1. A Heavy Focus on Unreached-Unengaged People Groups (UUPGs). Many of the major missions sending agencies, including the Southern Baptists International Mission Board, have concentrated heavily on people groups deemed unreached and/or unengaged. Most of these, but certainly not all, are in what is called the 10/40 Window, essentially North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia.
The Positives: The emphasis on identifying unreached people groups was long overdue. The traditional missionary approach focused on countries as geopolitical entities. What usually happened was that missionaries were sent to Nigeria, for example, to reach Nigerians. Missionaries were aware of real tribal and ethnic differences, but often concentrated on the dominant tribes and assumed that reaching the people from one of those tribes would lead to evangelism and church planting among the other many tribes. The reality is that, one, people groups are not limited by modern (and often artificial) country boundaries, and, two, the gospel does not easily (unfortunately, rarely) cross cultural, tribal, and ethnic boundaries without an intentional strategy to do so. Consequently, in many countries hundreds of minority/non-dominant people groups were not identified and were not being reached. The UUPG focus corrected that oversight.
The Negatives: First, in an effort to identify and comprehensively list the world’s UUPGs, the list became unhelpfully reductionistic. For example, one of the UUPGs identified were ten (yes, 10) Norwegians on the Falkland Islands. In too many cases, any identifiable ethnic heritage that did not originate in the current country of residence, led that group of people to be classified as a UUPG. Therefore, for example, several groups of people from European descent living in Santiago, Chile were listed as UUPGs. Never mind that they were fifth or sixth generation, spoke Spanish, and identified as Chilean. The researchers fell into the trap of over-analysis. Second, there is considerable debate as to the definition of “reached” as opposed to “unreached.” Essentially, if a group that has 2% or its population identified as evangelical Christian, then it is reached. Maybe, maybe not. A lot depends on the political, cultural, and religious environment. In some cases that 2% is certainly able to grow exponentially. In other cases, that 2% is mostly hidden and underground. The 2% is too low and too artificial.
Bottom Line: Becoming aware of how many ethnolinguistic people groups have been overlooked throughout the history of missions was a needed corrective to missions strategies. Like many correctives, the pendulum swung too far. The UUPG strategy should not be abandoned; it does however need to be re-examined (and that is happening), and it needs to be seen as one piece of a missionary strategy, not the whole.
2. Short-Term Missionary Assignments. In the “old days” missionaries signed on for life, often with limited opportunities to return to their home country. Over that last several decades, changes in our Western church and changes in the ease of travel has led to the strategy of sending more short-term missionaries (shorter assignment or beginning at a later age).
The Positives: For one, a short-term strategy opens the door for many more people to surrender to missions. One does not have to say, “Well, I am fifty years old. It is too late for me to go.” The strategy allows for apprenticeships, focused and specialized assignments, and second career options. It can also provide experienced, long-term missionaries with valuable team members.
The Negatives: Sometimes missions can be seen as “something I will check out. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else.” Obviously, sometimes being a missionary does not work out and the missionary needs to go home. However, starting off with an expected life-long commitment makes a significant difference to both adjustment and effectiveness on the field. As the decades have progressed, the short-term option has become too often the default position. Consequently, experienced and highly effective missionaries on the field are fewer and fewer. Some missions experts say it takes seven years for a missionary to become culturally adjusted and effective. If that’s the case, short-termers never quite make it.
Bottom Line: Short-term missions assignments should not be abandoned, but they cannot take priority over long-term, life-long assignments. The cost of training missionaries and the time it takes to become effective simply demands those who answer the call “for life.” State-side we (churches, pastors, seminary professors, and missions strategists) need to once again sound out the call for “lifers.”
3. Mission Trips. Over the last few decades more and more American churches take mission trips around the world. This is due to and intentional strategy to involve local churches in more direct missions and to the lower cost and ease of global traveling.
