It seems that every time you look at the news these days, there is another story of a fallen Christian leader. Leaders suffer moral failure for different reasons, and sometimes there are specific cultural dimensions that have contributed to that failure. In a number of cultures around the world, false beliefs about gaining and retaining honor compromise Christian leaders. Those leaders may or may not ever experience a crisis-level failure of personal leadership in the way we see in the media, but the influence of worldly models of leadership is serious all the same, and requires biblical correction.
In a previous era of Protestant missions, it was very common for evangelistic missionaries to be ordained (or married to an ordained man). There were exceptions, of course, if you were a school teacher or doctor (or a woman). But for men who went to the mission field to do evangelism and church planting as their primary task, ordination was often expected. That has gradually changed over the years, beginning in the 19th century with some interdenominational faith missions, and in the present day, it is very common for evangelistic missionaries to not be ordained. A minority might be, but it is not necessarily expected in many missions circles, be it denominational missions or interdenominational groups.
Does ordination matter? Theologically, I think there is meaning and significance to ordination. In practical terms, it depends on the context. In some cultural contexts, it is very important. In other cultural contexts, it isn't. In some creative access contexts, there would be great danger in being known as an ordained minister. But even in open access contexts in a given culture or country, some churches value it highly and others don’t.
The question I want to answer in this brief post is whether missionaries should seek formal ordination by their home church (or church denomination). There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but I want to suggest some personal and practical benefits of ordination that a missionary (or potential missionary) would do well to consider in deciding whether seeking ordination is best in their given situation. Providing a full theology of ordination, however, is beyond the scope of this post.
Do you have a bucket list? I first heard of this term in connection with the movie, “The Bucket List”, a story of two terminally-ill men who try to do a bunch of things they’ve always wanted to do before they die, or “kick the bucket.” On the one hand this sounds like a great idea if you’re going to die soon. But on the other hand, it displays a very limited perspective. It indicates a short-sighted, scarcity mentality that the only time we have to enjoy is the here and now. But that simply isn’t true for Christians.
On the motorway heading to the airport in Bangkok, there are some very large billboards informing you in multiple languages that Buddha statues are not to be used for decoration, and that such a conclusion is just “common sense.” Here’s looking at you, foreign visitor, who has a Buddha statue in your luggage heading to the airport. Consider yourself informed that if you think it will be cool to take an exotic Thai Buddha home to Europe or America and place it in your living room for decoration, you are committing a grave sacrilege that is highly offensive to Thai Buddhist people.
I’m not sure how many foreigners try to take Buddhas home with them or how many have been persuaded by the billboards. But apparently NOT using Buddha images for decoration is distinctly NOT common sense for foreigners, otherwise there would be no need for such billboards.
I rarely get excited when I hear about large scale evangelistic events in Thailand (or anywhere else, for that matter).
I don’t fault the motivation of anyone involved but for all the time and money put into these colossal under-takings, especially at a national level in a big arena, the results seem meager. What results am I talking about? The goal, directly or indirectly, of these events is to get a lot of people to become Christians through praying a prayer or going forward in response to an altar call. Even when events have impressive results, such as the 2009 “My Hope Thailand” campaign which produced 12,000 decisions, most of these decisions rarely translate into committed Christian disciples.
But regardless of what I or others say, it is unlikely that altar call evangelism will be given up anytime soon. It just looks too good on the surface to abandon entirely. Even if most new converts fall away, many advocates for such events are fully persuaded by the justification that “even if one person comes to Christ, it was all worth it.” Is it? For the time and money expended, maybe different activities would be even more worth it? Just a thought.
With that preamble out of the way, I want to get to the main point of this post. Even if large scale evangelistic events have dubious value in terms of directly producing new Christian disciples, they do have two other distinct benefits that I believe gives them real value and justifies their continuation.
In the early days of Protestant mission work in Thailand, it was common for missionaries to meet Thai royalty, who often kept themselves apprised of the missionaries’ work.As the country changed and grew, and the 20th century progressed, such relations became less common.
In the early 1960s, however, a visiting Southern Baptist choir had a unique audience with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, illustrating the goodness of God’s provision as well as the kind generosity His Majesty and his love of music. Ron Hill, a longtime missionary to Thailand who was involved in early Southern Baptist work in that country relates the story as follows.