So I was talking to a friend of mine named Tom (his name is NOT Tom) who is a minister in an Asian Country where Christians are a tiny minority. He was talking about mission work in his country. He noted that missionaries had brought a lot of good things to his country… such as hospitals, church buildings, and community development projects— among other things.
However, he said that one way missionaries haven’t been that helpful have been in terms of Evangelism. He noted that foreign missionaries are not all that good at evangelizing people in his country… because they are foreign. He noted, that in some rural areas, they have had some success in gifting the poor with things they need and these poor respond, converting and joining the church. Later, however, when the missionaries are gone, the gifts stop or slowly break down, and the people drift back into their community’s majority faith.
Of course I have heard this before… even here in the Philippines where many Filipinos are comfortable with English, and the there is commonly enough Bible literacy so that the American-style gospel presentations are effective. (I will not address the question of whether these presentations lead people to Christ, or bring people who are already saved to a different denomination.) It is well understood here that Filipinos are better at evangelizing than foreigners. Foreigners are not that effective even with other religions. I mean, even the American Mormon boys (and girls) sent to the Philippines to proselytize their own message are more and more often matched up with Filipinos. It is entertaining to listen to American youth stumbling through the Mormon message in Tagalog or Visayan or Ilocano, but it is simply not that compelling. The biggest mosque here in our city has worked very hard to fund local boys so that they can train them to evangelize their Tawhid to others here. There are many foreign Muslims here… but few if any have any impact in the presentation of their faith.
But if Christian Missionaries are not good Evangelists, is this a new thing? No. Apparently, Occam (a Native American) was a much better evangelist to Native Americans than Wheelock (a European) in the 1700s. In the 1800s, Karen Evangelists were more effective in sharing the gospel than their American counterparts. Of course, one may go back to 1st century missionaries, such as Philip and Paul and Barnabas in hopes of finding something different. However, in these cases, these missionaries were reaching out to people who were not that different from themselves (E-1 or at most E-2). Paul and Barnabas were Hellenistic Jews from Asia Minor and Cyprus, who reached out to Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Gentiles in Asia Minor and Cyprus. Philip, presumably a Proselyte to Judaism before becoming a Christian, reached out to Samaritans (who shared the language used by the Jews, and almost all of the beliefs of the Jews), and a (presumably) proselyte to Judaism from Ethiopia. Their effectiveness, outside of divine empowerment, was linked to the commonality of language and culture.
So let’s look at it a different way. Consider three settings where a Missionary can Serve.
#1 is Where the Church IS NOT. (No viable church within the region, or culture)
#2 is Where the Church HAS NOT. (The local church may be weak or young and needs help to empower them to carry out its work.)
#3 is Where the Church CANNOT. (The local church may be strong, but still lacks unique capacities such as ability to support radio transmission, publishing, medical services, and so forth.)
So what should the role of Missionary as Evangelist be in these three situations?
For #1. Of course, The missionary is an apostle in the classic sense— sent into a place where the church is not. As such, his (or her) role is to proclaim God’s message of love, and draw those who seek to follow Christ to come together as church bodies. Yes, such a missionary pioneer should evangelize, but really should focus on training new believers to evangelize and then move to new roles of discipling and leader development so that the missionary (as soon as possible) is not needed there.
For #2. Maybe. The Missionary MIGHT be needed to evangelize occasionally— especially if the local church has not embraced its role as a proclaimer of the gospel in its area. But such a role should be very temporary and cautious. After all, even a young church can have young believers who can effectively evangelize. Thus, if it is not happening, having missionaries do the job can easily maintain an unhealthy dependence on missionaries. In fact, that unsatisfactory condition may exist because missionaries as pioneers focused too much on evangelizing and not on encouraging that role to be passed on to locals.
For #3. No. Every church can evangelize. The local church may not be able to establish a publishing house, or operate a counseling center, but they can share their faith with others. Missionaries doing the evangelism in these settings is unhealthy… except as simply a fellow participant with local Christians.
Tom when noting all the good things that missionaries brought to their country noted one thing that they really did not bring. They did not establish seminaries. Mission groups come over to evangelize, and they come in to teach locals how to share their faith like a foreigner. But they did not help establish schools for locals to be trained to contextualize/localize the Christian faith… and remove their scholarly dependence on foreigners.
A few years ago, I was investigating joining a major mission agency. At the time this agency was moving away from theological education and developmental ministries, and seeking missionaries who had a strong “evangelistic spirit” and focused on rapid church multiplication.
On the surface, this seems so right… but I think it is flawed. Most countries don’t need a bunch of foreign evangelizers coming in with big dreams of saturation strategies and CPMs. Are these things wrong? Probably not. However, Big Dream Missions (DAWN, AD2000, and other such missionary-driven movements) promise much but tend to deliver little. The biggest movements come from small groups of local Christians faithfully doing small things to transform their small places.
So should Missionaries be Evangelists? Sometimes, but few if any should have it as their primary passion. The vast majority should be passionately motivated to empower local Christians and local churches to reach their Spirit-empowered potential.