by Fred E. Edwards
Every foreign missionary has some custom-free mental and emotional baggage that accompanies him in every contact with national Christians and non-Christians. Decisions and actions are often based on his culturally acquired sense of rightness. The effective missionary recognizes this “cultural overhang” and gets beyond it.
Every foreign missionary has some custom-free mental and emotional baggage that accompanies him in every contact with national Christians and non-Christians. Decisions and actions are often based on his culturally acquired sense of rightness. The effective missionary recognizes this "cultural overhang" and gets beyond it.
Unfortunately, cultural overhang is not the exclusive property of the individual missionary. It is also a fact of experience for the mission’s homeland administrative personnel. If the missionary must overcome his cultural overhang, it is crucial that the policy-makers he serves under do the same. Otherwise the effectiveness of the entire mission can be jeopardized.
Hudson Taylor knew this. It was a problematic feature of nineteenth century Protestant missionary activity, which he knew by painful experience and called "remote control," that motivated him to found the China Inland Mission. Mr. Taylor took exception to the then current administrative procedure of directing China field affairs from a London office. To correct this practice the new mission was to direct its affairs from on the scene rather than from overseas. Could it be that a solid century of missionary activity with its accumulated experience has not yet brought us to the elementary insight of this mission founder?
The operation of a mission agency, with missionaries serving in one or more nations or ethnic groups overseas, from a North American world headquarters is what I call remote control mission. This attempt by modern mission leaders, of a single cultural and religious heritage, to govern the combination of the affairs of their overseas missionaries and churches from afar is as unfortunate as it is well-meaning.
It is true that some homeland administrative posts are filled with "promoted" field missionaries who have been enriched by prolonged contact with one or more foreign cultures. In this case the administrator may be described as having a regional orientation-he may know one overseas situation well. But without protracted first-hand contact with the dynamic field situation even the regional man will soon lose his advantage. A case in point is the head of one board who spent three years in China twenty years ago. Today the majority of missionaries serving the Chinese of Taiwan with this board are more Chinese and less American than their North American director.
We are, therefore, faced with a condition in which many North American mission leaders are better orientated to the home support base than to the field work of their respective agencies. This, of course, would pose no problem if the scope of their administration were limited to promotional concerns. But since few, if any, submit to such a limitation, it is apparent why remote control missions are loaded with misunderstandings and problems.
Harold R. Cook in his book, Historic Patterns of Church Growth, gives the following illustration of the tragic results of the remote control of a mission’s field task. "In 1853 a deputation of Baptist officials visited Burma and tried to establish some definite rules for the carrying on of the work. Some of the rules seem to us very sensible. But whatever their merits, the strict implementation of the rules caused a serious split in the mission. Several outstanding missionaries among the Karens withdrew from the society. It was only after a number of years that the breach was finally healed and the board allowed the missionaries on the field a greater measure of discretion" (italics mine) 11971:105-6). It was a hard lesson-one that modern homeland administrators will do well to study each time they are tempted to "establish some definite rules for the carrying on of the (foreign) work."
Let’s anticipate some of the reasons that will be given to justify the continuation of remote control mission. It is said of North America: "Here is where the ferment in mission theory and strategy is taking place today," and "Then, too, there is the added value of an `objective’ view of a mission’s field activity which can be best gained from afar-where one is not enmeshed in the situation." If the homeland administrator with these two advantages is then linked to the diverse foreign fields by the miracle of modern communications, we are assured that there no longer exists any such problems as Hudson Taylor in China and the Baptists in Burma experienced more than one hundred years ago.
Communications, then, are seen by a majority of North America-based mission leaders as the needed cure for the problems of administering Christian overseas mission by remote control.
So the world headquarters staff is linked to the various foreign situations by: (1) the minutes of the field committees; (2) cablegrams; (3) occasional field visits with guided tours of the national church; (4) debriefing sessions with furloughing missionaries; (5) the reports carried home by the witness-tourist, and (6) the annual participation on the homeland board on the part of the missionary director from each overseas field. With the employment of these means of communication we are told that there is little or no danger in remote control mission today. Yet a myriad of problems in the missionary enterprise around the world can be traced to the influence of the cultural overhang of North America-based mission administrators. Moreover, these problems persist in the very face of the miracle of modern communications.
