The Twilight of North American Missionary Structures: Part II

In the first post on this series I attempted to give honor to past North American missionaries (acknowledging those who don’t often get much air time, like George Liele) and point out the aging leadership in places around the North American mission movement.  If there is a future to North American Christian mission, then historic structures will need to give more than lip service to younger leaders and perhaps explore the structures used by the unsung North Americans who have served outside the mainstream structures. (For more on how the for-profit structure has over-informed us in shaping the non-profit structure look here).

In addition to the reticence to empower young leaders, there are other ways in which I feel the structure of North American mission organizations are stuck in a failing paradigm.

Twenty years after the Judson’s sailed for South Asia, French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville came to the US to find out why Americans so easily embraced a democratic form of governance in comparison to his native French society. He concluded that the reason American democracy was so successful was the existence of robust volunteer societies and associations. These, Tocqueville concluded, were the backbone of American democracy.

Two hundred years ago Americans seemed to gather in a wide variety of affinity groups and enjoyed banding together to solve problems, support causes, and affect social change. But since the 1950’s there has been a sharp decline in participation by Americans in voluntary associations such as the PTA (Parent Teacher Association), the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Elks clubs, and various men’s and women’s associations.1

The voluntary association, the sort that shaped many early North American missionary societies and prayer bands, the kind which mobilized and supported the likes of the Judson’s, societies and associations which helped fuel the post World War II mission agency boom by gathering people to pray, to give and from which to recruit, have all but disappeared from the face of the North American social scene. The framework which helped undergird the early North American mission agency – the Rotary-Club-type voluntary society – appears to be decaying.

Around the edges of the conference referenced in part I, I began to hear, at least from the viewpoint of some, that the merger of these two historic mission conglomerates was motivated by declining numbers of missionaries and funds at least as much as it was a new wind of unity. The current forms are simply not financially sustainable given the decline in volunteer support groups.

I bristle at the capitalistic notion of measuring the success of the growth of God’s kingdom in terms of the ratio of “baptisms to dollars spent.” Still, it’s the sort of thing North Americans like to measure and keep track of. Recent data suggests that the “cost” of a single baptism has more than doubled in the past twelve years from $330,000 per baptism in 2000 to $762,000 in 2012.2 Much of this is no doubt due to the skyrocketing cost of sending North Americans overseas. So thorny are these financial issues that smaller North American mission agencies have begun to close up shop while larger, historic missions like the Presbyterian Church USA are drastically reducing their missions budgets.

I face these challenges myself. The climbing cost of providing health care and retirement for Americans, as well as climbing costs for operations, liability insurance or retaining legal help are live issues with no simple solutions. But we will need to radically re-think how we send and support North American workers. One “New Friar” agency I work with, Servants, sends men and women to live and work in developing world slum communities. They are modestly sized, have been around more than 30 years and are growing. Servants can send a North American to work in Kolkata for roughly $500 per month. Granted they are living incarnational in the slums with the people whom they serve and Servants does not provide the list of benefits some organizations offer, but it is this kind of incarnational work which is part of radically re-thinking and restructuring how we do mission.

To what extent are the dying, older mission organizations willing to engage this kind of paradigmatic shift? In the next blog we’ll look at other ways in which these structures prevent us from addressing critical mission opportunities.


1 Mark Warren. Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 17.

2 Status of Global Mission, 2012, in the Context of AD 1800 – 2025, accessed on April 26, 2012 at http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/StatusOfGlobalMission.pdf.

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