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Missionary Failure

Let it be clearly understood that I have nothing against missionaries. I was raised on the mission field and have served as a missionary, myself. Over the years I’ve met quite a few other missionaries, visited their works and read plenty of mission newsletters. I’ve also read a fair number of mission books, not only historical accounts and biographies, but books about mission theory and practice. So I reckon I know a little about missionaries and what they do. From what I’ve observed, read and experienced, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a high rate of missionary failure and that, to a large extent, the failure is self-inflicted and self-perpetuating.

The failure is not, in the main, due to character flaws. Certainly, as with any other group of individuals some missionaries are incompetent – whether from lack of ability and gifting, or from being mismatched to the task. You’ll also find some who are vain, egotistical, impatient, angry, insecure, discouraged, just plain lazy, or subject to any of the other human failings. We live, after all, in a fallen world. As a group, however, it would be difficult to find people who are more talented, dedicated, sacrificial and humble. Most truly do display the character of Christ. For sure it would be difficult to find people who love others more.

No, I have no beef with missionaries. In fact, I’ll go further and say that, as a general rule, I don’t think anybody has a right to criticize who either hasn’t served on the field, or who isn’t willing to serve. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be accountability or that missionaries are above the scrutiny of the common herd. I am saying that there’s no place for Monday-morning quarterbacks who’ve never had to run with the ball – especially those who don’t even know what the game is, let alone what the rules are.

In harmony with those sentiments, I don’t claim to have any kind of expertise in your part of the world. I can only comment on what I’ve seen and experienced. If my observations are helpful to you – great. If not, I’d be glad to hear how my take on things needs to be modified to fit where you are.

Before we can talk about missionary failure, we’ve got to define what it is that missionaries are supposed to do. The charter for mission-work is Matthew 28:18-20, “…Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (NIV)

We call Jesus’ command the “Great Commission.” There are two parts to it. The first is “make disciples.” The second is “teach them to obey everything.” In light of the command we can call missionaries the successors of the Apostles. (The literal meaning of the word “apostle” is “one who is sent”.) No, missionaries are not divinely inspired like the Apostles were. Nor do missionaries have authority over the entire church, nor are they in the foundation of the church (see Ephesians 2:19-22). But missionaries do carry on the Apostles’ work of taking the Gospel to people who have not heard it and bringing those who believe together in congregations.

Be that as it may, it’s the second part of the job that got me thinking about missionary failure. Yes, we missionaries do introduce others to the Gospel. Yes, we do form the new disciples into congregations. But have we really taught those disciples to obey everything? I hardly think so.

To illustrate what I’m getting at, compare a typical mission church to a typical new-church-plant here in the States. (Before going forward I should make clear that I’m talking about starting the kind of independent, autonomous congregations we read about in the New Testament. I’m sure that the hierarchical, so-called “main-line” churches have similar problems in mission work, but their process is quite different than what I’m talking about. Their biggest problem, of course, is that their very form of church structure is contrary to the example we have in the New Testament.)

There are a number of different ways in which new congregations can come into existence. The exact method isn’t really important to the point I’m going to make. However, it often goes something like this: Someone sees the need and develops a burden for starting a new congregation in a particular place. He approaches a church-planting organization for help in doing so. (By the way, if the whole concept of a “church-planting organization” doesn’t curl your hair – it ought to. But I’m describing reality here, not how things should be.) The church-planting organization assesses the aspiring church planter to see whether they think he’s capable of bringing a congregation into being. If they think he has potential, they give him additional training and a methodology and time-table of important milestones to aim for in the process. They arrange for on-going mentoring and periodic assessments of the new work. In addition they either provide or help arrange for start-up funding.

At the beginning the church-planting organization is heavily involved in the new congregation. However, the involvement doesn’t last forever. It tapers off fairly rapidly after the first few years. If, after a certain time, the organization feels that not enough progress has been made, they advise the church planter to terminate his efforts and they pull the plug on support.

