How Shall We Work Today?
by Dr. Bob Finley
Founder of Christian Aid
Beginning around 1800, evangelical Christians in Europe and America began to be concerned about reaching lost souls outside their own countries. Thus was born the foreign missionary movement of the 19th Century and beyond.
God used those early pioneers, like William Carey who went to India in 1792, and Adoniram Judson who followed him there a few years later and then went on to Burma. Also Robert Morrison who went to China in 1807 and David Livingstone who went to Africa in 1841. These and many others began to put the Word of God into other languages and plant the first churches where none had been before. We should thank God for all who were true believers.
By around 1900 the modern missionary movement had become a major emphasis in most Protestant churches, and thousands of idealistic young people were going out to the “regions beyond” to spread the gospel. And again, let me repeat, many of them were greatly used of God.
But there was a serious flaw in the way they worked. Almost all were devoted to extending their denominations and mission organizations into foreign countries. In 1949 a local Christian in China told me that he was “a Lutheran of the Missouri Synod.” Another said he was “Chinese American Dutch Reformed.” Also in China I met Presbyterians U.S. and Presbyterians USA; along with Canadian Presbyterians, Australian Presbyterians, and Presbyterians of the Church of Scotland. Then, of course, there were at least a dozen different kinds of Baptists. Plus about 100 other kinds of Christians, all wearing the labels of the particular foreign mission organizations or denominations to which they belonged.
Of the 6000 foreign missionaries working in China at that time, every one I met seemed oblivious to what was happening. A new religion called “Communism” was taking over the country, and the key to their persuasive propaganda was patriotism. “China is for Chinese, not for foreigners,” they were saying. Foreign missionaries were said to be “agents of the capitalistic imperialists, the last vestiges of colonialism.” Many falsely said that we missionaries were “American spies, sent by the CIA.” And most people, even Chinese Christians, believed them. They didn’t know the difference. And so the Communists took China and put all foreign missionaries out of their country.
India gained independence in 1947 and Hindus who controlled the government enacted legislation that denied entrance visas to Christian missionaries. The huge Soviet empire had admitted no foreign missionaries since around 1920. Other Communist countries did likewise. And most Islamic countries had never allowed foreign Christian missionaries to work within their borders. The result of these developments was that 90% of the 4000 unreached nations on earth were cut off from outsiders. American missionaries could go only to free countries where Christian churches were already established. Only native missionaries could preach the gospel in closed lands.
Leaders of traditional missions were stunned by these sudden changes. Bible institutes and Christian colleges which had been devoted to training and sending out missionaries were shocked to find 90% of “mission field” populations cut off from their graduates. Some mission leaders were even tempted to ask why God would allow these changes to happen.
What they failed to see was that God had planned it all along. What became “the missionary industry” (as some missiologists called it) was a business model which grew out of the free enterprise philosophy which had proved so successful in the American economy. In 1945 a zealous young business man in California worked with me for a while in reaching university students for Christ. Later he started his own ministry, which soon went international. Years later when we met at a convention he said, “We are in 50 countries now; how many are you in?” He never mentioned that his workers expanded their operation by competing with indigenous ministries, hiring away some of their workers and dividing their work.
What we have failed to recognize is that the modern missionary movement is a church tradition that evolved in colonial days of the 19th century. It has no precedent in the New Testament.
There is no record anywhere in the New Testament that God ever sent a missionary where he did not know the language, or would be looked upon as a foreign invader. The gospel was spread throughout the Roman Empire by men who were converted while away from home, temporarily visiting in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9-10, 11:19-20).
Saul of Tarsus is the chief example. God did not send him to India or Egypt but back to his own (Greek speaking) people. Barnabas of Cyprus likewise, and his nephew, John Mark. Also Silas who, like Paul, was a Roman citizen. Andronicus and Junius were saved on the day of Pentecost and went back to Rome to start house churches whose faith would be spoken of throughout the whole world (Romans 1:8).
