It used to be that the face of foreign missions was clearly delineated. Evangelical Christians would describe it as a composite portrait of Hudson Taylor, Mary Slessor, Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, and the Auca martyrs against a background of hospitals and other philanthropic works among underprivileged masses of the primitive world.
It is a wonderfully colorful portrait, and, like an old photograph from the family album, it arouses nostalgic memories and even creates a little amusement. But it is not a picture of missions today.
What has changed? What is the portrait of modern missions?
In the background is a world in flux, a world made smaller by fast travel, radio, and television. People are more aware of political events, scientific achievements, and cultures other than their own. No country today lives to itself, and often the “natives” are more alert to modern world trends than are some of the missionaries who carry the everlasting Gospel to them. Young and sometimes immature churches will not take mission leadership for granted and will certainly, and perhaps rightly, resist mission control; adolescent churches, like young people, are restless and sometimes even irresponsible.
But if the changing world brings problems it also offers unprecedented opportunities. Throughout the Far East, for example, eager Chinese young people, many of whom speak English fluently, are open to the Christian message. The Japanese web society, which has for years made missionary work difficult, is losing its grip on the younger generation. Young people are flooding the highly developed and industrialized cities of modern Japan, where it is much easier to reach them. The vast student world, in Manila alone numbering about half a million, needs to be reached. Many of these young people jumped from a primitive village culture with its taboos and rural simplicity into a modern technological world in twelve to fifteen years. They are wide open for an intelligent presentation of the Gospel.
Not only is the setting of foreign missions different; its face has changed also. And the most basic change is the fact that now the Church exists. It may be small in numbers, but those early pioneers did their work well, and it has been established. In some places, like China and Russia, it is fearfully besieged and calls for prayer support. In Muslim lands and in some areas of Europe, the Church is undoubtedly weak. But it is growing rapidly in Africa and Asia; one Asian church leader has said that now all Asia is ripe for reaping. In Latin America and Indonesia there is a flood tide of revival that should call forth praise meetings from the sending churches. But whether strong or weak, large or small, the Church exists. Missions now must concentrate less on pioneering and church planting (though there are still areas where these are needed) and more on nurturing the existing church. In many ways foreign-mission leaders are unprepared to cope with the success of foreign missions.
Another feature of missions today is what seems to be a spiritual low tide among the sending churches. This affects not only the number and quality of missionary candidates but also the prayer support at home. Many people in the home churches want curios instead of news, easy victories in place of spiritual battles, and success stories rather than factual reports. Although the individual support system for missionaries has many advantages, it unfortunately tends to attract support for those who can produce glowing reports and statistics—whether reliable or not—to please those who hold the purse strings. This has its subtle effects on the type of work done on the field and the reports sent home. Thus a wrong and outdated image of modern mission work is perpetuated. Home churches need to wake up to spiritual realities and ask for factual reports from the fields.
Perhaps the greatest blemish on modern missions is its inadequate concept of the national church. Too often missionaries and their supporters are like parents who have struggled and sacrificed to rear children but are quite unready for their adolescence and the emergence of distinctive personalities. Failure to accept this individuality can only lead to tensions and bitter disappointments. One senior missionary, when asked about his work, replied that it was to evangelize and plant churches. To questions about subsequent steps, he answered that the missionaries appointed national leaders to these churches and then went on. Pressed about what steps were taken to provide care for the young churches and their inexperienced pastors, he became a little irritated and said, “I’ve never thought of that.” This is equivalent to bringing children into the world, caring for them until they are weaned, and then leaving them to fend for themselves in a largely hostile society. Missions are bottlenecked at the point of caring for young pastors and churches in a mature advisory capacity. Very few missionaries know how to express brotherly concern without intruding on the individuality of a church. Some attended colleges where specialized mission courses provided none of the training normally given to prospective pastors, and very few have had any long-term experience as pastors. What a boon to missions it would be if men with eight to ten years of successful pastoral experience in the sending countries would spend at least one term on the mission field in an older-brother capacity, guiding the missionary church as it becomes the indigenous church and then as it becomes simply “the church,” where every child of God, regardless of race or color, finds a welcome place and an opportunity of service.
Another blemish on missionary work today is the projection of personal opinions and peculiarities onto the mission field. It is a sad fact that one can visit mission fields where the churches are just reproductions of the local church at home. In one country the church is developing a rigidly American pattern in every facet of its activities. In another the national church is just as deeply imprinted with the image of the local British church. Consequently, churches in adjacent countries are growing up with different, sometimes sharply contrasting, concepts of administration, hymnology, and eschatology, creating a gulf not easily bridged. It is tragic that this gulf widens in an otherwise shrinking world. And there seems little chance of bridging it while the faculties and methods of Bible institutes and seminaries that train mission personnel are all of one nation. It is one thing if differences grow out of the convictions of the national church. It is quite another if they are imposed to perpetuate differences at home.
Another change due in missions today involves furloughs and terms of service. Years ago, when travel to and from the field took weeks by slow boats, a term of service was set at four or five years, followed by one year for rest and recuperation (which turned out to be largely an exhaustive deputation tour). Today, despite the incredible speed of world travel, this pattern still stands. Those who make suggestions for change are sometimes considered to be tampering with one of the fundamentals of missionary endeavor.
