by Larry Poston
Yes, says K. P. Yohannan, but here are some arguments against his call.
Since 1986, The Coming Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan, the Indian founder of Gospel for Asia, has been generating heated debate among not only mission leaders, but also among pastors and mission donors. His call for a restructuring of North American missions policies has reached the masses.
Yohannan believes that "it is time to make some basic changes and launch the biggest missionary movement in history-one that primarily helps send forth native evangelists rather than a Western staff. The primary role for Westerners now should be to support efforts of indigenous mission works through financial aid and intercessory prayer.
In the summer of 1991, Yohannan’s newest work appeared, entitled Why the World Waits: Exposing the Reality of Modern Missions. In it he elaborates on themes introduced in his first book. He critcizes four elements of contemporary Western missions.
1. The strategic element. Yohannan is convinced that Westerners have abandoned evangelism and church planting in favor of "social work."
Though they have tried various social programs to bridge the gap, West-em missionaries today often find themselves still unable to restore a credible Christian testimony. Therefore, with the exception of a few one-on-one contacts, many Western missionaries have retreated from open evangelistic work and direct church planting.
Sixty-seven percent of North American missionaries, he alleges, are involved in "support activities," such as agriculture and development, child care, medicine, and education. Yohannan considers these ministries a "sidetrack" and believes that they may represent deliberate sabotage by "a satanic plot.
2. The financial element. Yohannan believes that Western mission agencies are not good stewards of their finances. The average annual cost of supporting a Western missionary couple is more than $43000, compared to the cost of supporting native missionaries, many of whom reportedly live on $3 to $5 a day. "Clearly," says Yohannan, "it is no longer merely inefficient to support only Western missionaries, but it would appear actually cost-prohibitive."
3. The human element. Yohannan criticizes Western missionaries for being inept and unproductive and says that most of them have "private agendas" for their missionary work. Such misguided motives include a desire to perpetuate pet doctrines and denominations, to introduce economic or political systems, to pursue personal power, adventure, career development, or economic gain.
Further, he claims, qualifications for missionaries set by Western agencies are unbiblical.
In the real world of missions today New Testament standards for Christian service play such an insignificant role in missionary selection that the Lord Jesus Himself-and probably most of the apostles-would not even get through the screening process for their first interview. Ironically, well-connected, educated, middle-class, affluent, and politically oriented Judas might well have "the right stuff to score well on his application.
4. The spiritual element. Western missionaries are powerless, says Yohannan. "Western-style colonialism" on the mission field is guilty of "rationalism and unbelief in the power of the supernatural." Miracles, exorcisms, healings, and resurrections are necessary for the power of God to be revealed in its fullness, for "people are not going to be won to Christ through ideological, philosophical arguments."
These are Yohannan’s arguments against Western missions. How should those who believe in a continuation of Western missions respond?
Yohannan deals with an issue that is both ancient and intricate. The struggle between advocates of evangelism and church planting only and those who promote relief and development as part of the gospel has no easy solution. Yohannan sides with the former, quoting the Bible for support, but he does not grant that the other side also offers biblical evidence for its position.
Yohannan, like many others, is too quick to judge "the colonialist (or imperialist) era" of missions. Anthropologists and historians take the same line. No one denies that colonialism had its share of evils, but to be objective we cannot ignore the enormous good that has come of it.
I for one do not wish to return to a world of tribal warfare, headhunting, irrational fear of the elements, superstition, occult practices, widow-burning, footbinding, infanticide, the oppression of women, temple prostitution, poor hygiene, epidemics, and the like. We are told that cultures are inviolable and most be left intact, but we must acknowledge that all cultures-Eastern or Western-are the products of sinful human beings, and Christians have been commanded to allow the light of God’s word to transform conditions around them.
Yohannan states that "the task of the missionary is simply to convert and disciple nations to Christ," but this is not as simple as it sounds. Does not discipling include helping new converts to flesh out their faith in their cultural context? Are we to preach the gospel and plant churches, but leave our converts in poverty and ignorance?
Many of Yohannan’s criticisms of missionary support demand serious consideration. Western mission agencies would do well to require a simpler lifestyle of their workers. Adopting a lower standard of living would probably increase their credibility, since spirituality in the minds of most people is marked by poverty, simplicity, and self-abnegation.
Yohannan touches on this point, but does not center his criticism on it. Instead, he aims at such things as the costs of educating missionary candidates, maintaining that "the actual cost of training a missionary family might easily run as high as $450,000 to $500,000. He exaggerates. Higher education is expensive, but where missionary candidates train, their costs are nowhere near what Yohannan claims.
Suppose we accept the high cost of supporting North American missionaries. If couples require an average of $43,000 a year, this is not beyond the ability of church members to afford. Here’s why: Polls show that 40 percent of Americans claim to be born again. Forty percent claim to be regular church attenders. These may not be the same people, but we’re talking about 100 million Americans either way.
