Crisis in Overseas Mission: Shall We Leave It to the Independents?

by Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr.

Richard Hutcheson is senior fellow at the Center on Religion and Society in New York, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 18, 1981, pp. 290-296. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


No wonder that the debates between liberals and evangelicals about overseas mission are so often circular, fruitless, and frustrating to all concerned. The two sides are not talking about the same thing. There are fundamental differences between the "ecumenical" and "evangelical" understandings of mission.

In no area of church life is the contemporary confrontation between mainline liberals and the increasingly powerful evangelicals more troublesome than in overseas mission. Missiologist David I. Bosch suggests that the international mission movement today is in "a crisis more radical and extensive than anything the church has ever faced in [its] history." He analyzes that crisis in terms of fundamental differences between the "ecumenical" and "evangelical" understandings of mission. In one sense the confrontation is a tragedy of miscommunication. The whole situation is seen so differently from the liberal and the evangelical perspectives that in their disputes liberals and evangelicals are seldom talking about the same thing.

The basic facts are incontrovertible. From 1969 to 1975, the period summarized in the most recent issue (11th edition, 1976) of the authoritative Mission Handbook, the number of missionaries serving overseas under the auspices of denominations constituting the Department of Overseas Mission (DOM) of the National Council of Churches -- generally the mainline -- decreased from about 8,000 to 5,010. This was a decline of almost one-third (31 per cent) in a six-year period -- a trend that had begun earlier, has continued since the 1975 terminal date for the Mission Handbook statistics, and is still continuing.

Differing Perceptions

To mainline evangelicals, the missionary decline is a dismal picture, and one for which they place the blame squarely on denominational power structures. They see establishment bureaucrats as deemphasizing overseas mission generally, and seeking to shift funds to activities in the United States. Further, they suspect the establishment of trying to change the character of those overseas involvements that remain. Denominational leaders, they charge, are interested only in bringing about social, political and economic change. And they often perceive the changes toward which liberal social activists are working as influenced by, or allied with, Marxist movements. They feel that mainline bureaucrats are not interested in evangelism. The decline in the number of missionaries sent abroad has become for them a symbolic focal point for their concern about the entire denominational involvement overseas.

The liberal/ecumenical perception of the situation is quite different. Mainline leaders see the overseas-mission-oriented evangelicals as unwilling or unable to accept a radically changed situation, as clinging to an "old style" of mission activity, closely associated with a now discredited imperialism. Liberals believe that this "old style" is paternalistic in mode, and that it has been rejected by the churches of the Third World. They believe that evangelicals attach an exaggerated importance to missionaries in whatever role remains for Western churches overseas. Those evangelical "old style" missionaries still serving overseas are perceived by liberal/ecumenicals as supporting repressive economic and political systems in developing countries in order to achieve the "stability" that will enable them to gain admittance to those countries and be left free to evangelize. They believe evangelicals at home are using overseas generosity as an "easy out," a way of salving their consciences to avoid facing the need for change at home.

In such a situation, it is no wonder that the two sides shout past each other. They start from such radically different assumptions, and they perceive the problems so differently, that within the mainline churches there has been little or no progress toward resolving the issue. The resolution has been coming outside the mainline, in the form of a massive shift of evangelical money, personnel and emphasis from denominational overseas programs to independent parachurch agencies.

Dropping the ‘s’ from Missions

One root of the problem is a change in the definition of the word "mission." In 1969 the International Review of Missions, long the pre-eminent interdenominational journal in the field of overseas mission, dropped the "s" from the last word of its title. An editorial explained the change as making the term more palatable to non-Western church leaders. Behind the dropping of the "s," however, lay far more than a transition from plural to singular.

Throughout most of church history, the term "mission" meant what believers were "sent out" to do -- to propagate Christianity by making converts and establishing churches. The mission text was the "great commission" -- "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:29). The plural form of the word, "missions," referred to the specific undertakings by which this task was carried out. There were "home missions" in this country and "foreign missions" overseas. In the so-called "great century" of the expansion of Christianity, the 19th century, and continuing through the first half of the 20th, foreign missions became so central in the outreach of evangelical Christianity that the term "missions" was generally understood to mean foreign missions.

Somewhere around the middle of the present century, however, a change began to take place. Mission, or "the mission of the church," began to be used in a much broader sense, to refer to the whole range of what the church seeks to do. A theological reformulation was clearly involved; mission came to be understood in terms of the church’s total involvement with the world. Another factor may have been the military usage of the term "mission," widely popularized during World War II and picked up by business and government agencies in the postwar managerial revolution. Undoubtedly the change also reflected the search for integration and "holism," a prominent theme in the period.

