Home     David Mays           Updated: January, 2008



Missions:  Foundation Fractures in the North American Church


“We are at the front edges of the greatest transformation of the church that has occurred for 1,600 years.” Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church, 1991


From the time of Augustine, the church paradigm viewed citizens of Christian nations as “Christian” and the mission field as beyond its borders.  The church organized itself with a structure designed for its mission, to convert and civilize the pagans beyond the borders.


Mission to those in far-off pagan lands became an immensely powerful motivating and organizing factor for many churches in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The lay person was not expected to have much to say or do about mission, except to support it vigorously with prayer and generous giving, and by encouraging the young to go into “full-time missionary service abroad.”


Beginning about 60 years ago, this paradigm began to fail.  Mission, once a central and basic assumption, simply wasn’t clear anymore.  Congregants began to reduce their support for the structures of foreign mission.


When a sense of mission has been clear and compelling, the church has been sacrificial and heroic in its support of that mission.  What has happened?  What are the root causes for this decline?  What do we face?


1.  Political Climate 

Up until this generation, religions have always advanced hand-in-in hand with military power and commerce.  No one questioned it.  The nation that was successful naturally exported its religion along with the extension of their its and ‘superior’ way of life.  Christianity expanded the same way. 

Because of the obvious superiority of western civilization brought about by the work ethic and principles of Christianity, exporting the Western Christian way of life to the world seemed natural.  The expansion of Christianity, democracy, and western life-style to the rest of the world was considered part of the manifest destiny of America. 

However, two world wars, the atom bomb, the Vietnam War, and a growing awareness of problems at home brought serious doubts about whether Western Culture was the answer for everyone.  Critics began to point out the very large problems of discrimination, poverty, and moral decline in America.  If we couldn’t solve our own problems, what right did we have to force our religion on other peoples?  Others began to question the role the US government was taking in other countries. Were we helping or hurting?  Anthropologists began glamorizing primitive cultures and crusading to leave them alone.  Some religious leaders began to see the “good in all religions” and to move from conversion to dialogue. Proselytizing became a bad word, synonymous with manipulation. 

The national mood swung away from support to embarrassment over colonialism and paternalism.  Missions was highly identified with these.  People have become less confident that we have the answers for other nations.  



2.  Cultural Pressure

Lloyd Kwast of Biola University, says culture is like an onion.  It grows outward from the center.  Each layer results from the layer beneath.  Behavior arises from values.  Values stem from beliefs.  And our beliefs originate in our worldview.


Worldview is that deepest core understanding of what is ultimately real.  Animistic peoples relate everything to the spirits.  Their lives are controlled from planting crops to which path to take by how the spirits will view these things.  Their lives are spirits-oriented.    By contrast, the western world operates on the Enlightenment principle that suggests what is real is material and the ultimate judge of all things is man.  As Carl Sagan put it, “the universe is all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be.”  According to this view, all results have material causes.  There is nothing magic or supernatural.  Religion is a private preference.  In the West we live our lives by this philosophy.  If there is a pain, an accident or an event, we look for (and demand) a (material) reason or cause and a physical fix.  This secular philosophy has penetrated the worldview of Western Christianity.  Consequently we live our lives in the material world, calling in God to help when we get in a jam.  We think little about the spiritual world and the fate of unbelievers.  It just isn’t “real” to us.  Consequently, reaching the lost, especially the lost far away, is not clearly on our radar screen.  



3. Overwhelming Needs

As the fruit of Christian principles has been material progress and the physical good life, our individual lives have become complex and complicated.  Many new needs are created.  Our abundant blessings have provided the leisure, freedom and money to find many new avenues of excess.  Consequently the church is faced with ever expanding issues of abuse, dysfunction, addiction, crime, and other social issues.  Consequently the job of reaching the lost has become just one of many huge responsibilities of the church.  Because personal and social issues are so pressing and require such a high investment of resources and energy, the "lost" have lost first place.  Reaching out locally is minimized for lack of time and energy in our high pressure culture.  Further, talking to others about your faith is a taboo subject.  Because we are not personally active toward reaching lost people here, we don't think much about reaching lost people elsewhere.  The work of reaching people beyond the local community rests largely as an uneasiness in the subconscious of the committed.



4. Delegated Leadership

As contemporary issues have chewed up the time of church leaders, efforts to reach around the globe have been delegated to the denomination or a committee of lay personnel in the church who have a personal interest.  Without the aggressive leadership of the church’s senior leaders, missions has more and more become the hobbyhorse of a group marginalized from the mainstream.  They are often viewed as out of touch with the main church body, and sometimes as malcontents interfering with the harmonious working of the church.



5. Changing Generational Values

Many of those concerned about international missions are part of an older generation raised on values of loyalty, duty, and responsibility.  Some display historic condescending attitudes toward internationals that alienate younger professionals working side-by-side with educated men and women from around the world.  Sometimes visiting missionaries reinforce unfortunate stereotypes.  Overt fundraising is no longer popular.  People expect to see visible results from missions investments and such results are often not in evidence from the difficult places in the world.   Missions, as it has been conducted by the Builder generation, comes across as an anachronism speaking to a past era, a 19th century phenomenon which has little bearing on today's world.



Challenge to Mission Agencies:  Replant the forest. 

Weyerhaeuser is in the paper business.  Paper comes from trees.  So Weyerhaeuser harvests trees to make and sell paper.  But who plants the trees?  If Weyerhaeuser doesn’t plant trees, is there anyone else who will plant the trees for tomorrow’s paper?


Mission organizations evangelize the nations.  Missionaries, prayer, and money come from churches.  Mission organizations harvest the churches for missionaries, money and prayer to evangelize.  But who plants the vision?


The mission is no longer clear nor widely held.  And the nation’s mentality is more pluralistic and tolerant.  The mission of discipling the nations is not a compelling vision in many churches, seminaries, or other prominent organizations.


Who has the passion, the resources, and the manpower to rebuild the vision for world evangelization?  Mission organizations and their staff and missionaries.  This I see as a compelling task.

·        Paint the big picture.

·        Spread the vision.

·        Provide basic missions education.

·        Contextualize

·        Show God at work.


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Addendum from Loren Mead

When a sense of mission has been clear and compelling, the church has been sacrificial and heroic in its support of that mission.


Three things are happening to us:

1.     We are facing a fundamental change in how we understand the mission of church.  (Because our culture is being re-paganized, churches are seeing their mission as local.)

2.     Local congregations are moving from a passive, responding role to a front-line active role.

3.     Institutional structures and forms are rapidly collapsing.


What churches must do:

·     Because adults and children receive less of the Christian heritage from the social order, our educational programs need to concentrate on the basics and assume less.

·     Churches must develop ‘mission training’ to help each person cross the mission frontier (meaning reaching outside our church subculture to the world around us).