This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
Some Misguided Reflections
Hudson Taylor, the nineteenth-century missionary to China, died on June 3, 1905. He was a model of gospel devotion and personal sacrifice. He was bold, driven, gospel-focused and persevering. Yet at times he was also perceived as autocratic, impulsive, distracted, and harsh—a reminder that even once redeemed we are still imperfect, all of us. Still, his perseverance and faithfulness have had a huge impact on evangelical mission for the past century. So it should come as no surprise that several myths about missions have been fueled, at least in part, by misguided reflections on Hudson Taylor’s own complex and remarkable life as a young, ambitions, culturally contextualized, gifted, and independent missionary. So here are five myths about missions to consider and, I hope, reconsider.
Myth #1: Missions is only for the young.
Hudson Taylor sailed for China at the age of twenty-one. While that might be a bit young to many, I feel safe asserting that most Westerners today think that eager young people make the best missionaries. If not twenty-one years old, at least the twenties or thirties are the best years to go to the nations. After all, older people are too set in their ways. They aren’t flexible. And they want to spend time golfing or spoiling grandkids and then be in bed by 9:30 p.m.
The main problem with this myth is that it’s a myth. Yes, inflexible, self-focused people don’t make very good missionaries. I’ve met some missionaries in their forties and sixties that are sadly like that, and I’ve met many in their twenties and thirties that are similarly unqualified.
The question is not age, but what makes a good missionary in a person of any age. Maturity, humility, deep Bible knowledge, discipling experience, stability, proven perseverance, demonstrated teaching gifts, willingness to sacrifice and lots of wisdom. Who does that sound like to you? Yes, there are young people who may have these qualities or will grow into them over time. Praise God for them! I just want to point out that there are also some wise, seasoned older saints who have these qualities, too.
It’s been my experience that if we encourage and help these mature saints to be sent out with the gospel to hard places, the fruit can be astounding. And in many of the same nations that are expelling younger missionaries, there are special incentive programs to encourage older people to come live (and spend their money) in those nations. Malaysia’s “Malaysia My Second Home” program to attract immigrants over 50+ is just one example. Without discouraging any younger saints, just keep in mind that seasoned, senior saints have a lot to offer, too. And as the world changes and visas are harder to get for young people, a little grey hair (or lack of hair) may be just the ticket to long-term visas and missionary opportunities. Missions aren’t only for the young!
Myth #2: The goal of our missions is a movement.
Most missionaries long to impact a nation like Hudson Taylor did China, but that good ambition can morph into the myth that we should specifically aim for a massive people-group movement, nothing less. By this I mean we can start to expect our missionary methods to result in a fast-moving, exponential spread of the gospel—often with a concurrent tendency to discard any methods that don’t promise this kind of rapid fruit.
Movement talk seems to be everywhere in missions today. People advocate for Church Planting Movements (CPM) defined as “a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.”1 and Disciple Making Movements (DMM) where the local church is largely discarded altogether and replaced by self-led bible study groups that teach members to recruit and form other Bible study groups so that “eventually, each group member will go out and start their own group, then each of those members will start their own groups, and the cycle continues, multiplying the number of disciples exponentially.”2
At times, it all sounds more like network marketing than biblical Christianity. But is missions really just an effort to recruit more and more people who recruit more and more people until Jesus returns to bless the pyramid?
I realize few would describe their work so brazenly. But I think a large part of missionaries sent out from Western countries today would say that their main aim is to catalyze a mass people-group movement of one sort or another. By and large, these movement missionaries are good people. They love Jesus and are busy, committed workers. They really think aiming specifically at mass movements is the best way to “finish the task” of the Great Commission. They are also among the most disillusioned, discouraged, beaten-down, and burned-out missionaries I’ve ever encountered. It’s not hard to see why.
They have bought into a myth and hung their hopes and expectations squarely on something that God explicitly says is not theirs to manage and control: the rate and size of the harvest (1 Corinthians 3:6). The problem is Matthew 28:18 doesn’t say “Go into all the world and catalyze mass people-group movements, teaching them to train other trainers with simple replicable strategies, and lo I am with you always, until the spontaneous and exponential growth of the movement sweeps through the people group and ushers in the end of the age.”
Instead, we are commanded to transform the world by the more humble and simple work of faithfully and patiently making disciples. And by teaching those disciples, in the context of local churches, to become fully mature followers of Christ. (Matt. 28:18–20; Heb. 10:24–25). I get that this doesn’t have the glamor of talking about a mass movement.
But where in God’s Word are we told to only aim for inventing the next Google or Facebook? We are simply told to do the work of the ministry as God’s described it and leave the outcome to him. Then, even when we sleep, we trust that he is at work to bring the harvest at his appointed time (Mark 4:26–29). Make no mistake, that kind of patient faithfulness is not easy. It often challenges our trust and mortifies our fleshly ambitions. Missions in Scripture is hard, generally slow work. It takes great patience and requires careful Bible teaching (2 Tim. 4:1–2). One writer has described real biblical missions as “blistering,gospel hoe-work.” But the fruit, when it does come, is actually real, and lasting, and breathtakingly beautiful. And because it’s seen to be God’s work that brings the harvest, not our cool catalytic methods, he gets all the glory.
