Splash Everywhere
2/20/13 at 11:50 PM 0 Comments

Changes in Missions – Part 1

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By Dr. Jerry Rankin

It was 42 years ago next month that I boarded a ship with my family to sail to Indonesia to embark upon a missionary career that would last 40 years. Lest it sound like a luxurious and exotic beginning, the confinement on an ocean liner for three weeks with sickly toddlers 10-months and 2-years old and sea-sickness induced by the winter waves of the Pacific was memorable but not fun.

Now new missionaries are whisked to their assignment around the world in a matter of hours. During our first term we never made a phone call to family back in the states as an international connection from a developing country was difficult if not impossible. Now contemporary missionaries communicate with family multiple times a day on the internet and have visual chats via Skype.

However, more has changed in doing missions that just an upgrade in transportation and communication. Living situations have radically improved in developing countries, medical facilities are more accessible and amenities once rare or unavailable can be purchased in modern shopping centers. But changes in missionary roles and strategies have also changed over the years.

When we arrived on the field the missionary did it all. We gave lip service to an intended indigenous methodology, but there was a lot that we did not know about church planting movements and impacting unreached people groups with the gospel. There was tremendous growth in missionary appointments and global impact after World War II, but there had not yet developed strong associations and conventions of national churches on mission fields as they are today.

Foreign missionaries were the ones to witness and share the gospel with the lost. They had to disciple new believers, gather them into congregations and usually serve as the pastor, at least initially. In fact, the missionaries even built the church buildings. There was a vision of training national pastors and leaders to assume those responsibilities, but the dominating role of well-educated and trained missionaries created a dependency that inhibited the emergence of national leadership. Limited budget resources restricted the number of churches that could be started since a building was thought to be essential to function as an organized church.

Not only did missionaries provide pastoral and staff leadership to churches, they founded and administered institutions thought to be essential for strong churches. On most traditional mission fields the early missionaries built hospitals, publication ministries and student centers. Even before churches were established seminaries were started, knowing they would be needed to train future pastors. All of this was done on behalf of the future churches which would one day be strong enough to assume financial support for these institutions as well as administrative leadership.

Making that transition was a difficult process highlighted by tensions and conflict between missionaries retaining engrained roles and frustrated national leaders. But today churches have assumed responsibility and ownership for institutions that serve the churches. A few missionaries still serve as advisors or teachers, but their presence is a bonus and an asset rather than being essential. The diminished number of missionaries deployed in evangelized areas have moved into servant roles of equipping.

It would be rare to find a missionary as pastor, except an occasional English-language church serving an international constituency. Church growth has exploded exponentially in recent years through the training of lay pastors and training them to disciple and train others in a multiplying pattern. The maturity and growth of indigenous national churches and leadership around the world on traditional mission fields have enabled the missionary of today to be deployed to unreached people groups and to take the gospel where there are no churches and people have yet to have access to the gospel.


Dr. Jerry Rankin served as president of the International Mission Board from June 1993 to July 2010 and blogs at The Rankin File.

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