Indigenization in Missions

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The term indigenization is one of those buzzwords in missions that people like to talk about. But what exactly do we mean when we say that our goal is the indigenization of our missionary work on the field? The word indigenous is a botanical term which signifies “native to the soil.” So, for example, orange trees are native to the sandy soil of Florida, but not to the red clay of South Carolina. Ideally, when we talk about indigenous ministry, we are saying that we aspire to establish churches which function in ways that are native to the “soil” of the region where we have invested our missionary labor.

Do we really aspire to that though? Are we eager to develop ministry which can prosper because it is not “a foreign religion” and is not fraught with American concepts of what Christianity should look like? I fear that, more often than not, we simply want the “natives” to pay their own way and provide their own leadership, but we specifically do not want them to develop their own definitions of worldliness, dress standards, or worship style. Those things they must learn from us, because, after all, we have imported the correct biblical pattern for each of these areas. What we fail to recognize with this attitude, however, is that our practices have developed specifically because we have taken the Word of God seriously and applied it to the “soil” of our society and culture. That is to say, our concepts of modesty, appropriate entertainment, and style of worship are never formed in a direct line of adherence to biblical statements. Nowhere does the Bible address hemlines, movies or praise and worship bands, but it certainly does address modesty, holiness and reverence for the Almighty. We have indigenized the Bible’s teaching on those issues for the American church and I wholly subscribe to our fundamentalist perspective in each area. But we shouldn’t want to export to the mission field our experience of indigenization. We should seek to help local people establish their own indigenous Christianity. We should avoid what a close friend who is the director of a missionary agency focusing on advancing the Gospel in the world’s difficult places describes as “franchising” the American church.

If we truly want indigenous churches, we must focus the attention of the target people on Jesus and the Gospel, not on our patterns of church life. Teach them to understand Scripture and to appropriately apply it in their culture and society so that the Christianity that develops there is, in fact, “native to their soil.” This takes time, but it can be done, and is being done around the world. The alternative is to provide financial support for an American missionary who perennially remains as pastor of a church on the field. While he will always claim that he wants the work to become indigenous, he is constantly fearful that if he were to leave, the local people might practice their Christianity in ways that are different than what he envisioned. His problem is that he doesn’t really understand indigenization; he fails to recognize that what he is importing is itself an indigenous version of Christianity and not the ultimate standard for the entire globe.

When I was a kid in Illinois, I planted some orange seeds in a pot and was thrilled when they started to grow. The problem, of course, was that even though I could transplant the fledgling tree into larger and larger pots, I could never transplant it into the ground outside. It might grow for a few months in the summer, but it could never survive the native winter. It was not indigenous. I’m afraid that much of our missionary work is like that. We can get something to grow, but it is stifled because it will never be able to thrive without our supervision. We can delight in and defend our experience of Christianity in America, but let’s be careful to conduct our missionary efforts in a way that produces indigenous Christianity elsewhere rather than a mere transplant of what is indigenous to us.

Four New Books You Have to Know About

[This is a guest post by Mark Ward, who received his Ph.D. in New Testament from Bob Jones University Seminary in 2012 and serves as part of the Bible Integration Team at BJU Press. Mark also has a ministry providing churches with beautiful and affordable websites.]

“New” in American culture means “good,” or at least “better.” It’s a moniker marketers never tire of using, because it works—and as long as it does, Tide detergent will reliably produce “new” formulations every so often.

But “new” is relative. The four brand new books I advertised in my title are startlingly new, but in at least two senses, they’re also quite old.

It’s time you were jolted typographically awake by four very new books rooted in very old traditions. I’m speaking of Bibliotheca, a Kickstarter (“crowdfunded“) project to produce a four-volume printing of the Bible in an innovative old way.

Designer Adam Greene, a young man steeped in the history of typography, is the force behind the project. The best way to communicate to you what’s new and old about his work is to show it to you.

First the outside:

outside

Now the inside:

spread

And again:

spread2

What do you see in this Bible? Or, rather, what do you not see?

You don’t see all the accoutrements you’ve come to view as normal, standard in a printing of the Bible. That’s what’s so new about Greene’s project.

c902_SCOclassic_inside2__4And that’s what’s so old—you see, we all have historical myopia when it comes to Bible editions. We are accustomed to a two-column format in which every verse is a separate paragraph and in which each page is packed with verse numbers and multiple systems of superscript footnoting1 and2 cross-referencing.a b We forget, however, that things were not always so. Verse numbers are a comparatively recent addition to the Bible text. If the Bible were a 65-year-old man, verse numbers were added when he was 56 ½. They’ve been around for about a tenth of the Bible’s history.