Myth #3: Contextualizing the message is the key.
Contextualization is another area where the life of Hudson Taylor is sometimes used as an argument for things I doubt he would support. In this case, the myth is that contextualizing the gospel message is the key for global missionary advance. It’s true that Hudson Taylor advocated contextualization, of a sort. He learned the language, adopted Chinese dress, learned their literature and modeled many cultural norms at a time other missionaries did few of these. And it’s true that what he did was both controversial and fruitful. But here is the kicker. Taylor’s contextualization was about culture, not theology.
Missionaries need to excel but in the gloriously ordinary fruits of maturity and Christian faithfulness.
As others have noted, behind his ponytail and Chinese robe, through his Chinese speech and cultural allusions, he preached the same, often-offensive, biblical message that all other faithful missionaries preached. His contextualization was for the sake of clarity, not for his listener’s comfort, and the offense he wanted to avoid was needless cultural offense, while proudly embracing the offense of the cross.
Taylor understood, I think, that the key was gospel clarity. That seems to me a pretty far cry from the attempts to contextualize the gospel message or other biblical teachings that some advocate today. Certainly, we want to speak in a manner that people can understand and we want to avoid offending them with our manners long before we get to the gospel. But we should never find ourselves trying to smooth out the rough edges of the gospel–downplaying sin, avoiding talk of repentance, side-stepping Jesus as God’s divine Son, reshaping the church, or baptism, or substitution language all to fit cultural tastes. This turns our need for contextualization into full-blown compromise. Much wisdom and counsel is needed!
At the end of the day, we need to resist the error of thinking that we can ever repackage Christianity in such a way that it’s at home in any fallen culture. Contextualization is not the key. That’s a myth. Faithful and clear proclamation of the gospel from God’s Word is the key and with it the gathering of saints into local churches. That is the only key, everywhere and in every culture, and it always will be.
Myth #4: Missions is only for super-Christians.
Off all the myths about missions, this may be the most well-intentioned one. But despite the extraordinary gifts of a few missionary heroes, like Hudson Taylor, the fact remains that missions is not only for super-Christians. Yes, I agree that we should have high standards for those we’d send as missionaries.
As I look at the pages of the New Testament, I see people with deep theological knowledge and proven histories of faithful fruitfulness being sent: Paul, Barnabas, etc. Yes, there’s a place for the eager and inexperienced too: John Mark, for example. But the overall pattern in the Bible is to send our best people to lead out in missions.
Yet, with that said, it doesn’t mean that the mission needs extraordinary skills, rather we should send men and women who stand out for their ordinary maturity and faithfulness. In my role as a local church pastor, I encounter this confusion often. A church member comes to talk to me about what it takes to prepare to be a missionary. I think they generally expect me to list a lot of unusual things. But what I almost always tell them is this: Study the Bible and labor hard to be an especially faithful church member.
I want our church to send out men and women who stand out in seemingly ordinary things like biblical knowledge, wisdom and discernment, diverse relationships, intentional hospitality, evangelistic initiative, church faithfulness and discipling perseverance and fruit. Give me someone like that—with a few other things tossed in like the ability to learn another language—and that ordinary Christian life transplanted to another culture can yield a rich harvest of gospel fruit. Missionaries need to excel but in the gloriously ordinary fruits of maturity and Christian faithfulness.
Myth #5: The local church just pays and prays for missions.
Finally, I’m surprised how often I encounter churches, missionaries, and sending agencies that seem to believe that local churches are only responsible to fund and pray for missionaries, but that the real work of missions is for others. Perhaps the fruit of largely independent missionaries, like Hudson Taylor, has fueled that misunderstanding. But that, too, is simply a myth. Scripture is clear. It is not merely through individuals or mission organizations, but through “the church” that the sin-confounding power and wisdom of God’s gospel plan will be seen by the whole universe (Ephesians 3:10).
The local church is, in a sense, both the means and the end of missions. It is the Bible’s only plan and method for worldwide gospel expansion and the result for which our missionary efforts aim. Yes, prayer for missions is the church’s joy and duty (Eph. 6:19, Col. 4:3) and support for church-sent missionaries is its privilege and responsibility (3 John 6–8). And yet, there is still much more.
The local church is the primary missionary trainer, equipper, and pastoral supporter. Certainly, it can be good to have someone organize church support for missionaries and to assist them—that’s what good sending organizations do. But we should never delegate away the discipling, discerning, sending and supporting role of the local church. And we should never forget that the end vision of most missionary efforts should be establishing more healthy local churches that plant other healthy churches until Christ returns.
There are a lot of myths that have grown up about missions. Some of them are probably fueled by an admirable, if misguided, sense of humility or urgency. Others seem to merely reflect our Western addiction to anything that promises to be faster, bigger, easier, or cheaper. But each one, if left uncorrected, will likely tend toward a weakening of biblical missionary labor and a reliance on our own wisdom and methods. May God clear our minds, dispel our cherished myths, and renew our biblical vision through the clarity of his word. And may we work to rely on God’s wisdom, not our clever strategies, going forward. Put another way, we should all remember:
God uses men who are weak and feeble enough to lean on him. —J. Hudson Taylor