intentions wins the hearts of the Asian people, whereas an American missionary, with a sincere desire to serve may turn them off and be rejected.
Another difficulty for Western missionaries is the frustration of working in a less pragmatic society. It is hard for a Westerner to have to "waste" so much time on unnecessary, inefficient, long conversations that don’t seem to go anywhere. Yet, this style is so integral a part of the culture, that to bypass it and to work more efficiently, may mean that you can’t do a work of depth.
Unfortunately, many missionaries opt to bypass the preliminaries. So, they have brilliantly efficient programs of training, evangelism, or whatever. In the short run, this pragmatic approach can yield impressive results, but in the long run, it may be very shallow.
Another problem is the vast difference in what people consider the essentials of life. There is such a wide economic distance between people in North America and, for example Sri Lanka, that while the missionary may think he or she is sacrificing a lot, there is still a major difference in the standard of living. Missionary groups are not thinking very seriously about lifestyle. There seems to be the idea that missionaries have a right to have a comfortable life where they are serving. I think that it is not helping.
Q: What qualities would you like to see in missionaries?
The first and most important quality is humility. However many mistakes a missionary makes, if that person is humble, the people will sooner or later accept him or her. We must have people who are servants. This should be an integral part of missionary training programs today.
It is humbling to be a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes, rather than facing up to that humiliation, people choose to live in their own world, and just make forays into ministry. They don’t get very close to people.
Along with humility, missionaries need teachability. I think the average missionary comes with a burning passion to save the lost and to help needy people. But if you want to identify with the very needy people who you are going to save and to help, other people will have to help you to become part of the culture. So the people you thought you were going to teach become your teachers.
Another important quality is patience. It takes time to develop an effective ministry in a strange culture. But waiting a long time to see results is very, very frustrating. I have seen missionaries who come with a desire to reach a particular group, and who get so discouraged that they go away disappointed. Others develop methods that will bring quick, but short-lived, results. Others divert to a more responsive group, and move away from the original call of God.
Mission boards and supporting churches should understand the need for patient work and not put unnecessary pressure on missionaries to produce immediate results. This is why I think sometimes the "strong" personality doesn’t make a very good missionary. They want quick results and it’s very, very frustrating for them. There are no shortcuts.
Another important quality for missionaries, especially from the West, is what I call a "cooperation mentality." I think Christianity in the Western world is greatly influenced by the free enterprise mentality of the culture. Also, there is the attitude, "I have to succeed and grow," apart from whatever is happening in other churches or groups. This can be very damaging in nations where Christianity is a small minority.
Take, for example, the idea of recruiting a person from another organization, offering a better salary. That’s normal in Western culture, but it’s a scandal in our part of the world. I really feel there must be more emphasis on the principles and practice of cooperation in our preparation of missionaries.
Q: What changes have you observed in missionaries and mission strategies?
Today, missions often send project-oriented missionaries on special assignments. That is good because they are identifying a particular need in the church that they can meet.
But I have some concern because sometimes these people come like specialists, similar to business consultants, and they don’t fully identify with the people. They come for only a short time to do a particular job, so there isn’t the motivation to identify. This makes it very difficult to contextualize their special knowledge. However brilliant they may be in their field, that knowledge must be contextualized. This only takes place when you identify with people; when you get their pulse and feel their heart. For that you have to move with the people.
This is why I am a little concerned about the short-term mission appointments that leave little time or opportunity for identification. These specialists are usually extremely impressive. Our people are shocked by their knowledge. But I really wonder whether they have left a lasting impression or whether people’s lives and ministries have been changed.
Q: How do you feel about "management by objective" in missions— for example, ideas like "Win the World by 2000—and the like?
In Asia we need a dose of Western pragmatism. The concept of setting measurable goals is not a significant part of our culture. We need to be fired by ambitions towards which we can work, completing the task of evangelizing our nation by the year 2000 or whatever it is.
But, I’m beginning to see in our part of the world the proliferation of huge, heavily-funded projects designed to complete some big tasks by some particular method within a given period. This type of project has the ability to get funds, and a lot of money has been raised. However, I think the measure of success, as to whether we have achieved our goals is faulty.
