Editorially Speaking

More Missionary Myths: How The “Game” Is Played (The Conclusion)

The work in Kenya serves here as an example of both the good and the bad that is frequently involved in “missionary” work. First, the opportunities to preach and teach the gospel there are manifold. Because the opportunities that continually present themselves are so plentiful, a preacher can simply wear himself out preaching and teaching the gospel. Frankly, I’ve never felt more like a genuine gospel preacher than when in Kenya—planting and watering churches, watching and interacting with those struggling with the demands the gospel places on them personally and the judgment it brings against their culture. The joy and satisfaction of seeing brothers and sisters being molded and shaped into the image of Christ as they give themselves diligently to a study of God’s word has been a powerful learning and growing experience for me personally. I thank God for the opportunity to have been involved in the work there from the very beginning and for the opportunity to be involved with so many in their walk of faith. I believe and continue to pray that the work there will stand the test of time and continue to bring glory to Christ not just there in Kenya, as it has done over the last 14 years, but in the many other parts of Africa where the pure, unadulterated gospel has not yet penetrated. There is so much work to be done in Africa and other parts of the world, just as there is back here in the United States, and we need to be about doing it. But there’s, yet, another side to this story.

It has been shocking to me that there are those, both here at home and there in Kenya, who stand ready to “make merchandise” of their brothers and sisters in Christ for some sort of “gain.” This “gain” for Kenyans has mostly been some form of material remuneration. On the other hand, missionary “success” seems to be the predominant temptation for “gain” experienced by an American preacher. Preachers, like everyone else, want to be “successful.” As was noted in earlier articles, “success” is judged by how many of the natives have been baptized, how many churches have been established, and how many of the native men have been recruited to preach. If these numbers aren’t initially impressive, or at least steadily improving, then the missionary’s work will not be considered to be very much of a success. Knowing this, there is the observable, all too frequently documented tendency, on the part of more than a few missionaries, if you’re inclined to paying attention, to accentuate the positive and never—I mean never—mention the negative. Such “reports” may not be an accurate description of how the work is going in the various foreign fields—in fact, such may be a gross distortion of the way things really are; but even so, this is the way the “game” is often played.

So, unable to invest the time to actually live in the target culture, many American preachers know very little of the culture in which they find themselves temporarily engulfed. Yes, some have been going to a particular foreign country for many years and have gotten to know the culture quite well, but when you ask them, they will tell you that it would have been much, much better for them to have actually lived in the target culture for a while. What’s my point? That only a missionary who lives in the target culture is worth his salt? No! Many good men make short missionary trips and do much good by doing so. Even so, when being candid, they will tell you it would have been better to have spent more time living there.

Baptisms, Baptisms, Baptisms

For gospel preachers doing work in a foreign country, particularly on a short trip, the one question he is apt to be asked more than any other upon his return home is, “How many baptisms did you have?” The more one can report, the more “successful” the trip will be thought. At the same time, the missionary experiencing a lot of baptisms on his preaching trip will hardly be able to contain his excitement in reporting the news of his “success.” When asked how things went, he’ll blurt out, “We had x number of baptisms!” “Wow,” you say, “x number of baptisms—that’s GREAT!”

But suppose the baptisms are being staged? “What did you just say?,” you’re probably thinking to yourself. I said, suppose the number of baptisms being reported are being staged. For example, over a period of several “successful” years of foreign work, some preachers began to question why the number of baptisms being reported when the foreign evangelists were not in the country were very few or even non-existent. It was eventually learned that the “baptisms” were being “saved up” so they could take place when the foreign evangelists were in the country. This way, it was “reasoned,” the foreign evangelist would be happy because he would have many baptisms to report as a result of his efforts, as “many baptisms” equate with a very successful trip and, in turn, he would be able to raise the money necessary to make another trip in the future. At the same time, the natives who were able to facilitate these “successful” preaching campaigns for the foreign evangelists were highly esteemed by them for their “work’s sake.” This meant these native preachers would be getting support from the States, arranged through the missionaries, so they could work nurturing these “new” converts, even though this may have been the second, third or fourth time some of these people were actually “converted.”

Why have scams like this been so successful? Because, the natives, although poverty stricken and deprived, aren’t stupid. They quickly learn how the missionary “game” is played, reaping the benefits of the “support” that flows from the States as soon as the money “pipeline” is in place. From then on, the goal will be to make the American missionaries’ work look successful, for when that is done, the native “preachers” continue to reap the monetary benefits of the material “pipeline.”

