Should the West be Sending Missionaries? Part 3

This is the third part in a series which I started a couple of weeks ago. You can find the earlier posts here: history, culture.

Reaction to my earlier posts has been interesting. There were more comments both on the blog itself and on twitter than we normally receive, which is gratifying. Some of the reaction could have been summed up by one of my colleagues who said that the central question was a no-brainer, we obviously have to keep sending missionaries. In a similar vein one comment on twitter said that asking this question was like asking the church to disobey Christ. I have some sympathy with these points of view, but I also think that they are somewhat flawed.

The Church is called to be a witness to Jesus (Acts 1:8) and to make disciples (Matthew 28:19). These commands are universal and apply to all Christians everywhere and in every time. The two passages from Matthew and Luke also assume that Christians will bear witness and make disciples in all parts of the world. So, all Christians everywhere are to make disciples and bear witness to Christ to all people everywhere. You can’t argue with that: see Serge’s comment on an earlier post.

However, we should not make the mistake of assuming that sending missionaries is the same as bearing witness to Christ and making disciples. We are very apt to confuse our own cultural expressions of the Christian faith with the deeper reality of the faith itself and this is a case in point.  The modern missionary movement is one response (among many) from the Church to God’s call to serve him. (If you want more on this theme, see the following post.)

There are many, many people who are bearing witness to Christ in cross-cultural situations who would not be described as ‘missionaries’ in a classic sense. There are many diaspora movements, where African and Asian Christians have migrated to other countries and are bearing witness to Christ in their new situations. Christian women from the Philippines are working as house maids in some Muslim countries and share the Gospel with their employers at great personal risk. Yes, I believe that the West should continue to send missionaries, but the day may come when the missionary movement has past its sell by date – but the responsibility to bear witness to Christ and make disciples will still be there. We’ll just have to find new and creative ways to achieve that.

In the meantime, the West should continue to send missionaries, but I believe that there are three issues that we need to take on board in this part of the world.

The West Needs To Receive Missionaries. If all Christians everywhere have a responsibility to make disciples of all nations, then Asian, African and Latin Christians have to take seriously the call to make disciples in Europe and North America and the European and American Church has to have the humility to accept help and support from brothers and sisters from around the world. It is good for Britain that the Archbishop of York is a Ugandan. I hope that the wonderful example of John Sentamu will open the gates for a new generation of disciple makers to come to the UK.

The West Needs to Send the Right Missionaries. The issues of power, arrogance and worldview which I raised in the second post in this series are real and need to be addressed. The current trend for short term mission service and abbreviated cross-cultural training for missionaries does not serve us well in this area. We need people who are willing to invest time and who are willing to learn from others, so that they will be better equipped to serve. To me the ideal situation is for Western Missionary candidates to train alongside Christian workers from the culture where they will be working. This helps people gain a much deeper insight into their own culture and their strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, there are practical issues to be dealt with, but I believe that we need to see as many future missionaries as possible receiving training on their field of service. Ben Byerly is studying for a PhD at a Kenyan seminary and often has interesting things to share about his experiences learning with African men and women (do you have any comments here, Ben?)

The West needs to Rethink the Role of Missionaries. To many, the ideal missionary is someone who disappears off to the ends of the earth, only returns home for the odd furlough and eventually has to be forced to retire and be dragged back to their home country. OK, I exaggerate – but you know what I mean. However, this model of long term missionaries who only return home rarely reflected an age where travel and communication was far more difficult than it is now. I am convinced that missionaries should return home more often than they do now, not for rest and relaxation (though that is important) or for raising support (important, also) but to minister to their home congregations. Missionaries who work outside of their home country are privileged to gain new insights into the way God is at work and the meaning of the Scriptures and the church in the West needs these insights. Classically, we have viewed missionaries as people who go from the West to share God’s blessing with other countries – and that is still relevant. But I believe that we also need to see them as people who can share God’s blessing from other countries with their home culture. The things that God teaches a missionary in Asia or the Pacific could be extremely helpful in the UK which is increasingly a cross-cultural, post-Christian society. Missionaries are people being trained in another culture to go home and minister in their own!

I realise that there are all sorts of practical problems involved in this concept, but I believe that it is something we need to consider for the reasons I raised in my two earlier posts.

These thoughts are far from fully formed, but the great thing about asking difficult questions is that it forces you to think through issues that you might otherwise take for granted. I would value any comments or reflections and I should say in passing, that these are my own reflections and don’t reflect the position of the organisation I work for!

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

4 thoughts on “Should the West be Sending Missionaries? Part 3

  1. Nice comment…

    “The things that God teaches a missionary in Asia or the Pacific could be extremely helpful in the UK which is increasingly a cross-cultural, post-Christian society. Missionaries are people being trained in another culture to go home and minister in their own!”

