The Mission Movement: Pithy Sayings

This is the eighth and final post in my series on the features of the modern missionary movement mentioned by Michael Stroope in his excellent book Transcending Mission: The Eclipse Of A Modern Tradition (though at some point, I may return and add one or two of my own).

“watchwords and slogans encapsulate the spirit of the mission tradition in compact, pithy statements. Somewhat like flags that symbolize new states and republics, these watchwords and slogans represent and continually reinforce the ideals of the mission tradition” (P. 326)

Of all of Stroope’s characteristics, of the movement, I think this is the one that is most easily recognisable. Mission publicity is knee deep in short, pithy sayings from mission statesmen.

“The greatest missionary is the Bible in the mother tongue. It needs no furlough and is never considered a foreigner.” (William Cameron Townsend)

“God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” (James Hudson Taylor)

“Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” (William Carey)

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.” (Jim Elliot)

These sorts of sayings have the benefit of being short, memorable and making one simple point. Because of this, and because of their link to exemplary people, these sorts of sayings have become engrained in the psyche of the mission movement. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have served to breath new life into pithy sayings. Placed against an appropriate background, these sorts of sayings are ideal for #motivationMonday, #throwbackThursday and other alliterated days of the week.

There can be real value in some of these sayings. I found the quote from Jim Elliot, above, extremely helpful as I weighed the possibilities of a career in science and getting involved in mission work. I have to add, that the quote in isolation doesn’t do much for me, however, when reading it in the context of his biography, it becomes immensely powerful.

The thing is that not all of these quotes are as valuable as the Elliot one, however, they are accepted as true and broadcast around without ever really being examined. Let me briefly look at one of the examples above and to avoid accusations of bias, I’ll take the one from the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translator.

The Bible in the mother tongue… is never considered a foreigner.

This sounds great, it is highly motivational and it gets to the heart of the need for mother tongue Bible translation. The only problem is that it isn’t true. I’m sorry, but the Bible should always be considered a foreigner! It was written over a long period in three different languages and in a wide variety of cultural settings. Even to the contemporaries of Paul, the Old Testament came from a foreign culture. If the Bible in the mother tongue is never considered a foreigner, why are there so many books in English (which last time I looked, had one or two mother tongue translations available) explaining the cultural background to the Bible?

If the Bible in the mother tongue is never considered a foreigner, why are there so many books in English explaining the cultural background to the Bible? Click To Tweet

It is perfectly possible to make a good case for Bible translation without resorting to hyperbole, but this phrase gets repeated again and again on social media without anyone thinking about the implications.

The same sorts of objections can be raised to many of these sayings and over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts exploring the implications of some of them.

3 thoughts on “The Mission Movement: Pithy Sayings

  1. I have appreciated this series and your overview of the ‘missions movement’ through Stroope’s lens. But I’m not sure (and may just have missed the point) whether this post amounts to much more than the fact that a hammer is a hammer and thus not a spade to be used for digging holes. I.e the very fact that these are sayings meant to make a single point means they aren’t long, nuanced statements where hyperbole etc can ne easily avoided. So a question of genre…

    1. I think there are two issues (and I could have spelt this out more in this post – but I have covered the ground numerous times before). Firstly, I don’t think it is good practice for agencies and others to repeat things that are biblically and theologically inaccurate. It may pull in the punters, but at what cost to integrity? Secondly, I think that the “founder myth” which is perpetuated through these sayings is one of the things which prevents agencies from making the changes that they need to. Peter Rowan of OMF captured this excellently in a tweet relating to this post https://twitter.com/ptrrowan/status/1019870575248932864

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