Leading the Way for 50 Years
by Dr. Bob Finley
Founder of Christian Aid
For half a century Christian Aid has provided financial support for indigenous missionary ministries in strategic "mission field" areas of the world. Altogether, over 1000 different works of God have been assisted. They have deployed a combined total of more than 100,000 missionaries during this period. Through their labors a witness for Christ has been effectively implemented within nearly 4000 different tribes and nations. And the believers who make up our Lord’s body on this earth have moved much closer toward the fulfillment of His eternal purpose: that He would have a witness for Himself, a people for His name, among every kindred, every tongue, every tribe and every nation.
Yes, for 50 years Christian Aid has led the way in providing for the laborers which our Saviour has been sending out into His harvest fields. But we have also been in the forefront of something else which I believe may prove to be even more significant when at the climax of history our Lord reviews the triumphs and failures of His people throughout the ages.
That other strategic contribution to the cause of Christ has been the influence which Christian Aid has had regarding the way foreign missionary work is being done by evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians all over the earth.
Serious flaws were evident in the way we were working at the midpoint of the 20th Century. They were contrary to basic Christian principles and in many cases causing harm to our fellow believers in different parts of the planet. More than any other major ministry, Christian Aid has dared to speak out regarding these issues, and called for a reformation in the way missionary work is done.
I am humbled before God that He should have chosen me to lead this reformation. But I see a parallel in Scripture. When the fullness of time was come, we are told in Galatians 4:4-5, God sent forth His Son to redeem His people from the bondage of legalism and lead them into the liberty of grace. The specialized English term for this transition is “adoption,” from the Latin adoptio. Most of us today have no conception of what this term means in the New Testament. It signified the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. Under the old, God’s people were like little children, strictly governed by rules and regulations which they continually failed to keep. Yet the self-righteous Pharisees would kill any who advocated conduct that varied from the letter of the law. They wanted to keep everyone forever in a state of childhood subservience with strict observance of all the ceremonial and dietary laws. But God’s purpose for His people was that they should be like responsible adults, keeping the spirit of the law but not bound by every jot and tittle. That transition from spiritual childhood to becoming spiritually responsible adults was called the adoptio (English: adoption).
To lead this reformation God chose the strictest of the Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus. He was so zealous for the law that he dragged many disciples of the New Covenant into the synagogues to beat them unmercifully. Sometimes he would have them killed. What better man would there be to preach the adoption, once God revealed it to him. And also to restore God’s second promise to Abraham, that all nations should be included within God’s covenant with His people, so no one nation would have a monopoly on His promises.
In Saul of Tarsus I see a parallel with God’s call on my life. In the early years of my ministry I was preaching that every Christian young person should go to work in a foreign country. Anything less was second best. As an evangelist with both Youth for Christ and InterVarsity Fellowship (1945-47) I persuaded several thousand young people all over the U.S. and Canada to volunteer for missionary service overseas. Any who didn’t agree to go I characterized as lacking in total consecration. The command to go, I said, was binding on every young person who called himself a Christian. It was 100% GO! GO! GO! SEND! SEND! SEND!
Perhaps that’s why our Lord in His infinite mercy would reveal to me that all these Americans going overseas was a huge mistake. That our activities in foreign cultures were hurting the cause of Christ more than helping it. And that the foreign missionary operations of our churches were in dire need of reformation.
My eyes were opened when I went to China in 1948. I had no strategy for missionary work there. All I knew was that our Lord had said, "Go." So I went, and there I was. Along with 6000 others who had blindly "gone to the field" with no idea that our presence would hurt the cause of Christ far more than we would help it.
Now before I go any further, let me make it clear that God certainly used the pioneer missionaries who went to China a century earlier. There was surely a time for them to go there and sow the seeds of the gospel. I do not want to minimize the importance of what they did. But just as surely as there was a time to go, there was also a time to withdraw. And we failed to see it. I think perhaps that’s why God allowed the Communists to force us out.
At the time I arrived the Marxists/Maoists were taking over China with religious fervor. No Russians were involved. Had the Russians been there, Communism would be known as "the foreigners' religion." Chinese wouldn’t work for it. Wouldn’t die for it. Communist missionaries were all Chinese.
Then how did they become Communists? Nine out of ten of the top leaders who took over China were converted to Communist ideology while away from home as foreign students in Europe and America. When they went home they lived as simply as the poorest peasants in order to gain a following by the masses. And so doing they took over the country. Then put out all the Christian missionaries.