Is it so fundamental? A single woman teacher, for example, goes to the field at, say, age twenty-six. When she returns for her first furlough at thirty-one, she finds that her friends are married and have families and are largely dispersed. Probably her church has a different pastor, and even the church’s neighborhood may be very different. She is a stranger in her own land. All she can do is get through her furlough year as cheerfully as possible and get back to the only place where she now feels at home, her mission field. Is this either healthy or necessary? Suppose she were to return home for one or two months either annually or bi-annually. She could then keep in touch with the changing scene at home, with her friends, with her church, and perhaps with a male friend who might become her husband.
Right away someone will shudder at the expense. But when missionaries come home for a year, substitutes must be provided. With reduced party fares now available for many missionaries, the cost of bringing home a teacher annually or bi-annually may be no greater than that of providing a substitute for a year. And should expense be a more important consideration than the efficiency of the missionary program and the fulfillment of the missionary’s life? At the core the problem is not really one of expense; it is one of educating the home constituency and mission administrators to be more flexible.
To sum up, then, here are specific suggestions for adjusting our missions thinking and practice:
1. Welcome the indigenous church in practice and not only in theory, realizing that self-expression is the very objective we have had in mind all along. We should put experienced leaders at the disposal of the national churches for them to use as they choose.
2. Make recruiting and training the same for the mission field as for home ministries. Although there may once have been a reason for a difference, it no longer exists.
3. Expect the national church to be different from the home church, and welcome these differences. The Church is to reveal the manifold, or many-sided, wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10), not the drab monotony of conformity.
4. Work to acquire an international outlook. How often do we read non-North American books, periodicals, and newspapers that help us see another point of view? And if we were to cultivate a wide fellowship based unhesitatingly on the fundamentals of our faith rather than divide on non-essentials, we could enrich ourselves as well as the Church of Jesus Christ.
I believe that we should cultivate flexibility in our whole approach to missionary work, though not, of course, in doctrine. There have been vast changes in the world since the days of Hudson Taylor and other pioneers, and there no doubt are greater ones to come. Foreign missions must not be left holding a bag of archaic methods. Above all, the church at home must be aware of changes that have taken place on the mission fields, of those that seem imminent, and of the answering changes needed in types of missionaries sent and their terms of service. In a day when some fields are closing and others are opening, an interchange of missionaries between societies and fields might be desirable.
But all changes must be built on a foundation of true spirituality. It remains true that, in the words of Murray McCheyne, “the greatest need of the people is our personal holiness.”
Antidote For Anomie?
An “activist” clergy may be desirable for any number of reasons, but none of them has much to do with religion. This heresy comes from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, himself one of the activists, in some of the most perceptive comments we have seen on the current fashion in liberal religion.
The fashion is trying to make religion more “relevant” by joining various social and political causes, like civil rights, uplifting the poor and ending the war in Vietnam. Mr. Hertzberg, a history teacher at Columbia University as well as rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Englewood, N.J., agreed with their positions in a speech the other day. He himself advocates unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam. But he denies that this “nervous scurrying for relevance” is going to revitalize contemporary religion.
“A large part of what passes for liberal religion in America is a rewriting of the Nation and the New Republic,” he says. “That’s not the job of religion. What people come to religion for is an ultimate metaphysical hunger, and when this hunger is not satisfied, religion declines.”
The rabbi notes that some branches of Judaism have practiced activism far longer than the Christian faiths in which it is currently popular. He warns, “Having been there for a hundred years and played the game, I can tell you it doesn’t work. The very moment that clerics become more worldly, the world goes to hell all the faster.”
Beyond that, he continues, both institutional and activist religion today has an overriding fault. “What is left out is religion’s main business: Love and God and the transcendent.” Many people today are “moving past the social questions to questions of ultimate concern,” he says. “They are worried about something more than Dow Chemical and napalm. They are worried about what’s it all for. They are worried about—dare I say it—immortality, what their lives are linked into.”
Rabbi Hertzberg is certainly right. The trend toward activist religion creates a paradox. Much of the clergy is turning away from religion’s traditional concerns just at a moment when those concerns seem especially troublesome to the individual man.
The restlessness-in-affluence so widely recognized today almost certainly bespeaks a human craving for something transcendent. Individuals may have no burning passion for personal immortality, but they seek something to lend meaning and order to the jumble of their lives and time. They seek a sense of meaning and the confidence and self-worth that come with it.
Religion has traditionally been called upon to answer such questions, but has stumbled in this century when its traditional answers have appeared wrong or irrelevant in the face of science. Yet this appearance is often merely that. Nothing the behavioralist psychologists have discovered in their rat mazes, for instance, will tell you as much about human nature as will the Judaeo-Christian view of man, created in the image of God but marred by original sin.
Whatever its inadequacies, religious tradition represents the accumulation of man’s insight over thousands of years into such questions as the nature of man, the meaning of life, the individual’s place in the universe. Into, that is, precisely the questions at the root of man’s current restlessness.
Modern man seeks something to end his state of confusion and emptiness—in the latest parlance, an antidote for anomie. We do not know if the truths of religious tradition can be interpreted to satisfy this need. But we are sure that here, not in political activism, is religion’s path to new relevance.—Reprinted by permission fromTHE WALL STREET JOURNAL(April 23, 1968).
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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