A lot of discussion on world missions bears a haunting resemblance to the well-known story of “The Blind Men and the Elephant”:
Once upon a time, five blind men came upon an elephant. “What is this?!” asked the first one, who had run headlong into its side. “It’s an Elephant,” said the elephant’s keeper, who was sitting on a stool, cleaning the elephant’s harness. “Wow! So this is an Elephant! I’ve always wondered what Elephants are like!” said the man, running his hands as far as he could reach up and down the elephant’s side. “Why, it’s just like a wall! A large, warm wall!” “What do you mean, a wall?” said the second man, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. “This is nothing like a wall. You can’t reach around a wall! This is more like a pillar. Yeah, that’s it! An Elephant is exactly like a pillar!” “A pillar? Strange kind of pillar!” said the third man, stroking the elephant’s trunk. “It’s too thin, for one thing, and it’s too flexible for another. If you think this is a pillar, I don’t want to go to your house! This is more like a snake. See, it’s wrapping around my arm! An Elephant is just like a snake!” “Snakes don’t have hair!” said the fourth man in disgust, pulling the elephant’s tail. “You are closer than the others, but I’m surprised that you missed the hair. This isn’t a snake, it’s a rope. Elephants are exactly like ropes.” “I don’t know what you guys are on!” the fifth man cried, waving the elephant’s ear back and forth. “It’s as large as a wall, all right, but thin as a leaf, and no more flexible than any piece of cloth this size should be. I don’t know what’s wrong with all of you, but no one except a complete idiot could mistake an Elephant for anything except a sail!!!” And as the elephant stepped aside, they tramped off down the road, arguing more loudly and violently as they went, each sure that he, and he alone, was right; and all the others were wrong. The Elephant keeper sighed, and went back to polishing the harness, while the elephant winked solemnly at him. (1)
Many of the problems in world missions come when we insist on “our part of the elephant” as the most accurate and legitimate description of the whole. The reality is that all of us (myself included), to some extent or another, are “blind men describing an elephant.” Some areas of the world are more responsive; some are more resistant. Some have more obvious physical needs; some are bound by materialism. Some have practically no churches at all; some have highly developed denominational structures. As a result, the strategies that will be most effective will be different for each area.
And yet, there are certain principles that hold true across the board. One of these is that missions is more of a process than an isolated event. Although there are no “cookie-cutter” formulas that guarantee success, there are certain elements that a careful study of the New Testament reveals as essential in order to complete the task of world missions. Normally, there is a natural order or sequence in which these elements are dealt with, in stages or steps along the way toward fulfillment. There are different perspectives from which to describe and analyze these elements and the process in which they are dealt with.
After briefly identifying various taxonomies proposed by other missionary practitioners, this series of posts will propose and discuss one particular model of sequencing the missionary task at a local level, characterized by efforts to “Overcome Barriers to the Fulfillment of the Great Commission.”
