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Are Long Term Missionaries Obsolete?

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

I was recently talking with a pastor whose church does not send any long-term missionaries. It is a vibrant church with many members and a vision for missions, and they could probably send and support their own long-term missionaries if they wanted to. But it seems that they don’t want to. Why not? This pastor told me about what he believes to be more strategic, more effective, and most cost-efficient way to do missions outreach than sending long-term missionaries.

 

This pastor and his church conduct many short-term training events and seminars throughout the world, gathering together a large group of local leaders and teaching them in an intensive course. When the course is done, the pastor and his team go back to the USA and the local leaders go back to their homes and churches, presumably to put into practice what they have learned. Besides live teaching from short-term missionaries, this pastor is also committed to getting a video training course called ISOM into the hands of groups of leaders in various countries, to be used in place of live teachers but administered by a local coordinator/facilitator who leads discussions about the video course material. It is his belief that Western churches can have a much bigger global impact for the Gospel by doing missions through this type of short-term leadership training rather than paying for long-term foreign missionaries (I am defining “missionary” as one who intentionally crosses barriers of language and culture to share the Gospel with those who would normally not have the opportunity to hear the Gospel within their cultural and/or linguistic context).

 

His argument is one that needs serious consideration. The church in many parts of the world today is growing rapidly and a number of national churches are maturing (or have matured) to a point where is it unnecessary for foreign missionaries to be doing frontline evangelism among the unreached. A case could be made that in many places long-term missionaries are obsolete and unnecessary because the national church can do the job better and more efficiently than foreign missionaries who require lots of time, money, and language study before they can do the basic tasks of evangelism and discipleship that local Christians can do themselves. Indeed, in many places, the best role for the foreign missionary is that of training and equipping the leaders rather than in the trenches planting new churches - that lengthy process of building relationships with the local people, sharing the Gospel on a personal and small group basis, discipling new believers, and working in only one church or in a limited geographic area. A case could be made that the era of sending long-term missionaries is over. But that is not the case I am going to make. I want to affirm that there is a time and place for strategic leadership training across cultures, through translation, but I am convinced that it is short-sighted and incorrect to see such training as the only form of foreign missions needed today.

 

The Numbers Argument

Long-term missionaries are still necessary in many places in the world today because in many places there are an insufficient numbers of Christians, mature Christian leaders, and churches to carry out the task of evangelizing their own people. The church is small, and growing, but still in need of outside help on the ground level. For example, Thailand is a country with an evangelical Christian population of about 0.03% of the population. That is a small church. There are hundreds, even thousands of towns and villages without any church what-so-ever, of any denomination. Of the small and scattered churches that do exist, many don’t have a vision for evangelism and new church planting. There are some shining and wonderful exceptions to that generalization but there is still a lot of room for missionaries to evangelize, disciple, and plant churches in areas where there is currently no resident Christian witness (i.e. no church). When the national church matures, in faith and numbers, to a certain point than missionaries roles will need to change according to the changing needs of the church and country. That is already happening to some degree in Thailand, but there is still much work to be done. I speak about Thailand specifically because that is where I am familiar with, but there are many other countries and people groups in similar situations.

 

The Cultural Contextualization Argument

This could also be called the argument for being relevant or the argument for abandoning a paternalistic attitude. When I was in seminary, our preaching professor told us that one of the basic things to remember in sermon preparation is to know who your listeners are. Who will be listening to your sermon? Who is sitting in that congregation? An elderly church member whose Social Security checks don’t quite cover the expenses? A single mom struggling to keep it all together? A self-confident businessman who thinks he has it all together? A teen who loves God and is at church every time the doors are open but detests her parents? A nominal “Christian” who finds the answers from the psychic helpline more compelling than the truths of the Bible? The identity and life situation of the people of the congregation doesn’t change the truths of the Bible but it should change the way that those truths are presented and applied to the lives of those people. I am not arguing for sugar-coating the Gospel or offering people Christianity-Lite but merely understanding where they are coming from, what are their assumptions about life and faith, and what are their objections to, or misunderstandings about, the Gospel. Jesus spoke to the Pharisees differently than Paul spoke to the Greek philosophers in Athens but they were both preaching the same Gospel.

 

In cross-cultural teaching and discipleship, it is necessary to understand where people are coming from in order to most effectively help them to understand and apply the Bible accurately. Prepackaged Bible teaching from a Western perspective, addressing the issues of the Western church, and geared towards listeners from a Western background is going to be limited in its effectiveness because it fails to address many of the challenges and issues that Christians in other parts of the world are facing. I am not saying that such teaching is completely ineffective but merely that it is often limited in its effectiveness and is likely not as effective as its teachers believe it to be. Such training by short-term foreign missionaries can be helpful but it is short-sighted to see such training courses as the only necessary strategy in foreign missions today. Because of cultural differences, Bible teaching needs to be contextualized in order to have a long term impact for a healthy indigenous church and not a Western looking church whose growth will be stunted in local soil. The way to contextualize your teaching for greatest effectiveness is to live with the people you are teaching, to learn their language, to learn their culture, to learn the barriers to the Gospel in that culture, and the particular challenges to discipleship in that culture that may be different than those of another culture. How many Western pastors have ever had a person come to them and say that they want to become a Christian but they can’t because then there would nobody to make offerings to their deceased parents? This is not at all uncommon in Thailand, and other parts of Asia.

