Saturday, June 20, 2015

What common factors can be identified from successful mission strategies?


1.                Introduction.
2.                Learning to speak the language.
3.                Learning the culture.
4.                Identifying with the local people.
5.                Prayer.
6.                Widespread preaching of the gospel.
7.                Stress on teamwork.
8.                Early preparation for indigenous ministry.
9.            Conclusion

In the last two millenia the history of Christian missions has provided the Church with numerous examples of missionary practices. Some of them have proved to be quite successful, others have been partly effective, whereas still others have been rejected as completely unwarranted by Scripture and their ethos. Trying to identify the most common factors lying behind successful mission strategies could both inform our churches, missions and the individual Christians about the basics of doing mission, and mobilize them into putting those lessons into practice, for God’s glory. The following are the most common factors that have contributed to some of the greatest missions since the early church to our times[1].

Learning to speak the language
Learning to understand and speak the language of local people has always been one of the most important elements in a successful mission strategy. According to the Bulgarian ethimological dictionary, language is “a means for communication achieved through the exchange of thoughts, feelings, impressions, with the help of sounds and graphic signs”. Since the Babel curse there have developed hundreds of languages, spoken by many ethnic groups in nearly 200 countries throughout the world. So, if a missionary really wants to understand the local people and be understood himself, he[2] must make an effort and devote a considerable amount of time to this aim. Learning a foreign language is not an easy task, and many have chosen not to bother with this. This was for example “the approach” of the Roman Catholic priests in Latin America. But even if a missionary is convinced of the importance of becoming fluent in the local dialect, he might soon get discouraged if he has no gift for languages, and is not persistent enough.

If we go through the history of world missions, we will note the relation between the ability of the missionary to learn the vernacular and the overall success of his mission. For example, Ziegenbalg, a missionary from the  Danish-Halle mission, had an excellent gift for languages. He not only learned colloquial Tamil, but mastered the classical form of it, which was extremely difficult[3]. The same goes for Robert Moffat, a missionary in South Africa, who, after using Cape Dutch, realised he had to learn the Tswana language as the only means of reaching the local people. His efforts were rewarded – once he had learned it, people accepted him as their own and the first baptisms took place. He also managed to translate the Bible into that language. The same was done by Carey and the Serampore Trio in India, who translated the Bible into 6 languages and produced 23 complete New Testament versions! So, learning the local language has often been the necessary prerequisit of reducing it to writing and later on, translating the Bible into it – a vital step in the process of evangelization of the world.

Learning the culture
The next factor, identifiable from all successful mission strategies is learning the culture[4]. As the Willowbank Report puts it, ‘culture is an integrated system of beliefs, of values, of customs, and of institutions which express these beliefs, values and customs, which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security and continuity.’[5] It is not enough just to understand the others and make oneself understood. Good cross-cultural communication necessitates also a good grasp of the history and culture of the native people. The above mentioned Carey made a proper research of the beliefs predominant in the Hindu culture. Before that, as early as the second century AD the early church apologists set out to defend the Christian faith from the attacks of the educated pagans in the Roman world. They aimed to show the relationship between philosophy and Christianity, and by giving tribute to the first, to stress the superiority of the latter over it[6]. The apologists were able to do that because they knew pretty well the philosophical thought of their day. The same insight dawned to the Franciscan monk Ramon Lull, who, nearly a thousand years later, established a college for the study of oriental languages, so that future missionaries could understand Muslim beliefs and debate with them[7]. One cannot help mentioning also the Anglo-Saxon monks, who lived very near to the peasants in northern Europe, understood them and “instead of attempting to destroy or uproot all their beliefs, they set to work to transform them” and their pagan culture (Neill, 66, 67).

On the other hand, the lack of knowledge of this background information has led to many abuses on part of the Church, especially in the Middle Ages and during the Great Geographic Discoveries. Probably nothing puts people off so much as the memory of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the extermination of millions of native Americans by some of the founding fathers in America[8], the forcefully imposed Christian faith to the pagan population of many European states, to name just a few…

Identifying with the local people
Another indispensible factor common for successful mission endevours is the ability of a missionary to identify with the local people. In his letter to the Thessalonians apostle Paul showed what this means. He said his love made him share his life with them and feel like being their “father” and “mother”, both. He called them “brothers” and so much identified with them that they were to him like a family and he felt responsible for their spiritual and physical well-being[9]. Often the receptive culture abounds with such gross injustice, economic chaos, widespread idolatry and sexual immorality, that missionaries who come from the West cannot help noting the superiority of their own culture over the new country they have arrived in. Thus they trigger suspicion and unacceptance on part of the people they try to evangelise, and remain foreigners to them, even when they’ve mastered the local language.

Side by side with the great Biblical examples of people who have identified fully with their new countries as Daniel, Jesus and Paul, many others can serve us as prime examples of missionaries having a loving attitude, and thus having been blessed with a remarkable number of converts. The story of the Moravians could be a source of great encouragement to modern missionaries. They were descendants of a group of religious refugees from Moravia who were given refuge by Zinzendorf in 1722. They developed their peculiar form of Pietism, with a very strong theology of the Cross and tried to preach “Christ crucified”[10] with “a most astonishing success”[11]. They were largely uneducated peasants, who tried to live the gospel while identifying with local people, and thus attract them to it. Within 150 years they sent 2158 missionaries to at least 12 countries in very remote and difficult regions.

