by David Pickard
A great deal of heat—to say nothing of light—has been generated by the insistence in some circles that the church should concentrate on the responsive elements of society.
A great deal of heat—to say nothing of light—has been generated by the insistence in some circles that the church should concentrate on the responsive elements of society. By this is understood that at certain times and in certain places people are prepared for maximum receptivity to the gospel. We should, therefore, where at all possible, respond to receptivity where it is met and cooperate with the evident moving of God through his Spirit, concentrating mission personnel and other resources on such areas for the period such fruitfulness exists. After all, the task of the church is not only to take the gospel to every creature, but to ensure the greatest advance and growth of the church.
It is difficult to object to such a position. All involved in church planting should be immensely concerned to be looking for and locating receptivity where it is found and to meet it, so that the lost may be won and the frontiers of the Kingdom of Christ pushed outward. However, though simply stated, implications in meeting receptivity can be profoundly disturbing to local mission strategy, placement of personnel, and relationships with the national church.
Enough has been written already in defining what is meant by receptivity in a group or society. However, it is worth pointing out the distinction between a receptive area geographical in definition and a receptive group within an area where other groups may or may not be equally receptive. Receptivity and its assessment is a relative matter. Evaluation of what is and what is not receptive can be quite subjective.
It is necessary, therefore, to have some guidelines to decide what action is required. Nothing can be more demoralizing and unsettling to a missionary team and to the national church than to keep chopping and changing personnel. There has to be the clear evidence that to concentrate resources and personnel in any one area and with any one group is the right thing to do.
Three areas need to be considered in weighing the relative priorities and claims on our resources against receptivity when it is found. This is even more to the point where in the overall work there is no immediately obvious group or area that evidences a greater openness, response, or receptivity to the gospel than in any other, and therefore there is a tendency to spread resources over a wide area rather than to concentrate them.
GUIDELINES FOR ASSESSING RESPONSIVENESS
1. Identify and locate the area or people showing response. Are these a group of people who have shown previous interest or response to the gospel? Do they belong to a group which may be predisposed to the gospel, i.e., migrant population? Is the area contiguous to other points of responsiveness which might therefore indicate a genuine spreading of response?
Are the group or people concerned related in any way to other groups which may be responsive? For example, the growing response among the Sgaw Karen in the Omkoy area of Northern Thailand began through the witness of Pwo Karen to their relatives among the Sgaw.
2. Evaluate the depths of interest. Has the interest persisted over a regular period of time (say six months)? Are there requests for help to visit, and are these to explain the gospel and hear the way of salvation, or is the interest merely to hear a new thing with the hope of some socio-economic advantage to be gained?
3. Are the number of conversions and those believing above the norm? However difficult it is, some form of evaluation is needed to establish whether people are turning to Christ in repentance and faith rather than merely showing interest, and that this is at a greater than normal rate.
4. Other evidence of God’s Spirit at work. Statistical evidence, however, should be evaluated with caution. The baptised Malay believers in South Thailand have doubled in three years, but they could not be described as a responsive people. Other evidences should be looked for, such as a genuine break with the old life (burning fetishes, destroying paraphernalia), a desire to join with other believers, a desire to witness and a desire for God’s word, etc. While the degree to which these may be found will vary, it is helpful to have this corroborative evidence of the Spirit’s working.
5. Supporting evidence. A further helpful guide is whether or not there is a response among the same group of people in other places.
EXPLORING THE ISSUES
What are the principles to be considered in acting towards responsiveness?
1. Evaluation and assessment. We have already seen that where response is met a thorough evaluation is necessary. It is necessary to know, for instance, what kind of responsiveness this is, whether it is of the heathen turning to Christ, or whether it is a spiritual awakening with revival breaking out among Christians and also spreading to the outsider.
Furthermore, an assessment is needed to determine what is an adequate response in terms of personnel. Does the situation require permanent or part-time ministry: a resident missionary (ies), or regular visiting? What sort of ministry is needed, i.e., evangelism and soul-winning, or follow-up teaching? What part can the nationals and local church play in such an involvement?