What does the standard two-column layout do to meaning? Arguably, it does something very bad: it not-so-subtly leads readers to view the “verse,” whatever that is, as the fundamental unit of Bible statement. (Whenever they’re not viewing the word that way—see Barr quote here.) Making every verse a paragraph is an invitation to atomistic exegesis. It doesn’t help you read with sensitivity to the context.

You simply must try reading a Bible with no chapter and verse numbers at all. It is a beautiful and helpful experience—if initially jarring. I began creating this experience for myself using a Microsoft Word macro about ten years ago. And, providentially, a slow trickle of Bible editions began coming out which made that experience available in codex form. My favorite of the lot is the also-new ESV Reader’s Bible from Crossway (the ESV website also has this functionality), but the Bibliotheca project is even better—it just uses a translation I’m less excited about, the 1901 ASV. (And it would cost me 15 months of my recently reduced book budget…=)

If you’re not sold yet, watch the video. It’s brand new!

The Priority of Personal Evangelism

In October of last year I preached a short and simple Bible message in our university chapel on the priority of personal evangelism from II Corinthians 3:18-4:7.

In this passage Paul presents the calling of believers.

  1. God Calls Believers to Be Christlike. God calls us to be like Jesus Christ, which includes developing a compassionate heart for the lost like His (II Cor. 3:18). (John 4 is a striking illustration of Jesus’ compassion.)
  2. God Calls Believers to Be Courageous. God calls us to not faint, to not lose heart, in our lives and ministry, so we must draw upon God’s unfailing strength (4:1, 16-18).
  3. God Calls Believers to Be Clear. God calls us to reject all false teaching, false “gospels,” and man-centered manipulation (4:2; cf. 2:17) and be clear and in our presentation of the gospel.
  4. God Calls Believers to Be Confident. God calls us to understand the difficulty of our challenge (4:3-4). God calls to have confidence in the supernatural power of Christ to save others, just as He has saved us. We preach Christ! (4:5-7).

The week after I preached that message I flew to Seattle to speak in some youth leadership conferences. I was praying that God would allow me to lead someone to Himself. On the flight from Detroit to Seattle I was seated in the middle seat of three seats. To my right was a young mother. She liked to travel and showed me some photos of her travels. I showed her some photos on my iPad from a trip my wife and I took to Israel, especially a photo of us at Gordon’s Calvary from the Garden Tomb area.   The woman had been reading a Bible her cousin gave her, and the Lord was preparing her heart for our conversation. She listened carefully as I took much time to explain the gospel thoroughly to her.

She asked why Jews do not receive Jesus as their Messiah. I took her back to II Corinthians 3 and 4 and explained the blindness of unbelief that veils the Jewish, and for that matter, the Gentile heart. It occurred to me as I explained this passage to her that God was opening her eyes to the gospel as I spoke. I asked her, “Do you believe that God is drawing you to Himself?” She answered “yes.”   I said, “Would you like to receive Christ now?” She said “I would.” She prayed aloud (her choice) as I led in the sinner’s prayer. I talked further with her, gave her follow-up material, and recommended a church for her, whose pastor is seeking to help her.   I called my wife right after getting off of the plane to share the great news with her.

Sometimes we complicate the simplicity of personal evangelism. I like what one of our missionary graduates says about reaching others: “Pray, meet people, tell them about Jesus.” It’s just that simple.

Bob Jones University was founded by evangelist, Dr. Bob Jones, Sr., who said, “It takes evangelistic unction to make orthodoxy function.” Today we are still trying to instill an evangelistic spirit in our students. Dr. Bob Jones III reminds our students on a regular basis that “the most sobering reality in the world today is that people are dying and going to hell today.”

What is evangelism? Evangelism is the proclaiming of the good news that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again to pay fully and finally the penalty of sin (1 Cor. 15:3, 4). Evangelism applies His saving work to the sin­ner’s need of forgiveness and escape from the awful, eternal wrath of God in the lake of fire. The sinner is urged to repent (Luke 13:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 20:21) and believe (Acts 16:31). The Holy Spirit convicts the sinner of his need (John 16:7-11). The sinner calls on the Lord to save him from sin’s penalty in hell unto salvation and its sure promise of eternal life in heaven. He experienc­es the new birth and obtains new life (John 3:3-8). Salvation results in a thor­ough change of life which will affect every area of life (2 Cor. 5:17).

