Pioneer Missions [pt. 1/3]
Forrest McPhail, BJU Alumnus
Landmines have been heavily used in this past century of warfare. Some countries today are still riddled with mines in remote areas, and news feeds regularly feature stories of the gruesome effects of these diabolical instruments of pain and suffering.
Landmines are not meant to kill. They are meant to maim, to handicap in such a way as to require immediate medical attention. The reasoning goes like this: if we can seriously maim an enemy soldier by taking off his arms or legs, the loss of blood will require one or two of his comrades to help him get to a medic or hospital to save his life. One landmine can then take 2-3 men off the field of battle.
What do landmines have to do with pioneer missions? In cross-cultural ministry, and especially in pioneer missions, we must be armed with knowledge before we begin our task. If we hastily begin ministry in ignorance of certain Bible truths and concepts, we can become guilty of unintentionally burying “missiological landmines” that hinder our efforts and handicap the spiritual growth of the churches we seek to serve.
Our family has served in Cambodia, Southeast Asia, since 2000. When we first arrived, Cambodia was still in post-war survival mode. Now, though still a relatively poor country especially in the rural areas, the country’s economy is booming. Cambodia shares a Folk Buddhist culture very similar to that of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Sri Lanka.
In 2014 I wrote a book called “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings” to help introduce God’s people to some truths that need serious discussion and prayerful study before they launch out into cross-cultural disciple-making in Jesus’ name. In June of 2018, the Lord gave me the privilege of becoming regional director for Asia/Australia/the Pacific for Gospel Fellowship Association Missions. Since then, we have been exposed to cross-cultural ministries in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. After what we have seen and heard on field after field, I am more convinced than ever of these truths.
In this blog series I would like to introduce eight factors that I believe contribute to the challenges facing most cross-cultural missionaries, especially those laboring in more pioneer contexts.
Factor #1: Preparatory work is foundational for evangelism.
Understand what people really believe
If we are to preach Christ and build a bridge from pagan unbelief to an understanding of the Gospel, we MUST understand what people believe. This is the starting point. I must understand what people believe generally in the culture in which I labor, as well as what individuals believe when I witness to them of Jesus. One of the hardest things for Christians to do, it seems, is to take the time to understand what a person believes before launching into the gospel.
In our context of Buddhist/animist Southeast Asia, we need to understand the major teachings of Buddhism and how they impact people’s daily lives and decisions. We need to know what they inherently understand when they hear words like “God”, “sin”, “heaven”, “eternal life”, “hell”, “grace”, etc. What does ancestor worship mean? What motivates them to perform these various rituals? What Gospel truths are more easily embraced, and which are strongly resisted because of their cultural bias? If we don’t take the time to make gaining such knowledge our priority, our evangelism and discipleship of them will be greatly hindered, largely ineffective.
Such knowledge does not come primarily from reading books about religion, but by talking to the people you are trying to reach. Being a learner of culture and humbling seeking understanding is one major way to become friends with those you are trying to reach. It takes time and dedication.
Understand how to present the Gospel in context
Missionaries must take the time to understand what people really believe and then learn how to preach the Gospel to them accordingly. In cross-cultural ministry, this will usually require the discipline of learning the language of the people whom we seek to reach. Language learning is essential for those committed to pioneer missions. Those who know the language of the people will preach Christ much differently than those who do not. Why? Culture and language are inseparable. To really know people, you must speak their language.
Many who serve cross-culturally do not bother to learn the language, choosing instead to work through translators. Others try to work through English, arguing that some know it well. Some ministries, rather than have teachers learn major languages, force their students to learn English so that they might be taught God’s Word. The result? Many students “trained” in English do not really understand God’s Word as they are so limited by English.
What would happen if Christians--if our churches--heavily emphasized how wonderful the gift of language is to the Great Commission? What if thousands of Christian young men and women gave themselves to Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or Bahasa?
Understand the necessity of Creation in evangelism
What do the people that we are trying to reach believe about God? What assumptions do they have about Christianity’s God? Since most people in the world have no background in biblical Christianity, there is no better place to begin in our evangelism than Genesis 1:1. This is the foundational truth of the whole Bible message. Without it, the Gospel has no meaning. Even formerly “Christian” nations, which are now already secularized or rapidly becoming so, need the same emphasis.
