by Alex Araujo
A look at U.S. world missions in the 21st century.
The greatest challenge facing missions today is the challenge of the unachieved,” says Jack Frizen in his book, Seventy-five Years of IFMA (Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association). He adds, “The challenge of an unfinished task demands that past performance be honestly and thoroughly examined. Every facet of past mission activity must be examined.”
The task he sets before us is as delicate as it is necessary. Because it is necessary it must be addressed with urgency and zeal; because it is delicate it must be approached with great tact and humility. And the scope of the task is such that it must be faced in community and not in isolation.
U.S. evangelicals will continue to have a significant presence in the 21st century, but it will be quite a different missions century. They will continue to bring a significant portion of resources and support services personnel, but they will not be able to maintain alone their leadership in decision making, expertise, and field personnel.
The church in the non-Western world has come into world missions to stay. It has learned from the U.S. missions enterprise, but it has also developed its own leaders and strategies, and brings its own baggage of unique experience, ideals, zeal, and mistakes.
Two mighty rivers meet not far from the city of Manaus, Brazil, in the Amazon. The Negro River looks like Coca-Cola seen through a glass, dark and clear. The Solimoes, however, is grayish white, full of sediment. Though they meet not far from Manaus, they are, for a while, in effect two rivers sharing the same river bed. They travel several miles trying to muscle each other out before their dark and white waters begin to mix and form one mighty river. Traditional U.S. missions and missions from other nations met some time ago and they have been running parallel. The moment has come in which mixing is inevitable. Will it be a healthy mingling?
Another Amazon phenomenon is called the pororoca, because of the loud popping noises it makes. This happens under certain conditions when the massive Amazon River waters meet the rising tide of the Atlantic Ocean. The violent, uncompromising clash of these two gigantic bodies of fresh and salt water creates a random display of clapping water spouts and turmoil that can capsize boats and create havoc for anything caught in the maelstrom. This could well illustrate what could happen if we are either unable or unwilling to be flexible.
How will U.S. missions enter the new century’s missions enterprise? Will they have made fundamental adjustments in their way of thinking and working that will enable them to be a welcome part of the team in a missions environment with different rules? Or will they be seen as cantankerous, unbending old practitioners who cannot recognize that the time for our old assumptions has passed?
The answer, or answers, to these questions cannot be based on good intentions alone. They must come from a healthy, if uncomfortable, process of honest re-evaluation. In many ways and for so long U.S. missions have listened primarily to themselves, and like any institution that relies solely on self-evaluation, they can be far off course before they realize what has happened.
Re-evaluation will not only document true achievements and bring thanksgiving to God, it will also reveal some painful truths. However, because U.S. agencies love the truth, love the Lord of the truth, and love the cause of world missions, they must not only feel compelled but eager to be cleansed, refreshed, and re-equipped. Then they can enter the next stage of world missions eagerly and cheerfully. Then they can learn with their brothers and sisters around the world how to become one mighty river. They can learn how to integrate their forces rather than weaken each other.
Therefore, we need to start a serious, comprehensive examination of the U.S. missions enterprise. If we do that, we can ensure that our role in the 21st century will be that of a joyful, eager partner, contributing without controlling,servingwithout restricting, receiving and giving with equal zeal, and rejoicing and praising God in oneness with our brothers and sisters around the world.
As we begin our task, there are four dangers to be avoided.
1. Lack of comprehensiveness. The lack of comprehensiveness in our assessments. Robert Crandall, chief executive officer of American Airlines, in an article about the industry’s frequent price wars, states that “while each company’s actions are rational vis-à-vis itself, the industry’s overall behavior is profoundly irrational.” He laments that, given the nature of unilateral self-preservation policies of each airline company, the industry is likely to remain forever chaotic and unstable.
Crandall’s assessment of his industry parallels that of our U.S. missions enterprise. Each agency may be attempting to be “rational vis-à-vis itself” while the missions enterprise as a whole becomes “profoundly irrational.” For instance, there is something suicidal in the way missions agencies seek to get candidates and supporters using competitive marketing techniques borrowed from the secular business community. By overstating their virtues and making inflated promises, they have created a public that expects them to deliver more than they can reasonably do. Yet, any agency that attempts to change by itself is unlikely to succeed. Unless they agree collectively to dismantle this system, it won’t change.
Will our agencies, like the airline companies, allow individual survival panic to dictate their actions, or will they take joint, comprehensive action to assess and evaluate their efforts, identify the needed changes, and help each other equip for the future?
2. The broader context. Trying to solve specific issues without considering how they relate to the broader context. Mission agencies must be comprehensive in the sense of evaluating all significant aspects of the enterprise, rather than one or another in isolation.