The Positives: One, the more people can get a taste of missions, the more passionate they will become about praying, giving, sending, and going. Two, excitement about what God is doing “over there,” leads to a new desire to go to work “here.” Three, when done correctly, missions teams can be a genuine support for the missionary’s strategy. Connecting local churches and church members to global missions is never a bad idea.
The Negatives: It may never be a bad idea, but, boy, can we get it wrong sometimes. One, too often our own going replaces the sending of and supporting of career missionaries, especially in our finances. This has happened significantly in Southern Baptist life. Whereas, for example, a church may have at one time given 10% of its income to cooperatively support missions, it now only gives 5%. The rest goes to pay for its own missions trips. Two, often the missions team is woefully unprepared to support the missionary’s strategy. The team wants to do its own thing, regardless of need, context, or strategy. Ask any missionary; they all have horror stories. The greatest horror is when missions teams don’t follow missionary instructions in closed countries and endanger national believers.
Bottom Line: By all means go on a mission trip! I have been on many. Just don’t lose sight that you are there to come alongside the missionary and his/her strategy. It is not a tourist trip, it is not a vacation, and it is not a time to do your favorite “thing.” Communicate early and often before you go with the missionary and prepare carefully and fully to do what his strategy requires.
4. The Local Church as the Missionary. This is a step beyond just taking mission trips. Here the local church becomes the missionary, catalyst, or strategist for a particular city, region, or people group. The church actually takes on the role of the missionary by planning and implementing a missions strategy.
The Positives: When done right, this is an outstanding strategy. It does take, however, a lot of time, resources, and strong leadership to see it through. A local church can fill in the gaps for a missions agency where missionaries are not or cannot be assigned. Often a local church can work avenues of business, government, and education that missionaries on the ground cannot (or have to carefully) or they may jeopardize their status in the country. Frankly, we need more churches to take on this monumental challenge.
The Negatives: Having stated the positives, the negatives are much like mission trips. One, the church must work within the strategy of the agency or coordinating missionary. If there is neither and the church is doing it all, then the church must be well trained missiologically or it could get itself into trouble. Two, some churches who want to do a lot of direct missions and be the “missionary” themselves often do so because “we can do it better ourselves.” Perhaps. The big problem is that although that church may be doing a fine job in planting that church, running this orphanage, reaching that village, who takes care of the big picture?
Bottom line: As a church, by all means be involved in direct missions, take on the role of missionary, strategist, or coordinator. Make a direct impact on a people group, town, city, whatever. However, remember that someone has to have the big picture. Your church may be doing well in XYZ country, but who is going to tackle the rest of the world? Be in XYZ, but continue to pray, give, and send to the rest of the world.
5. Diminishing Theological Education. In some cases, missions agencies have moved many of their resources (money and personnel) out of schools and seminaries so they can concentrate on being church planters. Most training, therefore, is informal, on-the-job, and decentralized.
The Positives: Without a doubt theological institutions can become isolated ivory towers, out of touch, overly institutionalized, and simply too concerned with theory. In some cultures, one is not even considered a “minister” and cannot begin ministry until he/she has completed extensive academic preparation. As missions agencies have distanced themselves from involvement in and support of theological education, some of the ministry bottleneck has improved. Lay people can lead, they can plant churches, and great training can take place in the field and on the job. Ministry, therefore, is not just for the academic elite.
The Negatives: Unfortunately, the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater. Although how theological institutions operate is always up for debate, they are still needed. Some people are actually called to “do” theology, train others, and work hard at ensuring that Biblical foundations are firmly in place. Should American missions agencies, however, be involved with theological education in other countries? Not as sole proprietors, fund providers, or teachers, but as partners in a holistic strategy for both training and implementing.
Bottom Line: Formal theological education is not the answer to all the issues in missions strategies. It is, however, a critical piece of the puzzle. With American Prosperity Gospel going worldwide, with the growth of Mormonism and the Jehovah Witnesses, and with growing religious and philosophical pluralism, a theologically centered missions strategy is essential.
Next: Need to Do: 5 Things to Do in Light of Our Changing Global Missions Situation.