by David J. Hesselgrave
LIVE— “Learning through International Volunteer Effort” — was the theme of a conference held in Manila.
LIVE— "Learning through International Volunteer Effort" — was the theme of a conference held in Manila.
Sponsored by IAVE, the International Association for Volunteer Education, the conference brought together delegates from around the world. Why IAVE? Because the International Red Cross, the YMCA, the Kiwanis, the National Federations of Women’s Clubs and hundreds of similar organizations depend on volunteers for their very life. The recruitment, training and motivation of volunteers are therefore matters of international concern.
Though not represented in IAVE, Protestant missions would die on the vine apart from a vast program of volunteerism. In fact, they may not have germinated in the beginning. The Protestant missionary enterprise did not emerge as the result of strategic deliberations of ecclesiastics bouyed up by denomination-wide ground swells of enthusiasm for world evangelism. Rather, we must credit the vision and dedication of individuals like Justinianus von Welz, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Samuel J. Mills and others who convinced a few of the need, helped organize them into home support bodies, and then (in many cases) volunteered to go overseas themselves. Subsequently, a great host of Protestant missionaries were raised up and send out through the appeals of denominational and interdenominational agencies for recruits and financial support. They have provided one of the greatest demonstrations of selfless devotion and altruism that the world has ever known. Today, an spite of a reduction in available finances and the number of overseas personnel in some sections of the church, manpower and money are still generally available to evangelical agencies to continue the mission on the same volunteer basis.
There is, however, another side of the coin. In a marked way, the evangelical missionary enterprise in the 1970’s exhibits weaknesses that quite naturally accrue to its basic recruitment and fund-raring system. In pointing these out it is mot the intention of the author to augment destructive criticism, but rather to encourage the upgrading of missionary programs and the enhancement of missionary achievement.
To accomplish this I would like to make a distinction between two closely related concepts: voluntarism and volunteerism. Voluntarism means that participation in mission whether by going, giving, praying, or encouraging) is rooted an the free response of the individual to that which he believes to be the will of God. Volunteerism refers to that application of voluntarism where there is heavy reliance on a general appeal to Christians to give themselves or their resources in the cause of the world mission.
Simply stated, our thesis is that it as volunteerism in missions that has inherent deleterious tendencies that require periodic and careful examination by all true friends of the Christian mission. Such as examination is particularly necessary today. Soaring costs, newly-emerging relationships between the missions and the younger churches, the eroding image of Westerners, large numbers of decisions coupled with low rates of church growth on many fields these and other factors dictate that we hold weaknesses up to scrutiny and make appropriate adjustments lest we fail Christ.
What, then, are some of the inherent weaknesses of volunteerism and how do they manifest themselves today?
1. Volunteerism has contributed to a misunderstanding of the nature of Christian commitment. Exegetes debate the force of the "go" in the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28, but one thing is clear: the original will not sustain the emphasis that we have placed upon "go ye" at the expense of the only imperative in the passage, which is "make disciples." It is volunteerism, not sound exegesis, that has led us to make "go ye " the touchstone of dedication to Christ. Over and over, Christian young people have been asked if they are willing to go. Exactly what missionaries are to do after they have gone can be considered later, it would seem. But to be biblical and candid, we must admit that insofar as this is true, we have erred. What certainly precedes where in the New Testament. The problem with making willingness to go the litmus test of Christian commitment is that some actually take up the challenge and go without giving careful consideration to what Christ really calls them to be and do, and without preparing themselves to do it.
2. Volunteerism has been a factor in the distorted picture of overseas missions that is sometimes conveyed to the man in the pew. For John Q. Christian, missions become what good public relations insist that they must be. After all, recruits are not falling over each other to get to the candidate secretaries of missionary organizations. Dollars do not sprout wings and fly to the coffers of missionary agencies with the unerring instinct of homing pigeons. The field chairman of one mission in the Orient resigned when his home board required that he undertake a program that experienced nationals and missionaries alike agreed to be illadvised. The reason for the home board’s insistence was that it was the kind of program that North American Christians would understand and support. Public relations is a good and necessary aspect of the missionary endeavor, but volunteerism sometimes results in programs that are salable rather than in those that are Scriptural and sane.
3. Volunteerism has tended to encourage the appointment of some candidates who would not otherwise be selected. We tread on dangerous ground here. It has been estimated that only about one percent of those who at one time or another volunteer for overseas missions actually get to the field. We would like to see more – not fewer – get to the field! But everyone will admit that we must concern ourselves with quality as well as quantity.
Take the case of missionary A. After many months of indecision, he responded to an urgent appeal for volunteers by representative O of Mission X. At that point, A and O met for the very first time. O was impressed with A’s sincerity. In a few days A had filed out papers that gave him "volunteer" status. He then went through a number of steps designed to determine his suitability for final appointment and commissioning – stages involving interviews, questionnaires, references, examinations, and a workshop. A subtle factor was operating through that entire process that is too important to overlook. It resulted from the simple fact that Mission X sent out a general appeal, and volunteer A responded. Since volunteer A had demonstrated willingness and sincerity, it became incumbent on Mission X to send him out, or show cause [which he, his supporters, and other volunteers would accept] for not sending him out. In a very real sense, the onus was on the mission. Actually A did not possess the qualifications representative O would have looked for had he been choosing a candidate. But A did volunteer, and others with better qualifications did not. Therefore, A was sent largely on the basis that he was a good Christian fellow who could certainly make some contribution on the field, and because he was able to raise his support. However, it now costs as much to support him on the field as it would cost to support the fully qualified man who also might have responded, had mission X not been restricted by volunteerism as currently practiced.
