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Missionaries for the 21st Century

by Thomas Kemper

Alexanda Castro is a United Methodist missionary from Comombia, who serves as treasurer of the United Methodist Mission in Honduras, discusses finances with pastors from two congregations.
Alexanda Castro is a United Methodist missionary from Comombia, who serves as treasurer of the United Methodist Mission in Honduras, discusses finances with pastors from two congregations.
Image by: Paul Jeffrey
Source: New World Outlook
Cover of the July 14, 1910, Christian Advocate, which focused on the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh.
Cover of the July 14, 1910, Christian Advocate, which focused on the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh.
Image by: United Methodist General Board of Archives
Source: New World Outlook

From the March-April 2012 Issue of New World Outlook

Missionary service in the 21st century follows the New Testament's mission mandate to move outward from Judea into all parts of the world. Strongly influenced by the 19th century Protestant mission initiative that originated in Europe and North America, missionary service--especially in the Methodist tradition--combined spiritual piety with social ministry. In the 19th century, parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America were considered to be suitable areas for mission. However, mission theology and practice today--and, I suspect, in the future--are being shaped primarily by a global, ecumenical impulse that respects cultural diversity, promotes mission partnerships, and understands that mission and missionaries must come from everywhere and be sent everywhere. This is certainly true of United Methodist mission.

The biblical imperative is a constant factor, affirming that "mission is not created by the church; rather it is given to the church by God's saving action in and on behalf of the world." (Grace Upon Grace: The Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church, Graded Press, 1990, p. 5.) Arriving at the affirmation of mission from everywhere to everywhere required a shift away from the missionary model followed in the first half of the 20th century, but it was not an abandonment of mission's biblical roots. As Dana Robert has stated, speaking of the missionary work of Saint Paul: "the cross-cultural spread of the message, including translating it into terms that made sense to a Gentile audience…created a religion able to transcend cultural differences." (Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p.14) Much of that translating was and still is done by a special group of professional Christian workers: missionaries.

This article briefly sketches the history of the missionary model shift, discussing how it affects our United Methodist understanding of mission theology and service as we move deeper into a new century. These are matters of great significance to the spiritual and organizational welfare of our whole church; for Methodism is essentially a mission movement, teaching the world about God's grace and love in Jesus Christ. A new poster from the British Methodist Church aptly calls Methodism "a discipleship movement shaped for mission in a global relationship."

Our current United Methodist global missionary community, I am happy to report, incorporates and transcends cultural differences. Of our more than 200 missionaries in international service, slightly more than 40 percent come from outside the United States. Our biggest challenge today is the need for even more missionaries to serve in cross-cultural partnerships extending from everywhere to everywhere.

"Give Us Friends"

The more than 1,200 delegates to the 1910 World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland, were white people from Europe and North America. They assumed that missionaries would be like them. Only a handful of conference participants were from the parts of the world where Protestant missionaries were preaching, teaching, starting churches, and organizing needed services.

The masculine language that dominated Edinburgh 1910 might suggest that virtually all missionaries were men, which was not the case. From the outset, women played major roles in the 19th century missionary movement--not only as supporters or spouses but as missionaries themselves. The Woman's Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) of the Methodist Episcopal Church, organized in 1869, dispatched both Isabella Thoburn, an educator, and Clara Swain, a medical doctor, that same year. Although women were not represented in proportion to their mission importance, more than 200 women were delegates at the Edinburgh conference.

Edinburgh 1910 predicted that missionaries from the "Christian nations" of Western Europe, along with the United States, could evangelize the "non-Christian" lands in a single generation. Little attention was given to the gospel potential of "younger," mission-founded Christian churches--though a lone participant from India made a dramatic appeal acknowledging their credibility and mission potential. V.S. Azariah-- soon to be elected an Anglican bishop in India--spoke on "The Problem of Cooperation between Foreign and Native Workers." He acknowledged the great deal of energy and resources that Western mission agencies put into missionary sending, but he made an impassioned plea for missionaries who functioned not as lords and masters but as friends. "We ask for love. Give us friends," he said.

It is fitting that such an appeal would come from India. In the modern missionary movement, the first Protestant missionary was Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, a German sent to India by the Danish-Halle Mission in 1706. He developed a great appreciation for the Tamil language and culture in Tranquebar, learning the language and translating much of the Bible into Tamil. He also took detailed notes about local social and cultural realities. However, his efforts failed to gain the approval of his European sponsors, who seemed to expect the Indians to become good German Lutherans.

Though Azariah's appeal went unheeded at Edinburgh, it was remembered later as prophetic. The optimistic expectation of a world for Christ in one generation eroded over the next 40 years. During this time, two world wars were fought, separated by a global economic depression that pitted "Christian nations" against one another. New mission starts were limited in this period. Meanwhile, the "younger" churches (known today as the "Global South") were maturing.

Partnership in Obedience

By the time of the world mission conference in 1947, attitudes were changing. The Christian world was attempting to put itself back together after World War II. The 1947 event--held in Canada at Whitby, Ontario--dropped the terms "Christian nations" and "non-Christian nations" in favor of an understanding of church unity that crossed national, cultural, and racial boundaries. The Whitby conference endorsed the concept of mission as "partnership in obedience" to God. The word partnership indicated an equal relationship between missionary "sending" and "receiving" churches.

