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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Myths Regarding Missions 2 The myth of the foreign missionary

Jesus told us that the field is the world (Mt 13:38); but we have divided the field into two parts, home and foreign. In the popular mind a missionary is a person who is called by God to preach the gospel in a foreign country. The fellow who does the same kind of work at home must settle for a less exotic appellation.

This mythology projected the illusion that the primary missionary frontier was geographical. And so developed what might be called the mystical doctrine of salt water. The mission of the church was so closely identified with geographical expansion, and the missionary enterprise so exclusively considered in terms of geographical frontiers, that the term “mission” inevitably had a foreign connotation.

Traveling over salt water was thereby gradually changed from being the obvious concomitant of some kinds of missionary service, to being the sine qua non of any kind of missionary endeavor, and finally to being the final test and criterion of what in fact was missionary. Being transported over salt water, the more the better, was given a certain absolute theological and spiritual value.

There is, of course, a great difference between preaching the gospel to Americans in Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York and preaching to the Auca Indians of Ecuador. The latter requires insights, attitudes, and skills not necessary for the successful prosecution of the former. In that sense and to that degree there is something ‘‘special” about the missionary who serves in a cross-cultural situation. It does not, however, justify the degree to which we have exalted the foreign missionary and played down the home missionary. Both are missionaries in the true sense of the word and deserve similar treatment.

The preference we show for foreign missions can be seen in our treatment of missionary candidates. Most candidates are required to raise their own support before proceeding to the field. Candidates looking forward to foreign service generally raise their support without much difficulty. Home mission candidates usually take much longer.

Somehow the home churches have surrounded foreign missions with an aura of sacredness not granted to any other form of Christian service. This is unfortunate, for it not only violates the principles of the New Testament, but it also polarizes the missionary enterprise into two separate entities, one superior to the other.

American churches give tens of thousands of dollars every year to mission projects in every continent except North America. Church members will travel thousands of miles to Quito, Ecuador, to see Radio Station HCJB that they have been helping to support, but they feel no obligation to support WMBI in Chicago. The only difference is that one represents foreign missions and the other home missions, and foreign missions usually win out.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the arbitrary difference between home and foreign missions. We used to think that foreign missions was more difficult and dangerous than home missions, and that a person took his life in his hand if he went to the jungles of Borneo, Amazon, or New Guinea. Today there are few places on the mission field as difficult or dangerous as the ghettos of our large American cities. Any pastor who leaves a wealthy suburban church for Christian service in the inner city is by any definition a missionary. Such an assignment is likely to require more courage, more faith, and more perseverance than most posts on the foreign field.

In 1964 Daniel T. Niles, outstanding leader of the Younger Churches of Asia, made a strong plea for “old-time missionaries” not only to remain in Asia but to take the initiative in church affairs. He said: We are not looking for fraternal helpers. We want missionaries.

We know that you cannot find too many of them, but at least send us some. I am not against fraternal helpers. I am only protesting that they are not missionaries. They are helpers. We need any amount of help; but it is the missionary that is wanted, and wanted badly.

The same is true of the political leaders. When the African colonies got their independence in the 1960s leader after leader went on public record thanking the missionaries for their contribution to independence and asking them to remain at their posts to help build the new nation. Of all the expatriates living in the Third World, the missionaries and the Peace Corps are the only ones there to give and not to get; and the national leaders know this.

J. Herbert Kane, The Making of a Missionary

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