As J. Packer puts it, “true prayer” is “a constant struggle in which you make headway by effort against various kinds of opposition”. That “struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”[12]. Mission is in itself an effort to steal away territory from Satan and further God’s kingdom on earth, and the devil will oppose this with all his strength till the end of time. So, prayer is vital if we really want to make headway and win souls for the gospel.

In a sense, this is not our struggle, but God’s, because it is of spiritual nature. Yet, the Holy Spirit’s help does not make prayer any less hard. Prayer is also hard work, but we tend to forget that[13]. When we talk about mission, we think of it in terms of setting up societies, boards, finding the ‘right people’, who then should set out to make plans and strategies, and eventually put them into practice. And in the process we forget all too easily that before we roll up our sleeves, we need to lift up our hearts to God in prayer.

That’s why, in spite of all the books that have been written on the subject, prayer is somehow neglected when we talk about missions. But prayer has been the factor behind all great missionary achievements, and lack of it, behind all missionary failures! Jesus himself insisted that his disciples “should always pray and not give up”[14], and poured out his Spirit on them on the day of Pentecost as they were all gathered together in the temple to pray; this day marked the actual beginning of world mission. Paul, the missionary par excellence, who helped spread the gospel throughout the Roman empire, prayed a lot himself and admonished all believers to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests”[15].

In more modern times, many great missionary endeavours have started as several or more people gathered to pray. Both BMS and LMS were founded as a result of monthly prayer meetings. Hundreds of student Bible study groups have been planted after a Christian student started praying to meet other Christians at his university[16]. But probably the most striking example of the role of prayer in mission is the Church in Korea. Korean Christians are famous for their commitment to this spiritual discipline and as such have encouraged many Christians and churches around the world to devote themselves to prayer. And this is not unwarranted – today 30 percent of the population of this Asian country is Christian. Of course, there are other factors for this unprecedented Church growth, yet Koreans would point to it as the overriding reason behind the growth of the Church in their country.

Widespread preaching of the gospel
Preaching of the gospel is also among the main factors contributing to the success of most of the missions we have already mentioned. Language learning, adjustment to the culture and identification with the local people are important, but God’s word is that changes people’s hearts, “for the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges thoughts and attitudes of the heart”[17] (Hebrews 4:12). Preaching of the gospel was the first aspect of the Serampore trio five-fold misisonary strategy[18]. Carey and his friends believed that “faith comes from hearing the message”[19] and the area they covered during their preaching tours is really impressive. Vanderkemp, Philip, Moffat, Livingston and other prominent African missionaries were all moved by the heathenism of the African people and their “cause was the cause of the Gospel”[20], which was the only thing that could change their condition on earth, as well as in heaven. Even though some of them, namely Livingston, were seen rather as colonists than missionaries, their lives and work proved that to preach the gospel of the crucified Jesus was what gave them energy and motivation to persevere against the difficulties of their time and region. On the other side of the globe, further north-east, the Russian preacher in the Moscow Academy, Ioasaf Chotunshevsky, together with 6 of his students and several clerics arrived in Kamschatka and within 3 years was able to report a Christian population of 11, 574. Even more striking is the case with the Aleutians, who had previously known a creator god called Aguguk to be distant and not exacting worship. After they heard the good news by the Russion missionaries, they were ready to accept baptism! Much of this was attributed to the friendly relations the indigenous people had had with the Russians; but it was undoubtedly God’s Word that opened their spiritual eyes and urged them to discard their shamanistic beliefs and turn to the living God. And, finally, before us we have the example of the faith missions that showed a commitment to preach the gospel to as many people as possible before Christ returned.

Stress on teamwork
Another important aspect of successful missions is teamwork. Before Jesus was arrested and brought to Pilate, he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane: “I pray … for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me”[21] (John 17:20b, 21). With these words Jesus drew our attention to three important aspects of our Christian lives. First, he urged the believers to be missionaries in their situations and reach out to the lost. Second, he insisted that all of them were to do that. And, third, they had to do missions in unity. The first aspect tells us what we are supposed to do (evangelism, mission), the second two aspects show us how we are supposed to do it (all of us, in unity).

If all Christians are to do evangelism and mission, then it is the prerogative not only of the clergy, but it is a task that should be also undertaken by the lay people. The Anabaptists were the first to take Luther’s doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers’ to its logical conclusion: all believers are compelled to preach the gospel wherever they can[22]. When, on the other hand, mission is marginalized in the life of the Church and limited just to the elected Church elite, as with the monks in the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, then it results usually in the creation of a semi-pagan, or semi-Christian Church, and thus is doomed to failure[23].

