Monday, February 23, 2009

Are missionaries really misallocated?

I have often heard it stated that foreign missionaries are a misallocated resource. It has been pointed out that most foreign missionaries are sent to areas of the world which are already evangelized or Christianized. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, foreign missionaries worldwide are currently allocated disproportionately to either predominantly Christian areas of the world or areas which are already evangelized but remain largely non-Christian. The unevangelized world makes up about 30% of the world’s population, but receives only 4% of the total foreign missionary force. This is in contrast to Christian areas of the world, which make up 33% of the world’s population while receiving 80% of the world’s missionaries. David Barrett and Todd Johnson contend that the only scenario which would be a worse strategic deployment of missionaries would be if missionaries were deployed in exact proportion to the number of Christians in any given area – thus an area with the most Christians would receive the most missionaries, and the area with the fewest Christians would receive the fewest missionaries.

While there does seem to be an appealing logic to this, I can’t help but wonder how correct it is. As a missionary to Hungary, this analysis leaves me somewhat cold, partly because Hungary is listed as being part of the Christian world because of its historic Catholic roots. And yet it seems to me that Hungary could easily be listed as an evangelized non-Christian area. While most Hungarians might call themselves Christians, that word means very little in terms of what they actually believe or how they actually live. It certainly doesn’t for the most part include a belief in any of the historic doctrines of the faith.

But beyond this, I also wonder if it’s necessarily the case that missionaries should be strategically deployed with the majority sent to the least evangelized areas of the world. Looking at the biblical pattern, I’m not so sure. Those who say this often take the apostle Paul as their role model, who made it his aim to preach Christ where he had never been preached as he said in Romans 15:20. It’s undeniable that this was Paul’s calling, to spend his life in “pioneer” missions. But there’s no indication that Paul thought that this should be the case with most missionaries. In fact, he seemed to revel in this as a somewhat unique and special calling. Someone will point out that when the Gospel began to be preached on the day of Pentecost, the entire world was essentially unevangelized. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, however, the Gospel had already spread throughout the Empire. Many missionaries even in the New Testament were sent to teach and to strengthen existing churches. Timothy and Apollos are two examples. There’s no indication that Paul thought more missionaries should be sent to the unevangelized regions. Instead, his aim was to plant churches and teach those living in those places to do the work of the ministry themselves. It seems to me that the task of evangelism is more likely to progress rapidly by indigenous workers rather than by foreign missionaries who need the time to learn the language and culture and for a long time remain as outsiders even then.

The biblical picture could actually lead us to the conclusion that the kind of pioneering missions done by Paul is a special calling which is only given to a few, even to a small percentage of total missionaries. I had the privilege recently of listening to a young woman sharing about her calling to spread the Gospel in a country in central Asia which she couldn’t even name because evangelism there is illegal. It’s a dangerous work and a special calling, and this young woman exuded joy as she told of some of the Muslim women she had shared her faith with. But in such places sending large numbers of missionaries would be prohibitive, not the least because they would draw attention to themselves.

It’s interesting that perhaps the greatest church growth movement in history took place only after all the missionaries were kicked out! Those familiar with modern church history will know that I’m talking about China, and the underground house church movement which sprang up after the Maoist revolution and the expulsion of all foreign missionaries. After decades of little or no contact with Christians from the outside, Western Christians returned to find a church that had exploded numerically, albeit with many problems from the lack of trained leaders and teachers and scarcity of Bibles and teaching materials. Nevertheless, it underscores the point that more missionaries isn’t always a good thing and fewer missionaries isn’t always a bad thing (and I say this as a missionary myself!).

I’m not saying that there isn’t still a great need for missionaries in unreached areas of the world. Nor am I saying we should be satisfied with the status quo in missions. But I am saying that sometimes I think we kick ourselves a little too much over not doing enough. The task of missions was given to the church, but Jesus is head of the church! He is still in the business of calling and sending workers into his harvest field, and He knows best where those missionaries should be sent. Jesus was confident that the task would be completed. While I certainly think we should be wise in how we do our part, I think we also should realize that God’s strategy is not always the same as ours. In fact, if one examines the activities of God throughout biblical history, isn’t it safer to conclude that God’s strategy is never the same as ours? Who else would conquer a city by marching around the walls for seven days, conquer an invading army by whittling down the Israelites to a force of 300, or save the world through a baby born in a stable in Bethlehem?

