I have already noted my wariness of K.P. Yohannan and his theology in my review of his book Discouragement. Yet nearly a full decade before having read that book, I had come across and simply devoured his masterpiece, Revolution in World Missions, and I consider this book to be one the of the most enlightening books on missions that I’ve ever read. Back in 2006, I was a single and unemployed college graduate struggling to know how to proceed with life. Should I return overseas and continue my “missions” work? Should I remain in the States and get a job that would help pay for seminary? Should I focus on finding a lady instead and add that to my troubles? Midst these anxieties, I found Revolution and was struck by his poignant themes, themes that continue to reverberate in my understanding of missions to this day.
Yohannan’s major thesis in Revolution is this: Third World nations do not need your missionaries, they need your money. The cost of training, sending, and sustaining one foreign missionary is equal to that of training dozens if not hundreds of national pastors, so unless we reverse our archaic understanding of foreign missions, we simply toss our resources down the toilet and affect the world by addition rather than by exponential multiplication. While Yohannan’s premise is sound, and I agree with nearly every word of it, it begs one simple question that truly revolutionized my thinking: what good would this money be if the training its supposed to support doesn’t exist?
When I placed these thoughts into the context of my Third-World missions experience from the year prior, I came to several startling revelations that clarified God’s call on my life and forced my return overseas. These revelations dealt with both support and methodology.
Regarding support, I finally realized that yes, our understanding of how to send missionaries is archaic and must be updated. Traditionally, average missionaries “feel a call” to a particular place, they may or may not visit that place by taking a survey trip, and then they spend 2-5 years traveling to likeminded churches in search of support for their eventual work overseas. Such a set-up has its benefits, for example it tests the missionary’s resolve through the arduous road of deputation, and it builds a support base that is not merely financial but also personal and prayerful. On the other hand, this set-up also has its extreme drawbacks, for example it delays the missionary’s burden, it places stress on his family and his supporters until he is finally free to go, and it imbalances the missionary’s message with “hope to”s and “eventually”s based entirely on a desire for a future ministry rather than on the realities of a past. The monies shared throughout this process are God’s, though one has to wonder if they could not have been used more effectively elsewhere.
Optimally, a missionary committed to full-time and therefore unpaid ministry overseas should receive his income for his sending church alone, with regular financial gifts used specifically for the training of nationals on the field. Other optimal ideas include self-supporting missionaries whose financial support from home is used for ministry purposes, or working missionaries who do not seek financial support at all. Overall, however, the missionaries who receive any type of support from the States should be only those men and women who have already been fully vetted on their chosen field by having lived there for a minimum of two years without a single dollar of home-side financial support. Only when his call has been clarified and confirmed by on-the-ground, in-the-culture living should a missionary be considered supportable by a church. To me, this is simply a matter of the wise stewardship of a church’s funds. For a political analogy, people have been backing candidates with messages of “hope for change” for generations, and look where that has gotten us! Proven records matter, and a missionary who has self-supported his successful adaptation to his chosen field is a far greater investment that a missionary who’s spent one month on the field and another five years talking about it.
Regarding methodology, Revolution in World Missions finally gave voice to my grave concerns regarding the traditional methods of foreign missions I had witnessed firsthand. The problem is the colonization mentality, that an American missionary moves to Vietnam, pastors a church through a translator, and follows a service schedule stripped from any corner church bulletin back home: prayer, singing, offering, message, invitation, closing hymn and prayer. Where’s the training? Where’s the exponential explosion? Where’s the leading from behind? Why in the world must the foreigner serve as pastor, simply because he knows more and because he had helped found the church?
One personal example in particular might help to clarify my misgivings regarding such methods. I once worked with a missionary who hadn’t learned the local language during his fifteen years on the field, and had set up his church leadership structure with four American men and three national trainees who served as translators. During my year in that church, I had seen two of these trainees preach just one time each, and one of them preached in English through a translator! They had been under this missionary’s tutelage for twelve years by that time, and yet they could barely be trusted to speak to others on their own and in their own language. After twenty full years of such training, these three men were finally ordained and sent out to plant churches in villages surrounding the city. While this might sound like a comedy with a happy ending, it’s not. It’s a tragedy repeated in every nation around the globe by missionaries who simply don’t have a clue about the true intent of missions.
Let me be candid about my understanding of missionary methodology as gleaned from the Word, from personal experience, and from this book among others: I do not believe that a foreign missionary’s role is to pastor a church on the field. I believe his role is train men in the background and to raise up nationals to lead their own people and plant their own churches. Why? Because once the foreigner established himself as the Shepherd, the sheep will only follow, and it will be culturally impossible for them to transition out of a skewed mentality of subordination in a timely manner. If the missionary arrives as a helper and trainer, if he establishes from Day One that he is only there to assist, then the power to lead remains attainable for the nationals whom God is calling toward the pastorate. If the missionary uplifts national pastors from a position of equality rather than pulling them up from a position of superiority, his work will be minimized to an incredible degree. Yet this is a decision and a position that must be determined before Day One; it must be woven into the very fabric of the missionary’s thinking; it must be a key tenet of his ministry philosophy, or else the nationals will see right through it and their potential to grow will be stunted from the very start.
I left my first year on the field sorrowful at how ineffective the missions work appeared to be, but Revolution in World Missions helped me clarify why this was so. Within two months of having read this book, I returned to the field with a new understanding of God’s call on my life: first, to gain a foundation adaptation to that particular culture through an extended self-supporting stay in-country; and second, to return to that nation with the personal, prayerful, and (if necessary) financial backing of churches back home to train godly men to lead, teach, and grow Christ’s Church in their own tongue and in their own cultural way (2Tim 2:2). For this reason, I have K.P. Yohannan to thank for the instrumental part his book played in spreading Christ’s Church through me in that little corner of the world (Galatians 1:24).