Is the Era of Pioneer Missions Over?

In 1910, representatives from mission organizations working across the world met together in Edinburgh, Scotland for a World Missionary Conference that promised to be “a Grand Council for the Advancement of Missionary Science.” The vast majority of delegates were European or North American and those present discussed the missionary task in terms of “the Christian world” and “the non-Christian world.” In 1910, this division of the world made sense because the vast majority of those who identified as Christian lived in Europe in North America.

The 1910 World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh, Scotland

However, if we fast forward 100+ years, it seems both ridiculous and ethnocentric to talk about “the Christian world” and “the non-Christian world.” Europe today is quite secular and North America’s Christian heritage is fading quickly. Two-thirds of those who profess the Christian faith live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The world is changed. No longer is the missionary task of the church a question of “the West to the rest.” Rather, as Allen Yeh has put it, twenty-first century mission is from everyone to everywhere. Around the world, there are vibrant churches on every inhabited continent and the number of truly unreached peoples is rapidly diminishing.

Westerner believers can no longer assume that they are “the missionaries” whose job is to bring the Gospel to the rest of the world. They can no longer assume that if they are not working among a particular country or people group, then nothing is happening. Western missionaries today would be short-sighted to go into a country and get to work “reaching the lost” without touching base and coordinating with local churches and believers to find out what they are already doing and how foreign missionaries can fit in to what is already happening. Today is an era of partnership.

So, is the era of pioneer missions over? Is there no place in the world today for foreign missionaries, especially Westerners, to do pioneer cross-cultural evangelism among unreached people groups? Should foreign missionaries primarily focus on supporting roles, partnering with indigenous Christians who are now at the forefront of pioneering among their own people?

An Alternative, Less-Stressful Way to Use an Annual Bible Reading Plan

It is nearly the end of the year and I am just over half way through my through-the-Bible-in-a-year reading plan. That may seem like a failure since I didn’t even come close to completing the reading plan. However, I am totally fine with where I am in the plan because I usually don’t use these type of annual plans in the way that they are intended to be used.
For me, the most important thing is not that I am reading all of the prescribed readings on the precise day indicated but rather that I am making progress. I use plans like my current one as a type of checklist to make sure that I am consistently reading through all of Scripture, and not just randomly jumping around or repeatedly reading only my favorite parts.

How I Pray For Evangelism

When I pray for evangelism, I don’t pray that as many people as possible make a profession of faith at the end of an evangelistic event. That may seem weird, because the success of evangelism is often measured according to the number of people who pray to accept Christ.

However, the reality is most people who pray to receive Christ in an evangelistic meeting never join a church, don’t grow in the Lord, and perhaps were never converted to begin with. That’s not always true, but statistically, it’s a high percentage.

Defending the Truth of Christmas

Christmas is a beloved holiday around the world and every December, Christians turn their attention to celebrating the miracle of the incarnation, namely that God chose to condescend into our world and be born as a human baby. It is truly a wondrous thing that the sovereign Lord of the universe would abase himself in this way for us and our salvation.

But in the early centuries of the church, this truth came was aggressively attacked. In the year 318, an elder in the church at Alexandria by the name of Arius popularized the idea that Jesus Christ was a created being inferior to God the Father. Arius maintained that Jesus, the Son of God, existed before all things and had a hand in the creation of the world together with God the Father. According to Arius, Jesus was a created being.  Jesus had a beginning and thus was not eternal. 

Though Arius readily affirmed that Jesus was truly human, he denied that God the Father and God the Son, namely Jesus Christ, were equal or were of the same substance. In other words, they were different beings. This heretical teaching spread through the Roman Empire and there were many who held to Arius’ false teaching on the nature of Jesus Christ, including the son of the Roman emperor Constantine.

As this teaching spread, Emperor Constantine became concerned about swelling conflict in the church and called a grand council of bishops to respond to Arius’ teaching. Were Jesus and the Father the same God or weren’t they? Because resolving conflict was a prime concern for Constantine, one option for the council at Nicea would have been to issue a statement that used broad, vague language which no one on either side of the issue could find objectionable. If they had chosen this route, all sides would have been able to save face and the substantial difference between the teaching of Arius and those who opposed him would have been covered over. Superficial peace and institutional harmony might have prevailed.