Now as much as I may cringe at the concept of an organization doing what really ought to be one of the functions of the church, they have the right idea. After a certain amount of time, generally about three years, they expect new congregations to be capable of standing on their own. What does that mean?

Going on a century ago, Roland Allen made a study of the missionary methods of the Apostle Paul. He concluded that Paul was so successful in starting congregations because of three principles: Paul enabled the congregations to become self-governing, self-propagating and self-sustaining. Though they may use different terminology, the church-planting organizations generally agree with Allen’s conclusions.

After about three years or so, they expect new congregations to be able to pay their own bills. Similarly, they expect a new congregation to be capable of selecting leaders and running its own affairs. They also expect a new congregation to be growing numerically – and not just through the efforts of the original church planter.

Contrast this with the situation in many mission churches. I know of churches which still rely on outside funds, not only for capital improvements like new buildings but, for the normal operating expenses through they have been in existence for over half a century. In one place I was flat-out told, that it was useless to teach on giving or to expect the locals to support their own church. The attitude of the members was that if the church expected them to give, they’d go to a congregation which didn’t. Is it any wonder that that particular congregation is not as healthy as it might be? In another congregation a leader made it very clear that as far as he was concerned my coming – though I had spent long hours teaching the people – was pointless unless I had brought a stack of money with me. Needless to say, if his attitude was typical, I thought my coming was pointless too.

I know of mission churches which have been in existence for decades, yet still do not have any Elders or Deacons. Even worse, there is no system or plan in place to develop any. The congregations are still run by missionary-appointed preachers rather than leaders selected by the congregations themselves. (I recently ran into an extreme example of this from the denominational world. On a mission trip I met a rather imperious, middle-aged, white woman who, if memory serves, had just arrived from a tour of Egypt and the Sudan. Her father – a foreigner – had been the Bishop over this huge area. He had died several years before and, if I got the story straight, either a new Bishop had not been appointed or the new Bishop had to work with, or through, some sort of council. I sincerely hope that I misunderstood or don’t remember correctly but, the impression I got was that by virtue of the fact that this woman’s father had been the Bishop, she had a great deal of say in how that bishopric was governed. If I remember correctly, no new clergy could be ordained without her presence. Even worse, there could be no new confirmations. Since she could tour the area only every couple of years or so… Well, you get the idea. Though I do not agree at all with the denominational structure involved, I found it appalling that a foreign, white woman from a totally different culture had so much power over the affairs of the local churches.)

Things look quite a bit better in the area of self-propagation. However, I have known of situations where the missionary had to approve candidates for baptism. (See the story above where the foreign woman had a say in who got confirmed.) A number of the congregations I know are enthusiastic about evangelism. But even there, the concept that they ought to be thinking in terms of sending out missionaries of their own to other parts of their own country, let alone to foreign lands, is something they can’t even imagine.

Why do these failures and weaknesses still exist even though the congregations were established decades ago? The congregations are the way they are because we’ve taught them to be that way. They aren’t self-supporting because we’ve taught them to be dependent upon outside funding. Instead of teaching them to take care of their own, by our actions we’ve taught them to turn to us as the first resort whenever there is a financial need. For example, when a medical need arises, the people turn to the missionary first for help paying for treatment instead of taking the need to the church. Similarly, I’m not implying that they are capable of building and maintaining buildings like ours, but surely they could come up with the means to obtain and maintain meeting places which are appropriate and suitable for their culture and their circumstances?

The churches aren’t self-governing because we haven’t trained them to develop their own leaders. We have inadvertently taught them to depend on outside or foreign institutions to provide leaders for them. Otherwise, why do the people think that someone who was ordained by a foreigner has more legitimacy than a man ordained by the local church? We’ve also conditioned them to embrace credentialism. For example, there have been semi-literate and biblically-illiterate people who have discounted the teaching I’ve provided them because I don’t have a formal degree. Never mind that what I presented was far beyond their ability to come up with on their own. Since they look at me – a foreigner – like that, woe betide the local man, no matter how spiritual or capable a teacher he may be, who doesn’t have a certificate or degree of some sort!

