There is a lot of talk in missions about sending people to teach flourishing young churches, or about how the church in certain places may be growing but “needs more proper theological training” or “more professional teachers.” Roland Allen–the great missiologist whose advice is often quoted but seldom heeded–warned us of the danger in this line of thinking.
“When converts are taught from the very beginning that they receive to hand on, and when they practice this with the inevitable consequence that there is a great advance made, and when this is reported at home, it often results in our being stirred to send them men and money to establish institutions for their intellectual advancement and to supply them with ‘better trained’ teachers. Now this action, which is designed to encourage them and to help them, seems often to hinder them. They learn to receive, they learn to rely on paid and trained men. The more teachers they have, the less they feel the need for exerting themselves to teach others. That is perhaps quite natural, but it is disastrous.
This is what we should naturally expect. Nothing is so weakening as the habit of depending upon others for those things which we ought to supply for ourselves. Nothing more undermines the spirit which should express itself in spontaneous activity. How can a man propagate a religion which he cannot support, and which he cannot expect those whom he addresses to be able to support?
Now here it will be at once observed that the little group had organized itself and could maintain itself. Its members met for mutual comfort and support; they combined to provide themselves with such things as were necessary: they were directing all their own organized religious life, until the day that they invited the visit of that foreign trained pastor. Here was self-government from the very beginning. If only that self-government had not been destroyed by the foreign missionary … there is no reason in the nature of the case why they should not have continued as they had begun.
We ought never to send a mission agent to do what men on the spot are already doing spontaneously. If they cry to us for help, as they often do, we should give them help, but help which would support their position and assist their zeal, not supersede them and kill their zeal; help that should strengthen them as leaders, not make them subordinates. To supersede them is disastrous.
They see and learn the lesson that the spontaneous zeal of native Christians is deficient in some way. It obviously does not satisfy the white man and his paid native pastors: they do not trust it: they do not encourage it. It is better to get a paid teacher however young and poorly equipped than to have the most zealous unpaid volunteer, for the moment that the white man finds out what is going on he will certainly insist on sending one of his paid teachers.”
My friend walked into the cafe right when another student was getting all flustered because a bunch of short-term trips that he was trying to sign up for all fell through. While they were figuring out what he could do next, he dropped this bomb…
“Well, actually I want to be a long-term missionary, but I can’t because I’m not a doctor and I don’t know how to sing.”
What?! My friend responded in shock and disbelief.
The guy explained how growing up he always saw missionary teams visting from Guatemala come through his church. They would talk about their medical work, and sing during their presentations. For him, this was the picture of missionary work, and he couldn’t do it.
“All I know how to do is to disciple young guys, and I just love sharing the Gospel with people.” He continued, wallowing in his feelings of uselessness. “I’m so underqualified.”
My friend started excitedly telling him how he shouldn’t feel underqualified at all! Sharing the gospel with people and discipling newer believers was exactly what the job was all about. He was totally qualified, and perfect for the job. After this conversation, he ended up moving overseas and becoming a great long-term missionary.
It’s so sad how people disqualify themselves from this apostolic gospel-carrying work that we call ‘missions’ because they have some strange idea of what it is. They might think they need to be medical professionals or business experts, teachers, “church planters,” theology professors or translators. And they often don’t feel capable of any of these intimidating human roles.
Often people see missionary presentations that are focused on the things that we do: the centers we build, the classes we teach, the businesses we run, the projects we started, etc. And people can be led to think that all these human activities are the focal point of the work. But really, the work is about laying down our lives and pointing people to Christ. It’s about walking by faith into new places, and watching God open doors to see his Son revealed.
I heard a very wise, experienced missions leader make a shocking offhand comment.
“About 80% of missions isn’t really missions.”
He explained that there are few missionaries who go somewhere where there’s little or no believers, preach the gospel and do pioneer work/start from scratch. Most are going to places where there are a bunch of existing believers and seeing how they can ‘come alongside,’ ‘partner with,’ or ‘facilitate’ them.
If we dig a little deeper, we can see that he’s pointing to a huge discrepency in the missions world in general.
Many people would assume that ‘missions’ involves going overseas to spread the gospel in parts of the world that need to hear about Jesus. Or, as Paul put it,
“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand’” (Romans 15:20-21)
Only 3% of missionaries are going to places where there is little or no established gospel witness. The majority are going to places that have Christians all over the place, and many are going to places that are more Christian than their own home countries.
Only 3% of missionaries actually go to the places where the good news of Jesus is unheard of.
But of those 3% going to these “unreached” places, how many are living with an ambition to preach Christ to people who don’t know him? There seems to be only a minority that actually focuses on sharing the gospel with the lost and making new disciples. Probably the majority are involved in training, teaching, re-organizing, or funding the little clumps of existing believers in these areas.
Of that 3% going to the unreached, how many are going to the lost?
Many missionaries are going to places in unreached areas where they can plug-into existing church ministries and teach, facilitate, or set-up funding/partnerships etc. They’re not looking to avoid building on someone else’s foundation. Even in cities where there might be only 10-20 believers, many will focus on seeking these believers out and then seeing how they can re-organize them and become their pastor or trainer.