    I’m also becoming aware of how much what I’m learning as I prepare for a new role in Asia would be applicable in the UK. (I’m currently living Canada and looking forward to returning to the UK for a few weeks on route to our new assignment next year.)

  2. “The West needs to Rethink the Role of Missionaries.”

    THAT says it all. Lately the Lord has been guiding me in reconsidering all the things we tend to think of when we say, “missionary.” Recounting the life and travels of Paul and asking, “Would he measure up by today’s standards,” leaves me thinking that we’ve gone fairly far afield from what a missionary/apostle/ambassador is and does.

    With a nod to another article, it does seem appropriate that we should also not get hung up on titles. Before God and in His Kingdom it might be appropriate to speak of missionaries and other titles, but before the world there are times and places the terms are just completely useless, if not counterproductive for the very reason they carry totally different definitions to begin with.

    These titles are functional for this age only, anyway. When Christ returns all this which we are involved with now will cease to have any use or relevance, so we can only cling lightly to them for functional purposes–if at all.

  3. Hi

    Just found this from a twitter link. Very interesting and encouraging stuff. Wanted to add something as my recent experience fits in with what you’re saying.

    I’ve just spent a little over 3 months in South Sudan. When people asked what I was, I found it difficult to answer the question. (Even before this, I’ve always found it easier to say what I do than what I am, vocationally!) It was in response to a clear call from God, and I was sent out and supported in prayer by my local church, but still I didn’t seem to fit into the Church’s idea of what a missionary is!

    I didn’t go with an organisation, and I didn’t go (primarily) to preach the gospel or offer material support (although I was blessed in having many opportunities to do both these things during my time there). My calling was to listen to people. I was to listen to what people’s hopes and concerns for the referendum and immediate post-referendum period are, and stir up church communities and others in prayer and political action to make sure there is sustainable peace/justice post-referendum.

    Now, even doing that, I was told by Western organisations that there are already people doing that kind of advocacy in a co-ordinated way (which I don’t doubt). But that didn’t mean I could ignore a calling from God, and having spent more than 3 months talking with people from all levels of society in various parts of the South/contested areas I believe there is a deficiencies in the approach to peace negotiations by international actors that traditional advocacy and lobbying isn’t dealing with. I will now be spending the next 7 months (until the likely secession date) travelling round the UK, speaking to churches and anyone else who will listen about what needs to be done to resolve unresolved issues & maintain peace in Sudan, lobbying the UK government and holding prayer events. (Still without an organisation, and without any savings – I will just be relying on God that while I do that there will be places to stay and food to eat.)

    While I was there, one of the people I stayed with showed again that our model of “how to” send missionaries is problematic. He was a Nigerian who had come to South Sudan with no financial support from his home church and has been there for 2 years so far. He is focussing on discipling South Sudanese Christians (and some others mainly from East Africa who find themselves in Juba) and training them in mission, then sending them out to unreached people in their own communities. He has had remarkable success so far and is starting to be recognised by existing church organisations in South Sudan, who seeing the results are keener to co-operate than they perhaps were at first.

    In both our cases, God trained us for what we’re doing, we just weren’t trained and sent out by an organisation. He was the principal at a mission school in Nigeria after spending years on the field. My training is slightly more unorthodox – my career background is in political campaigning, I’ve been praying for literally half my life for South Sudan, previously visited (briefly) and studied its politics as part of my BA. But God’s preparation is perfect and it was exactly the right training for what He’s asked me to do.

    So what you wrote chimed with me – because I went out primarily to listen, not to share knowledge (though it turned out there was plenty of opportunity to do this, offering political advice to some political and civil society groups, academic lectures to some students, and preaching/teaching/discipleship to some churches), because I spent only 3 months there and will follow it by 7 months in my “home” country sharing experiences with people here, and because although to me I am acting as a missionary many Christians would struggle to apply the term because I did not go with the primary purpose of winning converts or healing the sick.

    One thing I learned was to rely on God more heavily than I have had to in the past. I went without an organisation but this turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse (I could go anywhere, do anything and say anything that God asked me to do without compromising an organisation’s political neutrality or relations with the host government, and the accountability an organisation would’ve provided was provided by my home church who I was in regular contact with). I went out without enough funding but was offered a place to stay free of charge most places I went and embraced by church communities and others who were enthused by what I was doing, so ended up being able to bless others with what I had. Thanks to God’s protection and favour I was able to travel to contested areas that I didn’t have immigration papers for and although travelling alone I was not in any danger at any time (in contrast to the warnings some people gave).

    So thanks for what you’ve written, and my message is this: let’s not rely on our preconceptions of what mission is but instead listen to God, trust in Him and love each other.

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