During almost 500 meetings I set up to raise support for service in Germany, I glimpsed a snapshot of current evangelical sentiment towards long-term, cross-cultural ministry. Many exciting things are happening today in the evangelical world, whether in short-term ministry, church planting, or expanding our social consciousness. Yet I cannot escape the conclusion that a major change in the tides has come to the evangelical world regarding missions. Time and time again I encountered intelligent people, both laymen and pastors, who argued passionately that long-term, cross-cultural work is “no longer the way God does things.”
The arguments have come from many corners, but regardless of the source, the next generation of long-term, cross-cultural missionaries seems to be listening. I regularly hear about people who have been, in essence, reasoned out of their calling. Anyone who cares about God’s mission to the nations should be interested to address the ideas being used to deconstruct 20 centuries of missionary precedent. So let me briefly introduce the most popular objections and offer an alternative way of looking at each of them.
- “It (long-term, cross-cultural missions) destroys foreign cultures.”
In contrast to the way that American capitalism, franchising, and media encourage people to wear the same things, watch the same shows, and worship the same cultural idols, Christian missionaries have historically been at the vanguard of linguistics, studying local culture, and contextualizing the faith in a truly native way. Like any other branch of Christian ministry, international missions work has endured embarrassing and lamentable chapters. But in many cases Christian missionaries are some of the few people interested in preserving a language, even a whole culture, in the midst of the homogenizing effect of globalization.
- “It’s based on outdated theology.”
If missions no longer concerns us, we must think (at one level or another) the gospel itself is no longer necessary or urgent. But to the extent that we think the spread of the gospel is no longer necessary or urgent, we are no longer truly Christians.
- “It’s unnecessarily offensive.”
The Prince of Peace himself offended people when he preached the gospel. Of course, Christians sometimes offend others by sheer rudeness, and where that happens it should be rebuked. But if your version of Christianity does not offend your non-believing friends, even when articulated civilly and sensibly, you have good reason to ask whether it’s really Christianity you’re explaining.
- ”Short-term teams can do the same thing but more efficiently.”
In every other field of human endeavor—whether medicine, accounting, or teaching—we think a person needs education and experience to do their job well. But it is increasingly popular to assume that everyone—no matter their commitment, education, or experience—can do equally well in explaining the gospel to people of a different culture. This is a kind of insult to the unevangelized. This view testifies to our belief that people outside our neighborhood or borders are somehow less sophisticated, or more easily appealed to, than we would be. Real work takes real time, and real people deserve our long-term attention.
- “It’s much more effective to just fund foreign nationals.”
This is the most popular and consequential theory. It’s a false dichotomy, and there’s a place for both supporting nationals and also sending our own people long-term. But consider the problems with this idea when used as the primary strategy for all missions:
1. Some of the most spiritually needy countries in the world—North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, and others—cannot be reached by this method, because they do not have Christians whom you could support. So this extremely popular strategy will always overlook the unreached peoples who need innovative, outside missions the most.
2. Christians in many countries—take India for example—come from a sector of society with which most others will not associate. It’s all very well to support an Indian Dalit (and I know some great ones), but expecting him to reach India’s Brahmins may be shortsighted.
3. You can pay a Majority World pastor’s salary, but when that pastor’s congregation wants to do long-term, cross-cultural work themselves, they will not be able to do it as you have. So this approach fails one of the first tests of a mission’s success: reproducibility. At best it leads to paternalism; at worst it leads to corruption.
4. This view assumes that an outsider could never be as skilled at reaching a certain culture as an insider from that culture, yet over and over this thesis has been shown false. Outsiders must closely examine everything, from grammar to etiquette, and this intensity—combined with the great lengths to which missionaries must go to serve in the first place—can make them powerful evangelists even as outsiders.
5. Last, the idea extinguishes the mandate Christ gave to go into all the world, including the part of the world that doesn’t live in your own country, to proclaim his name to those who have never heard it.
- “It distracts people from the needs of our own nation.”
This is an ironic suggestion because the missional movement, justly concerned to reach its own neighbors, grew out of a desire for people to do at home what they saw missionaries doing abroad. So in abandoning long-term, cross-cultural, missions-sending efforts, many churches distance themselves from the very undertaking that informed them of, and then led them to eventually embrace, missional ideals in the first place.
- “Because people from every nation have immigrated to America’s cities, it would be more cost-effective and strategic to stay and reach them here.”
God does reach diaspora populations in the United States, but we are naïve to think that all others will simply be reached as a result. I can think of dozens of Germans, for example, who have come to faith in the United States. But many have stayed there, as the sociological phenomenon of brain drain suggests they might. This leaves many tens of millions of Germans unevangelized, and the difficulty and impracticality of going to them doesn’t seem like an especially Christian argument in light of the difficulty with which Christ undertook his mission to us.
The effort to extinguish the church’s missionary impulse, though couched in the benign language of efficiency or methodology, belongs to the most sub-Christian kind of theological decay. For a variety of rhetorically effective reasons, it asks us to walk away from 20 centuries of missionary precedent and from the very heart that moved God to send his own Son here. Many people today believe God is no longer in the business of sending long-term missionaries into all the world. I hope you will build on these short replies in your efforts to win back those minds, and those future missionaries, for Christ’s sake.