How many of these few missionaries are living with Paul’s Romans 15:20 ambition to avoid building on others’ work and to tell the gospel to people who haven’t heard about Jesus? Maybe 20% of that 3%? Maybe %0.6 of the worldwide missionary force? Maybe 1 in every 150 missionaries?
Being a missionary should be about seeking to be a witness in the places and people groups where people don’t get to hear about Jesus at all. Being a missionary should be about laying down our lives to let dying souls know the way to life. Being a missionary should not be about finding little bits of the church, and then trying to exert our own leadership and influence on them.
Being a missionary should not be about imposing western financial patronage on existing believers or communities. Being a missionary should be about planting the gospel and making disciples, not about planting our church structures. (Or, as is more in vogue these days, our human blueprints for movements and 3 letter acronyms…)
Not all of missions work is driven by the same ambition that Paul described in Romans 15:20. It might be international or cross-cultural, but it often has nothing to do with Romans 15:20.
So, is it any wonder that many Christians and churches aren’t interested in missions and missionaries? Is it any wonder that so few young people are pursuing a career in missions? Is it any wonder that people who try this kind of missions decide it’s ‘not for them?’
Maybe people have a bad taste in their mouth because the missions they’ve tasted wasn’t missions. It was something else.
Often what people have seen and experienced in the name of “missions” wasn’t Christ’s push to get his witnesses to new places and to seek and save the lost. It was just church ministry or building programs in different places.
Sadly, a lot of “missions” is not taking the gospel to new places but taking Western ideas, structures, and money to existing believers. No wonder that doesn’t wet our appetites and stir our spirits.
Perhaps the word “missions” has been overused and watered down. Perhaps people don’t even know what it means. Perhaps we need a new word all together, a new job description people can rally to.
In the missions world, we hear lots about certain countries being “closed” to the spread of the gospel. This can be extremely misleading.
When they say a country is “closed,” what they mean that you can’t apply for a visa to stay and be a “missionary.” Or it means that you can’t buy a building and start a foreign-led, foreign-funded church plant. (Which is probably not a good idea anyways…) But there are many other ways that you can go there and live for the gospel.
Many say that since these countries are “closed,” the only other alternative is to go there and set up a business, get a full time job, or to stay out and fund local workers. This often isn’t true either.
You can get into many ‘closed’ and unreached countries as a language student, for instance. Or, in some cases, you can simply get a long-term residence permit. You can work part-time teaching English. There are a lot of different options if you’re willing to throw yourself out there and be creative. You can spend years learning the language, and then spend almost all your time getting out there, drinking tea and sharing the gospel. I know, because I and many of my friends have done it.
You can meet people, share the gospel, make disciples of a few that believe, and Christ can build his church.
It’s misleading to say that these last few unreached countries can only be accessed by working professionals, doctors, and businessmen. I’ve spent years in these places with almost no qualifications. I knew another guy who worked for years in these regions, and he was a high-school dropout! (I’m not suggesting you do that, by the way…)
So, why aren’t people getting to these millions of unreached people in the darkest places?
Most of the time it’s not becasue we’re not educated, enough, not skilled enough, and not professional enough. I think most of the time it’s because we’re not dead enough.
In most cases people are not being held back from these places not becasue they don’t have the right profession or career. They’re being held back because they won’t let go of their profession or career. We need more people who crucified their skills and plans and said, “Ok, I’m done. All I know is I need to tell people about Jesus.” And then we can work from there…
It’s not that we need to be smarter, braver, more well-equipped, and more strategic. We need to be deader, smaller, and more surrendered.
There’s a huge push these days to get lots of education and professional skills so we can get into these “closed” places. But from what I’ve seen, this often ends up being counter-productive because people get stuck pursuing these long careers instead of giving up their dreams and diving into the open doors. Or, when they get on the field they can face the danger of becoming consumed with making their career work overseas.
It’s easy to over-estimate our need for qualifications or education to move into an live in these ‘closed’ courntries. I know I’ve done it. When we move in with faith, we are often surprised how little we need the credentials we thought were so essential. This is especially true when it comes to relating to the people on the ground. We don’t necessarily need some great profession, business, or service to be able to relate to people in these unreached places. We just need humility and love. We just need time to sit with them. The people in these parts are far more friendly and open than you can imagine.
I know I have made a lot of gross generalizations here. There are a select few countries that are really tough to get into, and I’m not saying that we never need any skills or qualifications to get into these places. What I am saying is that the need for these qualifications is often highly exaggerated.
The door is open much wider than we think. But there are few people willing to get rid of their camels and crawl through the needle’s eye.
People often assume that being a missionary is like being a family doctor with an office, regular patients, and an established practice.
They assume that you need to have a years of theological training, you need to have an established and visible church presence, and you need to have a regular set of people to work with.
But this is not how things look when someone goes to spread the gospel among unreached people, in places that have little or no Christian witness.
