The launch of Adoniram and Ann Judson from New England in 1812 is often celebrated as the beginning of North American missions. In some senses this is true. The structure upon which the Judsons and their colleagues stood was the first formal American missions sending structure, and it has changed very little in 200 years. Missionary boards run by and large by professionals (whether business leaders, secular professionals, or professional clergy) and supported by funds raised from individual donors, is standard fare to this day. So are the college educated, middle class professional missionaries which have made up the majority of those sent by these for-profit styled missionary boards.
This sort of missionary machinery is costly. The handful young, New England collegians sent to Burma in 1812 required $6,000 ($158,000 by today’s standards) just to get started. When start-up money was slow in coming they considered joining the London Missionary Society (LMS), but the LMS was already over-run with their own burden of raising 10,000 pounds for the coming year of their mission ($500,000 US by today’s standards).
The money required to run the western missionary industrial complex has always been exorbitant, and so long as the middle and upper classes are on board, it sort-of works. Much like capitalism, western missions as it is constructed today, will only work for those with access to capital. The reason there are so many white American missionaries on the mission field is not necessarily due to the fact that we (I’m one of them) are more qualified than anyone else, but because we can afford to buy our way into mission. Many of my highly qualified Majority world friends or some of my American friends of color, simply do not have the kind of connections required to pull together $50,000 - $100,000 worth of yearly financial support.
Today in America the middle class is shrinking and health care costs are ballooning. This is why it is becoming increasingly difficult, even for those who grew up in relative wealth, to raise ongoing monthly support. But economic hard times do not necessarily guarantee we will radically change our costly structures. American missions in the late 1920s went through a financial crisis. Giving to missions was plummeting and nobody knew exactly why, so a study was undertaken to find out. It turns out that American Protestant Christianity had been on a building spree. “In the Methodist Episcopal Church alone, $4 million in interest was being paid each year out of receipts of roughly $100 million. Methodists were paying more interest to banks each year in the late 1920s than they were giving their Board of Foreign Missions.”[i] Somewhere around the turn of last century, the American church moved out of the school house or town meeting hall and had constructed monstrosities devoted exclusively for their Sunday gathering. This had been accomplished by going into debt. In essence, the church chose a mortgage over a mission.
That trend has continued. The lucrative mortgage rates of the mid 2000s lured many churches into an expansion craze. Now they are in default[ii] and money that was once going to missions is tied up in bankruptcy court.
But there is another way.
There’s an African proverb which says, “Until lions write their own history, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” For centuries the story of the first American missionaries were written by and about the white, middle class Ivy League, New England collegians. But as the Judsons were preparing to go to Burma in 1812, a pair of freed Black American slaves, George and Hannah Liele, were busy with a burgeoning ministry in Jamaica which they had cultivated for thirty years.
George Liele was intent on bringing the gospel of freedom to those in slavery. After he had been freed by his master, Liele sold himself into indentured servitude to a ship’s captain in order to gain passage to Jamaica. He took whatever job he could find in order to build a work among slaves working on the sugar plantations. The congregation he established contributed their pennies to grow the work amongst their fellow slaves. A few years before the launch of the Judson mission, the Liele mission faced intense persecution by plantation owners. The lords of Jamaican commerce believed that the gospel was a subversive and dangerous notion when planted in the hearts of their human chattel. Slaves might get the idea that they were created in the image of God and that they were to be treated with dignity. They might even come under the perilous conviction that it was possible for them to be equal members of the Body of Christ alongside whites. The liberating message of the gospel might morph into the kind of revolution that spawned the Haitian slave revolt of the early 1800s. E.A. Holmes, who was among the first to write about George Liele, notes that, “The planters rightly felt that ‘the message of freedom embodied in the Gospel of Salvation to all men endangered the social and economic foundations upon which depended the Institutions by which they maintained their livelihood.’”[iii] Meanwhile the economic colonizing engine of the British East India Company was becoming part of the machinery of western Protestant mission which capitalized on their transportation and their colonial holdings in order to establish beachheads for Christianity in places like India and the Far East.
At the turn of the 20th century, missionary statesman, Rolland Allen, noted that the Anglican mission was more enamored with the costly trappings of buildings and clergy than in following the ways of the “unschooled and ordinary” men and women who operated with few resources and minimal structure, yet established hundreds of churches around the Mediterranean basin during the first hundred years of the life of the church.
Those of us in the west must be willing to learn from the Chinese, Indian and Nigerian missionaries (who today greatly outstrip the number of missionaries from Europe and North America) that operate with few resources and lean structures.
Until we are willing to value a mission over a mortgage, those of us in the west will be consigned to selling our foreclosed buildings in an attempt to prop up the resource-hungry mission structures which are available solely to those with privilege and capital.
[i] James Hudnut-Beumler, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, p. 98
[iii] “George Liele: Negro Slavery's Prophet of Deliverance." Baptist Quarterly 20 (1963-1964): p. 349