The Twilight of North American Missionary Structures: Part V

Oscar Muriu, pastor of Nairobi Chapel in Kenya, suggests that for the majority world to adopt uncritically the western form of missions would be akin to King David donning Saul’s armor in his battle against Goliath.

In the new model for missions we must return to “incarnational models of powerlessness.” Jesus sent out his disciples without extra clothes, shoes, no gold or silver. He told them to look for the man of peace in the village and stay with them. Go as powerless—and become dependent on those you come to save—and you will incarnate with them.1

Do North American mission agencies have the wherewithal to dismantle the corporate paradigm which has defined their modus operandi, with its heavily centralized and litigiously-minded forms of governance, its excessively individualistic worldview, and its resource-hungry programs, in order to create lighter and more fluid structures? How might all that we have learned in the past 200 years be made available in a kind of “open source” environment, where majority world mission agencies are able to access the tools, training and resources that North Americans have developed through our successes and failures in mission? Or, as Patrick Johnstone states “How can missions structured according to a Western Greek/Renaissance worldview adapt to accommodate workers from relational or oral cultures and cultures based on animist or Confucian worldviews, or cultures where honor and shame are more significant than right and wrong?”2

Perhaps we missed the mark when we patterned our missionary enterprise after the Judson’s rather than George Liele (see the first post in this series). Escaping the very real possibility of re-enslavement, George earned passage to Jamaica for himself and his family without outside resources. He built a church on his own property, supported his ministry with both gifts from abroad as well as farming and driving teams of horses. He built informal relationships with a variety of people and institutions, and in the end helped establish a very successful mission under extremely difficult conditions and pushed forward the abolition movement.3

Are we prepared to avoid empire-building and neo-colonialism and return to the beauty of organizational simplicity and obscurity? There are some (too few) western mission organizations who are happy to catalyze kingdom advance in the Majority World without planting their flag in a work or sucking up national workers into their organizational machine. They refuse to bankroll projects or impose the western cultural values of individualism and goal-orientation. They are averse to creating works without first calling together a wide network of local stakeholders all of whom share in the design, control and outcomes of a mission. And in the end they care little who’s name gets attached to the mission.

We in North American mission organizations must be ready to inspire, equip and support men and women wanting to travel lightly and live incarnationally in places like slum communities of the developing world. Without branding the training, we must release greater control of our bank of wisdom and resources to those who are often more adept at thinking differently than the good-ol-boy network - young people, women, minority American communities  as well as our developing world brothers and sisters. The emerging Majority World mission structures have something to teach us as our models become unsustainable. We must motivate, equip and support the natural movement of believers into missional territories through their schooling or professions in addition to creating sending bases which more easily accommodate bi-vocational service or the deployment of men and women trained to make their way into difficult environments with few resources.

The transformation of slums will require us to move beyond one-dimensional thinking which relies substantially on numbers of churches and converts as the primary measure of success and engage less external metrics like the bending of systems, structures or values toward a more just and godly center. If we can allow the missionary structures which have served past generations to contract with grace and dignity, releasing some long-held habits; like older, White, male leadership and a for-profit framework, we may witness the resurgence of new structures built with some of the resources of the existing - structures which will serve the future of North American missions for generations to come.

1 See the reflections from Howard Brandt on the Oscar Muriu lectures, accessed on January 20, 2010 at

2 Patrick Johnstone. The Future of the Global Church. Downers Grove, IL: Biblica, Inc., 235.

3 See “George Liele, America’s First Missionary,” on The Traveling Team’s website at on April 26, 2012.


What are you saying here? To go into slums and train up natives to prosper and build their own societal structures

Thanks for asking for clarification. Slums are a challenging environment. To grow the Kingdom of God in such places appears to require more than simply verbal proclamation or even church planting. How do we encourage kingdom flourishing in systems and structures which surround slums? Certainly walking alongside those living in slums (and some spirit-filled men and women relocating to the slums) is part of the answer. To be honest, I am not altogether sure what is needed to see the shalom of God growing in slum environments. Good church planting is part of the solution, as well as economic discipleship, government reform, education expansion, etc. But most of my friends who work and live in slums aren't even certain. They just know that the western missionary patterns of old are not working.

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