Defining the Missionary Task
For clearer understanding, however, it will first be necessary to identify the definition of mission (or missions) underlying this model. According to David Hesselgrave, “The meaning of ‘mission’ has been ‘up for grabs’ for a long time, especially in more liberal circles. Liberals generally think of mission as the establishment of shalom (social harmony).” (2) Even among Evangelicals, there is some divergence of opinion on this fundamental question. Hesselgrave observes:
Entering the 1970s conservatives were, to say the least, very skeptical of this approach. However, for whatever reasons—an uneasy social conscience, a desire for rapprochement with liberals, pressure from newer evangelicals in Latin America and elsewhere—some conservative evangelicals took an important turn. Playing major roles in this change of direction were John R.W. Stott and the architects of the Lausanne Covenant. Stott’s book Christian Mission in the Modern World undergirded the change and represented an effort to mediate between the sociopolitical interpretation of mission that characterized the World Council of Churches on the one hand, and the world evangelization understanding characteristic of the Lausanne Movement (up to that time) and most evangelical missions on the other. (3)
This new understanding, which is based on passages such as John 17:18, 20:21, and Luke 4:18–19 as much as the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:16–20, places social action, and, as a corollary, political involvement, on a par with evangelism as partners in “holistic mission.” (4)
The description of the missionary task given by others, such as Jerry Rankin, though similar in some aspects, manifests an important shade of difference:
Evangelism—proclaiming the gospel and making it known—is the heart of a missionary’s work. That does not mean that every missionary is a preacher. But regardless of the assignment, the gospel is to be shared verbally and lived out in relationships and in holistic ministry. Every means possible that enables us to relate to a lost world, win a credible hearing, and elicit a response can and should be used. That includes education, health care, hunger relief, disaster response, and compassionate pastoral care. Missionaries go to proclaim the gospel and make it known to a lost world. Yet it is not what they do but the power of the Holy Spirit that convicts people of sin, of the truth of the gospel, and draws people to Christ. (5)
Rankin elucidates further:
Missions and evangelism are not synonymous. While evangelism and proclaiming the gospel is the heart and foundation of our missions task, winning as many people to the Lord as possible is not missions. Missions is the task of taking the gospel cross-culturally and geographically beyond where we live to give all peoples the opportunity to hear, understand, and respond in their own cultural context. (6)
As a full-blown discussion of this important question lies beyond the scope of this series of posts, it must simply suffice for now to acknowledge my reliance, with respect to the concepts proposed therein, on a relatively narrow definition of missions based on the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16–20. While in essential agreement with the definition proposed by Rankin, the specific taxonomy utilized here more specifically describes missions as the efforts undertaken by God’s people, in the church, and especially those responding to a missionary call, to overcome barriers to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
More specifically, this model conceives the missionary task, from a cross-cultural perspective, as comprised of efforts to overcome the following seven barriers: the geographic barrier, the linguistic barrier, the cultural barrier, the social barrier, the spiritual barrier, the communicational barrier, and the logistic barrier. Before entering into a detailed discussion of the “Overcoming Barriers to the Fulfillment of the Great Commission” model, and each of the seven barriers, however, a brief overview will be given of other sequential models proposed in recent years by missionary theorists and practitioners.
Examples of Sequential Models
In a 1971 article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Gordon MacDonald describes a field strategy plan that involves “setting phases” for individual missionaries and mission teams:
The most helpful part of the field plan is setting phases. A schedule of phases always tells the field conference where it stands in terms of overall success. When one phase is completed, another phase in the planned sequence is begun. In actual practice, the phases may flow into each other, but there should be little difficulty knowing in what phase a given missionary, or any particular segment of the team, is working . . . Phase one might include, for example, his time spent in field orientation, to whom he is accountable, how he is to train, and what he is to learn. The second phase might describe his settling into an area and what initial actions will help him become acquainted with the local populace. Phase three might define his opening thrusts of missionary labor, his literature distribution, open air meetings, Bible studies, teaching situations in a school, types of personal contact. Beyond these, final phases might include the training of national workers and the actual conditions under which the work might be turned over to a totally nationally-supervised endeavor while the missionary moves on to new works. (7)
In a 1997 EMQ article, Dick Scoggins, working out of a context of training church planting teams in Muslim world, enumerates seven phases of church planting, together with a list of ministry activities commensurate with each phase: 1) launching the team; 2) preparing to sow; 3) sowing; 4) discipling begins; 5) beginning the church; 6) training leaders; 7) reproducing and exiting. (8)