Not only that, they discredited the Christian faith by pointing out that most foreign missionaries were fabulously rich compared to the average Chinese. So where did we rich foreigners get all of our money? They said we were spies sent by the CIA. And the people believed it. How would they know otherwise?
Then and there I knew we would have to find a different way to do foreign missionary work if we hoped to compete with Communists for the minds of men. Our presence in China was a great boost for the Communist cause because we were ripe material for their propaganda machine. They could appeal to patriotic Chinese citizens who felt their country should be protected from what they called "cultural imperialism" and "institutional colonialism."
But would I dare say anything about this problem when I returned to America? After all, most of us evangelicals lionized our foreign missionaries. To even suggest there might be a flaw in the way they worked would bring down the wrath of all who prayed for and supported them.
I kept quiet for seven years, concentrating on the ministry of International Students, Inc. which I started in 1953. We went about our work, reaching foreign students for Christ and sending them home as missionaries among their own people. But among the foreign scholars were many Christian leaders who had come to the USA for graduate study. Some of them expressed concern about the harm that was being done to the cause of Christ in their countries by the continued presence of missionaries from America. Yet we said nothing.
Leaders of other organizations who knew what was happening also kept quiet. Around 1955 I was invited to share at a meeting of IVCF staff workers. Requesting that I not be repeated publicly, I shared some of the things I had observed about the problem of missionary colonialism. When I finished, the head man of InterVarsity, C. Stacey Woods, confidentially disclosed that he was coming to the same conclusions. He quoted a Christian physician from India as saying that one of the greatest hindrances to the cause of Christ there was the presence of American missionaries. He also stated that he had heard several Christian leaders in Europe say that they were praying that God would deliver them from the adverse presence of American missionaries in their midst. But Stacey dared not say these things publicly.
In the early days of ISI we sponsored numerous conferences for Christian foreign students from poorer countries, commonly called "the two-thirds world." In open forums and discussions many of these Christian students expressed outrage at what American missionaries were doing in their countries. I can’t list all these things in a brief magazine article, but hope to document them in a book to be published in the future.
Suffice it to say that we finally, around 1960, began to be a voice for our fellow believers in other countries. We devoted an issue of our newsletter to the need for change in the way missionary work is done. The response was unprecedented. That paper was duplicated thousands of times and sent to the ends of the earth. Letters poured in by the hundreds, about half of them praising us for our courage and half condemning us for daring to mention anything negative about our missionaries.
Our headquarters was in Washington then, where I had frequent fellowship with the head of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association. He took me to task for saying negative things about foreign mission works because, he said, even though they were true they might cause some contributors to give less for their support. He let me know in no uncertain terms, that some leaders of EFMA member missions were very upset about the contents of our newsletter. And as I would meet these leaders in missions conferences they would often express their displeasure to me directly.
On the other hand, we received many letters and phone calls commending us for the things we said. A missionary with the Sudan Interior Mission wrote, "I have come to exactly the same conclusions since coming to Africa." Our most enthusiastic supporters were leaders of indigenous missionary works in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Many of them had seen their ministries virtually wiped out by rich Americans who had come on the scene to compete with them by hiring away their workers, dividing their churches, and setting up Bible schools across the street from existing ones to lure away their students and teachers.
The ensuing conflict could have torn us to pieces, but God was with us. We were one body in Christ with our fellow evangelicals in the traditional missions, and also with our brothers overseas whose works had been hurt by colonial operations. We were determined to walk in love with God’s servants on both sides. But some colonial mission leaders and other prominent evangelicals wouldn’t let us do it.
A radio preacher in D.C. published a blistering condemnation of ISI in his monthly newsletter. He called us "a cult denying the great commission." I went to see him immediately because I loved and respected him as my brother in Christ. But he rejected my offer of fellowship, saying, as he eased me out the door of his house, "I’m gonna fight you." And fight he did, attacking us frequently on his radio program and in his newsletter. But we never fought back. We just kept on loving him and prayed that God would forgive him. As we did regarding the many others who attacked us. We were very careful to never make a negative comment about any specific person or work. We spoke in general terms only.
