Has the Missionary Business Become Too Successful?

Heavy emphasis on one expression of the Great Commission may have helped create a two-tier church where folks with regular jobs are seen as bit-players in the kingdom of God.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the western missionary enterprise. As we reflect on InterVarsity’s Urbana tradition and seek guidance from God about our stewardship of it in the next millennium, what can we learn from each other and our long journey as keepers of its place in God’s kingdom?

Here are some ruminations:

Why is the church in the west such a troubled entity? Why is the United States culture in such rapid moral and spiritual decline? Is the presence of evangelicals making any difference?

We are proud that so many of our citizens are born-again and evangelical church attendance is growing amidst mainline decline. Our religious products are extensive and profitable (books, jewelry, bibles, curricula, music, magazines, T-shirts, etc.). Our religious use of technology is growing (radio, TV, internet, the mail, etc.). Our educational industry is at an all-time high (home schooling, private schools, evangelical colleges & seminaries, etc.). We employ more professional religious workers than ever in history (clergy & church staff, religious executives, para-church employees, radio & TV, consultants, fund-raising, conflict resolution, church growth, education, etc.). It is not surprising that the public media cover many of our issues and concerns (the historical Jesus, creation & science, abortion, the Bible, and much more religious news, etc.).

With all this, how come we are not seeing more impact of the Gospel’s salt, light and leaven in our culture? Why do studies show that the followers of Jesus don’t seem to be any less materialistic, sexually addicted, violence prone, insecure, ungenerous, committed to the poor, divorce-ridden or self-centered than the average non-Christian citizen? We have more resources available to us that ancient Israel or the early church, but our practice of kingdom life and principles seem to be almost totally ineffective.

I do have one theory. By no means is it the whole story. But I do feel that it is symptomatic.

We are guilty of marginalizing most of Jesus’ followers. We have done this by making evangelical foreign missions the dominant expression of the Great Commission. Cross cultural missionaries are our heroes and the exalted saints in our congregations. The rest of us tend to be viewed as "just senders." This has contributed to the evangelical church slipping into some sad patterns over the last 50 years.

The call of God on all believers to be ambassadors of the good news has suffered. If the majority of our people sense that they are just bit-players in building the kingdom, they slip into passivity or even retreat into having a privatized faith.

Why do I single out the missions industry? One reason is that I know it well. I have been a part of its triennial festival and recruitment gathering for the last 30 years. I speak of InterVarsity’s Urbana convention. Prior to this involvement I was actively involved in Urbana during college and graduate school going all the way back to the mid-fifties. I have helped foster the problem. Some of the ways I think that the western missionary movement has contributed to this dilemma and impotence follow.

1. This flagship evangelical event tends to professionalize witness as the work of an elite few who become professionals in cross-cultural evangelism. Generations of our best and brightest evangelical youth gather around a triennial festival that lifts up one kind of hero — the cross-cultural missionary. This can suggest that those who do not go overseas as career missionaries are second best, or even questionable in their commitment to Christ.

2. Making world evangelization into an industry for its own employees can have the effect of reducing the great commission to a calling that only a few are mandated to fulfill. We then tend to have a sad bifurcation of the people of God into "senders and goers" rather than an environment where every believer knows they are witnesses to Christ wherever they live, work and play.

3. This industrializing of kingdom witness has deepened our troubles with money. It can reinforce the view that what we give to mission and church budgets is more significant than what we spend on the rest of life. Many evangelicals view money with an unconscious attitude of God getting what we donate to religious charity while the rest is mine to use any way I please. This creates a severely limited or compartmentalized view of Christ’s lordship.

4. Exalting witness and world evangelism above other life responsibilities can contribute to the marginalization of whole life stewardship in roles like parenting, workplace and being a citizen. Many believers seem to operate with an attitude of "I can’t make a difference." We must recover the calling of God for all of our life to be lived as Christian service, witness and righteousness.

5. Having paid missionaries at the center of world evangelization has hindered the church from grasping the power of its traveling laity into cultures and nations where believers are few and struggling or severely oppressed. International laity abound in the western industrialized world, but they are seldom supported as agents of the kingdom of God. Over two million Americans work internationally. If ten percent of them were confident, affirmed and prayed for as Christians on the job, we would double the western mission force without the need for special finances, visas, furloughs and the awkwardness of being on a Christian salary among non-believers in hostile cultures.

6. Many of these same patterns seem to happen in the mission congregations that are planted. They tend to have a two-tier caste system regarding spiritual significance where clergy and missionaries are the elite and all others are support systems. Deep needs in their own culture are often neglected as they strive to join the overseas bandwagon of mission.

7. Another alarming symptom are those whose time as professional cross-cultural missionaries ends before retirement. They seem to enter a deep loss of significance when they have to come home and leave the title and position of "missionary" behind. This seems to belie some of the problems we have created as many of them enter depression or live with a prolonged sense of failure and embarrassment. Are they failures? Is what they do the rest of their lives insignificant or even worthless? I think not!

These are some of my meandering thoughts as we seek to shape Urbana for the next millennium.

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Comments

Yes, Pete, the American church HAS become too much of a business, and not just for its obsession with foreign missions. I would echo, for example, the complaints of pro-life orginazations (real missionaries) who are consistently DENIED booths at the Urbana conference. It's just another example of evangelical churches trying to breed spectators and discourage Chrisitians from being participants. And yes, obsession with money is just as much a problem in America's churches as it is in America's "marriages". Perhaps one reason churches too often try to marginalize pro-lifers is that they remind us that some things are more important than America's real gods, Money and Status, worshipped by "Christians" just as much as by those who are honest enough to say they aren't Christians. Yes, the American church has fully entered the Laodecian epoch and Urbana has jumped in with it.

Please take a look at the information about Urbana 12 on this site to learn about the ways Urbana exhorts this generation to participate in their faith through "giving their whole lives to God's global mission" (Urbana 12's mission statement). The Exhibit Hall is designed to connect Urbana participants with opportunities to grow and join in God's work throughout the world.

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