The Twilight of North American Missionary Structures: Part III

As far back as I can remember the need to involve more women in leadership has been a point of discussion and concern in mission agency think tanks and networks. Even before I entered ministry, women in leadership came onto the agenda of the 1979 session of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (now known as Missio Nexus).1 But for the most part, unless the topic is missionary wives, prayer, children, or reaching Muslim women, there has generally been very little room for women to teach from up front or enter senior leader positions in North American mission agencies. While I rejoice that there were more women in the room at the RESET conference (referenced in the previous two blogs), there was nowhere near the percentage of women in the room that there are on the mission field. Women have always played a significant role on the mission field, often finding greater freedom to explore their gifts and callings on the mission field than in the American and European churches that sent them.

In terms of top tier leadership positions, there are four female chief executives among the 150+ Missio Nexus sending structures.2 Even the Lausanne movement, which has done a remarkable job of promoting Majority World leaders into its ranks, has a board of directors which is 75% male, and there are no women whatsoever among the twenty men who comprise Lausanne’s International Deputy Directors and Senior Advisor Leadership roles.3 Though there is a long history of patriarchal worldviews in Christian mission to overcome and some theological debate in certain circles on the role of women, I have witnessed a weighty acknowledgement on the need for more women in missionary leadership structures accompanied by little discernible movement on that score. It leaves me wondering whether there is enough organizational willpower to make substantive changes in these agencies to actually promote women or younger leaders, or to address the rising costs of operating North American missions, to say nothing of reconstituting our structures at a paradigmatic level.

The Urban Train has Left the Station

I attended a seminar at the RESET conference on the need for North American mission agencies to wake up to the blistering speed at which the urban poor are growing. It could have been the same talk given at any number of Lausanne gatherings since 1974, or copious North American Mission leader gatherings held over the last thirty or more years. The need to address urban poor populations has been an urgent item in missions circles for a long time … once again, with very little movement to re-form our strategies, our training and our structures to address this challenging mission field.

One reason we’ve been slow as a missions community to respond to the challenge of urban poverty relates to the immense difficulties of ministry in slum communities. Ash Barker, who had lived and worked among the urban poor in Melbourne, Australia, describes the exponentially more difficult work of ministering in slums after moving to Klong Toey, a slum in Bangkok, Thailand. He likens conditions in Klong Toey (and slums like it) as a perfect storm, for which western missionaries are unprepared.4

The sheer volume of complex issues along with unimaginable human density and nearly complete lack of government infrastructure has acted as a mission agency repellent, save for a few small sorties and drone strikes from Christians living or working in areas adjacent to slums. In his book, Slum Life Rising, Ash researches the paucity of Christian mission inside slums. The largest Christian mission in the world, World Vision, for instance, dedicates only 7.27% of its budget to urban programs and less than 2 percent to slum ministry.5 Reliable research on Christian mission among the urban poor is difficult to come by since so little work is going on in slums and slums are a remarkably transient demographic. But one thing is certain – North American missionaries are all but absent from slum communities of the Majority World.

With nearly a billion slum dwellers on the planet today growing three times faster than global population, and with the most optimistic estimates placing 4% of the global Protestant missionary force ministering to slum residents (mostly via “remote control” rather than from residing inside slums), each day that we do not re-orient our strategies and structures to accommodate these massive global shifts pushes us further afield of this immense mission frontier which faces the most pernicious forms of evil the world has to dish up. The urban train left the station decades ago while North American mission agencies have spent the last forty years debating whether or not to purchase a ticket.

The sluggishness of Western structures to respond to these necessary changes is discouraging. Our inability to move beyond our patriarchal mindset, and our 1950’s rural mission orientation, will spell impotence for Western structures in a world in desperate need of the leadership gifts of women and those ready to address the realities of 21st centuryurban poor mission.

(See Part IV here)


1 Records of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA) – Collection 165, Billy Graham Center Archives, accessed on April 26, 2012 at http://www2.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/165.htm.

2 As of April 2012 the following Missio Nexus sending bodies have a woman at the helm: Camino Global Canada (formerly CAM International of Canada), Vision Synergy, Childspring International, and Brethren in Christ World Missions.

4 Ash Barker, Slum Life Rising, Melbourne, UNOH Publications, 11.

5 Ibid. 89.

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