June 10th, 2011 by Frontline Missions
by Steve Hafler
Editor’s note: Steve Hafler served as a missionary in Kenya and Zambia for 11 years. He now pastors Highlands Baptist Church in Centennial, Colorado. Steve provides valuable insight into missions today and a strong dose of caution to keep the focus on Christ and Christ alone.
Near the end of his extraordinary life, William Carey was becoming a household name in England. Biographies were being turned out to an eager public. Even mementos of Carey’s life were prized as almost sacred objects. One day a friend of Carey’s was going on and on about the fame of the “Father of Modern Missions.” Carey interrupted him sharply saying, “When I am gone, speak no more of Mr. Carey. Speak of Mr. Carey’s Saviour.” Carey wasn’t the last missionary to become a celebrity, and his rejection of such misplaced attention, his “He must increase; I must decrease” attitude is refreshing. But the whole story underscores a dangerous tendency in ministry.
When missions becomes man-centered, a deviation has occurred from its Christ-centered and Gospel-focused purpose. This deviation often stems from an outdated biographical ideal from the 1800s coupled with the masterfully prepared updates of “Mr. Missionary.” The pictures and stories may present a warped view of reality on the field, but who needs facts when people are spellbound? Close the deal and sign the contract while people wipe tears from their eyes and feel guilty for living in America. Pass the plate now! How can you not give when the photo collage of children’s dirty faces, recent burial mounds, and abject poverty glare at you during the closing song? Anyone untouched by the show must have a hardened heart, it is assumed.
Thankfully, there are a few refreshing exceptions on the missionary horizon, and they are easily identified. First, they do not sound like the two daughters of Proverbs 30:15 whose names are “Give” and “Give.” Secondly, they refuse to praise themselves, even inadvertently (Proverbs 27:2).
We have become desensitized to selfish ambition, empire building, and poor strategy because, well, it’s missions. I am not simply giving vent to cynicism, though at times I am disillusioned with traditional western missions and its celebrity status. But I do blush to think how national believers would respond if they saw the average missionary update. Would we present it the same way if they were watching? Would they feel exploited? Are they aware that their child is the poster boy for poverty and that their story is the closing illustration of our sermon? Would local believers validate all of our achievements? Have the local works been accurately and fairly represented? Would they agree with the impression given that “Mr. Missionary” is the only one doing valid Gospel work in sub-Saharan Africa since David Livingstone, even though there are more than 20 nationally pastored Gospel-preaching churches in the city in which he lives? Maybe we should ask the nationals.
The perspective of national believers is revealing, perhaps disturbing, and, if we humble ourselves, helpful. This may bring the accountability and integrity for which they have been pleading! In Gospel-saturated areas, the best thing we can do is extract ourselves completely from long-term occupation and let the nationals lead. Brace yourself: this will be debated by missionaries who own property and feel “at home” on the field and resisted by mission boards who boast about having “their” presence in as many countries as possible. Hudson Taylor’s words temper this pop culture view. He said, “I look on foreign missionaries as the scaffolding round a rising building; the sooner it can be dispensed with the better.”
Glenn Schwartz, veteran missionary to Central Africa who saw this danger, wrote in his article “Missionary Demeanor and the Dependency Syndrome”:
“Westerners often create projects, programs and institutions, which cannot be carried on or reproduced by those they are trying to help. Sometimes those who create this outside-induced dependency carve out a future for themselves from which they cannot seem to be extricated, if indeed they want to be extricated. If they really don’t want to be extricated, a conspiracy develops which thrives on the need to be needed by outsiders. The need to be needed is a very powerful force.”
We must not be content with long-term occupation in foreign lands when the extraction of our missionary-hero is necessary for a healthy indigenous work. The large presence of Americans is often the undoing of effective local ministry, since we continually set ourselves up as the “professionals.” If African men and women can manage Barclays Bank, international airlines, department stores, and internet providers, can they not also lead a church, a training institute, a college, a camping ministry, or a mission outreach to bordering countries?
I am becoming more righteously indignant as God’s people believe the propaganda fed by missionaries who continue to prop themselves up as irreplaceable. The real problem may not be a lack of local leadership but a lust for control, praise, or simply an unwillingness to transition away from what has become a comfortable “ministerial paradise” in a foreign land. This is what national believers are beginning to say, although nationals receiving large salaries connected to stateside donors are conspicuously quiet.