Monday, February 2, 2009

The end of secularization theory

Much of the Western world, or at least the educational system of the West, has taken for granted the truth of secularization theory. Securalization theory is the belief that as socities become more educated and advanced economically they would also become more secular (and so less religious). This has been the dominant view of much of the educated Western world for at least 100 years. Many thinkers have predicted the coming end of religion at the hands of the triumphal march of reason. The German philosopher Nietzsche declared that God was dead, we had killed him, and the news would gradually spread to all mankind from those who were the first to hear about it.

But secularization theory has always had some problems. One of the biggest is the United States. The U.S. has been such a stark exception to the supposed rule of secularization theory that writers call it "American exceptionalism." That is, the U.S. has become very advanced economically and educationally and yet remains a very religious nation, much more religious than most European nations. This has always been something of a mystery to secularists. If secularization theory is true, why isn't the general population of the U.S. more secularized?

More and more sociologists have been calling into question the basic assumptions of secularization theory in recent years. Mary Eberstadt challenges the idea that secularization leads to people having fewer children. She suggests that it may be the other way around. It may be that fewer people getting married and having children (and the ones that do have children having fewer of them) may actually cause secularization rather than being a result of it. In other words, as the basic family structure weakens people become more secular. This idea, she says, would explain American exceptionalism quite easily. America is less secular because there are more families, and because the family unit is stronger here than in Europe.

Another corollary of secularization theory is that children will, on the whole, be less religious than their parents. In other words, each succeeding generation will be more secular than the previous. The Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think-tank, has done an extensive worldwide survey of religious views and attitudes that challenges this and other assumptions. According to Martin Rieger who heads the Bertelsmann project (called the Religion Monitor), "The notion that religion continuously declines from generation to generation can be clearly disproved, even in some of the industrialized nations." In Britain, for example, religious belief is stronger among young people than among their secularized parents.

It appears clear that secularization theory has run into some serious trouble. It's certainly not the case that religion is on the decline worldwide, and it may be that the secularizing trend even in Europe is showing signs of reversing. Secularization theory, however, is still quite a strongly held belief in the West. Ironically, belief in the theory itself may partly explain why some surveys have shown religion to still be on the decline in Europe. Most surveys track religious affiliation or generalized categories (such as theist, agnostic or atheist). But such labels don't reveal anything about a person's actual attitudes towards religion (though perhaps towards religious institutions) or towards God or the meaning of life. Matthias Jaeger from the Bertelsmann Foundation says, "Traditional churches clearly have a communication problem because people are more open to religious messages and practices than we thought." Secularization itself may be coming to an end sooner than people think. The declining native populations in Europe are being replaced by swarms of immigrants, primarily Muslims, who are very religious. The issue in the future will likely be not how religious Europeans are, but what religion will predominate.

Of course all of these surveys leave out one very important factor: God. It's quite easy for a Christian to explain why secularization theory has run aground. It's because it's not true. Human beings, created in the image of God, are inveterately religious. We have a God-sized hole in the very core of our beings that can only be filled by God himself. We may try to fill that hole with other things, but nothing else can do the trick. God is still overseeing human affairs. As the apostle Paul said to the philosophers in Athens so long ago, “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God is still actively pursuing his rebellious creatures and still finding them.

While Europeans may have turned their backs on the traditional churches, they still have an inner longing for the one who created them. It’s both a challenge and a great opportunity. It may not be long before Europe becomes predominantly Muslim and very difficult to reach with the Gospel. But for now Europeans are more open to religion than most observers believe. The challenge is to present the Gospel to them in a way that breaks through the typical traditional stereotypes that many Europeans have about religion.

About me

My photo
My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.