Take, for instance, the issue of missionary support levels. Jim Reap-some, in his “Final Analysis” column in World Pulse newsletter, raises a serious concern about our values when it comes to providing adequate funds for missionaries. He writes, “Churches and individual donors have to move from 1928 to 1992 and stop griping about what it costs to put a missionary family on the field.” He is right. Missionary support needs to be reviewed, but this issue will not be resolved unless we deal with it in the larger context of the predominant missions mindset.
Reapsome’s question is connected, for instance, with the double standard so aptly described by Phil Parshall in Networker published by ACMC. In his article, he questions why we don’t apply the same standards for missionaries that we apply when recruiting a pastor. But to do that we would need to change the mindset that idealizes living by faith, but applies it differently to missionaries and pastors.
These are not new issues. When I first went to Portugal as a missionary in 1970 they were already being debated. Missions executives undoubtedly have agonized over them. But how can we resolve them without threatening the mystique of “faith missions”? How can we touch that mystique without risking disillusioning our giving community and losing financial support?
Unless we are willing to review the predominant missions mindset, we are unlikely to solve isolated issues. For instance, how can we address missionary salaries without addressing the more general question of the high costs of the U.S. missions model? We need to take a more comprehensive approach that involves the entire missions community and which addresses specific issues in the broader missions context.
3. Efficiently ineffective. Confusing efficiency with effectiveness. It is possible to be efficiently ineffective. Efficiency is concerned with how well we perform specific tasks and implement our programs. It does not deal with the validity or rightness of those tasks and programs in relation to the overall goal of themissionsenterprise. Several mission agencies have been conducting efficiency assessments and making changes and improvements. In 1978, ACMC, IFMA, and EFMA produced guidelines for a mission agency’s self-evaluation, based on concerns about efficiency, but it is not practical for addressing effectiveness.
Effectiveness is not concerned with how well we are doing, but with our starting premises and ultimate objectives. For example, a local church missions committee might ask, “Is our goal to send missionaries or to reach the unreached?” If it is the latter, the most effective method may be in one case to send North Americans, but in another it may be more effective to assist local Christians, while in yet another it may be better to form a partnership with Christians of a similar culture nearer the unreached people.
However, if our goal is to send missionaries, we may find ourselves sending hundreds of them very efficiently, while failing to reach the lost. If our methods are wrong in relation to our ultimate goal, efficient implementation cannot prevent failure.
4. Misguided Messianism. Failure to break away from a U.S.-centered view of the world. This danger I call our misguided Messianism. For historical and cultural reasons, we have become accustomed to believe that North Americans are the key to world evangelization. Therefore, we may not see that there is a lot more going on in world missions than what North Americans are doing.
For example, consider how we have struggled to make missions work more acceptable to baby boomers. James Engel has studied this phenomenon and made many useful recommendations, yet his article in Christianity Today (Sept. 24, 1990) inadvertently reinforces our U.S. bias about missions. His argument is that unless we find a way to make baby boomers happy, “the mission enterprise just may go broke.”
However, important as the baby boomer issue is to U.S. churches, it is primarily a U.S. socio-economic concern which cannot be said to make or break the march of world missions. If the baby boomers decided not to give to missionaries, it would in no way seal the fate of world evangelization. Of course, the world missions movement would feel the impact of the loss of funding, but we can rest assured that Nigerians, Brazilians, and Indians, for example, would not abandon the task.
As we look into the 21st century, we must not disregard the realities and values of other perspectives. Missions need to seek and welcome input from people outside the U.S. who have valuable insights into our blind spots and weaknesses. Consulting with our partners overseas seems to have been absent in our previous re-evaluation efforts.
In short, if we are to heed Jack Frizen’s call for an honest and thorough examination of our missions activities, our task is (1) a collective, cooperative effort by U.S. missions leaders, rather than limited attempts by individuals or single organizations; (2) a comprehensive assessment of the issues, looking at the whole establishment rather than specific problems in isolation; (3) a concern for ultimate effectiveness, not just efficient methods; (4) an evaluation with the help of the worldwide missions community, welcoming the counsel of missions leaders everywhere.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
A task of this magnitude and sensitivity requires first that we achieve a consensus among our U.S. missions leaders that it must be done, and that it must be done together. The IFMA, EFMA, and ACMC offer the broadest representation to form a task force whose first assignment would be to formulate the key questions and provide a mechanism for healthy dialogue. This should lead to a joint strategy to bring about needed changes.
In some significant ways, we in world missions are in a new kind of race for which we need to be retrained. As committed missionary athletes, we are willing to endure the pain for the gain that is promised. This is similar to our Lord Jesus Christ’s experience, who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.
Can we, in response to Frizen’s challenge, take on this project and see it through? I believe that, with God’s help and for the sake of his work, we can and we will.
EMQ, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 362-370. Copyright © 1993 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.