Rankin references another model popularized in connection with the recent “church planting movement” emphasis of the International Mission Board:
In places where it is possible to live among the people—or at least visit the area periodically—the missionary follows a four-step approach of modeling, assisting, watching, and leaving. He may lead the first group of believers for a few weeks, but will lead in such a way that a local leader can assume that responsibility. After receiving encouragement, training, and assistance for a short time, the local leader can imitate the method and pass on the training to other lay pastors and evangelists. Relinquishing all leadership roles, the missionary stays in contact, watching and advising as needed before leaving and moving on to other unevangelized areas. (9)
Gailyn Van Rheenen, in a 2000 EMQ article, outlines four stages of missionary work: the learning period (including language and cultural learning, relationship building, and developing contextually appropriate models of ministry); the growth period (including initial evangelism leading to new churches, the nurturing of new Christians, and the training of leaders for evangelism, church planting, pastoral and training ministries); the collaborative period (in which local leaders and missionaries “collaborate in developing teaching, equipping, and encouraging structures above the level of the local church”); and the phaseout period (in which missionaries serve as encouragers and advisors, as they “overtly and intentionally pass the baton of leadership to national leaders as they transition to other missions contexts”). His words describing his own experience on the mission field are instructive with regard to the value of a sequential model of missionary strategy:
Many “trained” missionaries begin their work in a cross-cultural context without a clear understanding of the missionary task. From a personal perspective this statement was partially descriptive of our missions team. We were well prepared to learn new languages and cultures. We had basic preparation to lead unbelievers into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. We effectively struggled with contextualizing the gospel in a new and different culture. Our team, however, consumed hundreds of hours trying to determine what to do next. And because we did not adequately understand the process of missions, we made many mistakes along the way. (10)
One metaphor that has frequently been used to describe the missionary process is that of the “harvest cycle.” Farmers know that, in order to reap a harvest, there are various stages that must first be passed through. It should not surprise us that, when both Jesus and Paul, on various occasions, compare Christian evangelism and discipleship to the agricultural process, many of the same principles hold true.
The “harvest cycle” for pioneer missions usually includes the following stages: choosing an appropriate field in which to work; removing the “rocks” of spiritual resistance; plowing the ground and preparing the spiritual soil; sowing the seed of the gospel message; watering and cultivating the seed that has been sown; reaping the harvest; conserving the harvest; and maintaining the ground for on-going planting, cultivation, and harvest.
The Seven Barriers
Although there are other equally legitimate ways to classify and partition out the different elements of the missionary task, at the core, missionary work (defined in the way previously stated) essentially consists of efforts to overcome, in one way or another, the barriers outlined in the “Overcoming Barriers to the Fulfillment of the Great Commission” model. There are certain biblically prescribed methods which may effectively be used to overcome each barrier. At different phases in different missionary contexts, a concentrated effort may be directed toward overcoming any one of these barriers, or toward a certain aspect involved in overcoming any one of these barriers. In other missionary contexts, efforts are directed toward overcoming several of these barriers simultaneously. In order to successfully fulfill the commission to make disciples in all nations, however, each of the seven barriers must eventually be addressed in one way or another, and effectively overcome.
There is scriptural precedent for attempts to overcome each barrier. This series of posts will give attention to appropriate means and methods for addressing each of these barriers, together with their corresponding scriptural bases.
Each of the seven barriers encompasses aspects of missionary work that have been amply discussed on an individual basis elsewhere. The uniqueness of this approach to describing the missionary task, however, is the natural sequencing process involved in identifying the status of efforts toward overcoming each barrier, and the corresponding prioritization of the allocation of resources (human, time, creative, spiritual, economic, etc.) dedicated toward specifically addressing those barriers deemed in need of the most urgent attention in a certain context and at a certain time. After a brief analysis of each of the seven barriers, and the methods used to overcome them, a more detailed discussion of an appropriate sequencing of attempts to overcome them will be presented.
(to be continued…)
(1) Robin Wood, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”
(2) David J. Hesselgrave, “Redefining Holism,” EMQ (1999): 278–79.
(3) Ibid., 279.
(5) Jerry Rankin, To the Ends of the Earth (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 83.
(6) Ibid., 153.
(7) Gordon MacDonald, “What Mission Strategy Is and Does,” EMQ 8 (1971): 3–4.
(8) Dick Scoggins and Dan Brown, “Seven Phases of Church Planting and Activity List,” EMQ (1997): 161–65.
(9) Rankin, 93.
(10) Gailyn Van Rheenen, “Learning . . . Growing . . . Collaborating . . . Phasing Out,” EMQ (2000): 36.