Ida Scudder was the granddaughter of the first medical missionary sent by the American church. John Scudder, her grandfather, went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1819, and later to India, as a missionary doctor. Ida was born in 1870 and, after finishing school in the United States, returned to India to be with her ailing mother. But Ida's mind was made up: She would never be a missionary. She planned to go to Wellesley College, then marry and settle down in the States.
One night, three men in succession knocked on the door of her parents' home in South India. Each came with this request: "My young wife is dying in childbirth. Can you please come and save her?"
To each, Ida gave the same reply: "I know nothing about doctoring. My father is the doctor. I'll be glad to go with him to see your wife."
All three men—a Brahmin, another high-caste Hindu, and a Muslim—gave the same reply: "In my religion, no man outside the family is allowed into the women's quarters."
Ida couldn't sleep that night. Morning brought news that all three women had died in the night. Ida was never the same again. She graduated from Cornell Medical School in the first class open to women. Returning to India, she started a clinic for women, then a nursing school, then, finally, a medical school. Today Christian Medical College in Vellore remains one of the finest medical schools in India, having produced thousands of nurses and doctors to minister to millions in South Asia.
Stories like this are repeated many times, demonstrating the wonderful work of God among the hundreds of thousands of missionaries sent from American shores over the past 200 years. Many missionaries are remembered with deep affection in the countries they served, for the way they sacrificially brought the gospel. They went as evangelists and pastors, teachers and professors, doctors and nurses, agriculturalists and engineers. Many died in strange lands but have not been forgotten by those whose lives were changed forever by the message of Christ. There is little doubt that in sheer numbers and overall impact, the American church was the dominant force in foreign missions in the 20th century.
Despite such a legacy, many today are questioning the place and vitality of the American missions enterprise.
For example, we hear the call in ecumenical discussions for a moratorium on missions, first made in the late 1960s and '70s. It is built on the presupposition that Western missions is a form of imperialism and prevents indigenous churches from maturing. One African pastor, John Gatu, asserted that "the churches of the third world must be allowed to find their own identity, and the continuation of the present missionary movement is a hindrance to this selfhood of the church." Filipino bishop emeritus Emerito P. Nacpil argued that "the most missionary service a missionary under the present system can do today in Asia is to go home."
Although these views do not represent those of many Western churches or majority-world ones, they nevertheless reverberate in the background of many missions discussions today, especially in mainline Christian circles.
Concern about imperialism is grounded in part on what I call the "Western guilt complex." The mistakes—the Crusades, the European wars of religion, and colonial expansion, plus slavery and related issues—have created tremendous angst in the minds of many Americans. When the mistakes of Western missions are thrown into the mix, the guilt complex becomes a potent brew, contributing to the partial loss of nerve in Western missions.
Another factor is the gradual decline of American prestige worldwide since World War II. Wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, plus the gradual emergence of a multipolar world, have left Americans with increasing self-doubt. Even a book like Samuel P. Huntington's brilliant The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order ends with the troubling question of whether the West, including America, is "capable of stopping and reversing the internal processes of decay."
Add to this militant secularism, internal weaknesses in the American church, the inability of missions agencies to find recruits, and the continuing decline in missions giving, and we have on our hands a demoralized missions community.
Despite all this, the American foreign missions force is still the largest in the world. In addition, the American church is the largest source of funding for missions. To take just one example: At the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town last year, of the $16-17 million raised, some 80 percent came from Americans.
I am concerned that the negative realities noted above are discouraging the American church in its missionary efforts. I want to challenge the American church to persist in its missionary efforts globally. Let me do so by noting a few countertrends and ideas.
Gospel Hope Now
Evangelicals have traditionally preached the gospel in terms of eternal salvation and hope after death. But today, many are turning to Christ because of what salvation also means in the here and now.
For example, believers in many nations look to Christianity as the foundation upon which to build their societies. This is particularly true among socalled cultural Christians in China, but they are not the only ones. As far back as the 1950s, Indian theologian M. M. Thomas, once chair of the World Council of Churches' Central Committee, asserted that the gospel is "the foundation of a true secular humanism" on which to build a better world.
When many intellectuals from newer nations look to the West, they most desire its prosperity and freedoms. They long for their countries to become modern democracies with advanced economies. They do not buy into the secularization theory that suggests that the unique, finely balanced combination of democracy, political stability with checks and balances in government, civil society, human rights undergirded by a strong and just legal system, and an advanced economy with minimal corruption will emerge willy-nilly with modernization. They have looked at the 20th-century experiment called Marxism, perhaps the most secular of ideologies, and found it utterly wanting for either the prosperity or the freedoms they seek.
These intellectuals have reached the same conclusions as those of the late American legal scholar Harold Berman and the sociologist Rodney Stark: The moral values, legal principles, and psychological basis of the best modern Western civilizations came from their Christian history. Thus, many, like Chinese cultural Christians, see the gospel alone as able to provide adequate moral foundations for rejuvenating their nations.
My point is perhaps best summarized in a 2008 article in The Times (UK) by Matthew Parris, a journalist and former British Conservative MP. He reflects on a visit to Malawi, where he grew up as a missionary kid. He confesses that the visit challenged his present ideological beliefs and "has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God." He came to see Christianity as necessary to effect changes in the mindset and culture. He wrote:
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular ngos, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good… . Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone, and the machete.
