William Carey, the “father of modern missions,” laid a commercial structure for Protestant missions upon which we have been building for a centuries. Timothy Tennent says of him, "Carey, as a Protestant, had no ecclesiastical structures to look to for guidance. So, he proposed a mission society based largely upon the model of secular trading societies, which were being organized for commercial purposes."[i]
In this final installment I will look at several more ways in which emerging missions structures are changing this paradigm. I will look at how our understanding of the missionary is changing, but first I will address the changing vision for the missionary community.
Re-constructing the Missionary Community: The predominant construct for a collection of Protestant missionaries is that of team – a group of employees organized around a set of common goals or a project. These colleagues are in a sort of business relationship to one another, sometimes working together for a few hours a day or a few hours a week and usually just over a period of a few years. Rarely are traditional western Protestant missionaries on the field with the same colleagues for more than a decade and rarely do they live in the same household. This team structure stands in contrast to the Catholic missionary community, often grouped in same-sex households where life together extends far beyond the hours spent together in ministry and may take place over the course of decades, or the majority world missionary who may relocate to live with relatives or members of his or her village in unchurched areas. Majority world peoples do not generally think in terms of functional teams but of relatives or tribal ties however distant. They more readily embrace long term commitment to others over advancing a plan. Emerging, often younger, western missionaries are less inclined to declare fealty to an organization as they are to commit themselves to a community.
I was meeting recently with a mission leader in urban San Francisco. He said that thoroughly pagan, new age or complete atheist coworkers and neighbors are more likely to be first attracted to the community he has formed than to any Christian doctrines. These men and women will even join their community, moving in and embracing some of the Jesus way of life before they fully understand or believe anything about the person or redemptive work of Jesus. In my work with young Evangelicals, I am finding that this kind of community trumps mission, and that belonging often precedes belief, things which could be argued marked the original followers of Jesus and the first century Christian community described in Acts where it was just as likely that an entire household might choose the Jesus way as an individual.
The 21st century missionary movement is seeing a shift away from teams formed around projects, goals or agency employer and toward communities built on shared values or shared identity. They are more likely than their predecessors to form communities across class, nationalistic or denominational lines, some embracing as divergent Christian traditions as Catholic, traditional Evangelical and Pentecostal community members.
Repositioning the Missionary: The colonial attempt to live a lifestyle in foreign lands as close to the lifestyle enjoyed in the home country has followed the Protestant missionary enterprise from the start. Protestant missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries developed compounds and mission stations with as many of the comforts and accoutrements of home as they could reasonably construct. Then, as now, Protestant missionaries often bring with them the expectation they will be able to reproduce their western lifestyle to a significant degree regardless of the distance this may place between them and the population with whom they work. Today’s emerging missionaries to the world’s poor, sometimes referred to as “New Friars,” are living incarnationally among the poor, embracing lifestyles of non-destitute poverty. Their motivation includes a conviction that there is a relationship between piety and material simplicity. Jesus speaks about the perils of material excess five times more than he warns his followers of the perils of sexual excess. The teachings of Jesus appear to place more emphasis on piety as it relates to material fidelity than sexual fidelity. Some of these emerging western missionaries along with their majority world counterparts accept simplicity as a spiritual discipline, not as ascetics, but as those who know just how easily we can become possessed by our possessions. They are following Jesus on a path of intentional dislocation as part of a quest for sanctification.
The emerging 21st century missionaries are also attempting to play the role of outside catalyst without disrupting the power dynamics of a community. They are less likely to come in as experts and teachers and more likely to come in as servants and learners engaging in mission partly as an act of worship and desire for deeper sanctification. Some of the “New Friar” fellowships are hesitant to plant their flags in the people or organizations that they help to catalyze, wishing to avoid any hint of colonialism, paternalism or proprietary “ownership” of a work or a person. Their missionary numbers and annual reports avoid appropriating the advances of catalyzed locals as the successes of their organizations, just as they try to avoid the romanticizing or exploitation of life among their poor friends for the sake of telling a dramatic story to their donors. Like the 12 and the 72 sent by Jesus in the gospel of Luke they exist in a relationship of dependence to the people amongst whom they live more than a relationship of patron-client.
Samuel Escobar suggests that, “The missionary dynamism of the churches in the South could well be stifled and misdirected by an imitation of the expensive Western models of missionary organization. The future demands more models of nonpaternalistic, holistic missions. The incarnational approach modeled by Jesus and Paul is the key.” [ii] If Protestant western mission is to survive well into the 21st century it must reconsider its historic relationship to the profit-oriented business model and be ready to examine older Catholic models, majority world missionary practices and the voice of the young Evangelicals hungry for holistic mission, robust community and a place of service alongside, not above, the poor, lost and broken of the world.
[i] Tennent, Timothy 2010. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications p. 261
[ii] Escobar, Samuel 2003. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press p. 68