This “celebrity status” that we allow reveals a myopic view of what God is really doing in the world. The Christian leaders needed in Africa are brown, not white. They speak Bantu and Nilotic languages from the heart, not just English or French or Portuguese. The best person to pastor a Zambian is a Bemba-speaking Zambian, not an American with a Zambian translator. The best person to pastor in Cameroon is a Cameroonian who speaks one of the Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, or Nilo-Saharan languages. The best person to pastor people from Madagascar is a native Malagasy speaker called to preach who hasn’t just learned the culture but breathes, thinks, and is the culture. There are few exceptions to this rule. Missionaries from Cairo to the Cape are ruling little white kingdoms—their own designer label of Colonial Christianity. These empires are built on foreign support, handouts, job creation, and dominance over those in their charge. If our goal is to set up a long-term base of operation, then the work is doomed to float along, to give only the appearance of life as we pump in the helium of U.S. dollars.
This parade must stop. We must hold tenaciously to the conviction that the nationals themselves are “able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14; 2 Timothy 2:2). It does not glorify God when celebrity status is abused to create fund-raising machines that create destructive dependency. This ministerial manipulation is rarely exposed, because it is often glossed over by glowing prayer updates with a few well-staged photos. National believers begin to feel insecure without a direct connection to “Mr. Missionary.” What caused this thinking? Poor strategy has taught them, indirectly, to believe that they are unable to do the work of the ministry if unconnected to the umbilical cord of large dollar donations. Since the clearing agent for the influx of currency is the missionary, how can the national really offer any meaningful input? How can he disagree with the CEO invested with complete power? It would be an exceptional man to disagree with the Big Bwana when his meal ticket is at risk of being confiscated.
There must be a distinction between God’s Kingdom and a man’s empire. It is always dangerous to elevate men, giftedness, results, or any other good thing if in doing so we trample God’s glory. We not only hinder missions, but we grieve God’s Spirit by glorifying a man, a church, a project, an institution, or any other thing above God. We have for too long tolerated a silly fixation on the tool and a reverent gaze on those who should be servants. The clay pot is not the treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). We must evaluate whether it is God’s glory we are jealously guarding or the coddling of our own agenda, personal preferences, or the importance of large gifts given to construct buildings. Are we passionate about our institutional label or do we possess a radical unbiased zeal for the glory of God alone?
As we let our dear African brothers take up the work in saturated areas, may God give us and them wisdom to know how to effectively penetrate frontline, difficult-access regions for His glory. As the ministry landscape changes in Africa, may God grant men and women, New Testament evangelists, the accompanying wisdom, boldness, and “ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20).
May 20th, 2011 by Frontline Missions
Roger had it all worked out. From old maps and detailed accounts, our day in Brighton was well planned. I came off a night flight from Addis Ababa, and my British friend met me at Victoria Station. From there we whisked southward through a late winter countryside dotted with sheep and blushed with spring color. In just under an hour, we were looking over a gray English sea and walking on what, in missions history, is sacred ground. Here on Brighton Beach Hudson Taylor made the decision from which the China Inland Mission was born. Not only did the mission become the greatest single force in the evangelization of China in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, but it provided a model for many other organizations that would penetrate more unreached lands in Asia and Africa.
Along the way, Roger helped me understand the big picture of that long-ago day on Brighton Beach, where prayer turned to peace, vision to action. Years ago when Roger made risky trips behind the Iron Curtain to help pastors and smuggle Bibles and typewriters, God gave him an inexplicable peace that He was with him. A man said to Roger once, “I want to serve Christ in such places, but I can’t. I’m afraid.” Roger said, “Can you walk on water?” Meaning, the Apostle Peter walked on water because he trusted the One who called him to step out into an impossible situation. It reminded me that Peter, Hudson Taylor, Roger, and all men and women of faith walk on water when they venture all on Christ. Hudson Taylor once observed, “All God’s giants have been weak men, who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them.”
Often when we read about “God’s giants” we read history backward. Our heroes stride across the stage of their generation, every decision drawn by the compass of destiny to their rising star. Even defeats, we know, are just a prelude to the victories that will come a few pages later.
But that’s reading history, not living it. I thought of that as I walked in the now-famous footsteps of Hudson Taylor along Brighton Beach. To those who know the story, Taylor’s decision at Brighton was a tipping point. But in 1865, Hudson Taylor was misunderstood and ridiculed. He lacked formal theological training, and the piecemeal medical studies that he took to help gain initial entrance into China would barely qualify him to ride in the back of an ambulance today. His belief that men and single women could serve Christ on the foreign field was considered by some dangerous, or worse, scandalous. His conviction that an agency could draw workers together in common Cause from different denominations and raise financial support from God’s people through prayer alone was considered naive at best.