The New Testament not only emphasizes evangelism but also discipleship. Discipleship is the process of teaching the believer Bible truth, with an emphasis upon both sound doctrine and living. Acts 16:5 captures the spirit of evangelism and discipleship: “And so were the churches established in the faith and increased in number daily.”

Good evangelism produces new disciples, and good discipleship produces vibrant evangelism.

A Few Tech Tools Every Small Church Should Have

[This is a guest post by Mark Ward, who received his Ph.D. in New Testament from Bob Jones University Seminary in 2012 and serves as part of the Bible Integration Team at BJU Press. Mark also has a ministry providing churches with beautiful and affordable websites.]

We live in an Internet world. If your church doesn’t have a website, it’s invisible. If it has a bad website, well, there’s something worse than invisible.

Even the smallest church needs some tech tools to make itself credibly visible to its community. At least in America, it’s a matter of your testimony for Christ. It’s that serious.

But a credible Internet presence requires a few more tools than just a website. Here is my short list of essential tech tools your small church needs, divided into four categories:

1. Internet

240px-WordPress_logo.svgYou need a WordPress website. Total cost: $500+. Honestly, you probably need a professional to work with you no matter what kind of website you choose. I can give you names of companies who are dirt cheap but do good work. (I own one of them, or I’d tell you the names.) If you positively refuse to consider hiring someone, Squarespace is my recommendation. If, on the other hand, you’re that rare small church with a sizable endowment from a wealthy former parishioner, I recommend Church Plant Media and Your Creative People. You get what you pay for with them: excellent work. And by the way, you need a logo, too—and only a professional can make a nice one. You might, however, get away with buying a stock logo.

2. Photography

d3100You need a Nikon D3100 with the kit lens, a zoom lens, a camera bag, and a tripod. Total cost: $600 if you shop a little (try Craigslist). Every church should have a D3100 that is owned by the church and cared for by a designated photographer. But youth leaders and Bible club leaders should have access to it and should get a little bit of training on how to use it. And they should use it, and regularly. I have used mine to shoot weddings, church directory pics, Bible club shots—anything a church could want. I pretend to be a pro, and a lot of people believe me, but the truth is that I only ever shoot in auto mode. (I do post-processing like the pros, however—and if you have an artistic person in the church you might consider doing the same.) Make updating photos on your Facebook page and/or website an important ministry, one you would never neglect, like changing the messages on your church sign.

3. Video

You need a Nikon D3100. Yes, a D3100 also does video. But only on a tripod and only with adequate lighting. And the microphone in the camera is not meant to do much (see “Audio” below). Doing good video is not easy, but with a little bit of Internet research you can set up a believable lighting system to at least do a talking-head interview like this one. That’s probably all the good video you’ll ever need. For videos of camp you don’t have to get fancy. The D3100 will do fine. You mainly want it for photos.

Adobe has also come out with a great iPad app that will allow you to make a promo video without shooting any actual footage. As always, use the people in the church who are gifted artistically to do this.

You probably need a projector; maybe not. This is the top-seller on Amazon right now.

4. Audio

jpegYou need a Zoom H2n. Cost: $160. I use the Zoom H2 (the previous version of the Zoom H2n) when taking video, and it sounds fantastic, very professional. Don’t ever try to take a serious video—like a welcome-I’m-the-pastor video—without one. It will sound terrible. And the Zoom H2n can take great sermon recordings. It puts them right onto an SD card, making it easy to upload sermons to your website or to a service like SermonAudio. An Apple iPad can actually take very passable audio recordings, too—unless the pastor wanders around the pulpit a great deal.

Conclusion

There is a very definite generation gap between pastors who value the Internet and those who don’t. I’m genuinely not sure that my (younger) generation is right to value it so highly, but I can tell you that potential visitors do. They will judge you by your website. As a web designer, I have heard more than once that a church’s website was the sole reason a family decided to visit. And the photography, video, and audio on that site are an integral part of your face—quite literally—the whole world. Use gifted people in your assembly and commit some money to it. It’s the world we live in now.

