by J. Murray Marshall
After a week-long missionary conference in his home church, a missionary wrote to the chairman of the conference:
“It was great to be back in the home church again, and to have the opportunity to tell what God has been doing in Indonesia. I do share your concern about the lethargy in the home church.
After a week-long missionary conference in his home church, a missionary wrote to the chairman of the conference:
"It was great to be back in the home church again, and to have the opportunity to tell what God has been doing in Indonesia. I do share your concern about the lethargy in the home church. The meetings weren’t nearly as well attended as in previous years when I’ve been there. Actually, much of the tone of the conference made me feel a bit sad. The welldressed and well-fed in the pews are admonished and sermon ized to death! They’ve heard all this before-year after year. New details, but the same pattern."
Here is a recurrent problem. How can we maintain the local church missionary conference as a worthwhile and workable tool to present the challenge of Christian missions? Are there other techniques that ought to supersede, or at least supplement, the conference? Or, does the problem lie in the way many such conferences are run?
The missionary conference has played a distinguished role in the forward march of modern missionary expansion. Of this there is no doubt. In the early years of this century great conferences brought together leaders of the missionary movement from all over the earth. Annually, the Foreign Missions Conference of North America brought together the best minds to evaluate the progress being made in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Dr. A. B. Simpson of the Christian and Missionary Alliance pioneered conferences in New York City and Old Orchard Beach, Maine. As the passion for missionary endeavor expanded, the conference technique was reproduced an smaller versions in local churches. Today we are weld acquainted with these-they range in length from a few hours in some churches to weeks in others. Generally, the formats are similar: public meetings throughout Sundays and on weekday evenings (and sometimes throughout the daytime hours), each with a missionary representative to present the challenge. Variations around this theme are many, including the use of films, slides, displays, national costumes, and, in some of the larger conferences, programs designed to help the missionary specifically, either a Bible teaching ministry, or discussion sessions dealing with current problems.
God has blessed these endeavors mightily. It would be difficult to assess the number of people who have been confronted with their responsibility to "preach the gospel to every creature," and who have responded earnestly. Many missionaries trace their careers back to a home church conference, where they heard the call. Add to this the great financial commitment that have been made at the climactic moments of missionary conferences. There have been collateral blessings as well.
Dr. Harold Ockenga, pastor of Park Street Church, Boston, has said of their conference, which is conducted on a large scale, "We get a greater revival, a greater inspiration, greater joy, greater sacrifice, greater dedication through that ten-day period than from any kind of deeper life conference or evangelistic campaign ever held in Park Street Church." Other pastors bear similar testimony. There is unique blessing when Christians are bound together in prayer, vision, work, challenge, response and giving.
CONFERENCES CAN GO STALE
While in no sense overlooking past blessings, it is also necessary to be aware that such conferences can go stales The missionary quoted above gave an honest estimate of his feelings, perhaps speaking for numbers of his less vocal colleagues. Pastors, too, have occasional qualms about the effectiveness of the conference procedure. What about the significant proportion of church members who are found in the church buildings on Sunday mornings only? How is the message of missionary urgency and responsibility to be communicated to them?
It is alarmingly true that at many Sunday evening or weekday missionary meetings it is the faithfulcorps o£ church members who are already committed to missionary endeavor that attend. This has led some pastors to modify the conference approach, favoring in some cases the more more frequent appearance of missionaries at Sunday morning worship services throughout the year. In other instances, pastors have worked with missionary committees to plan weekend conferences, with different types of approaches, such as men’s overnight retreats with missionary personnel, or weaving missionary presentations into social activities of the church program.
WHAT SHOULD CONFERENCE DO?
Missionary and pastor alike must always be reevaluating, always seeking the best possible means of doing the job. This leads very naturally to the question, "What is the job of a missionary conference?" Realistically, the missionary conference is a promotional tool for the great enterprise of Christian missions. Jesus commented on the fact that "the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." If any age knows the value of effective promotion, it is ours. To be sure, there is unscrupulous promotion which is wrong, but this does not discredit the value of good, honest advertising. Missionary conferences are advertisements in the best sense for missions, during which the Christian public is made aware of a dimension of the work of the church of Christ about which otherwise it would be ignorant. Paul concluded his first missionary journey with a conference-type report to his associates in Antioch. (See Acts 14:27.
However, one possible cause o£ ineffectiveness ire some missionary conferences is lack of adequate preparatory work. How many times is a conference thrown together at the last minute, with no careful strategy as to who should participate, or how the program should be geared? Is the conference itself promoted with care? And since this is promotion of the Master’s work, the question might well be asked as to whether the Master’s guidance and personal blessing has been honestly sought. One of the clear factors in the success of the Park Street Church conference is the prayer preparation. Weeks in advance of the conference dozens of prayer meetings in the homes of the members provide hundreds of people the opportunity to undergird the ten days of the conference with prayer. "We must work if we would win."