2. Prayer. Where response is met special times of prayer should be had, especially as more and more information is forthcoming and assessments have to be made. There needs to be a conscious waiting on the Lord by those concerned, i. e., missionary, national, field leadership, for the Lord’s direction and leading.
3. That fresh initiatives are in line with field objectives. Our goal is to establish churches, not merely the conversion of individuals or groups. Therefore, responsiveness needs to fit into the field’s objectives. A case in point here concerns Central Thailand, where isolated pockets of tribal or Northeast Thai appear open and more receptive to the gospel than Central Thai. As a minority group whose influence on mainline society is negligible, it is not seen as strategic to evangelise them.
That is not to say minority groups are excluded in field objectives. They are and should be included where their presence may influence the society in which they live. The major thrust in Central Thailand and in the Malay work in South Thailand has been through a minority group, i.e., leprosy patients. They have influence in Thai society, and indeed witness has been made through them to their well relatives and friends.
4. Involving nationals and local church. Wherever possible, national Christians and the local church should be involved both in consultation and visitation. For example, the Lun Bawang churches of Sarawak have sent a senior pastor fluent in Than to move to Bintulu to work among the responsive Than and Kayan groups. He has the continual financial and prayer support of the sending Christians who visit regularly together with the responsible missionary. In this way responsiveness has been met with the church exercising its responsibilities in a wider sphere than its own immediate area.
5. Confirmation by the field and field leadership. There is always the danger of chasing the rainbow’s end for the pot of gold. Provision needs to be made for guarding against an overdose of individualism and an overly- optimistic assessment of things. If through prayer and evaluation of the facts changes are to be made, then this should be confirmed by a number of people involved, e.g. I field superintendent, field council, missionaries and nationals involved on the local level.
FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS AND OFFERING SOME OPTIONS
1. Balancing relative priorities. Since we have limited resources and personnel, agonizing choices have to be made between the, relative claims of responsive areas compared with those for which there exists a previously accepted commitment. While all agree in theory that responsiveness should be met, the practice can be rather different.
Part of the problem is that there is a responsibility to preach the gospel to all, and there is always the possibility that a present relatively unresponsive work will break into responsiveness. For years the Pwo, Karen remained indifferent to the gospel and there was much to indicate that withdrawal from the work should be contemplated. Yet the team persisted and a breakthrough finally came.
Furthermore, if it appears that present commitments are being abandoned, the effect can be quite unnerving to nationals and churches and missionaries alike, and our integrity and commitment questioned.
2. Guidelines in balancing relative priorities. (a) Evaluate the present work. No doubt this is, or should be, being done on a regular basis. On the other hand, there is always the tendency to accept things as they are and be less rigorous in evaluation. just as an assessment is made in relation to responsive areas, so too the same process and standards should apply equally in reverse when considering existing programs.
(b) Program of planned withdrawal. While individual cases may vary, it may be helpful to stipulate a time factor at the end of which a definite decision would be made as to whether to continue with a missionary present or not. The period of time may vary according to local conditions, but a full term of service might be a worthwhile guide where furlough naturally allows for change. Such a built-in and planned time limit serves to keep everyone’s mind open to the possibility of change.
For many years there has been a missionary present in Uthai province, which has been in one of the most responsive areas of Central Thailand. These churches are established and have relatively strong leadership. Therefore, a deliberate phasing out of missionary personnel was planned and has now come about. This has allowed for national development as well as releasing missionaries for ministry elsewhere.
Nationals concerned should be involved in these plans from the very beginning so as to avoid the feeling that they are being abandoned and left holding a baby they didn’t bring to birth and are unsure how to handle.
3. Personnel. Nothing can be more demoralizing and unsettling to a team than to keep chopping and changing personnel around. On the other hand, the danger of immobility of personnel is a real one. The tendency has been in practice for station missionaries to be each responsible for their work. While this has developed a sense of responsibility, the danger is to develop a "each one do his own thing on his station" approach, and the work becomes "my work" which I become reluctant to leave. A sense of mutual interdependence between the missionary and those for whom he is responsible develops, thus making it difficult to conceive of change.