4. Volunteerism has resulted in can imbalance of ministries in the field situation. The general call is quite naturally directed in the main to those who have not made a specific vocational commitment. Thus, the missionary enterprise reflects the diversity of interests, gifts, and preparation that characterizes the youth population of our variegated and complex culture. Biblical priorities may be pushed aside. For example, one elucidation of the missionary call vicariously asks the question, "Can I be a missionary without being a preacher?" The answer: "Of course you can. Whatever your interest may be, the Lord can use you on the mission field." Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But there is a nascent confusion of biblical priorities in that answer that could be disastrous. Many missions have serious personnel deficiencies in one category: fully qualified specialists to pioneer or aid the younger churches in evangelism, church extension and theological training-precisely that kind of missionary work that engaged Paul and his team. Current methods of recruitment may never care for that deficiency!
5. Volunteerism tends to encourage the commissioning of those who are inexperienced. The primary challenge is directed to those who are still in training and have had little or no experience in the very tasks that they will be expected to perform capably in another culture. Yet, the missions are often reluctant to encourage the volunteer to get adequate theological and missiological training and experience for fear of losing him in the process. But it is costly business to send a volunteer halfway around the world to make the mistakes and face the discouragements that are a part of learning. Mistakes on the mission field are much more easily made than in the home situation, and their adverse effects are often far greater.
The foregoing are some of the more serious drawbacks of contemporary volunteerism. They will be understood best by knowledgeable leaders and missionaries who have labored long in the field situation, but reflection will reveal their possibility to any thinking Christian.
As Michael Griffiths has pointed out, the New Testament does not record a single instance of a general call for volunteers (the essence of volunteerism). (Cf. Michael Griffiths, You and God’s Work Overseas, Inter-Varsity Press.) The fate of the missionary enterprise (humanly speaking) was not left to individual initiative alone. Our Lord chose and trained the Apostles. The church at Antioch selected Paul and Barnabas. Experienced workers had a part in the appointment of qualified co-workers. God’s call to the work – and his guidance in the work – was received corporately as well as individually.
This is no brief against volunteerism per se. It would be impossible to turn history back 2000 years, even if that were desirable. Rather, in faithfulness to Christ we should explore ways of overcoming negative consequences. There are ways to ameliorate them.
1. Laymen find pastors who are truly dedicated to the cause of Christ around the world [not just because of what missions can do for their local church but because of what their local church can do for missions] should spend extra time with serious missionary literature and in conversation with men of missions, especially those who have field experience an the basic missionary tasks. Armed with more complete information they can encourage balanced reporting and support for faithful workers with viable strategies and long-range goals. The outstanding strategists of mission from Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson down to Donald McGavran agree that the overall missionary objective is to establish local congregations that will be the continuing means of evangelism in the various nations. The route to that objective in other cultures is seldom less demanding than it is at home.
2. As a part of their spiritual ministries, pastors, elders, youth leaders and others in the churches should take special note of those who demonstrate dedication to Christ, a cooperative spirit, the ability to communicate, dependability in inconspicuous tasks, and other qualities so vital on the mission field. These should be singled out for special counseling concerning full-time service and the possibility of missionary ministries. They should have opportunities for discussion with visiting missionaries and mission representatives as a part of missionary meetings and conferences. In this way, sustained and meaningful dialogue can be carried on with potential volunteers, and consultation maintained with those who knew them best.
3. Missions and volunteers should give careful consideration to adequate training programs that incorporate sound missionary training. The missionaries of one medium-size mission in the Orient discovered during one of their conferences that there was not one person in the entire group who had had any significant missionary training. Various members had been well-trained in Bible, theology, medicine, the arts, etc., but not one had been trained in missions history, area studies, cross-cultural communication, evangelism and church growth, or other subjects designed to prepare them to function effectively on their chosen field of labor. Lamentably, this is not an isolated example. Programs are now available that prepare students for missionary assignments as a part of their basic theological training. If we are serious about the Great Commission, these programs should be prayerfully considered by all missionary leaders and candidates.
4. Missions and their representatives in recruitment capacities should approach successful pastors and church workers concerning overseas assignments an the same personalized way they now appeal to Christian men of means for financial support. These men and women may be asked to take long- or short-term assignments on a field. They may serve in one place or remain mobile, depending on circumstances. But they are needed. National leaders are often especially appreciative of the insights and contribution of successful counterparts from other countries. Field organizations are often greatly aided by such personnel. They too must have cultural orientation to be effective. But in some situations one such man may be worth several inexperienced recruits.
5. Missionaries who show special capacities for leadership and missionary strategy should be singled out for advanced training while on furlough in order to coordinate field discussions and programs, especially in church extension evangelism. Some missions are spinning their wheels for lack of such know-how. To wait for leadership to emerge without special training may take years. It may not be forthcoming at all. On the other hand, some missions have made a small investment in advanced training for a few, and are reaping the results in the form of new growth.
6. The subject of volunteerism should be given top priority on the agenda of some future conference of evangelical leaders. A recent congressional report insists that the 6,800 member Peace Corps must examine its recruitment program and upgrade the quality of its personnel if it is to survive in the 1970’s. Reo M. Christensen says of the Peace Corps, "A great experience for those who participate, but of trifling consequence to beneficiary nations" (Christianity Today, Feb. 5, 1973). Evangelical missions should also take inventory. In all candor we would have to say that despite its advantages, volunteerism has its problems. All too often when our evaluation of a program is, "A great experience…of trifling consequence," volunteerism is involved.
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