For example, say we are going to present the gospel to every person in Sri Lanka. So we do that, and we ask them to pray the sinner’s prayer. But in our culture, people are very polite. They have come to a Christian meeting. They are strangers; the Christians are the hosts. The Christians ask them to raise their hands. They raise their hands. Christians ask them to come forward; and they come forward. Besides, why not get help from Jesus along with the other deities, they think.
So sometimes we think we have evangelized, but actually we may not have. Personally, I feel, looking at the Sri Lankan scene, that one of the biggest tragedies of evangelical work in the last decades, has been the large amount of money that has been spent on these big projects that are supposed to complete a certain task, and which have had minimal impact. There is maximum input, impressive statistics—because you can have fantastic statistics with that type of thing—and minimal impact.
Q: Do you see a resurgence of interest in Asian religions?
Yes. When the colonialists were ruling our country, Christianity was associated with colonialism. Because of that, when we gained our independence, almost unconsciously religion became part of the national identity. For example, a true Sri Lankan is a Sinhala Buddhist, some people think. So I feel this resurgence of interest is to some extent socio-political; more cultural than spiritual.
However, along with this resurgence, I also observe a widespread disappointment with religion. People feel that after years of suppression by Christians at last they have freedom to express themselves. But their religions are not delivering the goods. However noble their ethics, these religions don’t have within them the wherewithal for a person to follow the religion.
This disappointment and the accompanying dissension is making people more receptive to the gospel. Colonialism just did not help the work of the gospel in Sri Lanka. But now I am beginning to feel that with Buddhism becoming the national religion, Buddhists are more receptive to Christianity.
So I see a dual trend: Resurgence of non-Christian religions with political and social resistance to evangelism, and at the same time a new receptivity.
Q: What are the main theological issues facing Asian churches?
A major issue is syncretism. In the aftermath of independence, the Christian church has been so embarrassed by its colonial past, that it has tried very hard to become as unoffensive to non-Christians as possible. Erosion of belief in the authority of the Scriptures, which is very prevalent in some of our older churches, has also made a fertile breeding ground for syncretism. Many cardinal features of Christianity have been dropped, and those we consider incompatible with Christianity have been taken in.
Another issue I feel we must address is that of revelationâ€”God has spoken. That has been challenged today, for example, by Muslims who believe that theirs is the absolute revelation. We have a very small Muslim population in Sri Lanka. But every day I see bumper stickers that say, "Read Quran, your last testament," or, "Read Quran, the final revelation."
At the same time, many Sri Lankan Christians are saying the Christian revelation is inspired in the same way the Hindu scriptures are inspired. In other words, it is the expression of people’s experience of God. As we are working with Buddhists and Hindus, we are often asked why we believe that God has spoken. Theologizing, especially in America, on the issue of revelation has centered on inerrancy, which is a side issue related to revelation. I think that is important, but some theologians need to work on revelation.
Another important area is the uniqueness of Christianity, which is under attack in our part of the world. Are we really unique? What does it mean to be a Christian in a pluralistic society? And then, I believe the doctrine of "lostness" has received too little attention. We need to go back to our doctrine of God, out of which much of our doctrine of lostness comes.
We must also work on a theology of cooperation, which is one of the crucial issues facing the church in our part of the world. Our cooperation should come out of a theological base, rather than a pragmatic one. People are not really convinced of the importance of cooperation. They will cooperate if they feel it is good for their own ministry, but they don’t cooperate simply because they believe it is right.
For example, in Sri Lanka we have 25,000 villages, but only about 500 have a Christian witness. So, a group of Christians go to a village to work, and finally the village opens up. Now, in a village you have 50 to 60 families. When the work opens up, someone else comes to compete with the first group. This is really damaging to the cause of Christ.
Q: How can Christians bring hope in a war-torn, racially and religiously divided country, such as Sri Lanka?
As a church I think we have failed in many ways. We could have done much more. But the little we did was significant. One thing Christians did was pray. It is not easy to pray when the situation seems so hopeless. In our church we pray every Sunday for this problem. Once, one of our Buddhist converts said, "What’s the use of praying? We’ve prayed for so long and there is no solution." It’s hard to keep praying.