The Benefits of Guilt
In a well-known paper from 1987 (expanded into the book Translating the message), Lamin Sanneh, a Muslim convert to Christianity, made a counterintuitive argument. Formerly at Harvard and now at Yale, Sanneh explored whether the history of Christian missions justifies the Western guilt complex. Did Western missionaries actually help destroy indigenous cultures? He examined the vast Bible translation enterprise and concluded that through the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages, Christian missions actually helped preserve cultures and languages.
As he put it, "Christian missions are better seen as a translation movement, with consequences for vernacular revitalization, religion change and social transformation, than as a vehicle for Western cultural domination." I don't know of any serious scholar refuting Sanneh's thesis. But the larger point can be found in the answer to this question: Where does this guilt complex come from, and to what does it point?
We've witnessed many conquests and imperial expansions throughout world history. Many of these were done in the name of religion. But I am not aware of a society that has self-critically developed a guilt complex as deep and extensive over past mistakes as today's West. One can easily name a number of non-Western societies and nations that have practiced territorial expansions and various oppressions in the name of religion or national interests. In which of these do we find serious wrestling with guilt? I am not saying those from other cultural and religious traditions aren't able to develop guilt complexes. I am saying that, outside Western culture shaped by a Christian history, I do not see evidence of such a complex on a similar scale.
The point is this: The very fact of Western guilt may be one of the supreme evidences for the enduring validity of the gospel in the post-Christian West. For it shows that the gospel has the power to shape the conscience of a culture, even when its propositional claims have been forgotten or largely rejected by that culture. Seemingly, despite being abandoned by many Westerners, the gospel continues to simmer in an unquenchable manner in a society that once acknowledged Christ.
What do we conclude from this? That yes, Western guilt should lead to repentance for presumptuous, insensitive, ethnocentric, and triumphalistic missions. The wrong conclusion, however, is to suggest that we must forgo Western missions because such missions have lost integrity. The very guilt that troubles the Western conscience over past failures points to the moral power and enduring validity of the gospel. Without this burden of guilt, which the Spirit imparts, this world would be far more cruel, heartless, unjust, and oppressive than it is. Only when our hearts and our cultures have responded to the call of Christ and experienced the work of the Spirit can such a conscience develop on the sort of scale that we find in the West. Thus, the Western guilt complex properly understood is also a profound call to humble confidence and boldness in mission.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, how might Americans respond to the call to missions? Allow me to suggest two steps.
First, the American church must recover a renewed confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul expressed his conviction clearly in Romans 1:16: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes." Francis Schaeffer, commenting on this passage, said that "salvation has something to say not only to the individual man but also to the culture …. It is going to have the answers that men need … because it is the power of God unto salvation in every single area; it has answers for both eternity and now."
Second, a renewed confidence must not lead Americans to forget past mistakes. As many have noted, when Americans go overseas, they need to go with a spirit of humility and servanthood. This means being willing to partner with believers from other cultures. Let me hasten to say that cultural imperialism is not solely an American disease, but can also be seen at times among other Western missionaries, Koreans, Nigerians, Singaporeans, and Chinese. But Americans who are rich in education and finances and many types of expertise need to be reminded of this as much as anyone.
In a globalized world, the days of parochial thinking and action in missions are over. The task is far too big for any one group to manage on its own. The way forward has to be one of genuine Christian partnership between Western and non-Western churches, and between the rich and the poor, whether materially or spiritually.
An example from the 2010 Lausanne Congress: Many of the people who worked behind the scenes to make the Congress a success came from the States. I have heard complaints about Western and American dominance in the program. Having worked as a member of the Congress Management Team for over four years, I do not find those complaints justifiable. There was a determined effort to make Lausanne a truly global movement and to embrace leadership from the majority world—in spite of the fact that the bulk of funding came from the U.S. I cannot say that this is the attitude of all American funders. But this is one highly significant example, among others, that has demonstrated a maturity in vision and partnership.
The key question is, how can the vast resources of Western Christianity on the one hand, and the vitality and dynamism of non-Western Christianity on the other, become a powerful synergistic whole for world evangelization? As we ponder the possibility that the 21st century may indeed be, in the words of Pope John Paul II, the "great century" for the advance of the gospel, this may well be the most important and urgent issue on the global missions agenda today.
Hwa Yung is the bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia.
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Previous Christianity Today coverage of missions & ministry includes:
A New Kind of Pentecostal | It's no longer just about raising a hand to God. It's also about reaching out a hand to the needy. (August 3, 2011)
The Son and the Crescent | Bible translations that avoid the phrase "Son of God" are bearing dramatic fruit among Muslims. But that translation has some missionaries and scholars dismayed. (February 4, 2011)
For Many Missionaries, More Tech Means Shorter Furloughs | Constant connection keeps missionaries on the field, but has its costs. (December 30, 2010)
Youth with a Passion | In its first 50 years, YWAM has deployed four million workers in 240 countries. Now it sets its sights on 152 remaining unreached people groups. (December 8, 2010)
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