I wonder sometimes what kind of work I’d be qualified for if I couldn’t be a missionary anymore. Speaking Chinese might open up some doors. But I think the occupation that I’d be most qualified for would be one of those guys on Shark Tank that listen to inventors and entrepreneurs pitch their investment proposals. At least, I seem to find myself in a similar position a lot. As a missionary, I have sat through countless breathless explanations of some new scheme (and plenty not nearly as new) for missions involvement.
Ours is an age of unprecedented creativity in the name of missions. More things are happening under the rubric of missions than ever before. That could very well mean that our generation is determined to do whatever it takes to drive the gospel deeper into the territories of darkness. Such determination is definitely part of what’s driving these innovations. But I think something else deserves even more of the credit: a misunderstanding of what the hard part of missions is.
Nearly all of the pitches that I hear are frankly trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist! Everyone knows that missions is challenging, but these innovators are failing to see what the real challenges are. They are building Rube Goldberg machines: unnecessarily elaborate schemes for doing something quite simple. The danger of trying to reinvent the wheel is that it almost certainly will end up less round than when you started. And yet, the pitches are working, and sending agencies, missionary training programs, and missions committees are buying into them wholesale. I am repeatedly taken aback by the percentage of total missions investment (money and manpower) that is now being expended on these innovations.
Here’s three of the non-problems that modern missions innovators are scrambling to solve:
The Access Problem
As priority in recent decades has turned increasingly towards restricted access nations, a wave of creativity has been unleashed to deal with the supposed challenge of gaining access to these places. So missions-loving students are counseled to spend years getting college degrees or certifications that they hope will get them in. Aspiring missionaries search for a plausible ‘cover’ in their target country, whether it’s working as a teacher or starting a coffee shop or some other small business. Missions movers and shakers, on the other hand, who dream of getting teams of people into the country, think much bigger. Their plans for implanting missionaries in a country often involve millions of dollars, thousands of man hours, and currying favor with government bigwigs. And much of this investment is on the front end, before a single unbeliever is ever approached with the gospel. Recently, one such missions innovator shared with me how his group had just invested over a million dollars to buy an international organization with branches in some restricted access nations.
I am happy to report that it is simply not that difficult to get into these places. Unfortunately, this means that the above innovations are tragic distractions, both for missionaries and their agencies. I have racked my brain trying to understand just why it is that people believe there is a need for these things. Perhaps they misunderstand that a ‘closed’ country is one that doesn’t give missionary visas, not a country where foreigners cannot reside. Or maybe they imagine that everything a foreigner does in-country is so scrutinized that, without a good cover story, their position will be threatened.
I can testify from personal experience in China as well as from the experience of close friends in Muslim countries that there is no need for innovation here. It is all too easy to get in and stay in. Get a tourist visa. Enroll in a school as a student. Start a small business that does nothing but bleed money. But if access is your goal, then overhead and complexity are your foe. What we want in all of these places is the most brainless, cost-effective, non-time-consuming plan. Now, if you have a way to get people safely planted in North Korea, please share with the class. But if you have a scheme that will give missionaries cover in China or Tunisia, please know that your creativity is complicating a very simple thing.
The Funding Problem
Someone must have started a rumor that the coffers of western churches are running low. Because a key tenet of modern missions is that if missionaries can think of a way to financially support their work themselves, they should by all means take it. These innovations quite often dovetail with the ones above trying to solve the access problem. One of the plaudits of ‘business as missions’ (a phrase that should never be spoken without air quotes) is that Christians are sent around the world without costing western churches a dime! Today, if you want to be a missionary, you are more likely to be counseled to go to business school than to go to seminary. This concern over financial resources is also seen in mission think tanks’ brainstorming new support models.
Again, this is a misunderstanding. For every guy you meet complaining about how impossible it is to raise funds for missionary ventures, I can introduce you to one who is overwhelmed with the generosity of God’s people giving to his global mission. In fact, I can honestly say that in our years of church-planting, money has never been the hang-up. God has proven faithful through the faithfulness of his people.