Also, because Christians were more neutral on the racial issue, we were able to write very objective reflections on the problem for publication in Sri Lanka. It was really Christian ethics in social language.
Some Christians were pace setters in the process of change in getting our people to accept certain realities. A lot of this writing was not done by evangelicals. But the church had influence. And, even though Christians are a very small minority, when there were riots, with looting and suffering, we were in the forefront, offering relief and showing compassion. Christians kept people in their homes, and showed Christian love.
Also, because Christians are found in both Tamil and Sinhalese races, our churches were a microcosm of what could happen if harmony comes. Now, not all were entirely harmonious. I think we were influenced by the racism that surrounded us, but there were pockets of hope, believers who loved each other despite race. That was a demonstration to the nation.
Then, when the government presented a very unpopular peace proposal, which a majority of the people did not like, but which I personally feel is the best way out, most of the churches came out in support of it. This was a significant step, because the church was in the front of the movement.
Before the peace accord, the Christian ethic of love seemed irrelevant, outdated, impractical and even harmful. But, Christians who practiced the Christian ethic of love were like the leaven that permeated the whole society. And I am firmly convinced this is one of the most important roles the church has to play in this war-torn worldâ€”to present the revolutionary love of Jesus Christ.
We faced two temptations in this crisis. Because the atmosphere was so oppressive, there were some who said this is not the time for evangelism. But those who did evangelism found people were far more receptive since the riots began than before. I have become convinced since these troubles there is no ideal time for evangelism. In fact, what may seem to be the worst time may be the most ideal.
Another temptation for Christians was the desire to escape. Many Christian leaders and lay people have left Sri Lanka. In fact, the percentage of Christians among these who have left is much higher than the percentage of Christians in the total population.
I feel this is partly because of our "blessing" theology. God has promised to bless us, and the situation in Sri Lanka is a very unblessed situation. "Therefore, it must be God’s will for me to go to a place where there is more blessing." So people go, and they testify how God has blessed them and led them, and they send back glowing reports. Perhaps we have a wrong idea of what blessing is, because I think in the Scriptures, a lot of our blessing is born out of suffering. This is an area where the church, I think, faltered greatly during our country’s time of trouble.
Q: How are Asian youth responding to the call to missions?
There is no doubt a new day has dawned in Asia as far as missions is concerned. I feel this is one of the most exciting development in the whole of church history. In June, 1988, Sri Lanka will have its first nationwide missions conference. We are calling it "Navodaya," which means, "the dawning of a new age." The new age for us is when the church has finally caught up with the vision of taking the gospel to the unreached.
One factor in the growth of missionary interest in Sri Lanka has been Bible teaching on missions in church curriculum. The message of missions burns through the Bible. Anyone who is serious about being faithful to God will catch his missionary heartbeat when they go into the Scriptures. When scriptural evidence for missions is presented, those who are sincere take missions seriously. The push of biblical evidence has helped overcome the protectionist mentality that is so strong in countries where Christians are a minority.
I believe God has begun to raise up a new generation in Asia to do this work. And, prayer has an important role. The Friends Missionary Prayer Band in India started in 1958 as a prayer band. In 1967, they sent out their first missionaries. Now, 20 years later, they have sent 379 workers.
In our Youth for Christ ministry, I think the most exciting development is our missions division, where our young people are going out into the unreached areas of Sri Lanka. It started with mission trips into villages; then we started an all-night prayer vigil that became very popular. People began to get the heartbeat of missions, and we felt we needed to do more. So we started an institute, for training prospective missionaries.
Q: Why should either a Western or non-Western student consider being a missionary today?
One of the greatest scandals in the world today is that after 2,000 years of church life, so little of the world has been reached the gospel. We must all participate in the task of bringing the gospel to every people group of the world. Therefore, every Christian has to ask the question, "Does God want me to go?" My wife and I keep asking, "Does God want us to go to the villages of Sri Lanka?" I think every Christian has to be asking that question.
Missions is the heart of God, and is still the supreme task of the church. One of my favorite statements, which for many years I had in front of my desk, is a quote by one of my heroes, Henry Maityn. He said, "The Spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions. And the nearer we get to him, the more intensely missionary we become."
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