The Lord’s Supper: a Meaningful Ordinance

Roman Catholics claim to have a more meaningful celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) than Protestants and have used this to attract many converts, some from Protestant backgrounds, to the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic view of transubstantiation teaches that the elements of Communion become the literal body and blood of Christ, if true, would make the Eucharist a significant ceremony.   Catholics believe Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained under the elements (Pope Pius IV 1564). The mass is defined as the “unbloody sacrifice” of Christ. The Biblical problem with transubstantiation is its failure to recognize the symbolic nature of Christ’s words, “This is my body” and to recognize the finality and completeness of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Hebrew 9:25-28; 10:10-14).

The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was not officially proclaimed until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The presence of Christ in communion was a great controversy during the Carolingian period when Paschasius Radbertus declared the elements were transformed into the body and blood of Christ while another monk of Corbie, Ratramnus, denied a physical presence.

Protestants who reject the actual presence of Christ in the elements can be guilty of making the Lord’s Supper a mere ritual devoid of any spiritual significance. Paul considered the Lord’s Supper to be a serious celebration and issues a grave warning to those who participate in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Even though the elements are symbols of the broken body and shed blood of Christ, the service should be conducted as a genuine remembrance of the believer’s participation in the benefits of the death of Christ as well as a time of spiritual nourishment, self-examination and reaffirmation of one’s faith in Christ. Pastors should encourage members to prepare themselves during the week to be ready to participate in a worthy manner and in a unity of spirit.

Today we have no need for any additional sacrifices, whether bloody or unbloody. When Christ upon the cross cried out, “It is finished,” the atonement was completed; however, Christians do need to follow our Lord’s instruction to remember His death until He comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).  Rather than treating Communion as a shallow or meaningless ritual, Christians can and should celebrate it as the spiritual feast of fellowship in remembrance of our Lord’s suffering on the cross that it was intended to be.

Recommended Books on Missions

Missions can be incredibly simple while at the same time be incredibly complex. It truly is as simple as “Pray, meet people, and tell them about Jesus” as my friend David H., pioneer missionary likes to say. At the same time, the intricacies of language and culture, the maneuvering through seemingly impermeable worldviews and the maze of religious variations involved in communicating Christ in cross-cultural settings are overwhelming. As a missionary educator, I highly recommend that those who pursue missions as a vocation receive as much missiological preparation as possible. BJU’s Cross-Cultural Service major provides an excellent foundation for missionary service. But many who are willing to serve will not have the opportunity to benefit from a program of formal missiological education. They can, nonetheless, reap great reward by reading good books about missions.

Good books are like good friends. They play a valuable role in your life, and it is hard to choose which ones you treasure most. I want to introduce you to several books which are at the top of my list and which have had the greatest input into my understanding of, and enthusiasm for missions.

allenAt the top of my list is a book which has been cherished by missiologists for many decades, Roland Allen’s foundational treatise, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Allen, a missionary to China in the late 19th century, was an Anglican priest who wrestled with the relationship between the religious structure of his tradition and the expansion of the Gospel on the mission field. His study of the Apostle Paul’s methodology develops principles that are applicable for missionaries from any background in any time period. The salient foci of his work are that Paul had confidence in the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and so should we. Our role in missions is to enable local believers to accomplish the work of the Gospel by bringing them the Word and teaching them to depend on the Spirit.

passingbatonA similar theme is found in a book which highly influenced my missionary perspective at the beginning of my teaching career. Passing the Baton by Tom A. Steffen addresses the reality that while many missionaries are very adept at starting a ministry and developing a ministry, they are often unprepared to transfer their role to indigenous leadership. Steffen argues that this is not so much a question of poor philosophy, but of poor planning and ineffective strategy. Much of his book deals somewhat narrowly with his own experience among tribal people, but his essential teaching about beginning a missionary ministry with an exit strategy in view is outstanding.

nationsgladNext in the list is John Piper’s work, Let the Nations Be Glad. Now in its 3rd edition, this book has proven to be a highly influential resource for communicating a basic theology of missions. To be sure, Piper’s Reformed perspective is strongly felt, but his careful and joyful overview of the Bible’s teaching on missions should be appreciated by all who long to see the peoples of the earth worshipping their Creator.

