Creativity: the most overvalued trait in missions (Part 3)

In the previous two posts, we examined the reasons that creativity is so highly valued in missions as well as one reason to be concerned about this trend. Let me give another.

2. This tendency betrays a lack of confidence in the gospel

The reason that creative thinking is an ongoing need in other endeavors is that what worked before may stop working. But this is simply not a real concern in the realm of gospel ministry! Simple proclamation of the gospel has always been our only hope of accomplishing anything of worth in the world.

There is an assumption in the innovations of modern missions that insists that the outline of gospel missions given in the previous post is too simplistic. On many occasions, I have found myself talking to missionaries with many years on the field who have been busy about doing something other than core Pauline work. They all believe that their work is of key importance: demographic research, winning respect in the culture, establishing a legitimate business, laying the foundation for a church-planting movement, developing leadership skills, or translating materials. They truly are under the impression that these endeavors are what is going to make the difference in their respective fields. For one or more of the reasons that we surveyed above, they believe that Pauline work is either impossible, unwise, or unnecessary.

Ironically, I think this is a trend that is mirrored on the home front, and rightly critiqued by many. That is, an overwhelming number of western churches have embraced innovative ministry models that, whatever their merits, would have been largely unrecognizable to generations past. The advocates of these models pride themselves in learning from the business world. They delight in reminding us that the children of this world are wiser than the children of light. It is hard to avoid the impression that such churches feel the need to supplement the power of the gospel with human ingenuity.

Many have expressed concern about this tendency. D.A. Carson, for example, writes,

“Western evangelicalism tends to run through cycles of fads. At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how ‘vision’ consists in clearly articulated ‘ministry goals,’ how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements – but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning… I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry.”

While Carson is not here speaking of missionary endeavors, I know of few paragraphs that so succinctly capture the mindset of global missions today. Unfortunately, it seems that many who would decry the fog machines and laser shows finding their way into churches in their own country fail to see the connection between that trend and the trend towards creativity in missions. It is true that they take a different shape. But it is only a difference of market. The inordinate value placed upon human ingenuity is the same.

This is a deadly serious situation because once missionaries have defined their job as something other than gospel proclamation, there is no hope for them to effectively carry out the mission in their field, whatever other interesting and worthy things they may accomplish. While these creative methods are birthed in pragmatism, they ironically fail because they are not pragmatic enough! In a desperate effort to find something that works, they have abandoned the only thing that will ever work!

Over the past decade in missions, my teammates and I have observed all sorts of strategies and methods being utilized in many different countries and contexts. And our conclusion is simple. The innovative methods are largely failing to evangelize, failing to train faithful believers, and failing to plant churches. I find it shocking how often unusual missions strategies are pushed upon missionaries by those who have no real missions experience, and without any attempt to justify the strategy with results. A few sketchy anecdotes are enough to keep a generation of missions thinkers scrambling to innovate. So let me respond in kind, with a frankly terrifying anecdote of my own:

A friend of mine recently met with a regional director of a major missions agency. This person was responsible for overseeing this organization’s missionaries in a highly unreached part of the world. He shared some of their strategies, especially their commitment in recent years to establishing credible businesses on the field. When asked about the results, he was unenthusiastic and readily admitted that as yet they had not seen anything positive. When my friend recounted this sad story to me, I wondered why this very reputable organization would give themselves so wholly to an unproven innovation. Based on similar interactions that I’ve had, I think the reason is that they assume that this innovation is producing great fruit somewhere. So they conclude that they just don’t have the machine put together right. I would suggest to this organization and others that if you have chosen your method based on pragmatism, it is only fair to ask you to throw it away when it fails to produce.

Let me make a very practical application. As others have taken upon themselves to counsel missions organizations, let me add a dissenting opinion to theirs. I would suggest that missions organizations either rework the job description of the missionaries in their charge, or else withdraw them from the field. Let it be the daily work (and not just a far-off, nebulous goal) for EVERY missionary to proactively preach the gospel to those who have never heard it before, even at risk of being persecuted or expelled from their field. Let it be their work to lead believers to publicly identify with Christ through baptism and begin to follow him. Let it be their work to hold church services, preach the gospel, edify the saints, and train pastoral leadership. I cannot think of a single exception I would make to this rule.

There are some who think that this would unfairly keep some people from being involved in the mission. Here is a reason for missions expansion that we have not yet examined: a desire to get more Christians involved in missions. First, it ought to be said that changing the basic rules of basketball might get more people involved in basketball, but it will no longer be basketball they’re involved in. What does it matter if we sent thousands to the field if they are not busy about the core Pauline work? But secondly, I think that a narrow definition of missions would be a life-giving breath to the global cause. Look at the immense interest in preaching and church-planting in the United States. Why aren’t those men considering going as missionaries? I contend that it is largely because they think of missions as a different sort of work, one of less worth. And they are unfortunately correct. But restrict missions to a gospel-preaching, church-planting work, and I think you will find a ready supply of volunteers. I have seen it happen on an individual basis again and again.

Finally, let us consider one question more. Is there a place at all for creativity in missions? I think the answer would have to be yes. I imagine that nearly all fields of human enterprise benefit from an infusion of creativity, even those that are joint ventures with God. Creativity is just another of God’s good gifts he has given to men, like wisdom, talent, and resources. He uses the latter; why not the former? But, as we have seen, various fields put various restraints on creativity. Is there a place for creativity among heart surgeons? I’m sure there is. But within very strict bounds.

There are a couple ways to look at this creativity. First, it is primarily useful in non-core tasks that are nevertheless essential. For example, how does the heart surgeon explain the operation to the patient before it takes place? Creativity could be very helpful here, but the ability of the surgeon should not be judged by his bedside manner! It must be remembered that the main thing is the surgery; creativity in other areas is just to get to the operation. There are a great many such tasks in missions. How a missionary receives his financial support on the field, how a missionary maintains a visa on the field, how he learns the language, what kind of building he finds to hold church services: these are just a few examples of the areas where a little creativity might be helpful. But it must always be remembered that these things are not the main thing. The very second they detract from the core work, they must be considered unhelpful.

Let me share an example from my part of the world. For a couple decades, there have been many opportunities for missionaries to work in China as English teachers. This solves one of the questions mentioned above: how a missionary gets his visa. And this path has now been traveled by thousands of missionaries. Unfortunately, the number of English-teaching missionaries who do core Pauline work is incredibly small in comparison. Those who elect to teach English in China are almost without exception occasional witnesses at best. There are several reasons for this. One of the biggest is the fear of losing their visa. If the school that has employed them discovers that they are proselytizing, there is a good chance they’ll lose their visa. This is a perfect example of creativity gone wrong. Again, even if it’s a question of what works best, this method clearly does not.

Second, creativity is useful in a very limited way in the core work of gospel ministry. That is, in the actual execution of our witnessing for Christ, training believers, and establishing churches, creativity can be a wonderful thing. Creativity is an aid to preaching, an aid to teaching, an aid to evangelism, an aid to ministry, an aid to worship. There is no reason to be concerned until it seems that the creativity distorts the work’s essence. A cantaloupe is not a creative take on a basketball; rather it is no longer in the basketball category. There are innovative approaches to worship that destroy the essence of worship. There are creative evangelism strategies that are rather unlike evangelism. There are new ways to do church that simply are not. May God guard our hearts from all that would lure us away from the simplicity of preaching Christ!

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One Comment on “Creativity: the most overvalued trait in missions (Part 3)”

  1. Tom Depew September 28, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

    Great post man! This gave me some practical ammo to use on deputation. I have conversations with people about this subject from time to time and this will definitely help!

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