Recent decades have witnessed explosive church growth across regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many countries which used to receive missionaries have increasingly become senders of them. One curious by-product however, has been the volume of Western churches that now see their primary role in mission as supporting these indigenous missionaries. Instead of local churches intentionally sending their own people, the tendency for many seems to be short-term personal involvement alongside long-term sponsoring of non-Western missionaries. While this might initially sound like a great idea, are there aspects of this paradigm to be wary of? /The following article explores this trend through the lens of K.P. Yohannan, an Indian missionary whose book is being widely distributed throughout New Zealand.
Revolution in World Missions is packed with mission stories woven around the life of K.P.Yohannan and the beginnings of the mission organization Gospel for Asia. GFA seeks to mobilize and raise support for ‘native missionaries’, that is, people who originate from the country they are seeking to reach.
The main purpose of the book is to convince the reader of the need to support indigenous mission as the best approach to world mission. K.P. Yohannan recounts his experiences in India and America, and seeks to highlight ethnocentric attitudes within Western missions. He announces that ‘the leadership is changing hands,’ from Western to native missions.
Yohannan has a point. He is absolutely correct that Global South or Majority World missions are a huge God-given force that will be enormously important in the 21st century. It is where we will see astonishing missionary advance and church growth for the foreseeable future. This is indeed a fact that many Western Christians, churches and organizations need to understand well and allow to shape their practice.
It is my opinion though, that from here Yohannan pushes the boat out too far. The book virtually calls for a moratorium on Western mission. Such a broad brush dismissal merely results in the replacement of one flawed Christendom model with another.
The problem with Revolution in World Missions is not only in the expression of extremes but also in its peculiar omissions. It doesn’t share, for example, the number and quality of disciples in churches being planted as a result of international mission or multicultural teams. What of the many ‘success stories’ of Western missionaries and genuine cross-cultural partnerships? Instead, situations and strategies are often lightly analysed, complexities are glossed over and general solutions offered liberally. Rather than promote the uniqueness of the wider Body of Christ serving together and modeling the Kingdom, missionaries are unfairly caricatured throughout.
Like old war movies, the protagonists, in this case Yohannan’s Indian brothers, are portrayed as the heroes, who seemingly do little wrong. They live like martyrs, act like the Apostles, and see incredible results. Western missionaries, on the other hand, are largely portrayed as rich, incompetent, controlling and foolish. They are characterised as living like kings, burning through millions of dollars and barely seeing a convert, let alone a disciple. Western leaders are likewise painted negatively, interested only in exporting their racism, pet doctrines, and neo-colonialism. If Revolution in World Missions were a comic book, it would most closely resemble Tintin.
Where to now, post-revolution?
Let us be honest. Native, near-native, and non-native missions all have various pros and cons. The arguments for a primarily indigenous approach seem to revolve around practical, cultural or financial benefits, but since when has the mission of God been defined by any of these? Biblically and historically, God consistently surprises us with his variety of messengers, at times even in spite of their context. To maintain one method or ethnicity as superior and to be emulated worldwide is at best simplistic. At worst it smacks of pride and is fraught with danger.
Exciting developments as they are, “let the nationals do it,” thinking and practice becomes what one missiologist has termed, a slippery slope. Ultimately it results in mission by proxy and the shriveling of our own mission vision. Many can feel excluded from mission involvement on account of their nationality, and are no longer open to the call of God in this area. Great Commission type scriptures were written to the whole church and she is larger and more global than ever before. To merely participate vicariously through another is neither obedient nor does it transform the church in the process.
The stark reality is that most non-Western missionaries are yet to penetrate these out-of- reach areas in significant numbers. The remaining peoples with little to no access to the gospel are so numerous that it will take the full mobilization of the worldwide church to reach the world for Christ. The title of Chapter 8 then, “Missions is not dead: The leadership is changing hands,” encapsulates our point. Why, oh why, Mr. Yohannan, can the Body of Christ not be joining hands?