by Jim Reapsome
Fishers of men or founders of empire? is a question all missionaries have to face in their work.
Fishers of men or founders of empire? is a question all missionaries have to face in their work. No doubt we all start out as fishers of men, but as the fishing goes on it gets more complicated. Not many of us are content to fish for trout with a safety pin tied to a piece of string wrapped around a stick. Likewise, in missionary work, we soon find better ways to fish for men. Before long, the actual fishing requires elaborate, expensive, sophisticated equipment and a huge support base. To the outsider, it’s not the fishing he sees, but the apparatus that is required for the fisherman to do his work. The "empire" obscures the fishing.
It would be interesting, and perhaps embarrassing, for us to look at our missionary enterprises the way an outsider does. The book written about Wycliffe Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics by David Stoll, Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire? (reviewed in this issue by William Kornfield) shows what happens when an outsider digs into our work. The result is not flattering; worse, it is angering.
When such a critical book is written about missionaries, our reflex action is self-defense. We point out the flaws and the biases in the book; we try to explain what we have done and why. We feel like we are suffering for righteousness’ sake.
Suddenly, we find ourselves defending the empire we have built around our fishing. The empire becomes the issue, not the fishing. Or, to put it another way, public relations becomes the issue, the possible loss of donor support, a possible drop in recruits, or worst of all, possible eviction from our fishing grounds (the host country).
Missionary work does involve all of those legitimate concerns, but those are empire concerns. We must keep clearly in mind that empires come and go. Perhaps our own empire must crash so that better fishing can be done in the future. Look at the mighty crash of missionary empires in China 34 years ago. Now it appears that the fishing is better than it has ever been, without any foreign empires at all.
So, the question does make us examine what we are doing with our own lives and the lives of people who have committed themselves to our missionary empires. It also makes us look again at our fishing and at our catch. How many fish do we really have to show for the millions of dollars faithful givers are pouring into our empires?
There is no price tag on a soul, of course. It’s possible to film-flam people with reports of so many conversions per dollar. That is not the issue here. The issue is whether or not we are prepared to keep our superstructures from overpowering the fishing. Can we keep our missionary forces in fighting trim, so to speak, and thus reduce as much as possible the charge that missionary work is just a cover for religious empire-building and imperialism?
Critics will always say that. Nevertheless, our response must be a clear conscience and good behavior (1 Pet. 3:16). We can’t stop critics from publishing derogatory books, but we must be sure that in our zeal to fish for men we do not follow earthly policies and adopt earthly ways of fishing. The rightness of soul winning and church building must never be used to justify any kind of duplicity or subterfuge. The Great Commission must never be a cover for building a religious business.
The value of a book like Stoll’s is that it makes us check the procedures, appearances, strategies and costs of our missionary empires. It also makes us check our motives before God and men. Our money and our motives are going to be questioned and criticized as never before, because of the explosive economic and political world scene. Missionaries will not be spared. They will continue to be suspected as agents of the West, with unlimited resources spawned by a capitalism that in itself is seen as the prime cause of the world’s ills.
These boiling problems do make our fishing much more complicated. The issues raised by Stoll, and expanded on by Kornfield, show how competent we must be when it comes to dealing with governments, with capitalists, with Marxists, and with tribal peoples. In addition to checking our empire building, we must ruthlessly scrutinize the quality of the people we send out to fish for us.
Every serious fisherman knows that skill and experience pay off in more catches. There’s a huge difference between the fisherman who slogs through the middle of a creek, slashing lures left and right, and the careful angler who studies the water and the insect hatch and then deftly launches his cast from a well-obscured position.
Missionaries today cannot afford to presume that fishing for men demands anything less than the best possible training. Their skills must be razor sharp. Those skills go beyond the typical missions course. To fish in today’s world requires broad knowledge of human affairs and the issues that lie beneath the surface of the pond. Each nation, each tribe, each people is a unique configuration of social pressures. The conclusions offered by William Kornfield indicate the breadth of knowledge and experience required.
Let’s seize the opportunity to open ourselves to God’s criticism. We are accountable to him, not to human authors. But they can be used for our good, if we are willing to back off and inspect both our fishing and our empire building.
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