When we go to reach dying souls in the darkest parts of the world, we don’t go to some established place with many other hospitals and doctors. We don’t get to have a nice and respectable office or practice set up. We don’t get public recognition or respect.
We’re just seemingly ordinary people, sitting on the plane. But when the moment strikes we’re ready to get up and save a life when there’s no-one else to do it. We’re ready to tell people how they can be reconciled to God through Christ when they have no one else around who can answer their spiritual hunger.
When a doctor is sitting on a plane, he may not look or feel as productive or effective as his colleagues working on the ground in their established offices. But that does not mean that his job is any less crucial.
And remember, to be a this kind of ‘doctor’ sitting only a plane, you only need two things:
A living knowledge of Jesus
Patience to learn the people’s language
Who will leave their busy practices on the ground, let go of their patients and salaries, and dedicate themselves to getting up in the air with those that have no doctor?
“You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their eyes… (Acts 1:8)
These were Jesus last words to his disciples on earth… you will be my witnesses, you will tell people about my death and resurrection. You’ll bear witness to people around you, and people in the furthest corners of the earth. This was kind of like his last wishes, except he’s not dead.
People forget. People get busy with other things. People don’t care. People don’t feel it’s worthwhile or possible.
Even as someone who’s been living the full-time missionary life for the last 6 years, I can forget. I can get busy with other things. I can lose faith in the importance and the possibility of this task. It happens to me again and again and again.
It’s so easy to lose the sense of urgency, faith and excitement about being a witness. We can forget that the lost are real people. We can forget Christ’s compassion for them.
We think there are other things, other ministry activities that are more important. But what could be more important than Jesus’ last words to us on earth?
Of all the things we need to be busy with… why isn’t this a priority? Why is finding people that never get to meet a Christian and bearing witness to Christ not first on our list of things to do? Why is getting to some unreached country, learning a language, and talking to people about Jesus not considered a real goal in life, or a proper “ministry job description” by many? Why are many churches disinterested in seeing lives laid down to witness?
I think the enemy works to bury, to cloud out, and to belittle this precious task that Jesus gave to his followers. He works to fill out minds with doubt that it’s even worthwhile to talk about Jesus with others. (See this video).
To keep stoking this flame of passion for bearing witness we need to do 3 things:
Keep interacting with Christ in prayer.
Keep getting out and meeting lost people.
Keep encouraging and spurring each other on.
Just getting out there and looking for chances to bear witness to Christ: It’s worth your whole afternoon. It’s worth years of language learning. It’s worth your whole career.
When we’re sent somewhere else, it means we have to leave. Leaving a place is one of the best ways to see that it’s God at work, and not you.
When we let go of our own influence, we see that he is continuing to work, influencing hearts and minds. Of course, without us.
The same is even truer for the departure of big foreign ministry engines and ministry structures overseas. It can (and must) all be removed, and God’s work will continue.
This is not like withdrawing a first world power from a third world war. Those left on the ground will continue to be armed with all the might of heaven, and will learn to move and steward it well.
When we remove foreign leadership and resources, it gives the locals more freedom to be the generals and heroes God is calling them to be.
Do we really trust that this is true? Do we really believe that the might, wisdom, and strategy of heaven comes from the throne room, and not our from own resources or ideas?
Anything less than this understanding is a terrible delusion, and the root of a nasty, controlling, patronizing and suffocating religiosity.
The greatest victory is not in succeeding and rejoicing in our own efforts and effectiveness, but in being able to resign to be nothing and stay enamored only with God’s working and might, even after he’s let us enjoy great victory and witness a season of effective work with him.
We must decrease, he must increase.
We must take our hands off of people, places, ministries, or situations as soon as he tells us to do so. He is continuing to work in these places and needs to demonstrate that his work is not dependent upon any person, ministry, or denomination.
Roland Allen is by far one of the most repsected and name-dropped names in missions circles, but strangely his words are also constantly ignored. Many love to say they’ve read his books, but few actually want to follow his advice. After all, what he suggests–following Paul’s example–goes so strongly against fleshly desires for accomplishment and control. In Allen’s words:
“St. Paul’s method is not in harmony with the modern Western spirit. We modern teachers from the West are by nature and by training persons of restless activity and boundless self-confidence. We are accustomed to assume an attitude of superiority towards all Eastern peoples, and to point to our material progress as the justification of our attitude. We are accustomed to do things ourselves for ourselves, to find our own way, to rely upon our own exertions, and we naturally tend to be impatient with others who are less restless and less self-assertive than we are. We are accustomed by long usage to an elaborate system of Church organization, and a peculiar code of morality. We cannot imagine any Christianity worthy of the name existing without the elaborate machinery which we have invented. We naturally expect our converts to adopt from us not only essentials but accidentals. We desire to impart not only the Gospel, but the Law and the Customs; With that spirit, St. Paul’s methods do not agree, because they were the natural outcome of quite another spirit, the spirit which preferred persuasion to authority.” (Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours)