by Donald K. Smith
At the end of the second millennium since Christ’s birth, we have near equality in the number of missionaries sent from the Western world—the nations of Europe and North America—and those sent by the nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
At the end of the second millennium since Christ’s birth, we have near equality in the number of missionaries sent from the Western world—the nations of Europe and North America—and those sent by the nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. As is well known, the numbers coming from this second group are rapidly increasing and will in fact exceed those from the first in the very near future.
The major growth of the church in China, Latin America, and Africa has shifted the evangelical center of gravity from the West to a point somewhere in Africa. As leadership of world mission passes from the West to the churches of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, what lessons should be learned from the waning of the “Age of Western Missions”? A church unaware of this history, with its record of vision and mistakes, is likely to repeat the mistakes even while it shares the vision.
I am a missionary from the West. I was born in the Western world, was saved in the Western world, and was sent as a missionary by the churches of the Western world. In short, I owe the West my life and my ability to fulfill the calling of God. The successes of Western missions are many. My purpose is not to recount those successes, however, but to help new missions to be successful while avoiding our errors.
Our errors have very rarely been a failure of spirit or intent. Missionaries have been, and are, men and women of prayer, and of commitment to the Word of God and to Christ.
When Adlai Stevenson visited Africa in the 1950s, what impressed him the most was, “The graves. The graves. The graves. At every mission station, there were graves.” Stevenson was overwhelmed that so many loved Christ so much that they laid down their lives to give Africa a chance to hear of Christ.
Seth Anyomi of Ghana tells how, as a boy, he walked past a tiny mission cemetery on his way to school. He looked at the tombstones of missionary fathers, mothers, children. German names, but buried in Ghana. “Why did they come?” he wondered. This profoundly affected his life, and Dr. Anyomi himself is now a missionary. Failures in Western missions are not failures of commitment.
Most often, the failure has been at a very human level. Mistakes have often been camouflaged as doctrinal differences or as the resistance of the people to be reached. But far more often they reflect ignorance in how to do mission. Newer missionary forces should learn from the examples of commitment, even while seeking to avoid the human failings. To the extent that mistakes will be made, make them original ones—don’t repeat the same ones again in the next millennium!
The mistakes mentioned below are only ones I made or observed personally. This is not an attempt to speak for my tens of thousands of North American colleagues in mission.
1. We have too often reduced salvation and our life in Christ to words only. We have considered the speaking of words as equal to evangelism. We have too often forgotten that the life lived matters more than the words spoken. We have under emphasized the importance of Christ in us. He inevitably changes the way we see people, understand situations, and express compassion. Our evangelism becomes more than simply giving a message. It will include demonstration of the message.
When the life we now live is Christ living in us (Gal. 2:20), we will have a deep concern for simple basics—honesty, respect for others, concern for justice and for meeting basic human needs for food, shelter, health, and dignity. Our words will be completed by our actions, and our actions by our words. We will embody not only the Great Commission, but the Great Commandment:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:39-40).
This failure, reducing the message to words, has often had terrible results. It has produced Christiancommunities that go to war against each other, as in North East India. In some African nations, individuals trained in mission schools lead governments that are known for corruption that stagnates economic development and stimulates intertribal fighting. In such cases, this failure of total proclamation has not only stunted personal holiness but has led to massive failures of public righteousness. Sadly, it has seemed to demonstrate that Christ is not the answer.
2. Our concentration on words has often resulted in our transmitting rather than communicating the gospel. What is the difference? Transmission does not depend on reception, but continues whether or not anyone is listening or understanding. Communication creates commonness, an understanding of the message that is shared by participants in two-way interaction.
Emphasis on transmission has too often resulted in an aloofness, a separateness from the people being reached. Too much time and money are spent running programs, rather than building people. The desired result is to build people, of course, but we have overlooked the basic need to be deeply involved with people if you want to make a difference in their lives.
Paul clearly modeled the desired missionary approach.
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law . . . so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law . . . so as to win those not having the law. To the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)
The emphasis in Western missions has often been macro-strategy—which groups do we reach, where do we place missionaries, where do we build schools, radio stations, or printing presses. But the fundamental issue of strategy is how to become involved with the people we seek to win to Jesus Christ. Questions of daily living are more important than a grand design. Do my children go to local schools, or do we send them away to ensure that they have a “homeland” type of education? Can we eat local foods, or must we import foods to ensure our physical and mental health? Can we live in housing common in the area, or do we want something similar to what we would have in our home country? Can we do our work using local transport, or must we have something more convenient?