 

There are, of course, universal issues that all Christians and pastors face around the world but we should not underestimate the different faces that those challenges take on in different cultures. To make this point, I am listing below some of the cultural and religious differences between a Western worldview and a Thai Buddhist worldview. These are only generalizations so there are bound to be exceptions, but on the whole, I believe that the following observations hold true. As you read through this list, think about how the challenges that Christians and their pastors face in the West are different, and may need to be addressed differently, than those in Thailand.

 

WESTERN

THAI

Cultural background is Judeo-Christian

Cultural background is Buddhist/Animist

Separation of church and state

Buddhism is national religion

Worldview is increasingly formed by postmodernism (no belief in absolute truth)

Worldview is formed by karma and spirit worship

Everyone has equal right to share opinion

Inferior must defer to the more elder, senior person

Problems should be addressed and dealt with directly

Problems are often ignored until irreparable because preserving social harmony is more important risking open conflict

People are taught to analyze, be critical, and to question the status quo

People are taught through rote memorization and conformity is valued

People are taught to be their own person and follow their hearts even if no one else agrees

People are taught to conform to society’s expectations and find their role in social hierarchy.

The majority of people don’t believe in evil spirits and the occult

The majority of people assume the activity of evil spirits and the necessity of interacting with them in some way

 

Not only do believers need to know what Scripture teaches, but they need to be taught how to understand the Bible for themselves, discover Scriptural truth, and apply it to their local context. They need someone to walk alongside them and to equip them with the tools to tackle thorny issues rather than given pre-packaged answers that are geared to the issues facing Western Christians. When there is a lack of mature local Christian leaders to do such a task, there is a strong case for an ongoing need for long-term foreign missionaries who take the time to learn the language, learn the culture, and learn the local concerns and issues in order to help local Christians and Christian leaders form a Biblical worldview within their given cultural context. This will take much time, effort, money, and in many cases sacrifice, but in the long run the result will be a healthy mature church that is equipped to apply Scripture to their own lives and the lives of their people, not a small stunted clone of the Western church.

 

The Incarnation Argument

Besides the above practical arguments, there is the Biblical argument from the incarnation of Christ. Jesus Christ descended from heaven and became a first century A.D. Jewish man. He entered into history in a specific time, specific place, with a specific identity. Jesus took part in the life, language, and culture of first century Judaism and all his teaching was appropriately geared to the background and understanding of his listeners. Jesus’ teaching was not a generic one-size-fits-all lesson that would be presented in exactly the same way to everybody regardless of language, culture, or time period in history. Also, it is worth mentioning that Jesus did not merely send a book but he himself came and lived among people, taking on human flesh, and identifying with mankind. The fact that we do not physically experience Jesus walking among us does not change the example that Jesus left for us to follow and the story of his life among us is left in the pages of Scripture. The Bible is our authoritative Word on who God is and what He requires of us (2 Tim. 3:16, 1 John 1:3, 2 Peter 1:3) and is powerful to change lives (Heb 4:12), and as that Word is lived out in speech and in deed, people can see more fully who Christ is. The apostle Paul knew this well. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul said, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24 ESV) Paul is not saying that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was somehow lacking or insufficient to redeem the church, but rather, Paul is saying that through Paul’s sufferings for the sake of the Gospel, the church can see an expression of Christ’s love and grace towards his church. People need to see the Gospel of Christ lived out before them to truly understand who Christ is. When the body of Christ, i.e. the church, obeys God in a life of joyful obedience, functioning in unison according the command of the head of the body, that is, Christ, then not only the church but those who are outside the church see a much clearer picture of who Christ is. Teaching the Bible is essential but living out and modeling the Gospel before those who you want to train and disciple is also essential. Teaching without modeling is incomplete.

 

Summary

As I said earlier, I believe that there is a valid place for short-term mission trips to train leaders in other parts of the world. Many have been blessed by such teaching. However, it is short-sighted and incorrect to say that this type of missions is the only type of missionary work that is needed in the world today. Christians and churches who are tempted to stop supporting (or not start supporting) long-term missionaries because they are less strategic and less cost-effective than short term training trips should think again. This doesn’t need to be an either/or type of issue, but rather a matter of carefully thinking through what type of missionary work will be most effective and is most necessary in a given context in order to establish a healthy Biblical indigenous church in the long run.

 

 


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