Here is the experience of one agency. After 1947 one U.S.-based leader had a large part in training evidently all the missionaries serving with his board. His concern was for the indigenous church-the three "selfs" (support, propagation and government). Therefore, the cardinal sin was to pay any national preacher. This mission was tied up from realizing its evangelistic and church growth potential. The dilemma could have been avoided had each field been allowed to deal with its own special situation and allocate its available funds in such a manner as to fully appropriate its evangelistic opportunity and its greatest growth in terms of baptized communicants.
Another problem is the current over-reaction of many evangelical mission agencies to the influence of Pentecostalism in Latin America. An extreme position is seen in the blanket policy adopted by a North American mission with missionaries on several continents. Its policy statement presents a hard line stance against the Pentecostal movement. The force of this statement is that all spiritual gifts will be played down. But it is mainly the Pentecostal demand for a sign or gift of tongues that gives this mission its difficulty. A solicitous stance taken by some evangelical mission agencies in response to the tongues movement has been "seek not . . . forbid not. " But the extreme position taken by the mission we are here considering is "seek not, do not testify concerning your experience (if you have received this sign or gift), and do not be found in association with those who practice tongues." Here, then, is a vivid illustration of a jet-age remote control mission policy. Drafted as it was in the homeland with an eye to the real and imagined excesses found in North America, this policy should not be implemented overseas. If rigidly enforced on this mission’s South American field, it is sure to cause tension between mission and church. Worse yet, if carried out fully, the missionary would find himself barred by headquarters’ decree from attending the national church that he planted or helped develop. In a nation where most evangelicals are Pentecostals, and the rest are influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the movement, the hard line stance could remove this mission from the mainstream of what the Spirit of God is doing in that country, on the South American continent and throughout Latin America.
Remote control is not solely a conservative evangelical mode of operation. Western conciliar churches are also exercising long-range control over supposedly indigenous churches. One African church recently pleaded with its western supporting body for the privilege of using funds ear-marked "social services" for evangelism in order to take advantage of the now large receptivity of its people.
There is also the Taiwanese denomination (created by the co-operative effort of missionaries from two western nations) whose line graph indicates that in 1961 its membership growth crested. What happened? Investigations show the nerve cord to evangelism had been cut by means of a three-pronged western effort to implement the new understanding of mission held by the homeland boards. By the use of publications, the extracting of leaders for retraining in the United States and on-the-scene social concerns conferences, a growing church was turned from the effective discipling of its countrymen to an unhealthy preoccupation with social issues.
It is, therefore, imperative that homeland policy-making personnel recognize the natural limitation of their own cultural heritage and not legislate or control from the home base the affairs of the foreign fields.
Is there a better way? Yes, we need on-the-scene leadership. Some of the homeland leaders could be located overseas rather than in the U.S. headquarters. But a functioning field leadership must be developed. This will require homeland administrators to cultivate a confidence in the Holy Spirit’s leading and equipping of the lives of their missionaries. The lack of this confidence will only guarantee the perpetuation of the remote control approach to mission. The now available means of rapid transportation and modern communications will be used to involve the field missionary in the ferment of mission theory and strategy that is taking place in North America. Some forward looking agencies are now giving their missionaries the opportunity and assistance necessary to make an objective evaluation of their overseas efforts. This is being done by means of homeland in-service training programs. At a number of institutions the furloughing missionary can interact with fellow career missionaries and mature national leaders while pursuing academic studies that are relevant to both his vocation and field situation.
Everyone, in the homeland and on the field, must also realize that a failure to expect of the national church any new understanding of biblical doctrine or new organizational structure is also a subtle form of undesirable control. How much more exciting it is to expect God to do something new and fresh (I do not say unbiblical) with the national church we plant and develop with him. Think of the added dimension given to the missionary task when we expect God to supply something needed to us through the new but real members of his body overseas.
Are we ready for a reconsideration of remote control missions? Recently a number of North American mission agencies have restructured their organizations for added efficiency and effectiveness. Others will soon follow suit. Hopefully, they will not only seek to improve long distance communications and control, but will devise alternative structures that will enable Christian overseas missions in the 70’s to avoid the problems still inherent in the remote control mission approach.
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