 

 

schnabelNo book has shaped my understanding of New Testament missions more than the exegetical work, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods by Eckhard J. Schnabel. Applying his considerable scholarship to understanding the times and events of the early church, Schnabel’s tome challenges me to think critically about the Apostle Paul and his central role as the paradigmatic missionary. More of an academic corrective than a motivational or practical guide to missions, this book is a must read for those who want to hone their thinking about Paul’s axiomatic ministry.

barrettFor those who want an excellent, solidly evangelical guide to missionary philosophy and strategy in one volume, Mike Barnett has edited the recently published Discovering the Mission of God, Best Missional Practices for the 21st Century. I like this book a lot. If someone asked me to recommend only one book which could provide a foundational understanding of New Testament missions, it would be this one. It’s not short, and I would not endorse every contributor, but no one book in my library covers the general subject of missions more satisfactorily than Barnett’s.

lanierFinally, let me acquaint you with a delightful little book about interacting with other cultures. I have many books about cultural integration. For me, these are just fun to read. Though not exhaustive or erudite, Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier is an excellent primer about how people from different cultures think. Other books on this topic are more detailed, but none are more fun to read. Even though this technically is not a missions book, it would be a great starting place for mission teams, short term missionaries, or even as a first read about culture for career personnel. It’s accessible, enlightening and enjoyable.

If you would like to interact about other helpful books about missions, feel free to contact me at mvowels@bju.edu.

He Is Risen!

1 Cor. 15:20 But now is Christ risen from the dead.

One Saturday afternoon just before Easter Sunday, I walked through an old cemetery to prepare my heart for preaching on the resurrection. The stone slabs were etched with names and dates as if to make one final attempt to lengthen the significance, memory, and influence of lives ended by death. That afternoon as the gentle, Spring breeze blew off the quiet lake nearby, the stark reality of the curse and the harsh finality of death scoffed at my faith and the sermon I had prepared for the next day.

In the midst of that desolate, deserted cemetery, there was one tombstone that stood out from the others and arrested my attention. Like the others, the front of that white, marble monument gave the name and the dates of a man’s life; but the back expressed a powerful three-word phrase that brought light and hope to my heart and a joyful “Hallelujah” tumbling from my lips in the face of the devil’s scoffing sneer. The line?

“He Is Risen.”

He is risen! That’s it; but that’s all that’s needed. He is risen! That’s the one brilliant light that dispels the darkness of death, the despair of the grave, and the doom of the curse. He is risen! What a game changer. He is risen!

If He’s not risen, then He’s as helpless as the founders of other religions whose bodies lie decaying in hopeless tombs. If He is not risen, then we believe in vain, we’re yet in our sins, and we’re of all men most miserable.

“But now is Christ risen!” Since He is risen, He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and no man can get to God apart from Him. Since He is risen, though we sorrow at the loss of loved ones, we sorrow not as others who have no hope. Since He is risen, we shall rise again even as He promised.

Hallelujah! What a Savior! He is risen!

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

We are all familiar with the expression about putting the cart before the horse. I think we do that sometimes in our thinking about the relationship between discipleship and church planting. At the risk of being naively simple, let me state my understanding of the relationship. Jesus gave his followers one primary task before returning to heaven. He told them to make disciples (μαθητεύω) in Matthew 28:19. This is precisely what they did as revealed in the book of Acts. After Jesus called Paul to be one of His Apostles, we find that Paul did the same (Acts 14:21). The KJV wording of Acts 14:21 reads “taught many,” but the Greek word there is μαθητεύω (make disciples), the same word that Jesus used in the Great Commission. The work of Paul was the same work as the original eleven Apostles, to proclaim the Gospel with a view toward developing people as faithful followers of Christ.

During his ministry on earth Jesus made various promises about the future. Regarding the advance of His kingdom, His central promise is found in Matthew 16:18. He said unequivocally that He would build His church. He did not associate that statement with conditions. He did not say, “if this happens then I will build My church.” Rather, it was statement of fact, not possibility.  We know that this is precisely what He has done. He has built, and is building His church throughout history and around the world. Hell itself cannot hinder what He is accomplishing regarding His bride, the church.

Is it too simplistic to say that we have our responsibility and He has His? We are to make disciples. He is to build His church. Throughout the centuries and around the world today, in those places where His followers are passionately seeking to make disciples, He is rapidly building His church. There are some phenomenal church planting movements in parts of the world where there is little ecclesiastical refinement, but contagious passion about making disciples. Could it be that we focus far too much on building the church and far too little on making disciples? When the Apostle Paul looked in the mirror, did he see a church planter or a disciple maker? May I suggest that, although Paul was fully aware of the fact that Jesus was building His church through the Apostle’s efforts, Paul understood his day to day activity to be defined by Jesus’ commission to go and make disciples? I think that Paul had genuine confidence in Jesus’ promise to build His church. He had faith to obey what Christ had commanded him to do and believed that Jesus absolutely would accomplish what He had said He would accomplish. Is this perhaps part of the reason why Paul’s writings say so little about how to plant a church and so much about how to make disciples? Do our programs for church planting domestically and internationally focus primarily on the nuts and bolts of growing a congregation or on the travail of developing Christ-like followers? In my many years of involvement with all aspects of missions, I have encountered many new church planters and new missionaries who have taken courses and read books about church planting. They are educated and primed to serve. But I can count on my fingers the number of people who when asked the question, “can you tell me about your experience in leading someone to Christ and successfully developing him as a growing disciple of Christ” gave me a satisfactory response. Are we sending people into ministry with inadequate preparation for the one thing that Jesus said was to be our primary activity until He returns? Could it be that we are putting the cart before the horse?

