The Studied Irrelevance of American Foreign Missions

Over a year ago, in my article, “I Am not a Social Reformer, I Am Here to Preach the Gospel,” I gave a quite radical example of a missionary in Amazonia to illustrate my point about the necessity of a comprehensive worldview in the beliefs and the practice of a missionary. Of course, the example was only hypothetical. Obviously, no missionary in the Amazonian jungles would be silent in the face of obviously idolatrous or barbarian practices, whether they are presented as pure idolatry or as “social practices.” In general, Christian missionaries to simple backwards societies are able to see the idolatrous origin of most of the social practices and work to change them in accordance with the Bible. You seldom hear the words, “I am not a social reformer,” from a missionary deep in the jungles. We read about Bruce Olson and his work of evangelizing a tribe right there, in the heart of the jungles, and not only planting churches there but also civilizing them. True enough, the civilization he brought to them was not the European global civilization. On the other hand, we know that they haven’t remained on the level of simple primitivism after accepting Christ for their Lord and Savior. Whatever idolatrous practices they had before, they were freed of them as a result of Bruchko’s evangelism; even if those practices were “defining” their society, their customs, or their educational or political patterns, they shouldn’t be present there if a missionary is doing their job well. When it comes to missions to primitive tribes, social reform is assumed to be part of the work of a missionary.

The problem is that this assumption changes radically when we move our focus to missionaries to more advanced and complex societies like Europe, East Asia, India, or the Muslim world. In my experience in Eastern Europe I have seen a number of missionaries – especially American – who perceive their own job as missionaries as limited to saving souls, planting churches, and preaching the love of God. The complex social and political issues of the cultures they work in are not their concern. “I am not a social reformer” is a very strong creed among those missionaries, and they consistently refuse to expand their preaching of the Word of God to issues beyond the salvation of individual souls. In fact, among the tens of thousands Christian missionaries that work in Europe you will be hard pressed to find a precious few whose preaching ever covers the social issues of the day. Even if they claim that the Bible has an answer to every question, it is not obvious from their preaching. If one is to form an impression about what God and Christianity is all about from the combined sermons of all the missionaries on the mission fields in Europe, the result will be a limited truncated religion that has no answers to the pressing issues of the society.

And yet, those advanced and complex societies are not just a net sum of individual souls. Just like the primitive tribes in the jungle – and in fact, much more than them – the societies of Europe, the Far East, the Middle East, India have their social patterns, customs, political and economic structure and mores. These patterns, customs and mores are not religiously neutral. They come from a specific view of reality, from a comprehensive belief about the nature and the origin of all things, a worldview that is accepted by the majority of the population as the ruling worldview in that society. In our example above, the primitive tribe had certain practices because they had certain views about God and reality. They believed in a reality of spirits who control their hunt, they had certain sociological beliefs about the roles of men and women, they had economic views about scarcity, and they had views about the value of the human and animal life and freedom. These views were straight contrary to the Bible, and any missionary who would omit this reality from their preaching is not preaching the full counsel of God.

Similarly, more complex and advanced societies’ customs and mores did not just arise out of nothing. They are the product of a comprehensive worldview, a system of beliefs about God, man, law and time. The education systems, the welfare systems, the way business and politics operate, the way money is printed; they are all product of a religious or quasi-religious belief. In most societies this system of beliefs is based on a faith different from the Christian faith, and therefore hostile to the God of the Bible. Therefore, just like with the primitive tribes, a missionary’s job is to understand the society, to understand its anti-Christian roots, and preach against them.

And this is exactly what most missionaries around the world refuse to do. “I am not a social reformer,” they say. What would seem completely logical and accepted norm in a backward primitive pagan society, is considered outside of the scope of activity for a missionary in an advanced modern pagan society.

R. J. Rushdoony was the first to use the phrase “studied irrelevance” in his fundamental study, Institutes of Biblical Law, and he used it to describe the attitude liberal commentators take when dealing with those laws and verses in the Bible that have specific obvious practical meaning contrary to the liberal’s own views. In the specific example in the book, the liberal commentator in question, when commenting on a very specific law with a very specific practical application, devotes three pages of evangelistic sermon on the law, and allows only a sentence or two to its practical meaning.[1]

But liberal commentators are not the only ones that can be charged with studied irrelevance. Today’s conservative missionaries, churches and seminaries are as liable to the same charge as the liberals. The whole climate of evangelism today self-consciously makes every possible effort to exclude from its preaching any reference to any social, economic or political issues that the Bible has answers to. The seminaries make sure they never teach the future missionaries anything above and beyond the simple message of personal salvation, and the simple skills of planting a church and organizing church activities. The churches’ criteria for supporting a missionary are simple: save souls, plant churches, organize activities. And the missionaries themselves follow the same lines. The missionary activity is understood as self-consciously limited to a few simple tasks, and irrelevant to the society as a whole, and to the important issues of that society.

