Preparing missionaries for global challenges: Sills discusses the church’s unchanging mission
EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, M. David Sills, A. P. and Faye Stone Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book, Changing World, Unchanging Mission, with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: How you find time to write a book when you’re constantly traveling around the world?
DS: Well, that’s a good question. My writing tends to grow out of my traveling, things that I recognize, patterns I see, experiences I have, as I do conferences and teach classes.
This most recent one, kind of similar thing: I noticed traveling around the world, both what I was seeing on the field but also in a lot of the airports’ trade journals and business magazines from multinational corporations that would address how all the governments and big companies would have a research and development office. So they’re able to spot trends and they know, “Hey this is going to be happening in a few years here, and we anticipate this will be changing in the industry.” They’re able to be very proactive and try to beat the competition to the punch and seeing that more and more and that being a theme. I thought, Why don’t we do that as missionaries? We’re always behind in missions, it seems like, and we’re always running around putting out fires. We don’t have time to be proactive because we’re having to be so reactive.
The more I began to think about it, recent changes, say in the past decade or two, changes that are going on right now, every day we wake up in a new development of it and the trends we see coming. I basically divided those up into the chapters of this most recent book, that’s kind of how it came about, and that also speaks to the title of the book. But primarily I do my thinking when I’m traveling, sometimes I’ll do outlining, rarely do I write on the plane — that’s not my favorite thing, with people sitting there watching you write over your shoulder — but I do a lot of my processing the argument while I travel.
CS: Can you elaborate on the dynamic of globalization and its challenges?
DS: The problem is a couple of years ago the UN told us — the world — that we were more urban than rural for the first time in the history of the planet. And the challenge for missions is that we have always been bad in the cities in comparison to what we’ve done in rural areas. For instance, I go into some community I’ve got one language to learn, one kind of food to get used to, one set of gatekeepers to meet and build relationships with. I know life here. And now I’ve found a way to share the gospel here. When you go to a place that’s a big city — just say New York — in Manhattan they speak 800 languages every day, and I’m in this big city block and I’ve got people here from Italy, China, Brazil, Ecuador, Austria, and Thailand all in this block and many, many more in this block, people as well. So I’m just saying it’s a multilevel maze, filled with trap doors. You think you’ve got it figured out, and so you’re a church planter there in that city, and you’re trying to reach the people in this neighborhood; how in the world do you do that?
Missions needs to keep that in mind, the globalization of the world, because we’re not just coming to the U.S. as an immigrant— I’m coming to the U.S. and I bring my worldview with me. So if I’m an oral culture person from North Africa, and I come here from Sudan, I not only bring my Sudanese passport, I bring my whole culture, my language, I bring my religious worldview, which is going to be a folk Islam kind of thing, I bring my harsh views against women perhaps in some Middle Eastern countries.
Globalization just means you have people from all over those different ends of the continuum all in one city block, and you as a missionary have to know how you can reach and teach and plant churches in the major urban centers of the world. And it’s a challenge, and I think that we have not reckoned with the fact that we can’t do missions like we’ve always done out in the countryside when we go to the big cities. Things are going to have to start changing for that.
CS: Do the benefits of technology on the mission field outweigh the potential hindrances for the missionaries themselves?
DS: I think the benefits far outweigh the danger and the hindrances as long as we’re aware of what the challenges might be. On the one hand, we’re not plugging in because we’re connected by this 3,000-mile umbilical cord of technology to the old place. And now when you go in for a visa, and the visa office in that country searches your name, everything about you pops up. We’re in a world where technology helps but it also takes away any anonymity.
But when you factor in how you’re able to have an immediate need you couldn’t anticipate, you can write your prayer supporters right now and say, “I’ve got a meeting at 3, please be in prayer for me,” and prayer warriors around the world can go to their knees for you. Or if you have a financial need you didn’t anticipate. When we were on the field, making a phone call was so cost-prohibitive we couldn’t do it, and you’d be screaming over the static, and you’d get cut off halfway through the conversation. And if I wrote a letter to a family member or to our missions office at the IMB, the letter took two weeks to get there, and if they sat down and answered me right that minute, it took two weeks for the letter to get back to me. Anything could happen by the time they even got your letter. Now you’re a Vonage phone call away, or a text away, Facebook post away. So there’s great blessing, but we just have to be forewarned. That’s the main purpose of this book, helping people to think, helping missions agencies to think, “What kind of parameters are we going to put on our new missionaries?”
CS: You detail very carefully the challenges of ministering to oral learners. What’s the best way to think about that?
DS: The challenge of orality is figuring out, OK, how can we get redemptive narrative from creation to the cross inside their head in a way they can understand, remember, and retell? So in the very beginning what we do is we use techniques and methodologies of storying, just taking the major Bible stories that are pertinent to this culture especially. Everybody needs the basics of creation, where did sin come from, what does God think about sin, things like that, but then there are other aspects of Bible stories. Like, let’s say there’s a lot of animism and polytheism in your area, so I might make sure that I share the Baal contest on Mount Carmel with your people group so they understand that God won’t share his glory. But I’m really touching on the things because I’ve learned your culture enough to know this story.