Short-Term Missions: It Really Is the Great Commission

(The following post is the first of a two-part series on short-term missions.)

1

When Christ finished His earthly work and returned to His Father, He left a job for His people to do. We call it the Great Commission, and it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels as well as in Acts. The classic statement of it is in Matthew:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen (Matthew 28:19-20).

Our Primary Task

It has been often observed that this passage’s structure emphasizes making disciples; the passage is literally arranged as follows:

 Going, therefore,

Make disciples of all nations,

Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Teaching them to keep whatever things I have commanded you.[1]

Our primary task is to make disciples. We do so by going, then baptizing those who repent and believe, and then teaching them the way of Christ. According to our Lord Himself, that is what we are here for.[2]

Other accounts of this command, most specifically the one in Acts 1, make it clear that the “going” is to be progressive and global. We start where we are (“Jerusalem”), then move outward to “Judea” and “Samaria” and eventually to “the uttermost part of the earth” (v. 8).

Church History and the Great Commission

The church has obeyed this command, more or less, throughout its history. According to tradition, the Twelve traveled as far as India and Ethiopia to make disciples. The gospel was in China long before Marco Polo, and the great outburst of the modern missions movement, initially focusing primarily on Asia and Africa, has become legendary. Names such as William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, and Mary Slessor are well known to modern Christians.[3]

The movement experienced a surge in the years after World War II, when soldiers returned as men from a war to which they had gone as boys. The postwar Christian GIs were passionate about taking the gospel to the lost. This passion was augmented early in 1956 when five American missionaries were killed by Huaroani natives (then called Aucas) in Ecuador.[4] Hundreds of young Christians stepped forward to take their place.

Decline in Motivation

Many in recent years have noted a decline in missions interest in the last 25 or 30 years. It’s indisputable that many more missionaries are coming home—due to retirement, discouragement, or medical necessity—than are arriving on the field to replace them. Many reasons for this decline have been suggested. Probably the easiest factor to spot is the rampant materialism and prosperity in the United States, which for the last century or more has been the leading nation behind the world missions movement. American Christians are generally not in spiritual shape, because they rarely get any spiritual exercise. Another factor is the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent perception in the States that persecution of Christians overseas is declining.[5] Add to that the recent growth of the internet and satellite broadcasting, which have made communication across political borders much easier, and you have a recipe for decline in motivation to go to the ends of the earth.

One Hopeful Sign

One hopeful sign, however, is the significant increase in popularity of short-term missions, whether 1- to 4-week mission teams or 1- to 2-year mission assignments.[6] In the summer of 2014 Bob Jones University is planning to send 6 different mission teams across the globe. It’s not unusual for half of an incoming freshman class to have done some sort of short-term mission work with a local church before starting college.

Since I began teaching, I’ve tried every summer to find a Bible college or institute somewhere overseas, where I could teach for a few weeks during the academic break. It’s a luxury afforded teachers, who have options for that portion of the year. It has been my privilege to teach in a number of cultures and climates and to see the Lord work in remarkable ways.[7] There are few practical barriers to such efforts; the time is available, there are scores of institutions that are eager to use willing teachers, and many churches have mission funds set aside for just such short-term efforts. I find fund-raising quite distasteful, but I have found raising support to be the easiest part of the process. Individual or family travel for qualified people, in whatever needed skill area, is not at all difficult to accomplish.

More common, however, are teams assembled for the purpose of working on a specific project. The team might include anywhere from 6 to 25 people who travel to a specific mission site for a week or several weeks to accomplish a specific task. The most common tasks are construction and child evangelism, since these are always needed and allegedly require the fewest technical skills.

