by Jim Reapsome
The hurdles discussed here reflect the thoughtful concerns of a number of mission agency leaders and missiologists, who frankly admitted to difficulties in our methods, practices, goals, tactics, and strategies.
When Roland Allan wrote Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours back in 1912, he could not have envisioned how pragmatic the missionary enterprise would become within the next 70 years. The enterprise is success-driven, production-oriented. If there’s anything Americans know how to do, it’s tackling a monumental task, whacking it down to size, and licking it. After all, that’s what we did in space, didn’t we?
But just as there are intractable social ills that defy the best of management and production techniques, so the task of world evangelization defies the best of our methods and strategies. While some mission boards sound the triumphal note of reaching the world by A.D. 2000, in many respects the task of winning the world for Jesus Christ faces imposing strategic hurdles.
The hurdles discussed here reflect the thoughtful concerns of a number of mission agency leaders and missiologists, who frankly admitted to difficulties in our methods, practices, goals, tactics, and strategies. To be blunt, there are a lot of things we could be doing better.
SHORTAGE OF QUALIFIED PEOPLE
Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning of the operationâ€”the troops we have to do the job. The general consensus is that we don’t have enough first-class missionaries, especially career professionals. Growth has not kept pace with opportunities and needs.
One executive told me, "We are not seeing anything like the increase in the number of missionaries that would be needed to reach the world in any reasonable length of time, even if world population were to remain static."
There’s no lack of recruiting on the campuses and in churches, but the fundamental approach still seems to be that of asking for volunteers. The typical missions conference looks like a county fair stuffed with concession stands manned by hawkers. In contrast, others are calling for more progressive recruitment of choice prospects on an individual basis, rather than throwing the gates open for anyone who volunteers.
But to attract quality people, missions will need the help of pastors and youth pastors. They hold key positions in laying hands on gifted people, directing them toward missions, and then helping them to get the necessary training and funds to get to the field.
Apparently, it’s becoming harder, not easier, to find people totally committed to the will of God regardless of the cost. Missions need spiritually tough people, submitted to God and determined to stick it out, no matter what.
One executive asked, "Are we producing the kind of people in our churches who can emulate our predecessors and meet the challenges of spiritual welfare?"
Leaders cry for better trained people, suggesting that mission boards will have to fill in the gaps in the training of candidates. "The nonacademic areas of training are considered not to be the business of the educators," a veteran leader told me.
WILL WE LEARN FROM THE PAST?
Some missions thinkers propound the idea that current strategy is dead in the water because we won’t learn anything from the past, especially from countries where churches are growing without the traditional methods. Foremost in their thinking is China. China is important, not only because of its huge population, but also because it’s closed to outside missionaries. Yet, the church has not only survived but grown dramatically.
Of course, there are reasons for church growth in China: suffering, prayer, discipline, and lay witness, for example. But these conditions exist elsewhere where there is little or no growth. So, missions thinkers cast about for other reasons and point to the fact that both official Three-Self churches and house churches are authentically Chinese. They no longer live under the "foreign" epithet. They are also free of denominational labels.
In terms of strategies, the implications of what’s happening in China are striking indeed. However, to understand them and to act accordingly would demand wholesale changes in missionary thinking and structures, as well as strategies.
IS OUR COMMUNICATION ON TARGET?
Another fundamental strategy issue that has surfaced in academic institutions, and also sparked a number of books and articles, has to do with our understanding of how the gospel is communicated and understood in cross-cultural contexts. We have specialized in technology, but minored in testing response patterns to radio, literature, films, and television.
Some agencies are counting on mass communications media as the strategy for reaching the world by A.D. 2000, but some scholars question the effectiveness of the media, especially among those vast blocs of unreached people who hold radically different world views than ours. As one of them put it, "Technology is at the periphery of communication."
CAN WE AGREE ON OUR PRIORITIES?
Reaching the world by A.D. 2000 sounds like a simple, clear goal, but when you examine mission priorities and programs, you find a great deal of diversity. Consequently, some would say that a major hindrance to world evangelization is our failure to enunciate clearly some kind of basic, common agreement about our priorities. Fundamental differences quickly emerge.