Sweeping It All Under The Rug

“How terrible,” you say, and you are absolutely right. That such scams have occurred have turned many folks off to a particular foreign work, causing some to claim that their money (actually, the Lord’s money) would be better spent somewhere else or even back home. Fearful of such sentiment, too many missionaries either deny that such shenanigans go on (that is, they hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil) or else try to sweep such scandals under the proverbial rug, if you will. And for “good” reason, they think, for if word gets out about these things, then the “support” pipeline will be cut to that particular foreign country, which effects not just the native preachers involved, but the American missionaries themselves, as well.

Now, please don’t think I am trying to justify any of this. I’m not. It makes me ill to even think and write about it, for it is an absolute shame and disgrace. Nevertheless, such is part of the reality of doing missionary work, particularly in so-called “third-world” countries, and the sooner American Christians become aware of it, the better they will be at avoiding the pitfalls associated with it.

Do Not Lay Hands On Anyone Hastily

In 1 Timothy 5:22, there is a principle that Paul laid down for Timothy that is broader, I think, than just the ordination of elders, and this is that one must not act hastily in deciding who it is that will do those works prescribed by God in His word. This will cover, then, not just elders, but deacons, teachers, evangelists/missionaries, et cetera. As we specifically apply this principle to foreign work, there are currently many opportunities for individuals and congregations to “get involved.” A letter is received from a preacher trying to raise support to travel to a particular country to preach/evangelize. Because the individual or congregation wants to be involved in such efforts, they decide to send some money. The preacher sends a letter thanking them for their support and tells them that he will send them a report informing them how everything went when he returns.

Unfortunately, this is the level of involvement of too many supporters. Therefore, whatever they will know about the work will be provided to them by the preacher/evangelist/missionary when he returns from his foreign work. The expectation is that he will have “good news” to report when he returns, and this is only natural. But it is exactly such expectations that can put pressure on a preacher to accentuate the positive and deemphasize or bury the negative. After all, no one likes to have a bad taste in his mouth, and he may think that folks don’t need to know everything, particularly those things that won’t set well for the future of the work.

Thus, it is critical for the supporter(s) to “know” the preacher giving them the report. Is he the kind of fellow who will tell it like it is, or will he, for the “good” of the “cause,” hedge on his information? What do such Christians usually know about the missionary? Unfortunately, not very much. After all, the contact came through the mail. But you may be thinking, “he’s a gospel preacher, for crying out loud, and if you can’t trust a gospel preacher, then who can you trust?” Well, that depends. In one sense, we are to trust everyone, believing everything (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:7). In another sense, only God can really be trusted to tell us the truth and do what is best for us. And why is this? Because every man is susceptible to lying and unfaithfulness (cf. Romans 3:4). So, what’s the remedy? Only this: trust, but verify!

Providing Things Honest

In Romans 12:17b, Paul tells Christians to “Provide things honest in the sight of all men” (KJV). The word translated “provide” is rendered “take thought” in the ASV, “give thought” in the ESV, and “focus your thoughts” in the ISV. The word translated “honest” here deals with those things that are honorable, virtuous, and right. Thus, there is reason to suspect that a preacher, receiving support from an individual or local church while doing evangelism in another city, state, or country, who always reports rosy scenarios is more than likely not being completely forthcoming (i.e., honest). This is sometimes verified when, after sending nothing but encouraging reports, a preacher writes to say he has moved to another location because the last bunch were not the kind of Christians they ought to have been. What really happened? Probably a lot more than the folks back home are being told by such a self-serving evangelist.

So, What’s The Remedy?

What’s the remedy for such “goings on”? Those who support the preaching of the gospel must know, as best they can, the individual they are supporting. This will require that those who support (whether an individual or church) to do their “homework.” Of course, knowing the preacher personally is certainly a plus. If he has proven himself faithful, consistently treating the trust placed in him by his fellow Christians seriously, then there is confidence he will provide things honest in the sight of all men, especially when it comes to the work he will be doing in a far away country without any, or very little, oversight. Actually, some preachers like foreign evangelism/missionary work for this very reason (namely, no oversight or accountability), which would, if known, make one leery of such men. I’m sorry to say that some gospel preachers have gone into foreign work and built their own little fiefdoms, surrounding themselves with their own unique entourage of sycophants—the “yes” men who constantly stroke their egos by telling them they are the best, the greatest, the most eloquent preachers and teachers of God’s word since Apollos and the apostle Paul.