In many pioneer areas, and with many unchurched people elsewhere, a strong emphasis must be given to Creation. Why? Creation teaches us who God is and who mankind is in relationship to God. The fall of mankind into sin teaches us the nature of sin and its consequences, of our need for salvation. Without the firm foundation of Creation and the Fall, there will be much confusion about the character of God, the nature of sin, and the meaning of life. Without this foundation, the Person of Jesus, His cross and resurrection, make no sense. Introducing people to God requires that we lay a Biblical foundation for who God is.
Factor #2: Guarding the Gospel is crucial.
The danger of syncretism
There are two default unbelieving responses to the Gospel: rejection and syncretism. Syncretism is the mixing of one faith/belief system with another. It is not an outright rejection of one belief system, but an acceptance of parts of each religion, thus creating a new one. Satan is masterful in encouraging sinful men to pick and choose parts of God’s revelation to believe or reject. Truth mixed with error in the name of Christianity is ever the way of the Devil. The danger of syncretism poses a serious threat everywhere the Gospel message goes, but it is especially damaging in pioneer contexts.
Rarely was Israel tempted to forsake Jehovah completely. Instead, they frequently sought to mix the worship of the LORD with the worship of false gods. This tendency is what God and His prophets continually spoke out against in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy is a book filled with such warnings.
In the New Testament, Jesus condemned both the Pharisees and the Sadducees for syncretism. One of the main themes in the Epistles is the danger of syncretism, especially that of the Judaizers who sought to mix OT law with NT Christianity. In the Pastoral Epistles, church leaders are called upon to guard the Gospel and rebuke those that contradict sound doctrine, even exercising church discipline on those that refuse to believe Gospel truths.
Unintentional encouragement of syncretism
Cross-cultural missionaries can unintentionally encourage syncretism among those that hear their teaching ministry. Impatience, driven by personal ambitions for the praise of men or success, leads some to pick unripe fruit, calling people to make decisions when they do not yet understand the Gospel message. The result is professed believers with a mixed bag of beliefs.
Another way missionaries can unintentionally encourage syncretism is by downplaying repentance. Instead of watching for true understanding and fruit of repentance among their hearers, missionaries sometimes assume that a knowledge of Gospel facts and verbal assent to them is enough to assume Biblical salvation. Warning: syncretists don’t repent. Instead, they agree to certain facts, and then add to and subtract from God’s truth. Syncretists often openly assent to Gospel facts while not believing on Jesus Christ according to the Gospel.
To be continued…
Dr. Neal Cushman, Projects Coordinator
This week, let’s return to Mr. Smuchie heading to Baptistville and talk about the matter of call.
This is a touchy subject because how can I argue with someone’s call? After all, this is a matter between God and the person.
One response to this might be to doubt that there is such a thing as a personal call. Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson wrote a book in the 1980’s that basically said that there is no such thing as a personal call. Rather, we have commandments like the Great Commission that we must fulfill in our lives. This should be the focus, and not some subjective revelation that occurs between God and a person.
In other words, God’s will is more like a circle of obedience which one should remain in and move around freely, but it is not a single point. There is no such thing as “the one person” that you should marry, or “the one vocation” that you should pursue. If you sense that you are good at ministry, and you are walking with the Lord, then you are fine to pursue vocational ministry if you wish. If you are good at missions, and like it, then go ahead and do it. If you meet a young lady who exhibits good Christian character, and you like her personality, and she is in agreement with your goals for life, then you are fine to marry her. But the same could be said for a thousand other young ladies who have similar qualifications.
One of the authors’ illustrations may lead one to believe that he has hit upon something good here. If it is God’s will for Joe to marry Sue, and Joe fails to follow the Lord in this, and marries Lori instead, then God’s will is destroyed for many others. For Lori was actually supposed to marry Jeff, and now Jeff can’t possibly complete God’s will for his life. Before long, no one can find the one true mate for his life, and God’s plan is completely overturned. Complicated, right? On this basis (and some other points), Friesen argues there is a range of permissible options when it comes to following God’s will.
Friesen’s theory has some merit to it. There are some who seem so tied down by concern over whether or not they have the will of God for their lives that they cannot get the nerve to do anything. Friesen would answer that we should follow what we know, and do that.
We are commanded to witness, so stop praying about whether or not you should do it, and get out and witness. Good point. I might further add that the first step towards knowing God’s will for your life is to obey Him, striving to please Him every day. But Friesen would not quite say that. He would argue that the first step is the only step.
There are a number of problems with Friesen’s thesis, and I will mention a few. First, there are a significant number of biblical texts that point to a specific call for your life. In particular, the New Testament talks about the matter of setting a person apart for ministry (See 1 Cor. 9:27; Acts 20:24; 2 Tim. 4:7; and 1 Tim. 4:14).