Is it evangelism or social action? Church growth or church development? Start your own churches or work with existing ones? Partnership with overseas churches and missions or amalgamation or fusion? Work closely together toward common goals or every mission for itself? Tentmakers or resident missionaries? Short-term or career missionaries? Foreign missionaries or local missionaries? Strategies and methods tend to be as highly individualistic as the American business community.
"Church growth" and "church planting" seem to be the most commonly shared priorities, but even these are liable to serious debate, especially when you talk to missionaries in highly resistant cultures. What priorities should they have? Further, church growth and church planting don’t fit a widely-held concept that "reaching the world" means simply giving everybody a chance to hear the gospel.
But, despite all of our pronouncements about planting churches among unreached people, there seems to be a deeply held suspicion that it’s more talk than action, especially when it comes to allocating people and money.
"Too many missionary organizations have misused their manpower and financial resources by becoming overly involved with ministries and tasks that only marginally, if at all, contributed to effective evangelism and church planting," said a veteran strategist.
IS OUR OVERALL STRATEGY SUSPECT?
However, even if we could agree on the priorities of evangelism and church planting, how well are we doing that? What’s holding up our progress on this crucial goal?
This is where our strategists love to do battle. These are frontline issues. For example, are we properly focusing on ethno-linguistic groups, or do we fail to recognize them and send too many troops to some places and neglect others? Anyone looking at a map of missionary placement would have to say we’ve got too many people packing out some parts of the world. Our strategy lacks discipline, research, and planning in this regard.
Many missions leaders are frustrated simply by the lack of hard data needed for planning. There’s a monumental task of identifying the people yet to be reached. "Without hard data, the dream of reaching the world for Christ becomes nothing more than thatâ€”a dream," said a board president.
Of course, part of the data bottleneck is caused by our disagreement over what makes a group of people reached or unreached. Some modest lists have been published, but are highly suspect because of subjective field data. Various agencies compile their own lists according to their definitions and goals.
Next, when we get there, how do we approach people? Too often, it seems, we apply our quick-response American evangelism, without first taking time to understand the culture and to lay a proper biblical foundation for a valid response.
As one of my respondents put it, "Too much of what is supposed to be cross-cultural evangelism is little more than attempting to present a solution (the gospel) to people who do not adequately comprehend the problem (alienation from the true God because of sin, with absolutely no way for reconciliation by works or magic). The result, too often, is little more than laying a thin veneer of Christian works over a non-Christian world view."
At the same time, another major tactical hindrance to world evangelization is our continued reliance on languages other than the primary language of the people to be reached. This has led to countless incidents of faulty communication of key biblical precepts, and that opens the door to syncretism.
"Failure to comprehend the basic underlying principles which comprise a truly biblical worldview frequently results in ‘converts’ learning to do things Christians do, but still interpreting such actions and ritual within their traditional worldview," explained a missions researcher.
THERE’S ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
No one questions the zeal and dedication of the worldwide missionary force. What these leaders and thinkers are saying is that we have much room for growth in reaching maximum effectiveness in how we go about the task of world evangelization. That is paradoxical, in light of the explosion of missions books, missions courses, and missiological studies and investigations of one kind or another. We have tried to learn from the best research in linguistics, communications, sociology, history, and anthropology, yet it appears that our methods are slow to learn from these disciplines. One young missionary, just starting his career as a church planter, poured out his heart to me. Not only was the language new to him, his whole assignment was new to him. "I’ve never done this before," he said, "and there’s no one to show me what to do." I got the impression that his team was groping, looking for some clues to get better results.
Perhaps we are depending too much on individual initiative. Or perhaps we assume that dedication to God will give us the tools we need to be productive missionaries. Unfortunately, when you raise the questions like this, you are liable to be suspect yourself, as though spirituality and not better methods is the heart of the matter.
But if we mean what we say about world evangelization, then there’s no reason not to take a hard look at our strategies and methods, to see if God the Holy Spirit might give us fresh insights and new ideas.
Thus far in this series, we’ve looked at hindrances to world evangelization in the churches at home, those within mission structures, and those evident in our missionary methods. Part four will examine serious opposition and barriers in the world we’re committed to reaching.
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