North American Global Missions:
Lean into the Future or Hold onto the Past?
God has called us as North American Christians to be ambassadors for Him in word and deed (2 Corinthians 5:17-20). Through this blog I invite you to dialogue with me about how we’re doing.
Let’s begin with the disturbing facts:
North American churches and missions are faltering at a most crucial juncture, by
- Hanging onto traditional mission fields and patterns, instead of
- Moving courageously into unreached regions and cultures.
Many missions agencies continue to support and propagate paternalist structures, patterns, and financial dependencies on traditional mission fields, drawing on personal and financial resources that are more urgently needed elsewhere.
We are missing out on huge opportunities to partner creatively with mission initiatives by new churches and believers from Africa, Asia Latin and South America, the Caribbean, Europe and the Pacific regions due to our reluctance to turn loose of control and courageously embrace new ministries and approaches.
God is calling young people to go and give their lives in the unreached harvest fields, but many are being drawn instead to traditional mission fields where national workers are already capably carrying forward the work.
As a result of our slowness to cooperate with God and these exciting mission initiatives by new churches and believers from abroad, millions of people still haven’t heard, and North American Christians are falling far short of what God could do through them to reach the world for Christ.
Squandered Opportunities to Reach Lost People
North American Christianity is at a defining juncture regarding missions—to lean into the future or hold onto the past. While those leaning into the future can be found on various fronts, the detrimental influence of those holding onto the past is significant. The result is squandered opportunities to reach lost people for Jesus. Elsewhere there is some good news, as growing numbers of missionaries from other regions are stepping into the gap. The tragedy is that North American Christians are missing out on many opportunities to share in these new initiatives.
God is Calling Young People
As an intercultural studies professor, every day I advise students regarding their life and career options. Many are passionate about following Christ and committed to live in radical obedience to His Call on their lives.
My perspectives in this role have been shaped by thirty years as a missionary, mission administrator, and professor. During this time I have had the privilege of spending significant time in nearly fifty countries throughout Latin and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, visiting hundreds of churches and consulting with church leaders and pastors.
Often students ask about my perspectives regarding various mission agencies and opportunities. This has prompted me to take a closer look at many organizations, and frequently I have been disappointed. While I am looking for ways to engage my students and graduates in ministry that can open doors for a lifetime of service, many organizations are still holding onto past mindsets, structures, and ways of operating.
Shift from Receiving to Sending on Traditional Mission Fields
The traditional mission fields that I know have changed significantly since my wife and I left North America in 1980 to live and serve in Peru, South America. Casual visitors to Latin and South America, and the Caribbean, may not readily see the changes, but they are inescapable for those of us who have interacted at deeper levels with our brothers and sisters in Christ in these regions. I have had similar interactions during numerous visits to Sub Saharan Africa and to established Christian communities in Asia, such as India, South Korea and The Philippines. A crucial change that has generally happened across these regions involves a fundamental shift in orientation from receiving missionaries to sending missionaries.
My realization of this shift initially came through many conversations and experiences in Latin America. At times while immersed in our own denominational subculture, I could almost imagine that my role as a traditional missionary would continue forever. I was treated with deference as director and professor in our seminary, as advisor to all our leaders, and as an occasional mission director and member of our national administrative board.
But increasingly as the years passed I noticed other attitudes when I moved outside our own denominational subculture and participated in interdenominational and parachurch gatherings. Rarely were there blatant expressions, yet the signals were clear. It was as if unspoken questions and comments were hanging in the air: Are you really a missionary? If so, why are you still here? Can’t you see that we now have well-qualified national leaders and workers? They also have master’s degrees and doctorates. Plus, our own leaders probably understand our situation better anyway.
North American Paternalism on Traditional Mission Fields
Today it is embarrassing to me that some churches in these regions are still under paternalistic administrative structures. If one is allowed to listen in on their conversations when their administrative patrons are not around, it’ll soon be evident that continuing under these paternalistic structures has a mixture of drawbacks and benefits.
North American mission organizations keep their daughter churches in dependency relationships through a variety of means. Some exert their ecclesiastical authority through structures that are supposedly international, even though in many situations they are largely North American dominated and controlled (I am embarrassed to admit that this seems to be true for my own denomination).
Others maintain a dependency situation through church traditions, doctrinal distinctions about secondary matters that are often culturally nuanced, interpersonal relationships and a business approach to leadership that is often uninformed by missiological principles and considerations. Furthermore, wherever there is financial support, it is very likely that control is also part of the picture, often reflected in accountability structures that are developed and imposed by the funding patrons to maintain faith with donors.
New Missionary Initiatives on Traditional Mission Fields
These traditional regions of mission work are also easier places for new initiatives by well-meaning individuals and local churches in North America to go it alone, often without adequate training and support. As a result, today new works are proliferating south of our border, in the Caribbean, and to a slightly lesser degree in Africa. Never mind that many of these countries now have a higher percentage of believing Christians than in North America and that they will soon overtake us as missionary sending countries. Regularly students come to talk with me about some new mission work they’ve learned about in these areas. Often these new initiatives are repeating the same mistakes that previous organizations committed years ago, propagating similar paternalistic structures and ministry approaches.
Compassionate Ministries as Missions?
Furthermore, opportunities for compassionate ministries are rapidly multiplying in places where Christianity is already firmly established. Admittedly, these represent opportunities for reengagement, but often the root causes of continued suffering and underdevelopment are not examined. In many of these places, a pressing question ought to be addressed: How can the Good News of the Gospel truly transform all dimensions of these people’s lives?
