Mom meets son in Egypt
Weekly Edgework #101 - July 5, 2006

Second Thoughts About Mission

You may have heard of the case where “the operation was successful but the patient died.” In this case we could say, “The mission was successful, but the people are losing out…Do we need to more fully understand our mission? (Ralph D. Winters)

Ralph D. Winters has been the virtual Dean of Evangelical World Missions for the past thirty years. After spending a decade as a missionary in Guatemala he developed the now generally accepted concept of “Unreached People Groups” while teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1970s. In succeeding decades he went on to establish the U.S. Center for World Mission and The William Carey International University. And for nearly 28 years he has edited the popular Mission Frontiers magazine that keeps many evangelicals focused on the “unreached.”

I have noticed in recent issues of that magazine that Winters has become somewhat enamored with revisiting people groups that were “successfully” reached for Christ in the past half century or so. And he is troubled by what he sees. In one case he asks some hard questions about the fate of the Woadani (improperly called “Auca”) people in the Ecuadorian rain forest. They were evangelized in the wake of the spearing of five missionaries in the 1950s by Woadani warriors. This story has been brought to the fore by a recent book by Steve Saint, a son of one of those missionaries, entitled End of the Spear. The Woadani are facing an uncertain future in their mountainous terrain that does not lend itself well to integration into larger economies. He asks the haunting question of whether mission strategies of the past and, indeed the present, should concern themselves at all with such dilemmas.

Winters notes somewhat pensively that throughout history missions have grappled with the overwhelming social problems encountered by people being evangelized. “But,” he says, “since the Second World War, Evangelical missions have re-emphasized the all-important eternal dimensions and in some cases have tended to ignore ‘social’ problems…” Could it be that this unbalanced approach to mission is now coming back to haunt the evangelical mission enterprise?

In the same issue of the magazine Winters reflects on his recent visit to the Mam tribal people of Guatemala among whom he and fellow missionaries successfully planted evangelical churches in the 1950s and 60s. He notes with dismay that today more than half of the men and older youth of this people group have been smuggled into the USA. The local economy is almost entirely dependent on money they send back to support their families. However, as could be expected, this arrangement is fraught with enormous social problems – a welfare mentality fueled by lack of meaningful work, spouses who simply disappear, informal sexual liaisons, troubled youth growing up without fathers, and a near total despair about the future.

Again, Winters agonizes over the question of whether evangelical evangelizers should have addressed such developing social calamities as they emerged in the people groups they were working with. Or, indeed, whether they should address the critical social dilemmas these groups face in the present. I congratulate Ralph D. Winters for allowing himself to ask tough questions about a half-century of mission effort focused almost exclusively on saving the souls of people. I hope he inspires many more persons engaged in mission to pursue a more holistic approach to their mission efforts.

From my point of view, the soul-struggles Winters is having should encourage all Christians to put behind themselves once and for all the artificial split that emerged in the fundamentalist-liberal controversy of the early 20th century. As the battle heated up in the 1920s each charged the other with having abandoned the true missionary mandate given to the church. Liberals charged fundamentalists with not caring for real people, while fundamentalists charged liberals with being unconcerned about their spiritual condition. The ensuing bifurcation of the understanding of faithfulness to the Christian gospel has been felt around the world for nearly a century now. It is time to return to a more balanced approach to missions more characteristic of the great missionary century of the nineteen hundreds.

With respect to my own church, it will be helpful to remember that it was born in the 1930s in the context of a revival movement that leaned heavily on the fundamentalist side of this controversy. The story of our beginnings demonstrates an over-riding passion to save souls around the world with an accompanying fear that addressing social issues such as poverty, injustice and violence would dilute a truly biblical mission endeavor – even take the church towards the slippery slopes of liberalism. I think that explains why I absorbed a negative attitude toward the work of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in my younger years. MCC, it was said, was feeding the body. We were doing the much more important work of ensuring the welfare of people’s souls.

I wish I could say that we have moved decisively past that untenable position – that our mission efforts in fact address both physical and spiritual needs of people around the world. Thankfully there are signs here and there that we are beginning to think in more holistic terms. However on many fronts I continue to see too many signs that we have not yet escaped the confining grip that fundamentalism caught us with in the 1930s and 40s. More of us, including our mission leaders, should be embracing the agonizing questions that Ralph D. Winters is asking. We need to more fully understand our mission.

I still find it disconcerting, for example, that our mission leaders did not support more fully Sharon Soper’s efforts to alleviate hunger in Latin America through her “Superharina” project that ground to a halt in the mid-90s. Having seen it from close up, I know it had the potential to transform significantly the fortunes of those living in abject poverty throughout that continent. However, our mission leaders declared that their priority was church planting – saving souls, not feeding the hungry. That attitude explains why many among us, including our mission leaders, still hold MCC somewhat at arm’s length and why our mission agenda is dominated almost entirely by church planting.

Many of us need to go sit on the mourning bench with Ralph D. Winters.