Can Anything Good Come Out of America?

When I read this third book, The New Global Mission by Samuel Escobar, I repeatedly felt like asking, Can anything good come out of America? It seemed Escobar’s answer was a repeated and clear, No. 

OK, I understand that the center of Christianity’s power has shifted away from Europe and the United States and has moved toward China, Africa and Latin America. Western culture has proven itself  increasingly stubborn in resisting the gospel, but the church in China, Africa and Latin America is the spawning bed of innovators and disciple-makers in the third millennium. And I also understand that the Christian church is facing a world that is largely post-modern and post-Christian, leading to an erosion of Christian influence on the forces that shape culture. Christians, particularly those rooted in Europe and the U.S., frequently struggle toward effective missions ministry as they face the new reality.

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So says the theologian Escobar, who is a native of Peru and is president emeritus of the Latin American Theological Fraternity. Escobar reflects on the implications of the new global reality and offers insights into how the church should take advantage of  the shift as it evangelizes in the third millennium. He details on-going struggles for influence, focusing on Western missionaries who are finding it difficult to respond to the massive change. Escobar argues that the ways of missionaries and evangelists from Europe and North America often are rooted in cultural habits and preferences rather than in biblical requirements for conversion and spiritual growth. There must be a distinction, Escobar argues, between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the American way of life.

Today, Escobar says, missionaries and evangelists from the West are engaged in a not-so-subtle struggle for influence with the church in China, Africa and Latin America. Missionaries and church leaders from the West seem unable or unwilling to come to grips with the new realities. The new reality: disciples of Christ outside the boundaries of Europe and the U.S. have immense and growing influence over the missionary methods of the Christian church. At the same time, however, Western managers of those missionaries often measure success solely based upon numbers of conversions. Says Escobar: They (missionaries) have to produce a certain number of churches or conversions within a given time limit, and if they don’t, their failure is considered a sign of inefficiency, lack of faith or poor spirituality. This places intolerable burdens on them . . .    

This criticism may be valid. However, equally valid is the flip-side of the argument. The flip-side says that missionaries must have some accountability for the stewardship of their work. Accountability for one’s work is not a European or American concept. It is a biblical concept. Without it, because human nature is corrupt, it is easy to fall into a standard that fails to hold missionaries to any standard of accountability for the fruit of their work.

Unfortunately, as I heard one senior pastor say in an elder meeting, Missionaries line up a bunch of natives against a wall, shoot a photograph and say, ‘Look at the fruit of my work! Isn’t it great!’ Where’s their accountability for our investment in missions?!

The pastor’s comment, despite its sarcastic bite, reflected a legitimate concern. Yet Escobar mentions nothing of a concern for assessing fruitful ministry. There is no way of knowing whether he is oblivious to the concern or simply is not interested. Escobar frequently repeats his refrain against what he calls the dominant current paradigm for mission (a.k.a. the Western way) that pushes missions as an efficient machine. Spiritual formation is neglected because it does not easily fit the assembly-line paradigm. The factory paradigm encourages missionaries to set objectives for mere outward behavior. It is primarily interested in quantities.

Yes, character and commitment built through spiritual formation are key markings of genuine conversion, but Escobar ignores the reality that the Scriptures also commend other measurable types of ministry fruit. Genuine fruit is a product of an authentic life based upon a commitment to integrity. While Escobar argues against measuring ministry success by quantity, he also argues for measuring success by quality. Really, both are measuring sticks. Escobar values quality over quantity, and who will argue against that? But, truly, measuring quality requires a quantitative exercise of its own. (Some churches measure success solely by quantity. Measuring fruit by quantity always is a serious wrong. Healthy things may multiply, but not everything that multiplies is healthy, as in, for example, cancer cells or weapons of terror or financial debt or even numbers attending worship services.)

There is great error in measuring success primarily in terms of numeric growth, but there also is great error in pretending to measure nothing quantitatively. In any mission, it is encouraging to know the number of children fed or the number of abused women served in court protection proceedings or the number of homeless people placed in shelters or even the number of people who confessed conversion to Christ. It’s simply encouraging to those who work in and support the ministry. But it seems that Escobar sees none of it, except the qualitative factor which, as I said, actually includes significant quantitative elements.

Escobar endorses the argument that, because African culture does not ordinarily focus on individuals, missionary evangelists must aim their work at families and groups of people. This argument ignores the reality that the Bible fundamentally calls for an individual decision for or against Christ. It is true, of course, that the Philippian jailer’s family was saved and the argument for working in families and groups of people is understood as biblical. However, more to the core of the issue of conversion is the individual decision for or against Christ. This is not a Western concept or a Western cultural preference. It is a biblical mandate—as in, for example, Matthew 10:32-39—so that even if father or mother or son or daughter opposes a person’s conversion, that person is responsible to make the decision and will be held accountable for that decision.

Escobar also falls into a related trap when he levels yet another criticism of Western missionaries. He cites the example of an American-trained medical doctor who had to unlearn some of the things he learned about human nature in his American education and needed to learn new perspectives from Africans. Without denying that new perspectives can be useful, unlearning what was learned in America fails to acknowledge that there is good to be gleaned in any culture and tradition, even the sort taught in an American medical school. Or, are we really expected to answer, No, to the jaded question, Can anything good come out of America?