So, do you know the preacher personally? If not, then every effort must be made to find out just what kind of preacher you are supporting. In commending Timothy to the Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote:

For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus. But you know his proven character, that as a son with his father he served with me in the gospel (Philippians 2:20).

Think about it! This is the apostle Paul and he had no one else like-minded who would put the cause of Christ before his own self-seeking. Obviously, good help, even for the great apostle to the Gentiles, was (and remains) hard to find. But, praise God, it is “findable.” Why? Because unselfish service has a track record. Therefore, if you don’t know the preacher personally, recognizing from your own experience with him that he has the bona fides for the job, then spend the time and effort to find out something about him from others. Ask around (i.e., investigate) until you find those who can verify his sincerity and integrity. Any preacher who is not a novice will have a very traceable record that, when viewed, will tell you what kind of preacher he is and, more importantly, what kind of man he is. If the track record isn’t good, forget it! Furthermore, if no one is willing to be candid with you (remember, others are not always what they are supposed to be either) and you are still inclined toward supporting him and the work he is wanting to undertake, keep digging until you get his story, for it is only after you’ve done this that you’re in a position to prudently commit, or not, your support to him and the work being proposed.

Having Made The Commitment, Stick With It

Having taken the time to do your “due diligence,” you know the preacher/missionary you’ve decided to have fellowship with is trustworthy, willing to put the cause of Christ above his own self-interests. Such men are truly a rare breed today, even as they were in Paul’s day. Thus, by the time you have made the decision to commit your support, you know plenty about the missionary and the work he has committed himself to undertake. During the process, not only have you gotten to know him and his work, but he has gotten to know you, as well. He knows that you have not entered into this endeavor all starry-eyed, thinking everything will always be just peachy—the kind of thinking that permits only the great things (i.e., the “successful” things) to be reported from the pulpit and only the glowing (i.e., the “successful”) reports to be tacked onto the bulletin board. If during the process you have made the effort to communicate your realistic, Bible-based view about evangelism, whether foreign or domestic, the missionary will have come to understand that you will not tolerate him padding the books, but expect to hear from him both the good and the bad.

Again, I’m not trying to make excuses for an evangelist failing to give an accurate accounting of how things are going, in that moral integrity demands that he do so. But I do want you to think about the difficulty of being in a foreign country with everything (and I mean everything) on the line, so to speak, and to have to worry about whether some individual or congregation is going to pull support because they think the work is not “successful” enough—namely, it seems to have too many problems. That some preachers have been left high and dry because of such thinking is well-known by those who know these kinds of things. Thus, the support of foreign evangelism is not some trifling matter to be engaged in so elders or churches can “brag” about how many foreign preachers and missionaries they are supporting. On the contrary, this is very serious business! Therefore, when you commit to the preaching of the gospel in far away places, you are obligated to be informed and realistic about it, knowing that the particular missionaries involved are putting it all on the line for the cause of Christ.

This means that, as his financial partner, you must never give the missionary any reason to think he must “pad the books” in order to keep his support coming. But because this is too often the way the “game is played,” it is a fact that the petri dish of abuses in foreign evangelism—some of which have been mentioned in this series—has been grown and cultured by a lack of integrity on both sides of the evangelism equation—I’m speaking here of those doing the supporting, as well as those being supported.

Remember, Man-Made Remedies Are Never The Solution

It is for these very reasons—namely, integrity and accountability—that our institutional brethren have created the “sponsoring church” arrangement, where particular “works” or countries are “overseen” by a group of elders somewhere back in the States who decide who the missionaries will be, where they will go, how they will be prepared for the work, how long they will stay, how much they’ll be supported, and what they’ll specifically do while in the target culture, et cetera, et cetera. Of course, man’s way and God’s way always conflict. Consequently, no matter the abuses it attempts to remedy, the sponsoring church arrangement is not authorized in God’s word, neither does it cut down on the actual abuses. In fact, from my observation, such efforts may, in fact, intensify the abuse. What’s the remedy, then? Simply this: Trust God and implement His plan! When this is done, preachers who are not what they are supposed to be here in the States are not going to be financially backed to inflict their problems on converts in other cultures and, at the same time, those in these other cultures are not going to be encouraged to “play the game.” Therefore, with God’s help, let us, to the very best of our abilities, be determined to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” in these matters (Mark 10:16).

Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together (John 5:35b-36).

Allan Turner
All editorials are written by Allan Turner. You can contact him at allan@allanturner.com

Return To Front Page