by Juan M. Isais
In my early childhood my father once told me the story of a man and boy who were traveling through the countryside leading a donkey. As they passed through the first town, they overheard protests: “What a stupid man! At least he ought to put the boy on the burro.” The father heeded their complaints and set the child on the beast.
In my early childhood my father once told me the story of a man and boy who were traveling through the countryside leading a donkey. As they passed through the first town, they overheard protests: "What a stupid man! At least he ought to put the boy on the burro." The father heeded their complaints and set the child on the beast.
But when they reached the next town someone exclaimed, "Such injustice! The boy has more strength than the old man. It should be the father who rides the donkey, not the son." The father traded places with the child.
But in the third town he faced more criticism; people accused him of being a heartless, selfish father. Finally he decided that the only way to keep everybody happy was for both of them to ride on the animal. This promptly brought down the ire of the self-appointed Society for the Protection of Dumb Animals which objected to putting so much weight on an innocent beast.
Although it may seem hard to believe, this story represents the case of the missionary in Latin America today. He is under pressure from all directions. He is told how he should act, how he should dress, how he should talk. Sometimes today’s advice is diametrically opposed to yesterday’s. Thus it is not easy to offer solutions and answers about the type of missionary who can stay forever in the countries south of the Rio Grande.
The situation is further complicated by the variety of circumstances surrounding each case. Our answers to presentday problems are all too prejudiced by our tendency to generalize, but a generalized approach is inadequate because each case ought to be examined separately, within its own social, cultural, and spiritual aspects.
Nevertheless no one can deny that the kind of person who has been needed in the past is needed today, and will always be needed in the work of the Lord-a man who is more heart than head, with more understanding than intellect, and more zeal than missionary theory. This is the man who will become the missionary who can stay forever.
To analyze the subject a bit further, we find several different concepts that are commonly mentioned as the causes of problems in missionary work in Hispanic America. There are some who affirm categorically that the whole trouble stems from the financial help missionaries have given the nationals, especially in the past. Others, conversely, insist that economic inequality between the foreign missionary and the Latin worker is to blame. Still a more numerous group maintains that missionary brethren must unconditionally submit themselves to the authority of nationals, and that failure to do so produces all the conflicts.
Nevertheless, it is not hard to see that these answers are partial and are based on a very general diagnosis. The definitive answer to what class of missionaries can remain forever in our lands would vary considerably from place to place. Common sense teaches us that from the purely human viewpoint the most likely prospects for this work are missionaries with adaptability and sensitivity who have specialized in the culture and language of our country. But even these criteria are subject to circumstances that might alter the balance for or against their validity.
Here, then, we must go back to the story narrated at the beginning of this article, and insist that every suggestion or solution regarding the type of individual we need in Latin America is relative. Some of my readers will hold to one position and others to another. But at any rate I am going to risk mentioning a few thoughts that in my own mind seem useful for missionary orientation.
I. THE MISSIONARY PERSECUTION COMPLEX
Let us begin with the emotional conditions that should prevail in the man or woman who sincerely wishes to serve in Latin America. At present I believe many candidates for missionary work are defeated before they barely begin the battle. In other words, if a man is to becomeeffective on the mission field, he must overcome what I call the missionary persecution complex.
Whatever we accomplish in this life depends to a large extent on our inner attitudes toward our goal and purpose. External circumstances do not by any means determine everything; inward dispositions and spiritual strength are what really turn a man into a hero or a failure. We inherit a series of complexes from our cultural background that, when transported to another culture, are not only augmented in their dimensions but often produce other complexes that may be even more destructive.
Such may be the case, I believe, of the young missionary who comes to Latin America. As soon as he arrives he feels handicapped: (1) because he cannot speak the language; (2 ) because of the many preconcieved ideas he has about the people and their way of life; (3) because he is confused about whether his role is that of a superior (which he must admit he feels many times), or equal, or inferior, or something else.
In many cases the missionary would abandon his work in the first few years if it were not for his sense of divine calling. He finds that many of the ideas that influenced him are unrealistic. Missionaries turn out to be much more human than he had ever dreamed. Where he expected to find primitive Indians on every hand, unhealthful markets, dirt roads, and outdoor plumbing (which of course exist in many places), to his surprise he discovers that the world is progressingmany of these things are now past history, and the country is experiencing rapid leaps forward. He is not just sure how to adjust to the unexpected reality.