The missionary conference is promotion in the best sense, but any promotion works toward some type of action. A conference must be judged in terms of the action that results. Most obviously, there is the result of financial commitment. But this evaluation must be hedged, because some people give defensively. Their reasoning is, "If I give some money to the missionary cause, then I am participating in missions." Subconsciously they add, "So don’t bother me any more. I am doing what I can." The giving of this type of person is a defense against any further personal participation in the job of being a missionary.
What is sought in a missionary conference is honest, active participation in the missionary task. This means participation in interests in prayer, in giving, and going. It also means participation by "being." Being a mature Christian includes being a witness in the circumstances where the Christian is now. If a Christian catches the sense of the importance of being a witness where he is, the job of helping him to see other needs is simpler.
ROLE OF THE MISSIONARY
There are two suggestions to be made in the matter of reevaluating the missionary conference. The first is to reconsider the role of the missionary. Is the missionary purely a promoter of his own particular work to get more recruits, more money, and more prayer for his own field? Missionaries sense they have a greater responsibility to a supporting church than a brief appearance in the pulpit during a missionary conference. Any way in which a missionary can be integrated into theministry of the local church is good. He should be as conversant with the local situation as possible; he should seek to minister to the needs of the people there, not simply promote his own cause.
This has ramifications beyond the missionary conference itself. For example, one mission representative, Lester J. Soerheide of the Latin America Mission, is actively engaged in what he calls "Conversation Seminars." He arranges with a pastor to invite into a private home selected people from the same age group, cultural, and social background as the host and hostess. It is arranged as a social event during which Soerheide judiciously guides the conversation. The genius of this approach is (1) in getting individuals, who perhaps would not even go to a church, or who, if they did go, would not express themselves, to talk freely, and (2) to help them understand their problems and to make some real spiritual progress in connection with them. In this way this missionary helps in the ministry of that local church, and ultimately, although in a sense incidentally, wins friends for his mission.
Beyond the dimensions of the conference itself is the great advantage to be gained if arrangements can be made for a missionary to spend all or a good portion of his furlough time in a local church. In some cases he can join the resident staff of the ministry of the church, thus bringing his talents into the service of the local church. The close personal identity that he can gain with the people of the church will assuredly carry over in terms of personal interest in him and his work when he again returns to the work of his own field.
Another consideration in the missionary conference is the contribution to be made by Christians of other countries. It was significant that at the 1964 Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship Missionary Conference at the University of Illinois the main speakers were drawn from Asia and Latin America, as well as North America. The younger churches can very often teach us, and can minister to the people of North American churches with great effectiveness.
The role of the missionary is not just to get a home church Christian to participate in an established program of giving to missions, but rather to help that Christian to find himself as a Christian, living the Christian life in the circumstances of modern life. He can help a church member by talking about his immediate problems in conjunction with life as a harried commuter or a confused student. Perhaps the missionary could well help a mature Christian to see the potential of service as a reliable volunteer in a city mission society, in a church serving a minority group, or in befriending foreign students.
RECONSIDER CONFERENCE STRUCTURES
The second suggestion about the missionary conference is to reconsider the structure of the conference itself. Why not try in some way to take the missionary out of the isolation of the pulpit, where he cannot readily be questioned or pressed for further amplification of his thoughts? This, of course, is following the trend toward a more workable relationship between the man in the pulpit and the man in the pew. Some churches have scheduled as part of a missionary conference home meetings on an informal basis with a missionary as the guest of honor. This allows for a personal contact not possible in the formal church meeting.
Other suggestions would include the seminar approach.
On a given evening have two or three missionaries offer the same presentation two or three times. People in attendance would attend the presentation of each missionary and would be able to ask questions. Naturally, the numbers in each seminar would be smaller than in a large meeting. The value is to be gained in the personal contact available. Or consider the possibility of abandoning the daytime public meetings in favor of carefully planned small gatherings of business men for lunch or breakfast with a missionary. Women similarly could meet in homes for a morning coffee chat with a missionary. The need would be for extremely careful planning in inviting guests, and for the missionary to recognize that this is not a coffee break, but an opportunity to be used to talk about important matters.
In short, in some way the presentation of the missionary challenge must be taken to the place where the people are. This means that pastors and missionaries must be prepared to think creatively under God’s guidance. The missionary conference is not outmoded as a tool for telling the story of missions. But it is not the only tool. It needs to be teamed up with other approaches. The missionary must be brought close to the needs of the home church people; they in turn must be brought close to the needs of the missionary: his personal needs, his financial needs, and the needs of the people for whom he speaks.
Finally, and above all, it must be noted that our needs are not all in the area of technique or procedure. To this end, listen once more to the conclusion of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910:
"There can be no forward movement in missions, no revival of interest, no new era of giving, no great offering of life, except as these are attained through a deepening and broadening of the spiritual life of the leaders of the Church, and a real spiritual revival among the members. New methods, attractive literature, widespread cultivation, and appeals for volunteers can accomplish nothing unless begun, continued and completed in prayer, and permeated from first to last with the Holy Spirit of God."
So let it be.
Copyright © 1966 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.