Monday, June 17, 2013

Revolution in World Missions (Part 2)

Part 1 of this review is here.

Yohannan’s shaky evidence leads him to take an exaggeratedly contrasting approach to bolster his case. “Americans have never known the fear of persecution,” he writes (51), forgetting that the country was founded in large part by men and women fleeing an authoritarian state. Yohannan, in contrast, knows what it is like to suffer as a persecuted minority in his own country: he tells the story of being beaten and having stones thrown at him on one of his visits to an Indian village while in OM. But he neglects to mention that the vast majority of Indian believers haven’t experienced persecution any more than their brothers and sisters in America have.

The American church, says Yohannan, is in “spiritual decline” (51). American Christians are “worldly” (96), living in “extravagance, self-indulgence and spiritual weakness” (51), whereas “native missionaries...suffer for their commitment” as they “serve Christ daily” (98). He fails to mention that great numbers of American disciples of Jesus serve Christ daily in the lives that the Lord has given them or that the majority of Indians who wear the label Christian are, as he well knows, also deeply affected by extravagance, self-indulgence and spiritual weakness.

Instead he tells the story of one who he calls Brother P. in Nepal. Brother P., we are told, was a native missionary who served time in 14 different prisons between 1960 and 1975, suffering torture and ridicule for preaching the gospel (49). He neglects to tell the rest of Brother P’s story. Some years ago, I pieced together the following few details from various accounts by people who knew him. When Brother P. was released from jail it seems he hoped to be more highly regarded by his fellow Nepali believers and not receiving the recognition he felt was his due withdrew from their fellowship. A US-based organization, which predates the founding of GFA, began funding him in order to support native missionaries in the country. Allegations of financial mismanagement were flagged up to the HQ but never acted upon for over 20 years until they finally sent a representative to investigate the work. A few weeks later I was informed that the organization was no longer supporting Brother P’s ministry. Over the years as much as $1 million may have been sent in the support of this man. But Yohannan holds him up as a model to emulate in stark contrast to the ‘worldliness’ of American believers! His argument rings hollow. (For another related story seeGrace and Greed: The Making and Marring of the Tamang Movement to Christ” by Mark Johnson, Voice of Bhakti 3 (1) February, 2004,

Yohannan tells us that “Western missionaries are no longer able to do church planting” in many nations where it was formerly allowed (157). And yet agencies are sending men and women to such countries every year to do just that. He argues, rather, that “the most effective way now to win Asia for Christ is through prayer and financial support for the native missionary force” for five reasons. I will interact with each of these, one by one.

  1. It is wise stewardship (158). I would agree here that it certainly makes sound economic sense to support workers who need less to live on. But the figures that Yohannan uses are extreme. The dearest, no expense spared, American missionary (with his family with all their needs) is contrasted with the cheapest Indian. Yohannan hardly mentions the many missionaries who are living on a lot less than the extreme upper limit. Neither does he mention the hardships imposed on native workers who are having to live in poverty or their leaders who need a higher level of support as their needs increase with longevity of service.
  2. In many places the presence of Western missionaries perpetuates the myth that Christianity is the religion of the West (159). This is hogwash. The fact is that many people in Asia will continue to believe that for a long time to come whether Western missionaries continue to visit or not. Furthermore, native workers often have precisely the same effect when they do things like insist that new believers change their name to a ‘Christian’ one. The opinion that Jesus is not for Asians has deep historical and cultural causes and will not go away by simply telling Westerners not to come.
  3. Western missionaries, and the money they bring, compromise the natural growth and independence of the national church (161). Indeed, this has often been the case and great problems have arisen from the abuse of money. But if the money flows from foreign funds the involvement or otherwise of Western missionaries may not be such a significant factor after all. Indeed is the difference that significant if a native rather than a Westerner controls the dollars? The story of Brother P., repeated in so many other cases, indicates otherwise.
  4. Western missionaries cannot easily go to the countries where most so-called “hidden people” live (164). Indeed, it is a great challenge to enter into a restricted-access country, learn the language and become culturally competent. But this is one way that the Lord has continued to take to fulfil the Great Commission even in the twenty-first century. Difficult, but not impossible. With God, all things are possible.
  5. Western missionaries seldom are effective today in reaching Asians and establishing local churches in the villages of Asia (164). Yohannan gives us another sad story of missionary failure and incompetence. But his evidence is purely anecdotal. I am tempted to ask for the facts but the work of the Spirit is usually quiet and unassuming, as is the work of those who are filled with the Spirit, whether brown-skinned or white. And furthermore, the people of Asia are flocking to the cities which are fast becoming cosmopolitan melting pots of hidden and not-so-hidden peoples. The need for outsiders as well as insiders to reach these peoples in their new places is as great as ever.
This is not a new book but with 1.5 million copies in print it is influential. My prayer is that this blog might moderate its message. The day of Westerners in intercultural ministry is not over. For sure they must repudiate all colonial attitudes, seek to live a life of spiritual vitality, and be willing to suffer as their native colleagues need to do. New approaches and structures may be needed to ensure that this can happen effectively. My prayer is that readers of this book will (1) thank God for native workers who live for the gospel rather than their stipend, (2) be wise in the way they use their money, and (3) continue to seek the Lord of the harvest to thrust out labourers from overseas to join those native workers.

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