Spiritual Adjustment. Furthermore, he is faced with a spiritual adjustment. When he made his decision to dedicate his life to Christ, he was taught and instructed along a number of lines, particularly stressing the fact that the people of a certain country needed Christ and that he should go to their aid. Thus all of his feelings, consciously or unconsciously, revolve around the need of establishing personal contact with those whom he will win for the Gospel by means of various opportunities and firsthand experiences. But sometimes his preparation is a handicap if there are too many warnings about what he must not do, such as:
He must not expect to understand the people easily. This is something that requires much time, study, and technical experience, he is told.
He must not try to speak with authority about anything, until he has lived in the country for a certain time which his mission board will tactfully specify. (Yet fresh ideas may actually have value, he is sure.)
He must not expect the nationals of the country to receive him with any particular enthusiasm, partly because they have an anti-American spirit and partly because the national believers resent missionaries. (And yet they seem so warm.)
He should not try to live as a North American, but rather as a Latin, although of course everyone knows he will feel homesick for Uncle Sam. (Do I continue to think in Anglo-Saxon patterns or not?)
Put all of this together-the cultural shock, the numerous taboos, the high expectations and low results-and the result tends to be disastrous. It often produces an emotional maladjustment that may convert the spontaneous, sincere servant of Christ into a professionalized and static worker. Thus it does not take long before his sense of prayer burden for the people to whom God has called him slowly leaves his heart. His philosophy of evangelism changes imperceptibly; he begins to feel that he has not come to do but rather to teach others how to do. His power of witnessing for Christ becomes more and more limited, grows stale, and finally dies out.
New Dilemma. And now the missionary is in a new dilemma. On the one hand, he realizes that to return home would be to acknowledge a spiritual and social defeat. He has been too sincere all along -we cannot help but recognize it-to back outnow.
In the face of such a situation, he now sees only one solution-recommend certain changes in the program of his mission board. His psychological condition at this point leads him to be quite critical of the methods being employed and of the people who have formulated those methods. Unfortunately, his negative attitude does not help his case as he tries to present his new ideas; in addition, the old guard blocks him simply because they consider him too inexperienced to listen to.
Thus little by little he is pushed aside and frustrated, until he finally resigns himself to what might be called vegetating on the mission field, rather than living a dynamic missionary life. And in this lethargic condition he finds himself more and more dependent on his home, on the "little America" that becomes his refuge. It is there he finds escape from his thwarted desires to be an evangelist, educator, singer, organizer, counselor, or what-have-you. He lives for himself and his family. He thinks of his work as just that: work. He does not lose his faith, but he loses his sense of mission.
Perhaps if prospective missionaries realized some of the possible pitfalls awaiting them, they could more easily fortify their spirits against succumbing.
II. THE DISADVANTAGEOUS POSITION OF THE NATIONAL
As for the missionary’s intellectual outlook, there are a few things that ought to be mentioned in an article like this. Both the newer missionary and the older one working in these days of transition should recognize the disadvantageous position in which the national leader finds himself today. As a result of the indigenous church policy, and from the organizational point of view, the national leader looks upon the missionary as a kind of manager in charge of a number of workers, mostly national pastors. The principal decisions about the work are often made in some faraway place, and not by the national church. It is all too common to find a nucleus of individuals that makes pacts and decisions that are unknown to the rest of the evangelical community. At least that is the complaint heard on all sides when national pastors talk freely about their status.
Even though most mission boards have the best of intentions to nationalize their work, long years of custom and other intangible facets of personal relationships often prevent a true feeling of equality or real authority on the part of national church leaders.
Furthermore, from the economic and organizational point of view, it is not hard to understand that disaster may ensue when a group of pastors depends economically on one official body and policy-wise on another. The result is obvious. There are two heads on one body, thinking in two different directions, and with members who are not fully identified with each other. And since those who hold the purse strings are generally the foreign missionaries, the policy-making boards feel (perhaps unnecessarily?) that they cannot take any decision which would depart from what the missionary would do. Thus the cycle continues.
Ecumenism in Action. Then, too, from the theological point of view, one problem that is of increasing note is the current trend toward ecumenism and dialogue. On the whole, missionary groups or individuals stressing this idea have only succeeded in dividing the churches in Latin America, since the church here continues to be theologically conservative in its national expression. The only ecumenism that is well received is that of action, of synchronization of efforts for the purpose of evangelism. But of course this is not the type of ecumenism that is talked about elsewhere.