There are not many missionaries in the history of Christian missions, who have worked all on their own in a distant country, and who have managed to reach out to many indigenous people without the help of others. Often, as it is the case with Xavier, or with Marshman and Ward, orders and missions would send companies of two, three or more missionaries who were to set up a missionary station and spread the work farther on. It was when Marshman and Ward joined the lonely Carey that one of the most famous and fruitful missionary partnership was born.[24] Partnership between missionaries is even more impressive and effective for the conversion of local people if it is achieved between two or more missionary agencies or churches, as the case with the Halle-Danish mission. This process of partnership and interaction was catalized much more with the arrival of the faith missions which were interdenominational in character and first to employ lay missionaries, in fact, all people available! After all, Christianity is all about relationships, unity and partnership, and so is mission.

Early preparation for an indigenous ministry
This principle has to do with the need of training competent indigenous Christians to become fellow-workers of the missionaries in the respective country. It was the last, but not the least important aspect of Carey’s missionary strategy[25]. Carey and his friends stated firmly their conviction, that “it is only by means of native preachers that we can hope for the universal spread of the gospel through this immense continent”. And this principle has been tested to be correct ever since.

But it hasn’t always been so. During the age of discovery and immediately after, when the Roman Catholic Church managed to convert great numbers of the local Indians to the Christian faith, one of the serious defects of the missionary work was the fact that no serious attempt had been made to build up an indigenous ministry. This created a clique of whites with some chosen Indians to wait upon their needs, who were no enthusiastic about the evangelization of the Indians as a whole. Even though some efforts were made for training of Indian clergy, the road to giving permition for ordination of ‘mestizos’ and ‘mulattos’ would still be long and difficult[26].

Later on, this time in Asia, the French Jesuit Alexander de Rhodes formed a “brotherhood” who were celibate and were “required to make vows of celibacy, poverty and submission to the superior of the community”[27]. This added not less than tens of thousands of converts to the Church. Still later, John Nevius was maybe the missionary who put this principle of indigenuity most brilliantly into practice. The Church in Korea was encouraged since the very beginning of its existence to choose her local leaders without depending on foreign missionary imput. Together with its widespread lay witness and overall independence from western help, the Korean Church became one of the most missionary oriented world centres[28].

All the above-mentioned factors have been either the stumbling block, or the blessing for many missions. When we try to do them all – to learn to speak the language, learn the culture, identify with the local people, pray for our mission, preach the gospel, prepare indigenous workers early enough, work in teams – we should not be overwhelmed by the impossibility of the task. We should rather fix our eyes on Him, and be reminded, that we “can do everything through him who gives us strength”.[29]

[1] For most of these I have drawn on the Serampore trio five-fold mission strategy  (see Neill, Stephen, pp. 224-25) as I find it to be one of the most balanced and well-developed strategies I have come across during this course. We could add to this list some more factors, as commitment to the task, accountability to ones decisions and actions, living close to God, etc. I have dropped these out as more or less they overlap with those I have suggested. For example, while discussing the headings “learning to speak the language”, and “learning the culture” I have mentioned that one should be committed to these disciplines if he is to fulfill his task as a missionary, and so on.
[2] When referring to the missionary I will use the masculine personal pronoun ‘he’ in singular for the sake of convenience. This should not be interpreted as a rejection of the role of women as missionaries.
[3] See Neill, Stephen, pp. 195.
[4] Of course, there are some exceptions from the rule, like Robert Moffat in Africa, who had little if any interest to the cultural background of the people he shared the gospel with (see Tiplady, Richard, History of Christian Mission, p. 208-9). Probably the more developed the receptive culture and the richer its history, the more difficult it becomes for missionaries to evangelise it without giving tribute to its assets. Probably pagan cultures are not so demanding in this respect, and such is Mofat’s case.
[5] Quoted in Tiplady, Richard, History of Christian Mission, p. 317.
[6] Notably, Justin set out to prove that Plato and the other philosophers had each only a “proportion to the share … of the generative word”, or that, in other words, all truth belonged to Christianity (Apology 2:13). An even bolder statement was that of Clement of Alexandria, who viewed philosophy as a God-given tool to the Greeks so that it might prepare them for the advent of Christ (Miscellanies 1:5) – see Tiplady, Richard, History of Christian Mission, p. 75-6.
[7] ibid., p. 114-18.
[8] See Tiplady, Richard, History of Christian Mission, p. 169.
[9] See 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12.
[10] See 1 Corinthians 1:23.
[11] See Tiplady, Richard, History of Christian Mission, p. 175.
[12] See Ephesians 6:12.
[13] See Packer, J.I., Knowing Christianity, p. 102.
[14] See Luke 18:1.
[15] See Ephesians 6:18a.
[16] See Lowman, Pete, The Day of His Power, 198.
[17] See Hebrews 4:12.
[18] See Neill, Stephen, pp. 222-26.
[19] See Romans 10:17a.
[20] See Neill, Stephen, pp. 263-67.
[21] See John 17:20b, 21).
[22] See Tiplady, Richard, History of Christian Mission, p. 163.
[23] ibid, p. 135.

[24] See Neill, Stephen, pp. 222-26.
[25] ibid.
[26] Ibid., pp. 147-150.
[27] See Tiplady, Richard, History of Christian Mission, p. 151.
[28] ibid., p. 246.

[29] See Philippians 4:13.