Beginnings of a Theory
In the spring of 2000, after an 8-year hiatus, I was taking classes again. It was a long, long time since I had written a paper for college. Shannon was pregnant with Kate, we had just moved to Chicagoland in winter (adios, Texas) and I was in a class on the basic history of missionary work. Of course, the problem was that my research and accumulation skills were completely out of shape from long disuse. My first paper for Dr. Robert Gallagher was on the missionary strategy of Patrick of Ireland. When the day came to get our papers back, Dr. Gallagher kindly called me aside and asked how long it had been since I wrote a paper! I fearfully looked down and saw a mass of markups on every page; the whole thing was useless…I had to start completely over. But, he kindly guided me to learn how to both study as a good historian AND as a mission practitioner. Between his classes and Dr. Mark Noll’s history classes, I learned to start looking for repeated patterns of mission outreach that were displayed in different contexts but were founded on the same principles. As I studied history (and have continued to do so since), there were some key things I learned to watch for:
- Ministry principles that were consistently present in many different cultures and contexts that were fundamental and transferable (what were the basics, everywhere).
- Conditions that developed health for the nature of the planting of churches, the societal impact of established ministries, and the long-term, replicating effects of those projects (what did they do to make sure their work actually helped people).
- The clear, long-lasting results that developed from these kinds of ministries long after their founders went to heaven (how long did this last after they died).
Armed with these ideas in my mind, I saw amazing similarities that were present in many ministries. But when I thought of which of these I would share, these three jumped out! They are a terrific example of everything I was studying.
The early Celtic Christians had their real start with St. Patrick¹ in the mid 400s. Patrick was captured as a slave by Irish raiders as a teenager and was forced to learn their language and social structure as a young man. After his miraculous escape, he returned in his middle age to be a missionary/evangelist to the Irish people. It is estimated that personally he baptized around 100,000 people, started 700 churches and trained (and ordained) 1,000 priests! And, after Patrick, those Irish Christians spread the word about Jesus all over their known world.
Two Celtic monks, Columba and Columban, helped establish mission work in Scotland, Gaul (France), Germany, and England. For almost 300 years the primary force of mission work in Northern Europe was the Celtic Christians! In one instance, a monastery planted in Germany in 610 became the intellectual center of Germany for the next 300 years! Stories of healings, mass baptisms and, understandably, terrible sufferings of the Celtic missionaries are amazing testimonies to what the Celts did to establish a long-lived and powerful ministry. But what was it that was so special? We’ll get to that.
The Moravians (a cultural area in the south of Germany and the north of the modern Czech Republic) as a church movement were launched in the early 1700s by a young nobleman named Count Nicholas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf. After a powerful call on his life at the age of 19, he allowed refugee Christians (a group of people who followed the teaching of Jan Hus –martyred in 1415) to settle on his estate at Hernnhut. He himself was deeply influenced by the powerful Pietist professor, August Francke at the University of Halle. As their community grew due to an influx of other Christian refugees, they developed their own worship style and their own training programs for leaders. Thus they had deep influences from both the Pietist tradition (especially noting their early missionary efforts in India with Ziegenbalg and Plutchau) as well as the salt-of-the-earth passion of Jan Hus in their DNA.
One of the things that marked them for my purposes was the fact that they were the first Protestants to send missionaries from Europe to the West Indies. Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann sold themselves into slavery in order to reach the slave laborers on the plantations in the West Indies. One of the most important things they did was a 24//7 prayer chain that lasted over 100 years! They were deeply influential for John Wesley and many, many others in their efforts around the world. But what brought about this amazing ministry? Almost there…
China Inland Mission
China Inland Mission (CIM) was started by J. Hudson Taylor. Enough is written about him that I can be brief. He established CIM in 1872 and he turned it into a powerhouse mission that recruited and influence a staggering amount of people worldwide. Not only were there over 100,000 Chinese converts at the end of his life but his organization (now titled OMF) is still a major mission force today!
During my time at Wheaton and as a professor, the connections to CIM/OMF are so many, complicated and impressive it just starts to feel overwhelming! Amy Carmichael, George Mueller, J. Oswald Sanders are just a few of the many, many other missionaries changed by CIM. Add to that the Chinese and Asian Christian leaders that CIM/OMF have developed and it get nearly impossible to count.