The subject of short-term missions raises a number of questions, both philosophical and logistical. What are the benefits of short-term work? What are the dangers? Who should go? Who should not? And what should be the primary goals of anyone directing such an effort?

These questions will be dealt with in Part 2 of this series.


[1] Translation is mine.

[2] I am of course not forgetting that mankind’s larger, eternal mission is to bring glory to his Creator: “Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). My point here is that during our time on earth, which providentially lies between the ascension of Christ and His return, we glorify God primarily by devoting ourselves to His specific commandment for this age, which is the Great Commission.

I am also aware that some hyperdispensationalists teach that the Great Commission was given to an earlier dispensation. That obviously is not my view, but I cannot devote the space necessary here to delineate why.

[3] One very helpful history of missions is Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).

[4] The definitive work on this event is by the widow of Jim Elliot, one of the martyred missionaries. Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1996). The original edition was published in 1957.

[5] This perception, though common, is thoroughly inaccurate. A reliable source of information on persecution of Christians worldwide is the free newsletter Voice of the Martyrs (http://www.persecution.com/).

 [6] Some would question whether this is a positive development. Some see in it further evidence of the prosperous church’s general lack of commitment. While this point is well worth considering, it is difficult to disregard the benefits of short-term work or the potential it has for developing long-term talent.

 [7] I suspect that I was the first person ever paid by a Communist government for the publicly stated purpose of teaching Christian doctrine to its own people—but that’s a story too long to tell here.

This article originally appeared in publication “Teacher to Teacher: Balanced Perspectives in Education,” vol. 12, no. 2, May 2008. Headings have been added.

Short-Term Missions: Getting from Here to There

(The following is the second post in a two-part series on short-term missions. You can view part 1 here.)

Dan Olinger Missions

The subject of short-term missions raises a number of questions, both philosophical and logistical. What are the benefits of short-term work? What are the dangers? Who should go? Who should not? And what should be the primary goals of anyone directing such an effort?

Benefits

The benefits are great. A brief experience gives the student an opportunity to experience mission work up close and reasonably realistically, at relatively low cost. It certainly makes sense for the student to find out that foreign missions is not his calling before he has gone through the effort and expense of candidate school, deputation, and language school. On the other hand, a large number of career missionaries testify that it was a mission trip that either initiated or confirmed their recognition of God’s calling for them.

A significant benefit for American students is that it attacks the insularity with which most American teens develop; they are separated from the rest of the world by two large oceans, and they really believe that Miley Cyrus and the Super Bowl are significant news stories. They can learn otherwise very quickly if given the opportunity. The student will benefit from this exposure whether or not the Lord eventually calls him to foreign mission work.

Pretty much everyone can benefit from team-oriented activity. Sports provides most young people their primary experience with teamwork, but mission work provides a team experience that is different in many ways from what they’ll learn on the athletic field. Most obviously, the work they’re engaged in is overtly and primarily spiritual; they’re helping one another not to swing a bat or kick a ball, but to tell the story of Christ and to disciple younger believers. They learn to make sacrifices, to encourage one another, and to share failures and successes as they go about the business of taking the message to the ends of the earth. That is precisely preparation for life in the church.

Often overlooked is the benefit to teachers of gathering foreign mission experience. It rejuvenates the jaded teacher, and it places into his toolbox a set of experiences that will both shape his teaching techniques and enrich his teaching content for the rest of his life.

Pitfalls

Any work that can be done well can also be done badly. Mission trips are no different. And the price of failure is high—waste of financial resources given in good faith by God’s people, which could have been used instead on something worthwhile, not to mention the spiritual damage that can be done both to team members and to potential ministry recipients if the job is done badly.

A great danger, obviously, is that the trip becomes simply pious tourism; the members are interested primarily in experiencing something new, in gathering experiences for their own selfish purposes. There’s nothing wrong with tourism, I suppose, but there’s also no reason why the church should pay for it. Teams need to understand that they’re there to work, and they need to be held accountable both by supervisors on site and by the sending churches back home.

Another danger with short-term work is that it gives the impression that you’ve “seen missions,” but it typically isn’t long enough to provide a realistic experience. In a week or two, you don’t really have time for the adrenaline to wear off. It’s all a whirlwind and very exciting. But that’s not what missions is like. Missions is all about being faithful through drudgery, routine, and only the occasional moments of terror. Lust for adventure is a lousy reason to become a missionary. My most recent mission team experience lasted 8 weeks, and intentionally; I wanted the students to have enough time to get really tired. That’s part of what they needed to learn.