Neither does the New Testament record any instance where “cross cultural” foreigners had any part in planting the hundreds of churches that sprouted and grew among the nations of the Roman Empire during the first century. Most of the original 11 apostles stayed in Palestine for almost 40 years, although it is mentioned that Peter went once to visit Antioch and, sadly, split the church there (Galatians 2:11-14). Peter did not go to Babylon, as has been supposed. “Babylon” was a code word for Jerusalem (also called “Sodom” and “Egypt” in Revelation 11:8).
The apostle John apparently went to visit seven churches in Asia after they had become well established. But there is no record in the New Testament of any other Palestinians being sent to foreign countries. Rather, they reached “devout men from every nation” (Acts 2:5) who came as pilgrims to Jerusalem. In Acts 8 we get the picture. God did not send Philip to Ethiopia but rather to reach a prominent Ethiopian who was away from home.
There were no mission boards or “send out your missionaries” concepts among the New Testament churches. Any individuals who did move into new locations went as immigrants to live and work there. The whole idea of sending Americans to go as professional missionaries to start branches of our denominations in foreign countries is a colonial tradition that has no example in Scripture. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do so. But it does mean that we can honestly evaluate the practice without “denying the great commission” as some have slanderously reported we are doing.
So here are a few things we need to consider.
1. American (or Canadian, or Korean, or German, or English) missionaries should not be sent to work where evangelical churches already exist.
This is happening all over the world. The “rich foreigners” come in, take away believers from indigenous works and divide their churches. They set up Bible schools to “train the nationals” virtually across the street from indigenous Bible schools. They weaken (or even destroy) those local schools by hiring away their teachers and stealing their students. They also devastate indigenous missionary ministries by using their comparative wealth to lure away workers from those missions. Christian Aid has been calling for an end to these practices.
2. American missionaries should not be sent with an outward display of wealth to work among extremely poor people in impoverished countries.
Multiplied millions of people live in one room huts with dirt floors and no furniture. Not even doors or windows. American families often go to live among those poor people driving cars and hauling truckloads of food, clothing, furniture and equipment. They construct six room houses and hire servants for a few cents a day. While appearing to be fabulously rich, how can they represent our Lord “who though He was rich yet for our sakes became poor?” They can never teach “love your neighbor as yourself” to poverty stricken people.
All over Asia and Africa the comparatively rich foreign missionary is looked upon as the ultimate hypocrite. A non-Christian might curse another man by calling him “a son of a missionary.” Christian Aid has recommended that we phase out the “sending” practice and replace it with the more sensible approach of supporting native missionary ministries instead. They have 400,000 workers who are willing to live on two dollars a day; thousands don’t have even that.
3. Missionaries should not be sent to work among people who are of a different ethnic origin.
Prem Pradhan of Nepal said that if missionaries of European ancestry invaded one of the 100-odd nations (or tribes) in his country, it would set back the Christian cause a whole generation. Americans look weird to those people. Most wouldn’t want to be seen with us lest they be ridiculed by their neighbors.
When I first went to China 60 years ago, Europeans were believed to be devils. So Christianity was generally regarded as a religion of foreign devils and was slow to take root and spread. Then God mercifully allowed the Communists to sweep out all foreign missionaries (and their 100 foreign denominations and organizations) so a new generation could grow up with no exposure to “foreign devils.” After about 40 years the churches began to grow and multiply at a rate unprecedented in all of human history. It could never have happened if the foreigners had remained.
4. Missionaries should not be sent where they are identified with colonial political rulers.
At a congress in Berlin in 1966 two delegates from Africa said, “We want to evangelize our tribes, but we can’t do it as long as you white people remain. Our people ask, ‘Are you still working for the foreigners? Don’t you know we have independence now?’ When they see white people still present, they think we are working for them. It would be better for the cause of Christ if all white missionaries left our countries.”
At a succeeding conference in Lausanne in 1974 the entire African delegation, representing about 30 countries, submitted a united petition asking for a moratorium on white missionaries coming to Africa. Colonial-minded Americans, to their shame, rebuked them publicly.