So what was it about these three that are similar? It’s easy to pick apart the differences and spot theological challenges, cultural mistakes and unintended consequences for all three of these. In spite of their mistakes, all three of these ministries met every one of my criteria for determining strategies for ministry. As I tracked through all the research, here are the things that stood out!
- An intentional passion for spiritual practices–both privately and corporately. All of these groups had a laser-like focus on the source of their work. They believed the Holy Spirit would work in their lives, but they also believed that they themselves had to work on being connected to God. Prayer times, Bible memorization, the meditation on the Word and worship were things these people did alone, together, often and repeatedly. I recognize the problem of confusing correlation to causality but it cannot be missed that the long-term of ministry is deeply affected by these practices.
- Contextualizing ministry models to the new culture. Hudon Taylor wore Chinese clothes, the Celts used the mystical imagery of the tribes and the Moravians developed a tent-maker support model that fit their era. At some point, they all developed worship experiences and Bible teaching that fit the issues and language of their context, but they did not start here… they started with the basics and adapted them to the new environment where they found themselves.
- Leadership Training. It is amazing to see the different ways these groups handled this. The CIM people were sent out, untried and untested in many ways. It was a sink-or-swim model at a deep level. But, they also focused on training character, learning about depending on the Holy Spirit and focusing on language learning. The Celts used monasteries and had rigorous training/ordination processes set up. The Moravians used an informal, egalitarian prayer/voting system to identify and raise up leaders. Very different in every way. But the principle of finding and developing leaders was present in all three ministries.
- Leadership Pain². All three of these groups knew that to go and serve the Lord with this kind of ministry would include pain. Hudson Taylor’s tragic family deaths, the persecution (and martyrdom) of so many Celtic missionaries, the derision and humiliation faced by the Moravians in Europe– all of these are part and parcel of what happens when we decide to help bring the Kingdom of God into an area of the world where it is not present. EVERYONE involved with these movements learned that to their own pain.
So then, how does this affect our discussion about “you’re doing it wrong?” From my perspective, it reveals something that everyone acknowledges with their mind and emotional consent but is seldom taught or believed as the right process. One of the things I’ve seen as a consultant over the last few years is the tendency to ignore these things as “common sense” rather than strategic.
Recently I was coaching a cohort of leaders who were spending a day with a pastor of a large church in Las Vegas NV. Instead of teaching us their “how-to” for their programming (nothing wrong with that), he was just quietly talking about his 20+ years of ministry. The FIRST thing he started with (and the thing he talked the most about) was being purposeful about developing your character for sustainability over a lifetime. That means stuff like a vibrant, intentional prayer life and sabbath. He also said that the only way that churches will survive is radical attempts for leadership development. He went into detail about the pain that he and his family have had in leadership. And, to top it off, they spent a lot of time describing how they have moved their ministry model to fit only their, unique cultural pocket of America.
After the presentation, he and I sat and talked about how they were focused on these things rather than on what was a “quick-fix” approach. His line of thought could easily be summed us as “there’s no margin for the easy way… it’s this or failure.”
My contention is not that any of this is new. But it’s often overlooked because it is simple. And, more importantly, to work on these issues tends to both painful and demands our best. Sometimes I just feel too tired and hurt to want to work below the waterline.³ I suspect many of us feel the same way. But both history and my own experience keep reminding me that when I engage in these things with passion, God uses the fundamentals to keep moving things in His way, at His time–and that gives me great joy. I am trying to work on all four of these in new ways and I genuinely thank you for any prayers you offer for me. The resistance is real.
What about you? Are there ways you can put more of the fundamentals into your work? How can I pray for you? I can’t wait to see what God does with you!
Next time: Cultural Norms and how to determine what’s needed… hope to hear from you!
¹For some great reading about Patrick and Celtic Mission outreach, try Phillip Freeman’s short but readable biography of Patrick. Also, Mark Terry and Robert Gallagher have a great chapter on Celtic Missions in their book Encountering The History of Missions (Baker). I think it’s extremely helpful. For other quick resources on these mission stories I recommend:
- J. Hudson Taylor: A Man in Christ by Roger Steer
- Kenneth Scott Latourrette’s massive History of Christianity
- Stephen Neill’s A History of Christian Missions
- And many, many more. All you history nerds ask me in the comments for more sources…
²Leadership Pain by Sam Chand is a terrific book… Here I am using his term as a general understanding that to lead means that you’ll experience pain… the more you lead, the worse it gets!
³Gordon MacDonald’s book on this is outstanding! Thanks to Nick Parsons for the recommendation!