“Introduction to Missiology” was not my best class in seminary way, way back in the last century when I took it. I’m tempted to chalk that up to deficiencies in the professor, but it’s likely that my deficiencies as a student contributed just as much or more. Having blogged a bit about missions from time to time, having embraced an Unengaged Unreached People Group through the IMB, having worked hard to lead an Acts 1:8 Challenge church, and having hung out with some real, live missionaries, I’ve discovered that our missionaries have their own jargon, their own alphabet soup, and their own branches of philosophy. It doesn’t take wading very deep into the stream of missiology for me to find myself in over my head.
But I know that the smartest people in the Southern Baptist Convention read this blog, and so I’m looking to you folks to help me out.
On the One Hand
In our work with our UUPG through the International Mission Board, our training has explicitly charged us (sternly at times!) not to fall victim to the temptation to spend money among our people group to feed people, build structures, improve the water supply, build church buildings, fund pastors, or do anything of the sort. Such actions—especially if taken early, while a gospel effort is immature—can create “rice Christians” (I don’t always cite sources, but when I do, I use Wikipedia), breed dependency, and thwart efforts to build healthy, reproducing New Testament churches. We have been told this with all certitude, and the evidence of these risks accumulated across a 170-year history of missions is impressive.
This is difficult advice to follow, frankly. If you care about people and have money that could be used to help them (especially when it takes so comparatively little to do so), every part of you wants to give to assist them. But, you remind yourself, the most important thing you can give anyone is the gospel, and it is probably better to fund other, separate assistance efforts at home so that your gospel work will remain pure.
This is, as best as I can tell, the regnant philosophy of missions guiding the efforts to which we’ve been a party on the international field.
The motivation here might be summed up by the word “focus.” There’s a concern, documented by past experiences, that other things—especially money—can steal the focus away from the gospel in missionary contexts. None of us wants to take the focus away from the gospel, right?
On the Other Hand
I know a number of church planters involved in domestic church planting through the North American Mission Board. For several of them, spending money to help people in need is a part of their strategy. In fact, for some of them it is the lead strategy—the very first and most prominent thing that they did or plan to do. This can be placed alongside the twenty-first-century emphasis upon “being the church” that has placed a strong emphasis upon social involvement and charitable community improvement as representing (if the terminology is accurate) the true essence of ecclesiology.
The motivation in this case might be summed up by the word “rehabilitation.” We’re trying to rehabilitate our image before we share the gospel. There’s a concern, documented by past experiences, that one has to conduct “pre-evangelism” in order to “gain a hearing” for the gospel. We’ve all heard the adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” None of us wants to be the heartless so-and-so whose gospel message is obscured by his stinginess, right?
There must be some contextual difference between the United States and the rest of the world that explains this incongruity. Otherwise, this is some sort of a clash of competing philosophies. Or perhaps domestic church planting tends to attract one personality type while international missions attracts another, resulting in different approaches.
But the precise nature of that contextual difference eludes my grasp. A significant percentage of the people groups to whom Southern Baptists go overseas are people groups who have lived at some point under Western colonialism. And then there are the allegations made against us by the adherents of other, competing faiths. It’s not like there’s no need to rehabilitate our reputations outside of our own borders. It’s not like financial assistance to meet temporal needs is unappreciated overseas or does nothing to connect us with people who need the gospel. To look at the other side of it, there’s nothing I can identify about Americans that makes them impervious to financially-motivated disingenuousness or to unhealthy dependency. As far as I can tell, everything that makes international missionaries wary of the risks of “doling out cash” is something that could be equally valid for domestic work, and everything that makes domestic church planters embrace that kind of pre-evangelism strategy is something that could be equally valid overseas.
Which approach do you think is correct? I’ve “tried on” each perspective at one point or another and have tried to think through them, so I’m prepared to carry the conversation deeper into details. I’m hoping that you will all bring me to clarity on this question, since we’re trying to be involved in both domestic and international efforts at the same time, and I’d really like to have a clue what we’re doing.