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 when 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).

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.

2. American missionaries should not be sent with an outward display of wealth to work among extremely poor people in impoverished countries.

3. Missionaries should not be sent to work among people who are of a different ethnic origin.

4. Missionaries should not be sent where they are identified with colonial political rulers.

5. Other than for brief visits, American missionaries should not go to foreign countries and associate themselves with indigenous ministries.

How Then Shall We Proceed?

While respecting the past, we must change our perspective for the future.

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 $50 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.