Although some American churches sent missionaries to foreign countries before World War II, most foreign church planting efforts have occurred since the end of that war. Just like the persecution in Jerusalem forced the first Jesus-followers to scatter throughout Samaria and Judea, the world-wide deployment of American military pushed Christians en masse, both military and civilian, into all the world—and they took the Good News with them.
During the 1950s, U.S. churches of Christ focused on Western Europe and Japan. The focus shifted in the 1960s to Latin America, especially Brazil. We were turning inward again in the 70s and 80s, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the opening of Eastern Europe, once again generated a strong wave of missions from U.S. churches. China is the current hotspot; Africa is always a missions magnet.
I started personally at the end of the 60s, worked with the European guys from the fifties, and have been involved in all of these mission moments since, which is where the following generalizations about our mission work come from:
- We only have the stamina for harvesting, not for planting and nurturing. If we can’t plow, plant, water and harvest in five years, we look for more receptive fields. When receptive fields get tougher—and they all do–, our money and missionaries go home.
- We believe we should be able to work everywhere else in the world cheaper than in the U.S. Very few churches will pay their missionary more than what their local preacher makes—regardless of the cost of living in both countries.
- Our mission work is dependent on how many self-motivated missionaries surface in our fellowship as opposed to a strategic global vision. Our churches support those who knock on their doors, rather than searching for the right people to send to fulfill their strategic vision for some place or part of the world!
- We are not by nature collaborative. I have been to relatively small Eastern European cities where two missionaries arrived to work, neither of them knowing that the other had plans to work there. I have seen mission teams go to cities to plant a new church where there were existing national churches who did not even know they were coming. I have been at missions conferences when American churches in the same city discover that their neighboring church was trying to start a new work in the same mission point where the first church had been planning to send a new missionary.
- Our missionaries tend to be “lone rangers!” We believe in mission teams and almost always send multiple people to new works, but before these teams reach the five-year mark, most of the groups have dwindled to one couple! Most of our long-term mission work that extends longer than five years is done by a lone person or family—who have a true spiritual gift for working alone.
- Although the importance of missionary care is rising, thanks primarily to Missions Resource Network, we have been and are still too often negligent in carry for missionaries on the field, but especially when they return.
Admitting to these characteristics of our mission efforts together is important as we go into the future and think about the extraordinarily challenging task of going into all the world with the Good News of Jesus.
I want to continue this post by talking about the world that our future mission efforts must address and why the above characteristics will not serve us well going into that future; however, I do believe that with a new perspective, we can expect to be more successful and bring more glory to God.