In other words, God takes certain people and selects them to be vocational ministers of the Gospel. To say that this happens at the moment that a person surrenders to ministry is not consistent with the experiences of John the Baptist and Paul, not to mention all of the Old Testament prophets. Second, Friesen’s marriage illustration is not conclusive because it fails to grapple with the mysterious nature of God’s sovereignty.
God runs this universe to the smallest detail with such precision and care that He is always glorified, even though the subjects of his universe seek to dishonor Him at every turn. Yet it appears He allows this rebellion to exist.
So how does He maintain His precise will with so many rebellious subjects? I don’t know. He is God, and can do things that defy my thinking. Theologians often speak of God’s permissive will compared to His true will. Perhaps this allows us a way to describe the problem, but in the end, God is sovereign, and no man is capable of overturning it.
Friesen’s theory also fails on a very practical level. He assumes some believers will choose to serve God in vocations like missions. Everyone has the option to choose. Some are more gifted than others, so maybe they will choose. But what if everyone says, “It is totally permissible for me to serve God in America. I will faithfully fulfill His will here.”
I would never disparage any vocation where a person faithfully serves God. But I think that you can see the problem here. If there is no “setting apart for ministry,” then it is left to human choice. This simply does not square with what we read in the Bible.
Let’s regroup – as always, I have wandered far afield of the question. We were discussing the matter of the Lord’s call, and I tried to show some of the weaknesses of Friesen’s model.
But I would like to balance this brief critique of Friesen with concern over the subjective nature of what I often hear regarding someone’s call. While a pastor, I listened to a young lady claim that God wanted her to move in with her boyfriend. Of course, I told her that this was not God’s will for her life.
Later, I heard a man say that God had called his family into missions to serve in country X. He packed his bags, moved to another state, and began to raise support to go to country X. Things did not work out, so he said God had called him to country Y. This did not work out either.
After a while one wonders if God is being impugned when people talk this way. Are there no checks and balances concerning what one says about his or her calling?
I have decided that I should not question someone’s call (but I wonder if the individual’s pastor should question it, or at least discuss whether or not it is consistent with the person’s qualifications and skills).
Rather, I have decided that I will determine whether or not I should cast my support behind that individual based on strategy and common sense. If the person is heading to a mission field that is saturated with missions, that has numerous national preachers, then I would probably not support him. Others may, but I probably won’t.
I have simply decided that I will support new missionary work where the need is greater. I do not suggest that we should bring missionaries home from the fields of lesser need; they should stay and finish the task. But I will not support any new recruits for these fields.
Even if my son were heading to Baptistville to start a church, I would not support him.
Dr. Neal Cushman, Projects Coordinator
Let’s suppose that there is a town in Canada (let’s just call this town Baptistville) that has approximately 10,000 people in it. In the past 50 years, four independent Baptist churches have been started in that town.
A young church planter named George Smuchie comes to your church to present the idea of going to Baptistville to start a church there. He says that God has called him to do this. Would you support him? Why, or why not?
The issues in these questions are two-fold and tightly related.
First, is George endeavoring to do something that is strategic? Second, does a person’s “calling” ever override common sense (or the first consideration)? After all, if I want to start a pizza shop in a little town, it makes sense to see how many pizza shops are already there. If there are five there already, then perhaps I should reconsider whether or not another is needed.
But what about this: what happens then if I say that God told me to start the pizza shop in that town? That settles the matter. You should be supportive because God told me to do it, right?
You might think at this point that this is borderline ridiculous, but it happens with great frequency in missions. Someone surrenders to missionary work, and then in no time he or she announces that he or she is being directed, or called, to a particular field. In some instances this decision is not based on careful research, but rather on a previous missions trip, a missions presentation, or perhaps on someone’s advice.
These sources of information may be helpful, but they also may not provide understanding regarding the places where the need is greatest. This may be the reason why we have so many places in the world where there are no missionaries at all.
Although I would not agree with many of the premises of the World Christian Encyclopedia, (Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson), the authors contribute some helpful information regarding the presence of the Gospel message in three different sections of the world. World A is described as unreached because people who live in this region have practically no opportunity to hear the Gospel. They could and probably would go through their entire lives without hearing this wonderful message of salvation.
Roughly one-third of the human population live in World A, yet only 2.5 percent of our missionaries serve here. So the question is how the God who authored the Great Commission could “call” so few to parts of the world like Indonesia, Central Asia, and North Africa (all in World A)?