The answer is not always to follow the local pattern; it may be to demonstrate a different but attainable lifestyle. Whatever the particular answers, we must not retain our own lifestyle simply because it is our own. Such ethnocentrism cripples involvement with people, and thus cripples our efforts to build the church.
3. While adequate finance is essential, too much money may actually hinder missionary service. Some wealth is needed to be a missionary-sending church, of course, but those seen as wealthy missionaries may cripple the church they bring into being. Their wealth almost inevitably creates either resentment or dependency—and dependency inevitably breeds resentment!
How much is too much? Living in Japan requires much more than living in India, and France is much more expensive than most of the United States. One standard simply cannot be used for every foreign missionary. A general principle can be used, however. The missionary must be able to live at the level of the people among whom he or she is serving. He should not be forced to exist below the general living standard of those people, nor should he be considered by locals to be among the economic elite of that group.
The general director of one North American mission society once decreed that no missionary in his agency should be forced to live below the level that he would have if he were ministering in the United States. He felt that missionaries should not be regarded as objects of pity by their friends and relatives,but given the position of equals able to function satisfactorily in the American culture. That is a good policy—when in North America. But that same level of support makes the missionary a member of the economic elite in many nations of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The money intended to help the missionary do his job better becomes a barrier to genuine involvement with the people.
Historically, missions from the West began when those nations were not wealthy. The Moravians worked to support themselves wherever they went, even selling themselves into slavery to reach the slaves in the Caribbean. For years William Carey received no financial support in India but worked in various jobs to support his Bible translation efforts. His lifestyle in India was little different than it was when he was a cobbler in England. In fact, only in the last century have missionaries felt it necessary to be fully supported from the homeland. While that may be good, it is not always necessary.
Conversely, it is not the responsibility of sending churches to be sure missionaries are poor! It is their responsibility to do their very best to meet missionary needs—adequate provision for health care, for children’s education, for essential travel, for food, clothing, and shelter, and for pastoral care. Many missionaries have had to leave the field because home churches did not adequately care for them. A responsible church or mission agency will never send people without ensuring that they will be cared for, but it will also remember that money is not the only answer.
4. As a church begins to emerge, it should be treated as a ministry partner rather than as a subordinate. In business, controlling 51 percent of the shares allows one to control the organization. Often we in North America have praised the younger church, pointing out that 49 percent is in their hands. However, we retain the decisive 51 percent “until the church is mature.” But this maturity cannot develop absent the possibility of failure.
The very nature of missionary work calls for an unequal partnership. However, the controlling interest should be in the hands of the young churches—not in the hands of foreigners. Missionary authority should be assigned by the church.
Organizational structures should be developed in partnership with the new church, responsive to its cultural patterns and needs, enabling the church to participate as an equal partner. Administration and ownership of any institutions must be in the hands of the young churches from the outset. Much of the agony in establishing indigenous churches grows out of failure at this point. Planned withdrawal usually means planned tension and misunderstanding, though there may be no alternative for already functioning institutions that have been controlled by the mission.
Outreach beyond the boundaries of the first church should begin very early, by both missionaries and local people. True cooperation between church and mission may well mean sending missionaries from the new church to the homeland of the missionary! Mission, as has been said, is from everywhere to everywhere.
I live in a medium-sized American city with many churches. A vital prayer movement binds us together. God is doing wonderful things in my city, but there is still a place for missionaries to come to us. We have 104 ethnic groups in a metropolitan area of about 2 million. Geography is not the issue; who can be most effective in extending God’s kingdom is.
We in the United States need the vitality of those newly delivered from Satan’s oppression—but at the same time we must not encourage a “brain drain” that robs the new church of its most able leaders.
What place, then, do Western missionaries have in the third millennium? One different than that to which we have become accustomed. It must be a place of service rather than domination because of money, skills, or history. As ambassadors of Christ, we have the same instructions as missionaries from the Two-Thirds World—to demonstrate Christ’s life by doing themost lowly of tasks, or the most glorious. By washing feet or being with him on the Mount of Transfiguration, we are to continually serve, because “The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve.’
Donald K. Smith is codirector of the Institute for International Christian Communication (Portland, Ore.). He served for 30 years in South Central and East Africa in literature ministries and leadership development. He is Distinguised Professor of Intercultural Studies and Missiology at Western Seminary, Portland.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 56-61. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.