Once upon a time, this cringeworthy statement in some way accurately described the missionary movement. Not so long ago, biblical Protestantism was, to no small degree, a predominantly North American and European export.
Now, a different moniker might better describe the current state of Christendom: every nation a sending nation. As evangelicalism recedes in the West, it’s surging in the Global South. Nations like Brazil, South Korea, and India are sending out missionaries in numbers that dwarf those of the U.S., and, for the first time, the gravitational center of the world Christian movement is corkscrewing southeast. The Spirit of God is doing something new and historically unprecedented.
Questions thus arise: why keep sending Western missionaries? Haven’t we got enough of our own problems? Shouldn’t we just support indigenous workers and leave the thriving Christian movements in South America, Africa, and Asia alone? To fully support an American missionary might easily cost well into the five- or six-digit range; compared to the brave national missionaries who venture by bicycle or foot dozens of miles weekly to preach the gospel, all while living on mere dollars or even cents per day, it seems not only inefficient to support Western workers overseas but almost unethical.
These concerns are understandable. Financial bloat and robust mission, after all, pair together as well as oil and water. However, the underlying logic of these questions—particularly the financial concern—are skewed. We tend to prize thrift as the paramount virtue in foreign missions, yet Scripture reminds us that the worker must be thoroughly equipped (2 Timothy 2:15) and is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7), especially if he labors in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18). Instead of asking how we can get the most “bang” for our missional bucks, we ought to ask how we can most generously lavish blessings on sacrificial, long-term cross-cultural workers. We “ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 8). This often means pursuing maximal (not minimal) preparation, support, and prayer.
That aside, what other practical reasons might there be to continue sending Western missionaries, even when national missionaries might be able to do the work less expensively?
1. Planting the Gospel Where It Isn’t
When missions mobilizers, fundraisers, and national workers advocate the withdrawal of Western workers, they often embrace the subtle myth that every people group has national believers or near-neighbor believers capable of carrying on the work of evangelism.
That simply isn’t the case.
IMB statistics indicate some 3,167 unreached and unengaged people groups (UUPGs), meaning that there is no doctrinally sound evangelism or church planting happening among such peoples at all. Indigenous missions depends upon the presence of national believers, but there are virtually no such believers among most UUPGs. Any ministry to UUPGs and groups like them will be of a pioneering nature.
Unless missionaries enter in from a foreign context, UUPGs are unlikely to be reached at all. Someone much reach them, and it is foolish to eliminate Western workers from the mobilization equation.
2. Providing Theological Education
Another faulty assumption often imbibed by indigenous-missions-only advocates is that Western missionaries should seek to withdraw as soon as a remotely healthy baseline of believers or churches has been established. This is driven by a well-meaning desire to avoid dependence upon foreign missionaries or, worse, outright paternalism or colonialism. The “three self” principle also informs such concerns.
We must remember, however, that the Great Commission is not just an evangelistic mandate. Jesus instructs his people to disciple all nations, teaching them to observe all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). This process begins with conversion but stops at nothing short of all-of-life submission to the lordship of Christ.
The effects of early withdrawal from an untrained, untaught body of new believers can be frighteningly detrimental. In a recent panel during a major conference, one expert on theological education recounted the story of a pastor he met in South America asking, “Remind me when Jesus was born again—was it before or after his resurrection?” Similar accounts abound, reporting untrained pastors preaching on the contents of dreams and visions instead of Scripture, accepting as elders men practicing polygamy in tribal contexts, and more.
While the church in the developing world has much to teach the West on the topics of materialism, boldness, and community, we in North America and Europe are undeniably privileged with a plethora of theological resources that must not be kept to ourselves. Rather than leaving under-discipled converts vulnerable to damnable heresy, we, like the apostle, should be in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in them (cf. Galatians 4:19).
3. Seizing Upon the “Foreigner Effect”
The third myth subtly embraced by those advocating the withdrawal of Western workers is that nationals (or near neighbors) are always more effective than American, Canadian, or European missionaries. After all, national missionaries do not (generally) need to surmount obstacles in language, culture, standard of living, and understanding local worldviews.
Any of us who have ministered in our own localities, however, know that sometimes natives are uniquely disadvantaged. After all, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4).
Conversely, the “foreigner effect” occurs when a foreign missionary gains a hearing because of the sheer mystique of their presence. For a foreigner, “So, what religion are you?” can often become an acceptable conversation-starter. In parts of China and Indonesia, locals are utter fascinated to meet Americans. And as an honored guest in the host culture, a missionary is sometimes able to “get away” with a higher degree of forthrightness in evangelism than a local, due to cultural values associated with hospitality and honor. These doors are simply not always open to national believers, in spite of their faithfulness and zeal.
While it would be a mistake to equate fascination with Westerners with fertility to the foolish message of the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18), we would also be remiss if we did not take advantage of the unique evangelistic platforms afforded to us by the foreigner effect.
God is moving in powerful ways across the globe, and Western churches should avoid any ethnocentric attitudes that avoid faithful partnership with indigenous workers. If we try and reinvent the wheel in contexts where solid ministry is already happening, we’re simply building atop the foundation of another (cf. Romans 15:20).
However, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. God is still calling missionaries from our midst to perform such vital ministries as pioneering new works, providing theological education, and taking advantage of their unique status as foreigners to prevail in evangelism. Let us seek the Lord’s help in discerning how Western workers can still be a blessing to the nations in the midst of a truly tectonic shift in the global Christian movement.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published February 27, 2019.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published February 27, 2019.