The Twilight of North American Missionary Structures: Part I

The North American missionary movement witnessed a significant milestone recently – the 200th anniversary of Adoniram and Ann Judson’s departure to South Asia, often considered the birth of the North American missionary sending structure. This bicentennial was commemorated when two historic networks of North American missions agencies, CrossGlobal Link and The Mission Exchange, merged into one – Missio Nexus; a display of a new era of cooperative mission.

Some Caveats

Let us never mind for the moment that George Liele, a freed Black American slave, had sailed to Jamaica and been ministering there for thirty years before the Judsons left the shores of New England,[i] or that Jesuits, Quakers, Moravians and many others had conducted substantial cross-cultural missionary activity all around the Americas (and from the Americas to other parts in the hemisphere) long before the emergence of the first American missionary societies. These lesser known missionary events are rarely commemorated with any fanfare. Missions history, like many other histories, too often highlight the stories of those with connections to wealth and power or those who have been supported by formal structures or crossed large bodies of water. Let us also for the moment set aside the mix of American expansionism, Capitalism, cultural imperialism and colonialism which, at times, tainted the early North American Protestant missionary movement. These details should not overshadow or disparage the fact that for two hundred years Americans of every ethnic group and theological stripe have left behind their families, have made their home in places which were frighteningly strange to them, have struggled to adapt to different cultures and learn new languages, and too often, buried their spouses and children in those strange lands, only to perish themselves so far from their place of origin.

My proposition in these blog posts, namely that the historic North American Evangelical missionary structure is nearing the end of its useful life, in no way diminishes the sacrifice and contribution made by many thousands of honorable yet fallible North Americans who gave themselves to Christ, seeking first his kingdom and its righteousness before their own needs. Nor am I suggesting that other expressions of western mission outside of North America (particularly those in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and South Korea) are doing any better at changing the structural paradigm I am critiquing. And, though it is related, I will also not focus my attention on examining a North American church, where syncretism with a religion of consumption and materialism has obscured the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am simply offering some observations from my context as an American who has journeyed with North American mission agencies for the past 25 years.

Cardiac Arrest

In late September of 2011 I participated in the conference which preceded the February 2012 merger of the two North American Evangelical missions structures. The conference was called RESET with a view to leveraging this historic moment by “resetting” our paradigms and envisioning new levels of collaboration which had been difficult to imagine before this time. Cataclysmic changes in the global theater and in the church affords opportunities to re-form Evangelical North American mission, something much needed since many of the agencies in the room, my own included, were founded in the in the mid Twentieth century and have changed relatively little in the intervening years.

One of the ways in which the conference attempted to advance the conversation of change or “reset” was to ask each mission agency to bring along their younger leaders to the gathering. Younger leaders are generally more willing to embrace change and may have a better handle on new technologies and social structures which are emerging. I was interested to hear how this next generation of mission leaders within our ranks might challenge existing structures, so after a stimulating presentation we turned to our table groups with the instruction that the youngest person at the table lead the discussion.

I was shocked as I looked around my table. Not only were we all White men, but at age forty-eight, I was the youngest person in the circle! One man at my table confessed that the average age in his mission organization was fifty-three. Perhaps my group was a poor representation of who was in the room. Maybe all the old, White guys happened to sit together at the same table. But as I wandered around and interacted over the next few days it became apparent that pale, male and frail were are consistent adjectives in describing the core leadership of the agencies in the room. Rather than RESET, a better conference theme might have been RESUSCITATE.

The first sign that our structures are dying is that leaders of historic mission movements are unable or unwilling to recruit and promote younger persons. Obviously we cannot discard all of us wizened old people who were affecting world change when you kids were needing your diapers changed (and git off my lawn!).

Whippersnappers have a lot to learn from us old guys. But a room of white haired men attempting a discussion on radical organizational change is symptomatic of the fact that there are basic structural issues which will impede change at a paradigmatic level.

Next we’ll look at some of the sociological and economic factors which suggest that our current missions structures will not take us much further.

[i]The conveners of the Missio Nexus launch acknowledged previous mission efforts such as Liele’s.

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