For the past three weeks, I’ve been in Africa participating in missional work and training a large number of pastors. I actually had the opportunity to teach a class on exegesis and hermeneutics that I refer to as Bible Study Methods (observation, interpretation, & application). While teaching these pastors about the process of making observations regarding the text of Scripture, I made a few observations myself regarding where many of these pastors are at on the theological map. This, in fact, led me to make some observations in the way that we (Americans) do missions and what our priorities and emphasis, traditionally, has been. Some of it is good, and some needs to change.
First, let me just stress that these pastors are amazing. What they go through and the level of their commitment is humbling. Despite the obstacles of little to no training, they do the best with what they have and will utilize any resource they can get their hands on.
Second, despite some huge concerns I have, I’m very encouraged at what I see happening in both American missions and on the ground of the mission field. A change seems to be taking place, one that appears more bright than gloomy.
So where is the failure of American missions? I think it has everything to do with the quality of the methods and ministries that are taking place. Allow me to address several ways that this plays out, and provide commentary on these issues.
(1) The focus on numbers – American missions has modeled an unhealthy focus on numbers. It’s not necessarily wrong to be aware of the fruit and success of ministry. We have several examples in the book of Acts about the progress of ministry in the early church (cf. Acts 2:41, 47, etc.). The problem comes when there is more focus on the quantity than the quality. We need to remember that the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) includes more than just gospel preaching. It’s focus is making quality disciples (who obey all of Christ’s commands). Too much focus on numbers has brought confusion to the missional mandate. American Christianity has been the primary influence towards this problem.
(2) The focus on form – This issue really frustrates me. You see, there’s a huge problem, in my opinion, with the majority of the countries I’ve been too. Rather than experiencing churches that have redeemed elements of their own culture and are expressing themselves through their own cultural lens, I experience American Christianity! So we have African churches that, unfortunately, express themselves in American ways. We have Nepali churches that have the “American” feel. We have churches in South America that are essentially, “American.” The problem is that this sends an unfortunate message regarding the gospel! Why can’t God be glorified in the worship expressions of African culture, or Thai culture, or Chinese culture? Why do many American missionaries so quickly assume that everything in a culture must be abandoned and that they only way to express Christ-exalting worship is found with worship music that sounds… American? And I’ve noticed that this problem tends to lead to the next issue…
(3) The focus on “American theology” – This past week, I heard several pastors discuss where they’ve been getting their training and influence from. Unfortunately, the primary theological influence in their lives were all televangelists, specifically of the “word of faith” (prosperity “gospel”) variety. These pastors just assumed that everything they heard (or saw) was correct because… it was (a) American, and (b) on TV. If our “American theology” doesn’t encourage other countries to think critically and to constantly ask exegetical and hermeneutical questions… we may be setting people up for an unfortunate failure. Let’s face it… American Christianity is not what we should base our theological praxis upon. That should be reserved for Scripture, not western culture. Sure, we can reflect upon our culture and interact with it… but we do so from a Scripture standpoint because it is the Scripture that forms the basis for our practices, not culture.
(4) The focus on everything-but-the-gospel – This may not make sense. It’s not that the gospel is not being preached in American missions. After all, most missionaries (both short and long term) go for the purpose of the gospel. What I’m referring to is the lack of what I call gospel longevity. If we’re not careful with our methods, we can easily communicate that the gospel is all about “getting saved” and only includes a few minutes where people either “raise their hand” or “come forward.” Without care, we give people the impression that the gospel isn’t relative for the daily routines of life. Instead, our focus is on many other things that, though not unimportant, can easily become distractions. Thus, we need to always focus on the gospel, for it is the power of God (Rom. 1:8).
Anyway, these are just a few reflections that come to mind. It’s not exhaustive and I don’t mean to imply that all Americans are guilty of these issues. As I stated, the landscape is changing and there are many faithful and effective leaders who are aware of these issues. It’s just that many are not and it often seems that the loudest and most publicized are helping the problem grow rather than shrink.
So what’s the solution? I think part of it is training. Missionaries need good training so that they, in turn, can provide good training. This is not the only solution, but it certainly became apparent for the past three weeks. And the African pastors that I met all informed me that they need good training. They need more theological resources for their ministries. Americans who inform us that the churches of Africa, China, and South America do not need theological training are, sadly, uninformed and have not spent enough time with pastors.
Another solution has to do with a strong understanding of biblical missions. This, obviously, is attached to more training, but as people have a stronger appreciation for what we see in the Scriptures regarding both the method and the emphasis of missions!