I've been reflecting on the lack of imagination in the western Protestant expression of mission. For the most part, we've simply adopted a corporate posture for our missions -- in the way we structure ourselves, position our missionaries and understand the mission itself. I'm presenting a paper at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at the end of April and thought I'd begin airing my thoughts here. I'll pay them out in bite-sized chunks.
Our Corporate Beginnings
The British East India Company was established in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I as a commercial enterprise with exclusive rights to conduct trade in the East Indies. By the early 1700s the company held substantial sway in the British government through the aegis of their powerful lobby in Parliament. The company loaned more than 3 million pounds to the British Treasury in exchange for the government’s protection of their monopoly on the subcontinent. Before 1813 the British East India Company held an openly hostile posture toward Christian missionaries, making missionary activity among Indians under their jurisdiction nearly impossible to conduct. Missionaries to the East Indies sent from the London Missionary Society were denied permission to land at ports under the company’s control, and if they did manage to disembark they were deported by force.[i]
Like the merchants in Philippi who collaborated to oust the Apostle Paul and his companions because of the gospel’s ill effects on their idol making business, the British East India Company feared that the establishment of the gospel among Indians would spur social unrest on a number of levels and reduce the lucrative profits they enjoyed. Add to this the challenges presented to the company by the Abolitionist movement and the growing number of Evangelical non-conformists wreaking havoc in the Church of England and they could not help but view Christian missions as a threat to their hegemony. Doing any more than satisfying the basic spiritual needs of the company’s employees and the British colonists with a few clergy could turn out to be bad for business.
In many ways the British East India Company understood what the London Missionary Society and modern Protestant missions today have failed to understand. Namely, that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the principles which drive “gaining the world” and those which drive establishing the kingdom of God.
The Corporate Hold on Western Missions
Roman Catholic mission was often derailed because of her love of Empire as reflected in the Crown. So too, the Protestant expression of mission has been hindered through her alliance with Empire as reflected in the Corporation. Despite early hostilities with the British East India Company, by the early 1800s missionaries such as Robert Morrison were under the official employ of the trading company, securing for themselves a salary and the protection which the company afforded those who served her interests. In addition to funds and access, the corporate world has often exported their administrative structures or their corporate officers who serve on the boards and in senior leadership positions in Protestant mission organizations. These influences have affected the trajectory of Protestant mission organizations. It has informed how we approach hiring, firing, job descriptions, ministry goals and financial structures among other things. There is much the Protestant missionary world has gained by our partnership with business, gleaning healthy principles of accountability, management and planning. But just as the benefit the Catholic Church experienced through her relationship to the Emperors was often offset by the liability of a Church-State marriage, so the Protestant Church’s marriage to commerce has at times been a millstone around her neck, stifling her imagination and miring her in a worldly mindset.[i]
Here are the subsequent posts on this topic
Part II http://www.urbana.org/blog/end-mission-business-part-ii
Part III http://www.urbana.org/blog/end-mission-business-part-iii
Part IV http://www.urbana.org/blog/end-mission-business-part-iv
[i] I must mention here that the Anabaptist and Moravian missionary movements serve as a significant exception to the majority of Protestant missionary enterprises. They were as vigilant in steering clear of the State allegiances indulged by the Papacy as they were the commercial allegiances indulged by the Reformers.
[i] Lovett, Richard M.A., 1899 The History of the London Missionary Society 1795 – 1895 2 volumes, London: Oxford University Press p. 14