I think the source of this misunderstanding is a little easier to diagnose. Many churches are strapped financially. So are many of the large denominational mission boards. So it’s easy to imagine that it would be difficult to send many additional missionaries. To the many young people (and parents!) with such fears that I meet, I offer the following comforts. First, these churches and agencies are not your only recourse to support. In fact, I would strongly urge them not be sent through a large denominational board. There are plenty of churches and individuals that are willing to give sacrificially to invest in global missions. Second, there is wonderful training out there that will teach you to build a core of supporters. One of the reasons that you want to believe that fundraising is impossible is that you’re afraid of it. And third, let’s call it what it is. Pride revolts against the idea of relying on anyone, even God’s people, for anything, even God’s work.
The Conversion Problem
Another conundrum that missions strategists have focused their efforts on is the difficulty of winning converts. Certain populations, including many in the fields described above as ‘restricted access nations,’ are notoriously resistant to evangelism. Add to this the modern fascination with virality and movements, and we end up with this premise: if people are rejecting the gospel, then we’re not sharing it well enough. What ensues are endless discussions about what way is the best way to share the gospel with unbelievers. Innovations pop out of these discussions like babies in a TLC show.
One such innovation has been dubbed the ‘insider movement.’ Some missionaries in Muslim contexts are proposing fresh approaches to conversion. Baptized ‘converts’ are encouraged to continue labeling themselves as Muslims, continue going to the mosque, and disclose in a limited way their commitment to following Christ. I believe the most commonly identified advantages of this scheme are: 1) lowering the cost for a Muslim to make an initial commitment to Christ and 2) minimizing severance with the convert’s community, facilitating future evangelism. (this is, by the way, a great example of how easy it is to manufacture a movement; it simply requires figuring out what you can make happen large-scale, then change your definition of ‘success’ to that!) Of course, it does seem that there is one giant disadvantage to the scheme, namely, that it seeks conversions in almost the exact opposite way that Jesus and the apostles did!
In the end, Christians believe that only God can save a sinner. Our job then is clearly to proclaim, not to produce converts. Thus, the metric that we must concern ourselves with is not ‘conversions-per-proclamation’ but ‘proclamations-per-unbeliever.’ Worrying about how to increase conversions is above your pay grade. Our job is to maximize proclamation. And I can attest that missionaries who have made that their concern have not had a ‘conversion problem’! For example, my teammates in Muslim North Africa have put mountains of work into sharing the gospel with as many people as possible, without lowering the call to identification with Christ. Surprise! Even in a low-fruit-yield kind of context like that, they have seen many conversions. The conversion problem is really an evangelism problem. The best way to share the gospel with unbelievers is quickly, clearly, bravely, audibly, and extensively.
Which brings us to the real hard part.
What is really hard in missions? Where should we channel our energies? I won’t linger here, as this post is really more about what the hard part isn’t. But it seems that we can divide Paul the Apostle’s missionary actions into two sorts: evangelism and edification. And that only makes sense, right? After all, this is the part of the work that God empowers us to do! We don’t scheme to make the hearts of sinners responsive to God’s word. That’s the Spirit’s prerogative. Our part is to give the Word to all men. To unbelievers, we announce the life-giving Word about Christ’s work on their behalf (our work – evangelism). Out of those unbelievers, some respond in faith to that Word (the Spirit’s work – conversion). And to those believers, we teach how the Word of Christ now shapes their lives (our work – edification). In these areas, creativity is welcome and needed. Thus, an innovative way to create opportunities for sharing the gospel is wonderful. An innovative way to maximize your discipleship investment is also a great idea. Ironically, I think one of the main reasons behind all the creativity discussed in this post is an unwillingness to deal with the real hard part, this uphill slog of evangelism and edification. It’s much more appealing to imagine that you’re busy solving ‘the real problem’ and never take a step up the hill.
I’ll be honest. Over the past week, I have seen some of these innovations up close, and I am profoundly disturbed. I saw how few church-planters were sent by a large mission board. I saw a church flailing in their own creativity, unable to do anything productive with all their passion for missions. And I saw men who are investing huge resources (not least their own lives) into a long shot, their fascination with bigness precluding them from doing anything that is properly ‘ministry.’ And I am grieved; grieved for the young men who might have been church-planters, grieved for the unbelievers who might have heard the gospel, and grieved for the churches who have been robbed of their investment in the Great Commission.
What we need today in missions is far less creativity and innovation and far more willingness to make the lifelong climb up the mountain of evangelism and edification.