The local churches might not be able to supply the equivalent of our degree programs, but are the degree programs necessary even for leaders in the missionaries’ home countries? Surely the locals are capable of passing on what they’ve been taught? Surely they are capable of developing some of their own curriculum and teaching materials? If education is important to them, surely they could come up with enough money to pay for such things as adult literacy courses? If individuals are too poor to buy study aids such as concordances for themselves, can’t the churches find the wherewithal to obtain a copy or two for the church? But we have taught them to turn to us rather than develop their own solutions.

The churches aren’t better at propagating themselves because we’ve taught them to rely on us to spread the Gospel. Granted, they often don’t have the resources to do some of the things we can – like produce radio programs and publish literature. However, we have not even taught them the basics such as to designate a portion of their tithes and offerings for evangelism or mission work.

I can’t help but wonder why we so often have such different expectations for mission churches than for church-plants in our own country. Do we harbor a subconscious belief that we are somehow superior to the foreign people among whom we labor? I hope not, but the end results tend to suggest that conclusion.

As serious and tragic as these failures are, there is another type of failure which hinders our effectiveness. This one is particularly insidious because it stems from genuine caring and a desire to alleviate suffering. (This failure relates to the first part of the Great Commission.) I’ve heard people say that you can’t share the Gospel with a starving man until you’ve fed him. What? Just because you don’t have the means to solve the hunger problem are you going to deprive people of the Gospel, too? Let’s face it. There is a vast ocean of need out there. Our ability to meet that need is a mere drop in comparison. As Jesus said, “You will always have the poor among you…” (John 12:8 NIV) If we wait to share the Gospel until we’ve met every other need, we’ll never share the Gospel. We have the resources to do only so much. What is more important? Providing for someone’s physical wellbeing or their spiritual wellbeing? Shouldn’t the spiritual take precedence over the physical?

Not too long ago I read an article (which I now can’t find) which described an interview a church leader conducted with a bunch of Bible college students who had just returned from a short-term mission trip. The students were all enthused about the wells they had helped dig and the medical assistance they had provided. No doubt they had helped save lives and helped raise the standard of living for the people. Yet, the person who interviewed them was appalled to find that not a single one had shared the Gospel with the people they served. What good is it to save a person’s physical life if we withhold spiritual life from him?

Are the community development projects which are divorced from spiritual teaching even effective in the long run? Just a few days ago I met with an old missionary who’s been a family friend for over 50 years. He’s served in several different countries including Afghanistan and Hong Kong. He was in Iran during the Khomeni revolution. He and his wife still travel extensively throughout Asia, teaching in seminaries and meeting with many different development groups. [Note: The man died after this essay was written.] During his mid-seventies he went back to university and earned another doctorate. In his doctoral thesis he states that evangelism is very difficult unless the physical needs of people are also addressed. However, he made an extremely interesting observation based on the groups and projects he studied. If a spiritual emphasis is lacking in development work, the projects will fail. There will be no long-term benefit. Unless people come to understand that they are created in the image of God and, therefore, there is a plan and purpose for life, they will not believe that betterment is possible. In other words, altruism will not succeed unless it imparts a transcendental knowledge of divine purpose. To try to better people’s lives without also teaching them the foundational biblical truths is, in the long run, an exercise in futility.

“But a starving person won’t listen to the Gospel!” Sure he will – provided that you are willing to starve along with him. Now I know first-hand just how much missionaries give up and sacrifice in order to go to foreign lands and proclaim the Gospel in other cultures. It’s not just a matter of accepting what is often a much lower standard of living and risking contracting diseases than one would normally never be exposed to. There’s more to it than putting up with the frustrations of not being able to accomplish nearly as much in the same amount of time – having to cope with a society that has very different ethical standards and an often byzantine bureaucracy. There is also an “opportunity cost” to serving as a missionary. By leaving his home country a missionary gives up all kinds of opportunities and perks he would have had by staying – not to mention a very real difference in earning power.