The Whitby conference had as its theme "Christian Witness in a Revolutionary World"--an acknowledgment that, in the post-World War II world, revolutionary mission thinking was evolving. The conference's message emerged from the consolidation of drafts from two subgroups representing "older" and "younger" churches respectively. The conference recognized the right of the younger churches to have a role in the placement and acceptance of missionaries. It was nothing short of revolutionary when, under the rubric of "partnership," Whitby participants agreed that the younger church "should have the right to issue, or to withhold, an invitation to [a] missionary to return to its service after the first period of leave in his home country." (Renewal and Advance: Christian Witness in a Revolutionary World, Edinburgh House Press, 1948) Whitby delegates also urged missionaries to identify with--even to join--the churches to which they were assigned.

Appreciation for the languages and social customs of the cultures in which younger churches existed was slowly on the rise, but it would take another 30 years to gain firm traction. As colonialism in Africa and much of Asia ended in the 1950s and 1960s, missionaries from earlier years were too often dismissed as pawns of political and economic empire-builders. By the 1970s, the idea of a moratorium on the sending of missionaries was openly discussed. However, the younger churches were looking for missionary transformation, not termination. They sought greater multicultural awareness and partnership, including a recognition of the contributions they could make to the whole mission enterprise once the church realized that missionaries could come from everywhere and could go everywhere. As newer churches grew, they needed personnel and resources. What they wanted--in an echo of Bishop Azariah--were missionaries to work alongside indigenous Christians as equals in God's mission.

Some of the newer churches became ardent in mission. For example, the Protestants of South Korea probably send as many missionaries today as all the US mainline denominations combined. Both older and newer Christians share the obligation to "send" in response to their faith. Thanks to God's grace, United Methodists can now both send and receive missionaries across national, cultural, and racial boundaries.

The concept of partnership set forth at the Whitby conference assumed a missional relationship between older and younger churches. In this respect, Whitby did not address "pioneer" mission and evangelism: church starts and social outreach in places with few or any Christians. Not until the Cold War ended in the early1990s did United Methodists launch any new initiatives.

Mission relations with an existing church in, say, Liberia (where Methodism arrived in the 1830s) are by nature different from those involved in starting an entirely new mission initiative in Vietnam, where United Methodist work began in 1998. Yet the same principles of multicultural respect and collaboration apply in both cases. In new locales, "pioneer" missionaries must start out with an openness to and appreciation for local culture; they must seek out local partners interested in the objectives and services proposed. Most importantly, original intent must include local leadership development, with the long vision of an indigenous church or worshiping fellowship moving toward home-grown leadership.

From Everywhere to Everywhere

The General Board of Global Ministries has made a good start toward building a truly international, multicultural, and interracial community of missionaries. We have missionaries from Africa serving in Southeast Asia; ones from China, Mexico, and Brazil serving in the US; and ones from the Philippines serving in Japan, Liberia, and Cambodia, to name a few. Still, we have not yet overcome all the challenges that a philosophy of missionaries from everywhere to everywhere presents. Here are some of those challenges:

  • To help the entire membership affirm the inclusive approach to mission within the whole church. (The assumption that missionaries are US workers in foreign lands remains alive in some places).
  • To demonstrate convincingly through cross-cultural missionaries that the universal Gospel of Jesus Christ always transcends any particular culture.
  • To equip missionaries to be what Dana Robert calls "bicultural persons," able to act as bridge builders between different cultures, as exemplified in the early church by individuals who understood two languages or ways of thinking and were themselves "bridges" for the gospel.
  • To prepare missionaries to be learners among those whom they serve and teachers of what they learn to Christians in their places of origin.
  • To value the fact of the vulnerability of missionaries, who must always depend on the grace of God and, often, on the hospitality of strangers.
  • To validate and facilitate missionaries coming from the Global South to the Global North--Europe and the United States--while dealing creatively with the fact that missionaries from the South are usually at an economic disadvantage.
  • To equip missionaries to train men and women effectively for indigenous leadership, while planning for appropriate local pastoral services.
  • To avoid replicating US churches' structural and operational patterns in mission settings, since those patterns may be unsuitable for other locations.
  • To teach missionaries how to help mission-founded churches achieve self-reliance while they remain connected and interdependent.
  • To find long- and short-term patterns of professional missionary service that correspond to current and emerging mission needs.

Crossing Frontiers

The late South African theologian David J. Bosch made a significant evaluation of the shift from European- and North American-dominated mission to a model embracing cultural diversity and partnership. A landmark in his work was the book Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission in 1991. In an earlier book, Witness to the World, Bosch delved into what he saw as a "crisis in mission" brought on by Euro-American attempts to control what is really God's mission. The church as the community of Christ, he said, "owes" the world faith, hope, and love. We fulfill that debt through mission, living the example of Jesus, who said of himself in Luke 22:27: "I am among you as one who serves."

Missionaries are agents of faith, hope, and love, following the example of Jesus. They are the faces we see in Bosch's definition of mission as "the church-crossing-frontiers-in-the-form-of-a-servant."(David J. Bosch, Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective, John Knox Press, 1980, p. 248)

Thomas Kemper is the general secretary and chief executive officer of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.


Date posted: Mar 01, 2012