When C. Stacey Woods was head of InterVarsity Fellowship 60 years ago, I heard him quote a Christian leader from India as saying that the presence of foreign (white) missionaries was a great hindrance to the cause of Christ in that sub-continent. Why? Because they identified Christians with their former British rulers. But again, mercifully, God allowed the Hindus to exclude foreign missionaries, and after about 40 years indigenous churches began to multiply at an explosive rate. The new generation did not associate Christianity with colonial rule.
5. Other than for brief visits, American missionaries should not go to foreign countries and associate themselves with indigenous ministries.
An effective ministry in Asia was established by an Asian who had graduated from a Christian college and seminary in America. It grew to have 80 missionaries on the field and 50 more in training at their Bible institute. Some of their support came from U.S. churches, one of which wasn’t satisfied to “just send money.” They wanted to be involved directly. So they sent one of their members as a “low budget” ($40,000 a year) missionary to join that ministry in Asia.
From the day he arrived he caused nothing but trouble. His fabulous wealth bred covetousness among the locals. His support package was equal to that of this entire Asian mission, including their Bible institute. He threw his weight around as one having authority, seeking to exert his influence on mission activities.
His presence was a continual source of irritation and disruption, and all the mission’s leaders wished there was some way to politely get rid of him. But how could they? He claimed to have been divinely called to “go to the mission field.”
I have seen this scenario repeated over and over throughout the world. The 19th century concept of a presumed “missionary call” has been used to justify our intrusion into indigenous missions and their churches, to the detriment of their spiritual life.
How Then Shall We Proceed?
While respecting the past, we must change our perspective for the future.
When we teach basic missionary principles like these, an outcry is invariably heard from our fellow Americans who cherish the history of missions. “Are you saying that great missionaries like Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone, William Carey and Adoniram Judson were not used of God?”
Of course not. In fact, many traditional missionaries are being used of God even now. Each situation stands on its own merits. While we stand for change on general principles, we recognize that there are also exceptions. There are times when we may work one way, and then the situation changes so we need to work a different way.
Many of the early pioneers who went to China 150 years ago were used of God to win souls and plant churches, even though most people thought they were devils. But just as surely as there was one way to work in 1848, I soon learned it was a serious blunder to continue working that way when I went to China a hundred years later. Brilliant Chinese scholars had been converted to Communism while away from home as foreign students. Holding degrees from prestigious universities they returned as revolutionaries, living as simply as the poorest peasant. They took control of the country by preaching the Communist ideal of “equality for everyone” (only to be disillusioned a few years later).
But what of the foreign missionaries? In keeping with tradition, we lived in two story brick houses with our servants and stores of food, clothing, furniture and equipment. We left ourselves wide open for Communist revolutionaries to point to us as foreign agents. By blindly following past traditions we created a situation which seriously wounded the cause of Christ and provided propaganda material for atheistic Communists.
Similar incidents are still happening all over the world. Following colonial traditions, we believe it is our right to blatantly intrude into countries and cultures where our presence hurts more than helps the work of Christ. Our motivation appears to non-Christians as being on a par with the economic expansion of Ford and GM or Coke and Pepsi.
These are some of the reasons why Christian Aid is calling for change. We say, “Phase out colonial traditions. Stop sending Americans where native ministries of like precious faith are already present.” Our fabulous wealth will go ten times further if used to support indigenous works rather than extending our own denominations and mission organizations into other countries to compete with them.
Christian Aid has made contact with indigenous evangelistic ministries in almost every country in the world. They deploy over 400,000 native missionaries, half of whom have no promise of regular financial support. Their work would be much more effective if each one had two dollars ($2.00) per day for food and other necessities. So do pray about supporting one or more of them.
Thus far Christian Aid has found financial help for over 800 indigenous ministries that have about 80,000 workers on the field. But thousands more are out there without even the most basic necessities of life. God could use you to meet the needs of at least one of them by sending $60 a month to Christian Aid.
And remember, most of these missionaries are winning souls and planting churches among unreached people in closed lands where Americans are no longer allowed to go as missionaries and openly preach the gospel of Christ.