The last post started to discuss the idea that national believers are the most qualified to serve as missionaries (meaning, the most qualified to be exported to another place with the Gospel). Let me say again that there is certainly a core of truth here: already speaking a language and fitting into a culture are wonderful advantages. My argument in the last post, however, was that these are hardly insurmountable obstacles to a foreign missionary. To hear some talk, you’d think a missionary would be a bumbling oaf in his new land for the duration of his missionary career. While that description may be apt for many, it is far from a rule. Many other missionaries and their families take to the new culture like a fish to water!
But let me use the rest of this post to give you a few ways that this idea is harmful to western churches’ contribution to world missions…
1. It discourages westerners from going and training
The last post hinted at this. I think this thinking is part of the reason why many western Christians look in the mirror and see someone unqualified for missionary service. That is, there are many in our American churches who could be greatly effective as foreign missionaries, yet generally see themselves as unsuitable candidates. And part of the reason they feel that way is that they have no unusal aptitude for language learning (for that matter, many western Christians who consider themselves ‘called’ to missions are simply confusing an interest in foreign languages and cultures with a divine commission!). But as the last post mentioned, this is miles from the most important qualification for missionaries!
This contributes then to the further erosion of missionary training. When I meet missionary candidates, their greatest areas of concern tend to center on language learning and cultural adaptation. Not surprising, then, that the bulk of ‘missionary training’ focuses on preparing candidates in these areas. This is terribly short-sighted! It will take a missionary about two years of hard work to get a foreign language down and to make themselves at home in the new culture. But many missionaries have put little time into preparing for what comes next! For the real hard part!
Perhaps even more commonly, this philosophy influences the ministries missionaries choose for themselves. Many missionaries have deemed it strategically unwise for them to work in a local church on the mission field, because they assume they’ll never be as effective as a national pastor. Many missionaries opt out of language school and search for English-based ministry opportunities, because they assume they could never be proficient in the language. But if they’re wrong in those assumptions, they may be missing out on the most valuable contribution they could make!
2. It promotes a less strategic support model
Many pastors and churches are persuaded to overhaul their strategy for supporting missions by a simple cost comparison: foreign missionaries are much more expensive than national pastors. But smaller investments are not necessarily better investments! Ten small bad investments is just as damaging as one large bad investment! Breaking your missions budget into lots of smaller chunks doesn’t necessarily make it any more effective.
Which leads us to the most important consideration: what are you supporting a missionary to do? To start a church? To pastor? To translate? To teach? If he’s doing the same job a national pastor could do, then it is extremely difficult to justify his wanting ten times the support of a national pastor! Thus, the burden of proof should probably be on the missionary to demonstrate to potential supporters that they have a plan for making a contribution to the kingdom that is far greater than the average national pastor could. But imagine, for the sake of argument, that a foreign missionary could be that effective. Wouldn’t it be worth sending him, even though he costs so much? The next point will talk about what that contribution might be.
One last note on this investment issue, though: one thing you aren’t generally getting for your investment in nationals is good information. Frankly, if you’re supporting a national pastor from another country, it is much more difficult to be sure you understand who he is, what he’s about, and what he’s up to. There is simply a larger gap between the supporting church and the missionary. Supporting churches are generally left taking the word of a third party to support national pastors. For all their other flaws, a missionary sent from your country will at least be a bit more transparent.
3. It downplays the need for serious training for nationals
The statement is often made (not least about China) that national pastors are already extremely effective in ministry; we as foreigners just need to supplement their theological training.
As a college student, I went to Peru to train with a veteran missionary. Many churches had been started in that Peruvian city, and the missionary demonstrated a stubborn belief in the national believers to do the work of the ministry. It reminded me of the old cliche: “the nationals know how to do the work a lot better than we do.” So I asked him if he had found that to be true. Without hesitation, he told me that was most certainly NOT the case!
He asked, “How would a Peruvian, who grew up Catholic and has been a believer for a couple years, know more about how to serve God than a missionary who’s supposedly been serving for many years? How would he know how to preach? How would he know how to share the Gospel with unbelievers? How would he know how to guide a church to maturity?”
His point (while maybe overstated!) was that there is a kind of superficial belief in the ability of nationals that leads to minimalistic training for them. His point was that all the churches that had been planted there had been started not because of some intrinsic ability in Peruvians to reach their own people, but because of an intensive and purposeful approach to training Peruvians to be ministers of the Gospel! This has been tremendously helpful for me to remember in China. It is going to take far more than some basic theology courses (though we sure won’t omit them!) to prepare a Chinese preacher.
My belief in the ability of Chinese preachers has nothing to do with their grasp of language or culture. My belief in the ability of Chinese preachers rests totally on the confidence that the same God who empowers western preachers of the Gospel is empowering them, also! Which means that we will expect to put at least as much effort into training them for ministry as we would a pastor in the States.
Back to the point about investing.. If a missionary would make as his goal the training (real training, not a minimalistic form of it) of a large number of national pastors, might not that missionary be worth the sizable cost of exporting him and his family to the other side of the world?