The progress of the work in Latin America will depend heavily on whether or not the missionary leaders work to develop further the personality which the church already has, without infiltrating elements that are foreign to its cultural idiosyncrasy and spiritual heritage. Perhaps even our theological idiom ought to beaccommodated to hispanic thought and understanding.
Another thing we need to recognize is that our national leaders have a right to rebel. I would have preferred to use a subtler expression, but there is no substitute for this concept if we pretend that the church is independent. Independence is not inter-dependence, nor co-independence. It means to leave the destiny of the undertaking, under God, in the hands of the national leaders and theologians. Whatever technical help is given (and of course it is still needed) should be stripped of conditions that are restrictive to this freedom of the Latin American church.
As missionaries face some of these issues squarely, their relationships with national brethren may need some adaptation to the reality of our times.
III. BACK TO THE PIONEERS?
On the other hand, it seems to me that many of our problems have arisen because of an increasingly limited concept of missionary work. When we evaluate this matter, I believe we must come to the conclusion that the progressive and peaceful coexistence of the missionary and the organization he oversees will depend largely in restoring the pioneer concept. Then our complaints (right or wrong) about bureaucracy will disappear. That is, if we have nationals and missionaries working together in our various fields and some become outstanding leaders, it will be because of their own ability rather than because some higher authority ladled out the power.
Obviously, as we have already said, it is impossible to please everyone. But this does not lessen our obligation to try. So long as we insist on the idea that the missionaries must go to serve in the established churches, rather than opening new fields, we will continue to do a great deal of thinking, pondering and committee work, but we will not accomplish very much.
We have a saying in Spanish, "It is not worth the effort to undress one idol to dress another." As missionaries-we are giving technical help to the church, but very little by way of personal example of evangelistic zeal. At times I am tempted to wonder if it wouldn’t be more fruitful to invade Latin America with old-style missionaries who, it is true, might commit the same errors of the past, but would at the same time produce converts and not so many problems with the national leaders. Might it be possible that we are sinning if we deny young people the privilege of coming to the mission field simply as pioneers and evangelists? After all, it is far better to so something, even though it may be done imperfectly, than to achieve nothing because we insist on absolute perfection.
Methods of Livingstone. To put it bluntly, the missionary who can stay forever in Latin America is the one who adapts to the present generation the methods of a Livingstone or a Carey, who sets aside his prejudices and ambitions, and follows in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ did not limit himself to only one method of evangelism; He used them all. Does it seem too much to ask that the modern missionary be an executive or technician, yes, but at the same time be consumed by a passion for the lost, in such a way that all of his attitudes will be flexible and his schedule easily adjusted?
And how can he achieve this "all things to all men" type of personality? Here are a few suggestions:
1. He should use every possible means to evangelize, while at the same time carrying on his own specialized type of work.
2. He should study the areas where there is potential for growth of the work and then apply the methods, old and new, that will produce results. Evangelism, I am convinced, should bear fruit.
3. He should be an example to the nationals, not only in theory but in practice.
4. He should avoid binding himself to a rigid office schedule that serves as an unconscious barrier to friendship and contact with both Christians and others.
5. When he is asked to assume a specific responsibility in this local church, he should accept, but he should begin immediately and inconspicuously to prepare a substitute who can eventually work into the post.
6. He should act like a man who considers himself a notch lower on the organizational scale than his national coworkers, if he wishes to keep his position-and their confidence.
7. He should encourage missionary interest, even the appointment of their own missionaries, on the part of the national church.
8. He should be careful to orient his wife so that she is an asset to evangelism, integrated into the society in which they live, rather than a hindrance to the work he is doing.
9. He should consider the advantages of taking two or three years (or more) of his training in schools in the very country where he plans to serve, in order to feel a part of the culture and traditions and to develop close friends on the fellow-student basis, rather than within a missionary-national relationship.
10. Above all, he should continually analyze his program to make sure that he is contributing to the salvation and Christian growth of the people whom he has come to serve.
In the final analysis, a missionary is not an individual who becomes discouraged when circumstances are adverse. On the contrary. The harder the situation, the more inspiration he finds. A missionary is a man who continues through thick and thin with the same zeal and passion with which he began -and who inspires his national brethren as they observe the joy and power of God in his life.
EMQ, April. 1965, pp. 13-21. Copyright © 1965 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.