An example of such studied irrelevance is the book by Avery T. Willis, The Biblical Basis of Missions, written in 1979. The book has been wildly popular, if we can believe the testimony of the International Mission Board, and the multiple reprints of the book. The whole book is full of studied irrelevance, a mixture of religious language and personal testimonies, and not a single word about the responsibility of the missionary to address the idolatrous social, political, and economic practices of the society where he was sent. A missionary who decides to use Willis’ book as a manual for missions would be a missionary who never even touches an issue greater than the personal salvation of an individual.

Avery T. Willis might be considered somewhat off the center for some, due to his Pentecostal/Charismatic background. Such assessment might or might not be right, but the point still stands, that Pentecostals and Charismatics have been the spearhead of the American missions around the world after the 1950s, and especially after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. And yet, if we look at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Reformed missions around the world, we will see that the situation is not much different. One of the Reformed mega-organizations for missionary activity around the world, Mission to the World, has quite the same narrow definition of the job of a missionary as Willis does. On their Internet site, MTW places the sole priority of its activity on church-planting. While Reformed churches as a rule boast of being superior in their theology and knowledge and worldview, such claims do not translate onto the agenda of the Reformed missionary organizations or the missionaries themselves. The average Reformed missionary is as limited in his preaching and teaching as is the Pentecostal and Charismatic missionary. As a member of a Pentecostal church in Eastern Europe confided to me, after visiting a conference sponsored by an MTW missionary, “Presbyterians are not different from Pentecostals; they just don’t speak in tongues.” Baptists, Methodists, or Anglican/Episcopals are not different either. The cultural idols of Europe, the Middle East and East Asia will hardly meet any opposition from these missionaries.

The studied irrelevance of most missions today is even more striking given the popularity the phrase “Biblical worldview” has gained in the last decade in the United States. “Worldview” conferences, books and sermons are the fad of the day, it seems, and even the most fundamentalist Christian radio stations that in the 80’s and in the 90’s actively promoted withdrawal from public and political activity today have their “worldview” hour. Of course, worldview means different things for different teachers and preachers, ranging from genuine comprehensive set of views and presuppositions down to displaying a globe in the sanctuary and proudly proclaiming, “We have a worldview!” However, the very term worldview carries with itself the connotations of a broader, more comprehensive application of the Bible to the real world. One would think the popularity of such a word would stir the missionaries to seek to expand the “traditional” role of missions to something broader and more comprehensive. Unfortunately, this is not the fact. While so many American churches and Christians begin to expand the horizons of the application of their faith to broader aspects of their life and society, missionaries and missionary organization hardly move an inch in their views. Even those who as ordinary Christians in the US would participate in various programs of social involvement, change their views when it comes to missions to other countries.

Foreign missions are important, and there is nothing that would or could supplant them in the foreseeable future. There is a lot of talk in the American churches today about shifting the burden of world evangelism from the American missions to local evangelists and pastors. While there is a merit to this idea, especially in the part of transferring responsibility and delegating authority to indigenous ministers and ordinary Christians, a full transfer of responsibility will never happen. The history of the Church is mainly a history of its foreign missions, as even a cursory look at a textbook of Church history will tell us. From Israel to the Greco-Roman world, from the Roman Empire to the Barbarians, from Spain to Ireland, from Ireland to England and Scandinavia, from Byzantium and Germany to the Slavs, from Spain and Portugal to Africa and Latin America, from England and Holland to North America, Africa and Indonesia, from Europe to China, and today from America back to Europe and Eastern Europe. Even the Bible itself gives clear examples in Moses, Solomon, Daniel, Jonah, Peter, and Paul that foreign missions are important. The words of Jesus Himself declare that a stranger is in a better position to proclaim the Gospel than a local person: “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house” (Matt. 13:57). There is something that a stranger brings to the table that a local person doesn’t.

Foreign missions make sense for several reasons; a significant one of course is the relative wealth of the sending country which makes it possible to support missionaries without endangering the physical survival of those that are expected to sponsor the preaching of the Gospel. But more important than this is the fact that the missionary usually comes from a nation which social fabric is more permeated with the teachings of Christianity and therefore the society is more “Christian”; not just in the number of practicing Christians but also in the very law structure, the social relations and the business and economic climate. A foreign missionary is not just supposed to bring “salvation of souls” to a foreign nation; he is supposed to be a piece of the Christendom (CHRIST’s KingDOM) brought from his home country to his foreign listeners. A stone-age tribe that is in slavery to their idols, subject to all kinds of abominable social practices, needs to have an example of a man who actually lived in a nation that has their society centered on the Bible, nominally at least, if not in practice. Similarly, an advanced and developed society that has its old pagan practices entrenched in their everyday life – like China, for example – needs the refreshing presence of an American or a British, free from the local social and religious prejudices and superstitions in order to even start on the road to Christ. From my own experience I know that a foreign missionary is not treated simply as a mouth of God; he is considered an informal ambassador of his own country, an apostle of another civilization, a civilization that applies in practice what the missionary is presenting in words. Many times I have seen American missionaries in Eastern Europe asked about the life in the United States, and many times I sensed their displeasure at such questions. They just can’t understand why the local people are so curious about the home country of the missionary when the missionary has stated that he had another purpose.