A further problem relating to the mobility of personnel is that of gifts and training and the inclination of the missionary, over against the needs of a responsive area which is usually the need for evangelism and soul-winning. Where these gifts are lacking (i.e., evangelism, soul-winning), the missionary will understandably be reluctant to move from the security of his present position. The tendency then is to become settled in a Bible teaching ministry and pastor to local believers. What then can be done to help us all have a joyful sense of willingness, to be mobile and to respond to change as the Lord leads?
(a) Maintaining a broad vision. While field conferences can give the overall picture to the field and help keep the broader issues to the forefront, too often these are soon forgotten in the involvement in the regular station work. We need to keep a sense of the overall goals and work of the field and indeed the country before our members. If communications can be improved within fields and between fields, information can be given to widen horizons so as to catch the burden of what the Lord is doing. In this way the needs of the work can speak for themselves, and relative priorities might then stand out in sharp relief.
(b) In-service training. Help is needed to encourage and develop skills that will enable the missionary to be better equipped in the vital area of soul-winning. As one superintendent wrote, "If personnel were more skilled and better equipped in this vital area of soul-winning, they would respond much more to the possibility of moving into responsive areas, and practical issues involved – such as the giving up of a comfortable home and unsettling of children, etc. – would fade into the background."
Together with this, in our pioneer church planting fields, we need to help members maintain their missionary role so that the sharp cutting edge of evangelistic outreach and mobility is not lost in the desire to settle to a more structured Bible teaching work.
This also applies in the matter of candidate selection, and note should be taken of the pressing needs for members coming forward with soul-winning gifts and evangelistic vision, rather than a call to Bible teaching in a structured situation.
(c) Involving nationals. The key to freeing missionaries lies in the degree of training and involvement which is given to nationals. One member in East Malaysia was burdened for the Iban, through working with another group. Finally, a national was trained to take her place and she was freed to move to work with the Than (which involves learning a new language and culture).
Hard questions need to be asked whether nationals could be doing more of what the missionary is presently involved in. As a priority, our programs must include adequate training programs so that nationals and local churches are able to assume more and more responsibility. In certain situations this might mean a review or a more flexible approach concerning our indigenous financial policy for support of national workers.
It might be that consideration should be given to providing some measure of support to nationals where in the early stages the churches are unable to fully bear this responsibility.
The Akha Church has been deprived of two senior male missionary advisors, and the answer might be that rather than supplying more missionary personnel immediately, that help should be given in supporting the four or five trained pastors in the Akha Association who are capable of leading the churches but who at this stage cannot be fully financially supported by the Akha Church.
(d) Mobile teams. One further way of being able to probe for and meet response would be through the forming of mobile teams for which there is ample biblical warrant. Not all see this as feasible, and in a multi-language field it would be difficult to do this unless a common trade language could be used.
What is being considered is a task force, missionary and national, that could operate as a mobile evangelistic team to move into potentially responsive areas. The advantage would be that such a team would be available and have that flexibility to respond to receptivity where it arises. While it might not be possible to form a task force from within our own membership, perhaps a case could be made here for working in closer cooperation with other groups which would help to provide the range of needed team members.
4. The problems of waning response. Reference needs to be made to the problems of waning response. Having redirected resources and personnel into a new work involving learning a new language, culture, etc., what then is to be done if interest wanes or the dimensions of the work change? Are we then back in the same situation where it -becomes extremely difficult to withdraw and redesignate personnel because of the emotional upheaval which fresh change could bring?
It is essential to establish the cause for a lessening response which may be due to a failure to adequately meet the response. It may be that the missionary is discouraged or has gone stale, and help is needed to encourage and bring reinforcements or to change personnel and thus bring fresh impetus to the work.
On the other hand it may be that some withdrawal may be necessary. As with the process for beginning the work, withdrawal should only be made after evaluation, prayer, consultation and confirmation by all concerned.
Copyright © 1978 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.