The fact remains, however, that as great as the sacrifices are which missionaries have to make, the local people consider them fantastically wealthy. And, from a local perspective, they are! Some of this perception is skewed by a lack of understanding. I remember the incredulous looks I got when a relatively poor man asked how my house in my home country was constructed. He was dumbstruck when I told him it was made of wood. In his country, it is unthinkable to build with wood – not only because wood is scarce, and therefore expensive, but because termites would destroy a wooden house in short order. This man lived in a modest house made of brick. He didn’t know what to think when I told him that I couldn’t afford a brick house. Another time someone asked me whether I owned a car. I’m not sure he believed me when I told him that it was cheaper for me to drive my own car than to ride public transport.

Mis-perceptions and cultural differences aside most missionaries really are wealthy in comparison to the people among whom they go to live and serve. If for no other reason, the missionary has a safety net that the locals simply do not have. If necessary, he can appeal to his embassy to extract him from a sticky situation. His sponsoring churches or mission society will pay his medical bills or fly him home.

There is no doubt that this disparity in wealth and opportunity can create a barrier and hinder our proclamation of the Gospel. As much as missionaries give up to take the good news to other cultures, they need to give up much more to truly be effective. We need to adopt the same incarnational approach that Jesus did.

While preparing a series of classes on the book of Philippians, I was struck by how applicable Paul’s description of Jesus’ attitude and His coming into this world is to mission work. The following is a description of a missionary and his work loosely based on Philippians, chapter 2, starting with verse 3.

(Verse 3) There was nothing selfish about him. He didn’t go about ‘tooting his own horn’ or displaying his degrees and credentials. Instead, he had a genuine appreciation for other people and their innate worth. He never gave the impression that he thought he was superior to anyone else because of his heritage or culture. He was a humble person. He realized that anything in his culture or heritage was truly superior only to the degree it was a reflection of Christ and biblical principles. Nor did he ever excuse the shortcomings of his culture or background. (Verse 4) Instead he was more than willing to admire the good he found in other people and learn from them. Though he was not a doormat nor did he hide his opinions and desires, whenever there was a conflict between what was best for someone else and what he wanted, he willingly conceded his own rights or interests. (Verse 5) He hoped that people would be able to see past him to see the character of Christ.

(Verse 6) He was, in truth, an American but did not flaunt it. On the contrary, he did not hold on to the rights and privileges of his American citizenship. He never appealed to the embassy to smooth his way or rescue him from difficulty. He shunned the special treatment and special access which his citizenship could have obtained for him. (Verse 7) In order to serve those to whom he ministered he gave up his income, his savings and financial security. Going to a far country he lived as a peasant. (Verse 8) Though, in the world’s eyes, it was a real come down, he learned to live and make do with the same level of income and material possessions as those to whom he ministered. He entered into their lives and shared their misery as well as their joys. No one could accuse him of being arrogant or having a ‘holier than thou attitude.’ In all he did he tried his best to be obedient to Christ, even at the peril of his life.

(Verse 9) As a result, Christ was highly honored. The people realized that Jesus did not come merely for the rich, nor was Christianity merely a means to better their social, economic or medical status. (Verse 10) They learned to bow before Jesus because the missionary was, himself, submitted. (Verse 11) They confessed Christ as Lord because they first saw that He was sovereign in the life of the missionary. And in this way much glory was given to God the Father.

I’m fully aware that the above description probably raises as many questions as it answers. For example, it does not address the issues of family and what a missionary should do about educating his children – particularly if they are going to return to his home country. Each missionary will have to figure out the details to fit his particular (and unique) situation. However, I am convinced that we have not paid sufficient attention to Christ’s example and that we would be far more effective if we did.

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