But such connection is inevitable and natural, whether the American missionaries like it or not. Men naturally want to know what it is like out there, where the words of the missionary are applied in practice in the society. In fact, God expected Israel to evangelize the nations through the example of its just laws and righteous society (Deut. 4:6, 8). Man is a complete being, individually and socially, and expecting him to act one way in his individual life and another in his social life is to expect man to be schizophrenic. Therefore, when man encounters a set of moral principles, he naturally takes them to apply to both the individual and the social life. Men expect to see the word become flesh, and the social “incarnation” of the missionary’s message is as much valid and necessary testimony as the individual. Herbert Schlossberg very aptly describes the inevitability of cultural influence when he discusses “exporting prosperity”:

The culture of the West, infused as it is with Christian values, is superior to any other. . . . It is not superior because it is wealthy; it is wealthy because it is superior, because it believes that work is a calling, that matter is important, that reason is a gift of God. This culture, God’s gift, transmits its material blessing along with its interpretation of reality. Animist cultures . . . are not likely to produce large numbers of skilled engineers as long as they believe that physical objects have spirits. Therefore, the West cannot export prosperity without also exporting the culture that makes it possible.[2]

And we can add: The West cannot export eternal salvation without also exporting the culture that eternal salvation creates in history and on earth. The religious beliefs, the moral and cultural norms derived from those beliefs, and their practical application are one whole. Only when a missionary brings this whole message to his listeners, has he done his job of an ambassador from God.

And when we put the above in the context of American missionaries, we need to remember always that from the vantage point of Europe, East Asia, India or the Middle East, The United States of America is the Christian country. This statement will startle quite a few Christians within the United States who know how far our country has fallen from its origins. But put in comparison, America is not only the land with the highest number of practicing Christians in the world today; it is also the land with the highest presence of Biblical values in its social, economic and political life. To put it in concrete terms, if even Hillary Clinton is forced to talk about her personal “faith” during election campaigns, that tells something about the number of practicing Christians among her potential voters, and their political expectations. She can count, oh yes, she can.

And this is where American missionaries to Europe and to other parts of the world fail to understand the comprehensive role of foreign missions. They simply refuse to talk about civilization and society, and focus on strictly religious topics instead. The liberal cultural slogan, “No culture is better than the others,” becomes their operational principle. They “don’t want to impose the American way of life” on the local cultures. Even when they agree in principle that as a nation America was founded on Biblical principles, and that even today it is the most Christian nation on the planet, and even if they agree that it is a blessing from God Himself, they feel insecure about sharing that blessing with the cultures out there. They preach the grace of God to the individuals, but they refuse to share the grace of God to the nations.

Inevitably, such studied irrelevance creates the impression in their listeners that the Christianity preached by the missionaries is a religion for the periphery of the society. Europeans are not dumb, and neither are Arabs, Hindus, or Chinese. They know – or at least instinctively feel – that there is more to the Christian message than mere individual salvation. They know that their own societies have been operating on worldviews that have proven a failure. Especially in Eastern Europe, where an ideology with a comprehensive worldview was politically dominant to the exclusion of all its rivals, the majority of the population is trained and conditioned to think in terms of comprehensive worldview, even if they have no formal theological or philosophical education. Communism’s worldview failed, but the failure of one comprehensive worldview only left behind the hunger for another comprehensive worldview, successful and relevant. The initial successes of Christian missions in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s can be traced to this hope that Christianity can provide the overall framework for the restoration of those societies; and the subsequent failure can be traced to the failure of the missions to fill that need. Western Europe, nominally the victor from the Cold War, is heading to its own sobering awakening, and may be even hangover, when the failure of political humanism will become more and more visible against the rising forces of Islam (another worldview religion). Even today many Western Europeans see the writing on the wall, and are in the process of searching, but since Christianity is not there with a comprehensive message, they relegate it to the periphery of their society.

It is inevitable that a religion that touches only the peripheral issues in a culture will be relegated to the periphery of the social life in that culture. And correspondingly, Christianity in Europe today is only associated with the periphery: lowest class minorities, lowest class groups, prison inmates, and rural communities that have no real participation in the life of the whole society. Same thing applies to other parts of the world as well; a good example would be so many countries in Africa where the majority of the populations are Christian believers, and yet Christianity is peripheral when it comes to social practices or political decisions. You can’t achieve more than what your message allows you to achieve. If you aim for the bullsear, most of the time you will hit the bullsear, and hitting the bullseye will be the product of wild chance only. We can’t expect Christianity to change history unless it changes the culture, and it can’t change the culture unless it aims for the very center of that culture, its comprehensive worldview in terms of which all decisions – whether corporate or individual – are made.

It is time the American church disciplines its missionaries to renounce the policy of studied irrelevance when it comes to the Biblical principles for the culture. Nations and individuals can not be evangelized only partially – they can be truly evangelized only when a comprehensive good news is preached to them, a Gospel of Christ’s total power over everything man believes, thinks, and does, including his culture, society, economic and political endeavors. The Great Commission requires comprehensive evangelism, teaching the nations. Anything else will only keep Christianity in the periphery of the non-Christian cultures, and will never succeed in producing covenant communities in the pagan world.

[1] R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), p. 468.

[2] Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), p. 72. [Italics added: B.M.]

Consider partnering with us