The Twilight of North American Missionary Structures: Part IV

Patrick Johnstone suggests in his book, The Future of the Global Church, that the Protestant rejection of Catholic mission structures was the means by which the Protestant church entered the global scene with a serious missiological deformity.

In the 16th-Century Reformation, the essentials of biblical theology were recovered but the Reformers did not develop a biblical missiology. Sadly, they also did not address the need for a structural reformation and they retained many of the distorted forms of the past. Monasticism was rejected and for 300 years no missions structures were set up to replace it for the churches of the Reformation. The Reformation was, in fact, a structural “deformation.”(1)

How did Protestants compensate for this? I believe we looked the wrong direction as we groped for a model –to the for-profit business world.

The Missionary Machinery

I consider it an amusing linguistic coincidence that  “missionary” and “machinery” sound alike. In fact the history of western mission is a story of building our organizational understanding on the foundation of the secular, for-profit business industry. William Carey, considered by some as the “father of modern missions,”(2) laid a commercial business foundation for Protestant missions upon which we have been building for 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.”(3)

The history of Roman Catholic mission has been criticized for her love of Empire as reflected in her alliance with the Crown. So too, the western Protestant expression of mission has been hindered through her love of Empire as reflected in her alliance with the Corporation. Despite early hostilities between the British East India Company and London Missionary Society, 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 and their corporate officers serve on the boards and in senior leadership positions in Protestant mission organizations. These influences have affected the trajectory of Protestant missionary organizations, particularly in the US where free-market Capitalism holds such a sacred place in the hearts of our citizenry. The for-profit business model has informed how we approach hiring, firing, job descriptions, ministry goals, vision and value statements and financial structures among other things. I question how far a model based largely on a worldview which encourages consumption, values the maximization of profit above most everything else, and stimulates economic forces which depress wages while inflating prices, is the best paradigm upon which to base the mission of a Savior who warned us that to gain the world would be to forfeit our souls.

To be sure, there is much the North American Protestant missionary world has gained by our partnership with business, gleaning healthy principles of accountability, management and planning. My own role in guiding short term mission has benefited from business methods which promote careful management of resources, thoughtful planning, and clear communication. But it might be argued that the Catholic Church gained many benefits through her relationship to the Emperors, yet how many of those were offset by the liability of a Church-State marriage? So it is that 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.(4)

Shortly after returning from China in the early 1900s, Anglican missionary Roland Allen decried the dangers of what he perceived to be an excessively business-oriented approach to mission. Allen describes the resource-driven way in which the Anglican Church was conducting mission at the beginning of the 20th century:

Our modern practice in founding a church is to begin by securing land and buildings in the place in which we wish to propagate the Gospel, to provide houses in which the missionary can live, and a church, or at least a room, fitted up with all the ornaments of a Western church, in which the missionary may conduct services, sometimes to open a school to which we supply the teachers. The larger the establishment and the more liberally it is supplied with every possible modern convenience, the better we think it suited to our purpose … Hence the opening of a new mission station has become primarily a financial operation, and we constantly hear our missionaries lament that they cannot open new stations where they are surely needed, because they have not the necessary funds to purchase and equip the barest missionary establishment.”(5)

North American Protestant missionary organizations are significantly led and influenced by those who have cut their organizational leadership teeth in the for-profit corporate sector. With these leaders often comes a product-focused orientation which attempts to measure success in strictly material ways, ways which can be misleading in a mission where spiritual and societal transformation are difficult to measure, and more often than not, are outside the direct control of the missionary. The faithfulness and obedience of the missionary is rarely the measure of success reported in our forms and printed in our annual reports, it is external results and often results as measured by budgets that end in the black, number of converts, or programs successfully executed. The material metrics used in the for-profit world, when applied uncritically to a Christian mission, can misdirect our energies and result in establishing institutions rather than advancing the work of God. “Christianity is not an institution,” Allen asserts, “but a principle of life.”(6) As such, a mindset adopted from the for-profit business world becomes simplistic or even dangerous when applied to God’s mission.

While I applaud the re-emergence of “business as mission,” a model for mission employed by Paul and many others through the centuries, I sometimes feel like Protestants often conduct mission as business. Where is the prophetic imagination being inspired to re-think how we engage the mission of God – to bring unity to all things on heaven and earth under Christ (Eph. 1:10)? We’ll look at missional alternatives in the concluding post in this series next.


(1) Patrick Johnstone. The Future of the Global Church. Downers Grove, IL: Biblica, Inc., 225.

(2) Once again, to identify Carey as the father of modern Protestant mission is to gloss over remarkable South Asia missionary work being done by German missionaries Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutscheau eighty years prior, or the pre-Reformation “Protestant” movements which engaged in mission across Europe.

(3) Timothy Tennent.Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 261.

(4) I must pause to mention here that the Anabaptist 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.

(5) Roland Allen, (American Edition) 1962. Missionary Methods St. Paul’s or Ours? Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Publishing, 52.

(6) Allen, ibid, 55.

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