Because Taylor wanted to lay aside any nonessential barrier to the Gospel, he insisted on looking as much as possible like the people he was reaching. This meant not only donning a robe and slippers but also wearing dark glasses to mask his occidental eyes, dyeing his blonde hair black and having a faux ponytail woven into his hair beneath a silk cap. This man was serious about the Gospel. Many of his colleagues, though, thought he was a nut. Despite the snickers that followed him, those who knew Hudson Taylor knew two things about him. First, no one to that point had taken the Gospel further into China’s unreached interior than he had. And second, when Hudson Taylor prayed, he got results.
By the time of Brighton, Hudson Taylor had survived nearly seven years of hard ministry in China, but nothing there compared to the physical, emotional, and spiritual battle in which he was now engaged. He saw the need and the neglect of China. “Can the Christians of England sit still with folded arms while these multitudes are perishing?” he wrote. “What does the Master teach us? Is it not that if one sheep out of a hundred be lost, we are to leave the ninety and nine and seek that one? But here the proportions are almost reversed, and we stay at home with the one sheep, and take no heed to the ninety and nine perishing ones! Christian Brethren, think of the imperative command of our great Captain and Leader, “Go, go ye, into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.’”
By the spring of 1865 the burden had grown acute. As the months wore on, so did the weight of the crisis––the crisis of, in his words, “a million a month” in China dying without Christ. He rarely slept more than a couple of hours at a time, and he was physically and emotionally exhausted. A friend invited him to come to the seaside for a weekend to get away and to get perspective.
On Sunday morning, June 25, 1865, Taylor heard a stirring message from the Presbyterian preacher J.M. Denniston. Then, as he wrote later, “Unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security, while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge, I wandered out on the sands alone, in great spiritual agony; and there the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself to God for this service. I told Him that all the responsibility as to the issues and consequences must rest with Him; that as His servant it was mine to obey and to follow Him–His to direct, to care for, and to guide me and those who might labour with me. Need I say that peace at once flowed into my burdened heart? There and then I asked Him for 24 fellow workers, two for each of eleven inland provinces which were without a missionary, and two for Mongolia.” There, with the sea breeze catching the pages of his Bible, he opened to his reading for that day, Job 18, and wrote on the top margin, “Prayed for 24 willing, skillful labourers, Brighton, June 25/65.” Afterward he wrote, “I felt as if I could fly up that hill by the station…How I did sleep that night! Mrs. Taylor thought that Brighton had done wonders! And so it had.”
Today I retraced Hudson Taylor’s steps on Queen’s Road where he dashed up from the beach. If he walked it now he would pass Big Bites Fish & Chips and would have picked up his pace as he reached Boots Midnight Pharmacy where the hill begins its rise. If he successfully dodged the double-decker buses that ply this road, perhaps he crossed Queen’s between the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and Mr. Topper’s barbershop. He would also pass the church he walked out of in 1865–it still stands but is now gutted and shuttered.
Here in front of the Flying Bean Cappuccino Stand, where I grabbed a cup before catching the train back to London, I like to think of Hudson Taylor stepping off the curb with a light heart. He has no time for coffee though‚–he has a continent to conquer! But I like to think of him this way because it reminds me that God did not (and does not) mightily work only in a black-and-white tintype world of the past.
So where are our Brightons today? Where are the next Hudson Taylors? Where are the men and women who will venture all on Christ? Perhaps she’s reading this article. Or perhaps he just stepped off the curb next to the Flying Bean, his steps now ordered by the Lord.
February 4th, 2011 by Frontline Missions
A century ago this year, Samuel Zwemer wrote one of the first detailed descriptions of the unfinished task of worldwide evangelization. It was titled The Unoccupied Fields. Today we have a comprehensive online survey called the Joshua Project. With a few keystrokes, a vast encyclopedic survey of nearly 7,000 unreached people groups is available. Long before Google, though, Zwemer’s reports were gathered from books, news clippings, telegrams, and saddlebags. It’s interesting that Zwemer chose to use the word “unoccupied” rather than “unreached.” By that, he was emphasizing the risen, returning King’s words, “All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” With scarred Hands outstretched, He said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples.” His authority extends to the ends of the earth out of which He ransomed people for God from every nation, tongue, and tribe. So He sends His messengers out to occupy the world over which He has all authority, taking the Gospel and extending His Kingdom as more and more people hear, believe, and receive their King. By “unoccupied,” Zwemer was also recalling a parable the Lord gave His disciples just weeks before His Ascension. Fittingly, it’s a parable about a king going to a far country and before leaving, he charges his servants to “occupy till I come.”
