Non-Western Missionaries: Our Newest Challenge

Gary Schipper
What has been called "the great new fact of our time — the rapidly increasing number of missionaries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America" — calls us to study and plan how to encourage and work with this development for the advancement of the gospel. In this article, I want to clarify the picture, then discuss some problems, and suggest solutions.

First, some general trends. About one-fourth of cross cultural mission work is being done by people from non-Western nations. Very likely their number, said to be about 25,000, will increase.

These numbers don't tell the whole story, however. Perhaps more significantly, their rate of increase surpasses that of the West. Some research indicates that the new missionary movement of Asian, African, and Latin American churches is growing about five times faster than that of Western churches. Not all of this is foreign, but it includes cross-cultural missionary work in the countries of origin, for example, within India, or Nigeria, to unreached groups. It's possible that by the year 2000 there will be more non-Western than Western cross-cultural missionaries.

At first, many of them went to their own people in diaspora, e.g., Koreans to Koreans in Brazil. More recently, they have done cross-cultural work in both their own and other countries. By some estimates, one-fourth of non-Western missionaries work among those of the diaspora, another fourth outside their home countries, and one-half within their homelands.

When it comes to evangelism and church planting, a higher proportion of non-Western (60 percent) than Western missionaries (five percent) are doing that as their primary ministry.

Once we've seen the numbers, we have to study their significance. How do they affect our planning, our efforts at cooperation and partnership? Do we Westerners have to fashion a new role for ourselves?

Specifically, there are a number of issues we need to face: finances, mission structures, and "tentmaking" ministries. I want to clarify the issues, stimulate reflection, and propose some things we can do.

One American missionary now costs an average of $43,000. Our supporters feel drained and put upon, especially when they hear that, on the average, $120 a month could support a village evangelist, or $180 a month could support a worker in Jakarta. Isn't it time to consider some changes?

We must move beyond the argument over whether or not the $43,000 figure is defensible. We can't forever quibble over whether or not we should keep on sending out such high-priced talent. Obviously, the village evangelist and the highly-paid Western professional are not in the same category—and there is still a need for the latter in many situations and roles. But let us not overlook the potential for world evangelization represented by the former.

The Western church has money, the non-Western missionary needs money. If there were ever a call for partnership, this is it.

I can see the red flags going up: paternalism, violation of the sacred "three selfs" principles, lack of accountability, and so on. But perhaps these negatives have paralyzed us for too long. The time is ripe for creative experiments, not for narrow vision saturated with "what ifs." A great door of opportunity has opened. We must march through before it closes.

While Western churches and mission bodies spend over $1.3 billion a year to send out some 67,000 missionaries, only a relative handful of churches, missions, and dollars are supporting non-Western missionaries. Should we subsidize them? This is a complicated problem, but what we in the West often overlook is that our support of non-Western missionaries includes a very different dynamic.

Our arguments against subsidy on the grounds of creating dependency are undercut by the cross-cultural element. The non-Western sending churches must of course support their missionaries, but when funding keeps thousands of other non-Western missionaries from going, then we are accountable.

Creativity must be mixed with caution. We could try matching funds. We could release funds without demanding program control. Accountability based on mutual trust must be developed.

Non-Western churches must recruit missionaries. Then they can inform Western churches and mission agencies about their needs. Once the proper organizations and structures are in place, financial aid and training assistance can begin to flow.

Admittedly, some countries strictly regulate the use of outside funds. Non-Western missionaries also face the same high travel costs and bureaucratic delays that we do. But our experience and resources can be of invaluable help to these people. If we believe they are vitally needed in world evangelization, we will find the creativity, the energy, and the trust to become effective partners with them.

Volumes have been written, and innumerable conferences have debated, new structures and methods. Let me throw another log on the fire.

By one estimate, 95 percent of the students who left Taiwan, for both secular and theological studies, during the 1960s and 1970s have not returned home. Potential missionaries from Africa, Asia, and Latin America are not immune to this trend when they come to train at our fine Western schools. Part of the answer, of course, is to train at schools which are emerging in their own countries.

Another part of the answer is to encourage only mid-career men and women, with proven experience in ministry, to come to the West for further training. Experience has shown that a very high percentage of these return. In one well-known school, it is over 90 percent.

But I'd like to propose another idea—roving bands of missiologists. They could teach basic, flexible short courses to both prospective and experienced non-Western missionaries.

In addition, we should try apprenticeships and other nonformal education. If we put our minds to it, we could provide significant training opportunities in partnership with non-Western agencies. I see us more and more becoming information and resource brokers, using our knowledge and experience for the advantage of the non-Western church.

Our structures must be submitted to bold, imaginative possibilities. We often forget that our structures should be chiefly functional and utilitarian. If they fail to serve us, and begin to hinder our tasks, they should be changed. They are our servants, not vice-versa. Getting the job done must be the touchstone of our structures.

Therefore, our mission structures must regularly be reevaluated in the light of both present and projected needs and resources. Perhaps our typical structures are too cumbersome and restrictive for Asian, Latin American, and African mission agencies. But what are the alternatives? What does the current situation dictate to the world Christian community with regard to future mission structures?

For example, over 50 countries are either closed to traditional Western missionaries, or severely restrict access and freedom of work. Even where there is freedom, foreigners are culturally and linguistically disadvantaged.

To those obstacles add the sheer enormity of the task, exploding urbanization, and ever-changing political conditions. We face a critical need for creative options.

In light of this, it seems that we are overlooking the greatest resource for world evangelization: cross-cultural missionaries in their own countries. They have obvious multiple advantages. Their effectiveness is proved, especially in countries where large groups of people have already responded to the gospel, but other segments and cultures have remained virtually untouched, e.g., India and Nigeria.

What we're seeing is just the beginning. With promotion, money, and training, tens of thousands more cross-cultural missionaries could soon be working in unreached areas at a fraction of the cost of Westerners.

We hear exciting reports of this kind of missionary work from Burma, India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria, but we should plan for the time when this will be the rule rather than the exception. We need international planning to bring about the rapid organization and mobilization of thousands of cross-cultural missionaries within their own countries.

We could also develop international teams, putting one or two veterans with a group of new missionaries in their own countries. They could focus on one unreached group. Costs could be shared internationally. It would be clear that these are not primarily Western teams. (Donald McGavran devotes a chapter to this concept in his book, Momentous Decisions in Missions Today.)

Not a new concept, tentmaking needs to be refined and applied to non-Western missionaries. Rather than focus on Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans going to other countries as tentmakers, we should discuss how to use them to penetrate closed areas in their own countries.

To pull this off, we need to find out what kind of people and which occupations could best be used for this purpose. Ministry goals must be clear, both within the job or profession and on outside time. Strong prayer support is needed.

Non-Western cross-cultural missionaries can be trained in occupations that are needed among the people they desire to reach. We can help them recapture the original tentmaking concept as practiced by the apostle Paul, so that as circumstances arise that demand self-support, these missionaries will be prepared. It would be wise, in fact, to give them a year's training in self-support. Such flexibility would be invaluable because of economic and political uncertainties.

Above all, as we confront an unparalleled opportunity in the history of the church, we must pray and dream big dreams about non-Western missionaries. Our Western "wineskins" may not work in these changing circumstances.

I'd like to see a lot more people speaking to the myriad new twists in missions theory and practice, sparked by the rise of non-Western missions. We must rise to the occasion with sanctified pragmatism.


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