My greatest fear in short-term mission work is that I or the team will turn out to be more of a burden to the missionary than a help. Most short-term “missionaries” don’t realize how much work it is for a missionary to prepare for and supervise the work of a team. I know of cases where teams ran up significant expenses for the missionary (I hope without realizing it) and then left him to pay the bill. The team leader needs to discuss frankly with the host missionary whether what the team is doing is really worthwhile from the missionary’s perspective; the team needs to ensure that the missionary lets them do as much of the work as possible;[1] and they need to pay attention to the costs they’re running up.[2]

A very significant danger of short-term work is the fact that in a short stay, team members cannot learn to work effectively in a strange culture. They don’t have time to learn the language; they are unknowingly being strange and offensive in virtually everything they say and do;[3] and their effectiveness at carrying out the Great Commission will be significantly hampered.

One more danger worth mentioning is the temptation to cut corners on qualified, discipling leadership. Team leaders need to know how to disciple believers, how to discern what’s happening spiritually in the lives of team members, how to confront biblically. There are all kinds of leadership styles, of course; some leaders are very intense and driving (in a healthy way), while others lead with a lighter touch. But whatever their style, leaders need to lead, and they need to be proactive in spotting and addressing spiritual needs as they arise. Not everyone can do that well; knowing a lot about the country or the culture or the cuisine or the airline is simply not enough. This is a mission trip, not a cultural exchange program.

Personnel

Experienced business people will tell you that a business rises and falls on hiring; if you hire the right people, everything else about the business is a lot easier. Mission teams are no different. Leading a team that gels and works proficiently is one of life’s greatest joys; herding a bunch of cats around a strange country is one of the worst experiences imaginable. So who should be on the team, and who should not?

As was implied earlier, you want to weed out the tourists. You also want to filter out the abysmally selfish, the secretly sinful, and the well-intentioned but largely useless hangers-on. This can be difficult, obviously, because we can’t see hearts, and people who want to go on a mission team tend to be on their best behavior when around those who are deciding who will go. Many team leaders have found that the simplest way to discourage the insufficiently or improperly motivated is to set up the team so that it costs something in personal effort before the team leaves. Team members are required to read certain books, or memorize verses, or prepare and perform a children’s Bible story or two—not busywork, mind you, since these are things that they’ll need and use during the trip—but things that require some discipline and sacrifice. Have potential team members engage in exercises or ministries where you can watch for their willingness to put self aside and prefer someone else.

It should go without saying—but unfortunately it can’t—that team members need to be qualified for the work they’re allegedly going to do. Many people think that construction work doesn’t require skilled help—but people who think that don’t do construction work. Not everyone can work effectively with children; not everyone can teach even basic courses in a Bible institute. You need to show up with people who can get the job done, and well. There’s no excuse for sending missionaries the personnel equivalent of used teabags.

Goals

Different teams will obviously have slightly different goals, depending on their type and location. But a few basic goals should serve as the foundation for any short-term mission work:

  • Carry out the Great Commission as effectively as possible, given the cultural limitations.
  • Lighten the load of the host missionary both while you’re there and after you leave.
  • Expose the team members to as realistic an experience of missions as possible.
  • Disciple the team members in their spiritual walk as they are experiencing and assimilating what the Lord is teaching them on the trip.

Short-term missions is not a substitute for career missions, but it is an important ingredient in an overall missions strategy when done well. Most Christians would be surprised at the positive impact it can have on the spiritual walk and effectiveness of almost any believer.


[1] I have no wish to stereotype, but many missionaries are used to working alone and thus are not  particularly skilled at delegating. Teams need to encourage their hosts to let them do as much of the work as possible—and then they need to do the work well.

[2] On one trip I had to press the host fairly hard to get him to let me buy him a tank of gas after he had been driving us around for most of a day. I’m not sorry that I insisted.

 [3] Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. On one trip to South Africa, I was setting up two-person teams to distribute flyers for a youth rally. I suggested that each of the “Americans” team up with one of the “Africans.” But this was a Coloured (mixed-race) church we were working with, and they unfortunately took offense at the word “African,” which to them was a synonym for “Black,” a different racial group in South Africa. I meant simply someone who lives in Africa, with no thought of race. I should have known better; this was not my first trip to South Africa. But it illustrates how easy it is to be well-intentioned and yet inept.

This article originally appeared in publication “Teacher to Teacher: Balanced Perspectives in Education,” vol. 12, no. 2, May 2008. Headings have been added.