On the other hand, there are some countries that have had a solid missionary presence for over one hundred years. And the missionaries there have done an outstanding job of planting churches, training nationals, translating the Scriptures and Christian books, starting camps, and even national mission boards. So do we really need more missionaries on these fields?
One friend of mine began in a Latin American country, learned the language, started a church, and then realized that he was not really needed there. Native church planters and pastors were available to do the job. So he switched to a North African nation where the need was much greater.
It is difficult whenever we begin to talk about need. How needy must it be for a field to be considered “strategic?” If you are asking this right now, that is a great question. I am quite sure that wherever you are at this time, whether in the USA or outside of it, it is pagan. Last time I checked, every country is.
However, next we need to examine the strength of the church. I recently spoke at a missions conference in Ukraine. What I saw there was over one hundred churches with solid pastors who were trying to create a missionary sending agency among their Baptist fellowship. Most of them would say that they no longer needed new missionaries in Ukraine. Not my words—theirs!
So what does the New Testament say about this? I would like to mention two New Testament texts that relate to the matter of targeting areas of the world that do not have the Gospel. The first is Acts 1:8:
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Jesus restates his Great Commission in terms of how the commission will be accomplished. Since the disciples had little success up to this point in impacting the Jewish world for Christ, how could they make a difference when the target was now to be widened to the entire world? This thought had to be foremost in their minds. They were not bold, nor did they possess exceptional abilities. Rather, they were ordinary men.
The answer to this disparity between the person’s abilities and the extent of the task is God’s power.
God would empower them personally through His Spirit. This would be how the message would be mediated throughout the Gentile world. So what does this have to do with the idea of extending into unreached areas? The way that the areas of the world are arranged is in ever-widening circles: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth.
The final level of outreach is the “ends of the earth.” Who knows how far this is from Jerusalem, but the point is that the church is supposed to go to the very edges of the planet to reach others with the Gospel. Implicit in this command is the idea of pushing out into new territories where the Gospel has not been preached.
The church is never to be content with the progress of the Gospel; rather, it is to research what the need is, and direct its resources towards meeting that need.
A second text actually expresses the personal missionary strategy of Paul; this is the rule by which he lived. Although we may not be constrained by the Lord regarding the details of Paul’s personal Great Commission strategy since he was an apostle, should we not give some level of thought to pushing out to places where people have no Gospel message?
Let’s consider Romans 15:18-24. Here are the key elements that we see in this text:
So we see that Paul had made incredible progress in fulfilling his calling. He was God’s apostle to the Gentiles. He had already evangelized and discipled people in the key cities of four provinces, and now he sees his mission as extending into Spain. Since this new area was probably a Latin-speaking region, it makes sense that he might need some support personnel to accompany him to Spain, given his lack of knowledge of this language.
Paul’s reason for this sort of pioneering strategy seems to be solidly grounded upon the idea that the church is to be built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:20). So Paul diligently applies this rule to his church-planting ministry everywhere. If someone else planted the church in Rome, then he would not go to minister there; rather, he would look for a region that had no Gospel witness. So why did Paul go to Rome? This was exceptional; he went to seek assistance from the churches in Rome for the Spanish venture.
If we say that we should adopt this rule, then we should all practice pioneer missions like Paul did. But there are several problems with this. First, this rule belongs to the apostolic band of men. It was their mandate to lay the foundation of the church. Since you and I are not apostles, we need not adopt this as a rule of practice.
Second, since others during Paul’s day like Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, and many others, did not practice this rule, I think that we can see that it was not considered normative even in that day.
I guess that we are off the hook.
Not hardly! Although I would say that we need not adopt this as a rule for all of our missionary work, we should consider it as a principle to be applied to the church to some extent.
So let’s begin with World A. As I already mentioned, we only have two and one-half percent of our missionary force in this world. I would venture to say that if we were to evaluate who we support in our churches, we would find that few work in World A.
Why is this? We don’t strategize on the big picture in missions. And since we don’t strategize, we don’t bring the neediest parts of the world before our people’s eyes.
Why do we have many missionaries in Brazil, but hardly anyone in Turkey? Why do we have many in the Philippines, but almost no one in Indonesia? Turkey and Indonesia have such low percentages of believers that they are considered “unreached.”
So my question is, when was the last time that you heard someone talk about these needy places?
Next week, we will shift gears and consider the matter of a call.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.