If half of them-50 million- earn only the median U.S. income of $18,000 a year, that would amount to more than $900 billion. If these same people were to tithe 10 percent of this amount, the churches would receive $90 million every year. If the churches used half of this for missionary support, they could support more than a million missionaries, even at $43,000 a year.
We must also remember that the high cost of support is partly due to such unavoidable costs as dollar devaluations, social security regulations at home and abroad, and other requirements imposed on expatriates by foreign governments.
Further, we must question whether native missionaries really can live as cheaply as Yohannan claims they can, especially in the cities. The world is urbanizing so rapidly that some demographers estimate that by the year 2050, 88 percent of the world’s people will live in cities of 100,000 or more. Given this trend, we have to ask if native missionaries can carry on effective work in cities at the "bargain prices" mentioned by Yohannan.
Apart from the cities, do we have any proof that cheaper native missionaries are really more productive than Western missionaries in the long run? Are they well-equipped to handle the theological, sociological, psychological, economic, and political issues that will arise as churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America come of age?
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Yohannan accuses Western missionaries of harboring various "hidden agendas." As for perpetuating pet doctrines and denominations, only a few branches of the church are still highly concerned with denominationalism today. With regard to spreading Western civilization, most Western missionaries are not concerned with either economics or politics; indeed, they are constantly caricatured for their lack of sophistication in these matters.
Concerning their desire for power, missionaries appear to be increasingly powerless in the face of the continuing backlash against colonialism. Adventure may be part of the initial, teenage response to the call for missionaries, but such shallow motivation rarely survives the rigors of education, the application and screening process, candidate school, home service, and deputation.
As for career development, the missionary occupation rarely adds glamor to a resume. Finally, despite the support rates cited by Yohannan, very few, if any, people would enter missionary service for financial gain.
Taken together, Yohannan’s accusations have little validity. Most missionaries are motivated by their love for Christ and their desire to be obedient to the Great Commission.
Of course, proper motivation does not guarantee effectiveness on the field. The question is, Can Western missionaries still be effective? Yes, and they have several advantages over native missionaries.
1. A lengthy history. Most Western missionaries receive their training from veteran missionaries who teach them matters of cultural and strategic significance. Their teaching enhances effectiveness by helping newcomers avoid mistakes made in the past. It also helps them use successful techniques from the outset of their ministries.
2. No ancient enemies. In some countries, Westerners are unpopular, but they are not alone in this. For example, some rivalries have existed for centuries between some Asian countries. The bitterness between Korea and Japan is legendary. In India, there are deadly rivalries between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. There are warring factions in- the Philippines and in Sri Lanka, heated exchanges between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and hatred between Cambodians and Vietnamese. In some Asian countries, Westerners are more welcome than certain other Asians.
3. Rigid social structures. Many countries have lightly structured social systems that prevent contact between people of different classes. In India, for example, it is still difficult (and in some cases impossible) for social relations to develop across caste lines. Here the native missionary-who is subject to these class distinctions-is at a distinct disadvantage, while the foreign missionary may find himself well-placed, since he or she cannot be classified according to any of the social levels.
4. International urban culture. As I mentioned above, the world is rapidly becoming urban. Urban culture has begun to acquire international characteristics, producing a lifestyle recognizable from New York to New Delhi. Cross-cultural travelers can move relatively easily from one city to another. Since the West is to a large extent already urbanized (some 75 percent of Americans live in cities), it is conceivable that missionaries recruited from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Paris, or Stockholm would be better prepared for the urban districts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa than would the native missionaries drawn from rural populations.
5. Technology. Yohannan acknowledges that "Bible translation or broadcast technology… is often best staffed by Western missions." But this admission does not do justice to the far-reaching consequences of Western inventiveness. For example, the medical expertise of Agape Movement physicians, the linguistic creativity of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and the agricultural skills of the Mennonite Central Committee have contributed enormously to both the credibility and accessibility of the gospel.
Some Western mission agencies have doctrinal statements that limit signs and wonders to biblical times. But by and large even some of the non-Pentecostal, non-charismatic agencies have missionaries who believe in exercising spiritual gifts as a form of "power evangelism." Biographies of Western missionaries are rife with testimonies of healings, resurrections, exorcisms, and other wonders. It is difficult to sustain Yohannan’s accusation that Westerners have lost their spiritual power.
Will native missionaries have it so much easier in today’s world? Will they be more effective, for instance, in winning the world’s one billion Muslims? Or the world’s secularists and humanists? Will they be able to function so much more cheaply in the cities? Will they be able to avoid the cultural, ethical, and theological issues that have plagued missionaries for centuries? I do not think so.
My native brothers and sisters preach the same gospel I do, and that gospel has always been "foolishness" and "a stumbling stone" to the lost. Native missionaries will carry their own cultural baggage and will be accused of religious imperialism. They will experience inevitable entropy as their churches age; they will grieve over denominational splits; they will struggle with cross-cultural issues.
Neither we nor they can win the world alone. We need each other. Let us join hands, encourage one another, and put an end to the world’s wait.
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