Late medieval Greek Orthodox icon showing Saint Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the First Council of Nicaea.Late medieval Greek Orthodox icon showing Saint Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the First Council of Nicaea.

Missionaries, Wife Beating, and Culture Change

It is sometimes claimed that missionaries are imperialistic colonizers who arrogantly try to change other cultures and impose their own.  There’s lots of misunderstanding, misinformation, and over-generalizations packed into those claims but the one I want to focus on in this article is the claim that missionaries try to change other cultures. 

The assumption behind this claim is that all cultures, together with their values and norms, are equally valid and that all truth claims are relative. Therefore, Westerners who (supposedly) advocate for the superiority of their own culture(s) in other parts of the world are narrow-minded and arrogant. They have no right to tell other cultures what they should and should not do or value. Of course, this slam against missionaries is disingenuous because Western secularists have no problem promoting their own Western secular values, such as abortion and LGBT “rights”, in parts of the world that traditionally oppose such things. Even if they sometimes call evil good and vice versa, even they know that there are some things that are universally right and universally wrong. They see the value in promoting what they believe is good and right even in other cultural contexts where such values get an icy reception.

This brings us back to the charge that missionaries try to change other cultures.  Undoubtedly, there are some ways in which missionaries have tried to change other cultures when they shouldn’t have. In the past, “Christianizing” and “civilizing” were often intertwined in the minds of many Western missionaries. But on some matters, the Bible is clear about what is right and what is wrong, and missionaries have opposed many wrongs in other cultures even though those practices represented embedded cultural values.

William Carey in early 19th century India opposed widow burning. 

Missionaries in China opposed foot binding.

John Paton opposed wife beating in the South Pacific.

Here’s what Paton had to say about his attempt to change the local culture of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu):

“Leaving all consequences to the disposal of my Lord, l determined to make an unflinching stand against wife beating and widow strangling, feeling confident that even their natural conscience would be on my side, I accordingly pleaded with all who were in power to unite and put down these shocking and disgraceful customs. At length, ten Chiefs entered into an agreement not to allow any more beating of wives or strangling of widows, and to forbid all common labour on the Lord's Day; but alas, except for purposes of war or other wickedness, the influence of the Chiefs on Tanna was comparatively small. One Chief boldly declared, "If we did not beat our women, they would never work; they would not fear and obey us; but when we have beaten, and killed, and feasted on two or three, the rest are all very quiet and good for a long time to come!” I tried to show him how cruel it was, besides that it made them unable for work, and that kindness would have a much better effect; but he promptly assured me that Tannese women 'could not understand kindness.' For the sake of teaching by example, my Aneityumese teachers and I used to go a mile or two inland on the principal pathway, along with the teachers' wives, and there cutting and carrying home a heavy load of firewood for myself and each of the men, while we gave only a small burden to each of the women. Meeting many Tanna men by the way, I used to explain to them that this was how Christians helped and treated their wives and sisters, and then they loved their husbands and were strong to work at home; and that as men were made stronger, they were intended to bear the heavier burdens, and especially in all labours out of doors. Our habits and practices had thus as much to do as, perhaps more than, all our appeals, in leading them to glimpses of the life to which the Lord Jesus was calling them.” (excerpted from James Paton, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides, Christian Focus Publications: Ross-shire, 2009, p.70-71)

Other examples of missionaries trying to change culture could likely be given, including modern anecdotes about ending sex trafficking. But the examples above, including the “confession” by John Paton are sufficient to sustain the charge that missionaries do try to change other cultures. And sometimes that is a good thing.

Missionary Defeatism and the Challenge of Waiting Patiently

There are lots challenges in missionary life and some of them are more tangible and easy to send out as a prayer request.

  • Pray that our visas will be approved.
  • Pray for for us to get over this sickness. 
  • Pray for our language study. 
  • Pray we’ll know what to say at the funeral of a new believer.  
  • Pray God will help us find a place to meet for worship.  
  • Pray for increased financial support.

Then there are less tangible or more sensitive challenges that are less likely to make regular appearances in a prayer letter.  

  • Loneliness
  • Stress
  • Family Issues
  • Tensions with Co-workers
  • Discouragement
  • Doubt

Amidst all of these challenges, I think one of the most difficult to pin down and to overcome is discouragement. When there is little to no progress in your ministry efforts, what should you do? What do you write in a prayer letter to prayer partners and financial supporters?


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