At that time ISI had a two-fold ministry. We were recruiting native missionaries from among foreign students in the USA, and providing financial backing for those who returned to spread the gospel and plant churches among unreached peoples. Scathing verbal attacks were directed against both operations by leaders of colonial missions. This opposition created horrendous problems for us. Hal Guffey, ISI Field Director, recruited the pastor of a denominational church to be our international student missionary worker in the Pittsburgh area. Since that pastor was well known and liked by churches of his denomination, he fully expected that he could enlist many of them to help in the ministry of ISI. But the head of the denomination’s foreign mission board spread the word that they should have nothing to do with ISI. That new recruit for our staff suddenly found himself cut off from his former friends and associates. It began to appear that ISI could not be successful in enlisting the cooperation of U.S. churches if we continued to call for change in the way foreign missionary work was being done.
So in 1970, at a Board meeting lasting two full days, we made a change. We would separate the A.I.D. (Assisting Indigenous Developments) division of ISI from the foreign student ministry with the understanding that A.I.D. alone would continue to call for a reformation in foreign missionary practices. Then ISI could carry on as an autonomous work, saying nothing about the need for change. That’s how Christian Aid became a separate work from ISI, and has since become a much larger work in terms of assets and total ministry.
When Christian Aid was constituted as a distinctive ministry, we were careful to stipulate that one of our objectives was reformation in missionary methodology. Included in our bylaws was an article called Basic Missionary Principles which all officers, trustees and directors were required to affirm annually, as follows:
ARTICLE VII – Basic Missionary Principles
Section 1. To be a Christian involves faith that Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead; and a parallel experience whereby I die to sin and let Christ raise me to newness of life and thereafter live His life in and through me.
Section 2. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the days of His flesh, was God on earth in a human body. Today He lives on earth in many bodies, each being a local assembly of those who are risen with Him. A Biblical church is the body of Christ in that locality. But all local groups of true Christians are also one body in Christ in a universal sense and every one members of one another.
Section 3. Every true Christian will allow Christ’s love to flow out through him to all other believers. Those who are entrusted with the management of material wealth will have compassion on the poor saints and send help to them wherever they are. Such help will never be used to buy control over our brothers in Christ.
Section 4. Risen Christians wish to see Christ born, growing and showing forth His love and power among every tribe and nation. Wherever He is born in an infant body of believers, wise men will lay gifts at His feet to help meet His needs as a child. As that body grows, other bodies all over the world will show care and concern. If ever Christ is hungry, we will feed Him. If He is naked, we will clothe Him. Those who discern His Body as revealed in Scripture will constantly be concerned about Christ wherever He may be in this world.
Section 5. Conversely, we will never try to divide His Body. We will not go to a community where He lives and try to raise up Christ in a competing body. Such activity is of the flesh rather than the Spirit.
Section 6. Applying these principles to Christian Aid Mission, we as a corporate body hereby agree that:
- We will encourage Christians in prosperous areas to send help to their brothers in areas of poverty, famine, persecution, and disaster.
- We will not send missionaries from one culture (defined by customs and language) to another. Rather, we will encourage and strengthen the hands of those in whom Christ lives who are already within a given culture, and help those believers who are away from home to return as Christ’s witnesses to their own people.
- To plant Christ among those peoples and in those places where no true believers yet exist, we will encourage our fellow Christians to reach people from such cultures while they are away from home so that they may go back and begin a body of believers. But we will discourage the invasion of any tribe or cultural group by outsiders who would be looked upon as strangers and foreigners.
- We will speak out boldly against all forms of carnality among Christians, including denominational or mission board expansionism and all forms of institutional colonialism through which Christians of any culture try to extend their organizations into other cultures. We will teach what the Bible says about our Lord’s Body and encourage all Christians to strengthen HIS church instead of building our own churches.
We knew that opposition from the colonial missions would continue, but did not foresee how intense it would be. Nevertheless, for the sake of our Christian brothers in “mission field” countries who wanted their voices to be heard, we continued to speak out boldly, calling for change. God blessed our witness and Christian Aid grew steadily in contributions received, supporters enlisted, overseas ministries supported and influence upon the thinking of American Christians who are directly or indirectly involved in foreign missionary activities.
But we had some problems. As the work grew we needed to build up a headquarters staff. Some new personnel had been previously involved in traditional missions. Changing their perspective to the non-colonial position was a difficult adjustment. And nearly all of our crew were active in local churches, first in D.C. and later in Charlottesville. Pressures in these churches favored continued support for traditional missions, and conflicts resulted.