My copy of Zwemer’s book is battered and yellowed, its statistics and even some country names outdated, but Zwemer was a pioneer missionary to Arabia, and his words have both the weight and the glory of the Cross about them. With 40% of the world yet unreached, with vast lands and teeming cities “unoccupied,” his words still speak forcefully:
The challenge of the unoccupied fields of the world is one to great faith and, therefore, to great sacrifice. Our willingness to sacrifice for an enterprise is always in proportion to our faith in that enterprise. Great victory has never been possible without great sacrifice. . . . The unoccupied fields of the world must have their Calvary before they can have their Pentecost.”
The stubborn citadels of the world in Zwemer’s day remain largely unoccupied in our day as well—a Great Wall that extends from south and central Asia to the Middle East and across Saharan Africa. This short article can hardly begin to address the challenges of the unfinished task of worldwide evangelization, but hopefully it can cause us to “lift up our eyes,” to risk, to obey.
The world is very different from the one in which William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Hudson Taylor lived. They and other missionary trailblazers inspired their generation to answer the Great Call. In the 19th and 20th centuries, missionary ranks were filled mostly by those from the English-speaking world: British, American, and Canadian. As they crossed continents and cultures with the Gospel, though, things changed. People of every nation, tongue, and tribe were saved through faith in Christ. Churches sprang up, and Christians in many lands began sharing the Gospel with their own people. In the 20th century, political boundaries grew dramatically. There were 55 independent countries when Zwemer wrote The Unoccupied Fields. Today there are nearly 200 countries in the world. As the number of countries has grown, so, too, have the political barriers to Western missionaries. Yet, not surprisingly, the advance of the Gospel was unhindered because Christ is building His Church! Tremendous growth in churches has taken place in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This is taking place in large part through effective indigenous evangelism.
This second wave of missionary forces is, therefore, much more diverse than in the past. Just this year I’ve seen African believers penetrating unreached parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, sharing Christ for the first time to people of the Loma, Golla, and Susu tribes. In northern India, Frontline’s team is systematically reaching 15 new unreached villages this year. Over the past decade, 170 villages representing a mosaic of tribal groups have been reached in this way and several churches planted and pastored by Indians. On the Siberian front, Ukrainians and Russians are joining hands to evangelize migrant workers from as far away as North Korea and praying for outreach further up to peoples above the Arctic Circle. This is just a glimpse of the Big Picture of how Christ is building His Church. Thankfully it’s not dependent on us—it’s dependent on Him!
Creative, Visionary, Opportunistic
Here at home our King is still calling faithful men and women to risk-taking Gospel ministry to the hard places. Oftentimes, though, the first barrier they encounter isn’t a distant border crossing—it’s a lack of vision and resources in our churches for the unoccupied territories. Missions in such places requires the sending and the sent to embrace creative, non-traditional roles in order to get in and stay in. There’s no blank for “church planter” on visa applications to Algeria, Afghanistan, or Laos, but there may be one for “nurse,” “English teacher,” “entrepreneur,” or “barista.” The goal in all of it is to see vibrant churches planted in native soil, but in hostile territory, frontline soldiers must adapt in order to survive and to serve. Churches here at home need to adapt, too, adjusting to the realities of the unfinished task and positioning themselves to be at the forefront of creative, visionary, and opportunistic missions.
About the same time Zwemer wrote his book, Sir Ernest Shackleton was seeking men for another kind of unoccupied territory—his expedition to Antarctica. His now famous recruiting poster called for:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.
These words could well apply to men and women whom Christ is calling to venture out to those who have yet to hear the Gospel. Our motivation is not thrill-seeking or fame—it is Christ! His grace and mercy is so beautiful and abundant in our own lives that we want to find others who are like we were before we met Jesus—blind and shackled—and see them made new.
The simple, life-changing joy of the Gospel is what sustains the pioneer and draws others to take up the hard, unfinished task. Christ alone can help us see past the mounting statistics, past the beards and turbans, past the fierce faces and the dreary, lonely places to the happy work of bringing men and women to the King.