And being oral culture people they have phenomenal memories. So they’re able to recall and retell these stories to others. There are three essential things that need to happen: It has to be understandable, it has to be memorable, and it has to be replicable. That is, any one of those three would be missing, your ministry stops with this one class, with this one preaching event, whatever it is. They can’t write down outlines, take them home, and stick them in their Bible or anything like that. If they forget something, it’s gone.
CS: What’s different about business as missions?
DS: Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, on average three countries a year close their doors to traditional missionaries. So we have to find creative ways to get into these countries. But creative access business as missions isn’t new, it’s trendy, but it’s as old as Paul, right, if Paul was a tentmaker and he earned his living in a certain season of his ministry doing that.
But there are different levels of tentmakers. In business as missions, you can go in and be a jobmaker, like somebody who is doing community development, or if I go over there I’m doing agricultural and crop science, teaching people how to grow better crops and more crops for their families and communities, that’s to get me in, that’s my platform, but I’m a job maker — I’m hiring people to give jobs and build relationships. Then there are job-takers, like with my degree I could go to Latin America and get a job as an anthropology teacher in a university. Well I would be a job-taker from some Ecuadorian or Argentinian guy. Then there are job-fakers who say, “This is what I am” but don’t actually do it. So there are various levels. I simply stress that in business as missions it is wise, it is necessary, we’ve got to do an access platform that is real, where you’re not just going and pretending to do that. Because there’s so much good that we can do around the world.
CS: When you were surveying the trends in global missions, what one trend in particular most alarmed you that you felt no one else was talking about?
DS: It’s a stark realization in Southern Baptist life, I’ll put it that way, and that is churches becoming the sending agency. For Baptists we’ve always said that the churches were the sending entity. Biblically that’s true, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work I have for them to do.” You guys are the senders, they’re the goers; send them out. We understand that. But the agency comes alongside and says, “Look, you guys don’t know anything about international visas, you don’t know what you would do if there’s a coup, or a disease outbreak, or if they have a fender bender and they get thrown in jail. We’re going to do that. We will be the facilitating agency.” And that’s always been the International Mission Board for us. Well, let’s say you genuinely felt called, you know God had called you to work with this orphanage in Romania, or with a hospital in sub-Saharan Africa. You just know. But there were precious few job opportunities for doing that. And churches said, “Well how can we to do that? That’s going to be so difficult.” And the IMB said, “Well, you’ll figure it out. We’re going to help you get started.” So that started happening. A lot of our Baptist churches started sending their own missionaries. Not to compete with the IMB, but to help church members fulfill God’s call on their lives. Now, the IMB is getting in some financial difficulties, and it’s calling out to the Southern Baptist churches saying, “Step up, give, help.” And the churches are saying, “Well, brother, we’d like to, but see we’ve committed to these people in our church who are on the field now and we can’t just abandon them. We’re still giving to the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon, maybe not like we otherwise could, but we’re still supporting Southern Baptist causes, but now we just have these other ways of going.” We just need to be aware that that is an issue. Just as in the very beginning we needed missions agencies because we didn’t know what to do if there’s a coup, when something bad happens to one of the family members, we still need agencies to help with that. So don’t abandon other ways to get your people to the field. Fortunately we have an International Mission Board that is very much in favor of you going to the field by other means if what they’re offering is not fit for you. If you can’t go with them, go. The Board is not the Lord. So they would say find a way to get there, but it’s creating some unique challenges for traditional models that we have taken for granted.
CS: I think there’s a lot of fear and anxiety when we think about all the things that are changing, but how does the unchanging mission counteract that and give us the courage we need?
DS: That does cause a bit of anxiety but another thing it’s caused — this is one of the frustrations I’ve had along the way — is that some missions philosophies just capitulated. Some people with their philosophy of missions just said, “Well, fine, let’s just embrace everything new and changing and we’ll just fit in really well.” But some things we should not change. And one thing I tried to close out every chapter saying is that there’s an aspect of who we are and what we do that should never change. Jesus gave us the Great Commission and we are to present the gospel and to call people to repent and no matter how much good we do, if we’re not tying the gospel to it, it’s just good we do; it’s not Christian missions. So as we go out, let’s remember, no matter what changes there are, let’s be aware of them, how can we use them, how can we avoid the dangers, but at the end of the day let’s remember the thing that should never change. Our unchanging mission should never get lost in the mix. We don’t want to just live our lives in an ivory tower, but neither do we just want to embrace the world completely and forget the Bible. We’ve got to keep that balance of knowing the people to whom we minister, knowing their context so we can apply the Bible to it.