Even our Board members had problems. Few had any exposure to foreign cultures or trends in missiology. When they were challenged about things we were saying they did not always know how to answer. In fact, about 15 years ago some of them were so pressured that they requested we change our bylaws to weaken the impact of our call for change. Reluctantly I went along with them to keep peace in the family and avoid disruption of the work. Article VII, Section 6.d was modified to read:
"We will seek to open channels of communication for dialogue with heads of Christian organizations which are engaged in colonial type missionary practices; we will gently and lovingly seek to persuade them to phase out the colonial aspects of their work and encourage them to help indigenous works of like precious faith instead. We will teach what the Bible says about our Lord’s body, the church, and encourage all of our fellow believers to help in building His church in every locality."
Looking back over the past 50 years, I must say that the opposition I have faced has been insignificant compared to that endured by the Apostle Paul. But one thing he said has always sustained me. When he was giving his testimony before King Agrippa (Acts 26:2-23) he rehearsed the events related to his call from God and commission to testify both to the Hebrews and to the nations. “Whereupon,” he said, "I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision." To that I can relate. God revealed several things to me 50 years ago, including the following:
- That carnal colonialism in missionary work should be discontinued.
- That the free enterprise model, dependent upon competition, on which our culture is based, has no place in the service of Christ.
- That American Christians should recognize that we are one body in Christ with our fellow believers whose works are situated within other countries.
- That we should not send U.S. workers into areas where indigenous evangelical churches are presently located; that we should never conduct our work in situations that are competitive with native believers who are already there.
- That the main thing we should do in areas where our Lord already has a people for His name is to get behind those saints with financial assistance to help them in their work for the Lord.
- We should also reach out to foreign visitors in our country, particularly those from closed lands, who are here as international students, businessmen, physicians, nurses and other professionals. We should seek to win them to Christ and send them home as His ambassadors.
The opposition to this teaching has been fierce, but by God’s grace I have fought a good fight. I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. I have continued to testify to pastors, churches, traditional missionaries, members of our staff, our Board of Directors, the Council of Trustees and to everyone else who will listen. Change must come, and by God’s grace it will come no matter how long it takes or how strong the resistance may be from those who want to preserve their religious traditions.
My constant prayer is that Christian Aid will not forsake our divine calling as a voice for change within the evangelical community. We have continued both the work and the witness for 50 years, enduring the pain of constant attacks and frequent alienation from our fellow Americans who look upon us as a threat to their traditions.
In so doing we have gained the love and admiration of Christian leaders who serve with indigenous missions all over the world. Through Christian Aid they have been given a voice to express their concerns about the true situations they face in serving our Saviour within their respective countries.
And their voices are being heard. In recent years there has been a great change in the attitudes shown by Christian leaders in America toward native missions based in other countries. More and more we hear expressions of appreciation for indigenous ministries from pastors, missions committee members and even from executives of colonial missions.
The task is by no means finished, but strong statements by Christian Aid have borne fruit in bringing about the changes that are needed. In fact, some traditional colonial-type missions are now sharing (though ever so slightly) their largesse with indigenous missions. And they are even doing it without attempting to colonize the ministries they help. And hundreds of individual American missionaries are directing their personal gifts and offerings toward the support of indigenous missions.
Perhaps the greatest development of all has been an explosion of new U.S. organizations patterned after the Christian Aid model. When we began 50 years ago there was only one other mission that was even slightly similar to Christian Aid, and it was 50% colonial. I believe our testimony and influence played a major part in moving them toward being 100% non-colonial. And most of the new organizations, following the lead of Christian Aid, are also non-colonial.
God’s Word says, “Let us not grow weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9). As we have pressed the battle unceasingly for so many years, we are finally beginning to see the changes that are so greatly needed. This we have done, but have not left the other undone. The task of providing support for native missions in poorer countries is going ahead stronger than ever. We now support 104 Bible institutes in Communist China. They are training 30,000 Christian workers every year. And have already sent out about 40,000 ambassadors for Christ to plant a witness for His name in every part of China. I could never have dreamed of such a development when I was there 54 years ago.
In the subcontinent of India we now support nearly 200 indigenous ministries that have 20,000 missionaries on the field. Throughout Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the former USSR the story is the same. The total missionaries deployed by ministries we assist now number more than 90,000. They are reaching hundreds of tribes and natives where no believers have ever existed previously.
By God’s grace we expect to see the fulfillment of our Lord’s eternal purpose within this generation, as you join hands with us to make it possible.