Nor are there always clear connections with local congregations and strategies for training and involving local Christian leaders, decreasing the likelihood of a firm foundation for future growth and development of these new initiatives. In many places, one often finds programs led and staffed through structures totally disconnected from the Church. In evaluating these compassionate ministry opportunities, one should ask, “What makes these endeavors distinctively Christian, in comparison with other secular programs?”
Meanwhile, growing numbers of North Americans are eager to travel around the world from their privileged homeland even though many haven’t even made the short drive across their own town to reach out to those with similar needs in their own land.
The North American missionary unit (that is, the immediate family of a missionary or a single missionary) has been a standard approach for supporting and deploying missionaries around the world for decades. Typically the idea is to provide enough resources so that unit can live at a level that often mirrors somewhat how they would live at home in North America. This model of missionary support has many liabilities that are increasingly evident. National Christians are often enamored by the possibility that one can be engaged in fulltime ministry without needing to work secularly. In addition, the amenities that often accompany a missionary are very attractive for those born and raised in underdeveloped countries. Students in Peru who answered God’s call to leave their homes and enter our Bible School often said that they now “belonged to the Mission.” Frequently the expectation was that “The Mission” would serve as their new parents for life, providing a livelihood, housing, transportation, health care, and a pension and place to live upon retirement.
Just about any national church leader in such dependency relationships could describe both the benefits and the drawbacks of such relationships. In fact, most are astute in their analysis and reactions to these situations. Hardly anyone would refuse the benevolent support offered by their patrons, even though it often comes with a price. While their benefactors are around, their hosts are eager to receive their funds and even begin to put into practice their advice regarding how these resources should be used. Unfortunately these monies often create more harm than good in the long run. Often jealousies arise against the national leaders who have found favor in the eyes of their patrons from the land of plenty. Imported strategies that don’t fit the context are often institutionalized and maintained as long as the expatriates are around, but many of them generally fall by the wayside after these will-meaning benefactors have left.
Over the years, a few national leaders figure out how to navigate a relationship with their patrons that results in continued fruitful ministry. More often, however, all that remains years later are abandoned compounds and little more than empty shells of bible schools, church headquarters, clinics, hospitals, schools and vehicles. Even if these properties were passed along to the local leaders, many times adequate operational budgets would not be available.
North American Missions Captive to the Past
I can assure you that most mission executives also have a pretty good idea of these dynamics. But they’re caught by pressures to continue supporting the infrastructures of the past. They are captive in part to the loyalties of their supportive constituencies, involving North American churches and people who have developed longtime relationships with these traditional fields, their missionaries and national leaders. Many of these supporters are still largely unaware of the fundamental shift on these traditional fields from receiving missionaries to sending missionaries. Furthermore, these traditional supporters have grown to depend on these relationships for their own sense of mission and purpose. For these mission executives, the risk of trying to transition these loyalties to other more needy fields may seem too great.
Frequently the home office’s operational budget of mission agencies depends largely on administrative fees drawn from revenues raised for overseas ministries. Typically these fees range from eight to fifteen percent, although some may be as much as twenty-five percent. Missionary and field support budgets often comprise ninety percent or more of the total budget for the organization, so any changes in these basic components of the mission program could threaten the survival of the agency. To complicate matters, traditional support budgets for North American missionaries have grown to unsustainable levels.
Our Neglect of Unreached Peoples and Regions
Meanwhile, the pace at which traditional mission agencies and denominations are moving into Northern Africa, Europe, Asia and Muslim lands is agonizingly slow. Each organization may have a few initiatives to showcase. But these endeavors fall far short of the needs in these regions. New and creative options for the coming generation of missionaries are desperately needed, which may include a variety of approaches such as partnering, team ministries and tent-making. So far, most traditional mission agencies have been hesitant to pursue these kinds of options in a serious way. This should not be a surprise, since doing so would likely involve releasing control and creating brand new ways of initiating, promoting, funding, and facilitating innovative ministries. In addition, the administrative structures frequently are patterned after paternalistic models that do not promote and facilitate healthy international partnerships.
Mobilizing Students for their Missions Future
Meanwhile, this afternoon my calendar is full again of appointments with students wanting to talk about future options for their life and ministry. Encouraging them toward traditional mission fields and structures would be a disservice to them and to the Kingdom of God. Even the student interns that go to these fields on their own are astute enough to discern after a few weeks the fundamental shifts that have taken place on these traditional mission fields. Many come back to the states with new perspectives on life, but few have been deeply challenged to give their lives in those places. A few of them, based upon their abbreviated experiences on one of these traditional fields, return home and aspire to become “mobilizers” of other young people, and many mission agencies seem willing to employ them in this role. After all, doing so keeps ministry alive on these traditional fields and also bolsters the administrative fees generated from support for newly appointed missionaries. Still, I am often saddened to think that these aspiring “mobilizers” may have missed the opportunity of an exciting and fulfilling lifetime of missionary service abroad.
So I continue to look for mission options for my students that lean into the future rather than hold onto the past. Already a few of them have made the connection of a lifetime, and I find great joy in receiving their occasional reports from faraway places. Meanwhile, I continue to pray that God will do a deep work of transformation in our North American churches and mission organizations. The lost world awaits our response—to cease holding onto the past and to lean into the future to which God is calling us.