Distinctions Wiped Out

The mission of the church is now understood by most mainliners to include not only everything the church is "sent out" to do -- its outreach -- but everything it does, including all its own internal maintenance and nurture activities. Distinctions between "expenses" and "benevolences" have been wiped out in budgets. Paying the pastor, repainting the church kitchen, utilizing a management consultant to improve internal communication processes for the church staff, as well as providing a church school, a local ministry to the poor or aged, and contributions to regional and national denominational programs -- all these are included in the concept of "mission of the church."

In examining the significance of this changed understanding of the term mission, it is important to remember that evangelicals define themselves in terms of evangelism. Whatever else may be held in common throughout this increasingly diverse movement, the unity of evangelicals is their common goal of evangelizing the world for Christ. Most mainline evangelicals accept the fact that "mission of the church" is now used in a much broader sense than this. But for them -- and the distinction is crucial -- "mission of the church" has not replaced "missions." Missions remain central and are perceived as the most important aspect of the mission of the church.

For mainline liberal/ecumenicals, "mission of the church" has replaced "missions." When they speak of overseas, mission, they do not mean at all the same thing as evangelicals who use these terms. They mean that dimension of the "one mission of the church" -- the witness of the church in the world in all its inclusiveness -- which takes place overseas. They are likely to want to avoid even making a geographical distinction between home and overseas, seeking to conceptualize mission as the same inside or outside the United States. Thus the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church encompasses ministries in the North American as well as the overseas part of the globe. There are national and world divisions within that board. The Program Agency of the United Presbyterian Church does not even make this distinction, although it has area liaison desks for various regions.

Evangelicals who speak of "overseas mission" or "world mission" mean by these terms exactly the same thing they used to mean by "foreign missions" -- spreading the gospel to the unreached. They have always included social dimensions in this definition. Healing the sick, caring for the poor, teaching the children, alleviating suffering -- these have traditionally been part of the evangelical concern. Newer evangelicals are frequently willing, even insistent, that these efforts be widened to include social-change concerns -- attacking injustice, improving the social and economic order -- but always to the end "that Jesus Christ should be acknowledged as Lord by the whole earth." No wonder, then, that debates between liberals and evangelicals about overseas mission are so often circular, fruitless, and frustrating to all concerned. The two sides are not talking about the same thing.

Changed Situation in the Third World

This semantic problem has developed against a background of a radically changed situation in that area of the world which has historically been the site of "foreign missions." Until World War II, most of the Third World consisted of dependencies of the Western colonial powers. Independent nations in the region tended either to be "associated" with a colonialist power or to be unstable, undeveloped and economically dependent. The two decades following the war brought what was probably the most sweeping worldwide change in governmental systems since the fall of the Roman Empire. This vast region -- practically the entire southern hemisphere -- gained its political independence and set out in pursuit of "development": the industrialization, technology and affluence of the First and Second worlds.

A largely unrecognized and unappreciated dimension of this revolutionary change was the contribution to the process made by a century of "foreign missions." One of the legacies was educational. Nearly everywhere mission schools were an important element in providing at least a nucleus of educated indigenous leadership, ready to assume responsibility when independence came. Throughout Africa, today’s leadership is the product of yesterday’s mission school system. A second major legacy was a social-welfare infrastructure. Hospitals, in particular, were mission products, as were a wider range of health-care, and social-service institutions, In many -- perhaps most -- of the developing nations, the missions provided the base on which national programs aimed at social welfare have been built.

Autonomous National Churches

The most important legacy of the foreign mission movement, at least from the Christian perspective, was the network of churches. Even though in many instances denominational structures had not been formed when independence came, invariably there were networks of local congregations ready to become denominations.

The independence and autonomy of national churches are now the reality with which Western agencies deal throughout the Third World. In some instances this independence came as a result of government action, requiring mission property and church control to be turned over to the indigenous church. In others, it was simply a cultural necessity in the new situation of national independence and self-consciousness. In general, it may be said that the mainline mission agencies were quicker to relinquish control and to place their missionaries under the authority of the national churches than were the conservative and independent missions. But the new pattern is now recognized and accepted by liberal/ecumenicals and evangelicals alike.

The now autonomous churches in the developing nations have provided one of the most significant elements in the new Third World equation. They have become independent and self-reliant remarkably quickly. In the climate they have established, a number of indigenous denominations unrelated to Western mission agencies in origin (such as the Kimbanguists and other African independent churches, and a number of Pentecostal denominations in Latin America) have become a major force. The churches are often among the best-organized, best-led and most stable structures in the new nations.

The self-consciousness of the developing nations has meant affirmation of their own cultural traditions and identity. It has meant rejection of imperialism, of paternalism, of all vestiges of the old order. For obvious reasons, though, they have seldom really rejected, and have often eagerly sought, those aspects of westernization identified with material prosperity. It has therefore been a mixed affirmation/rejection. In some instances it has meant a closing of the door to missionaries, who have been identified with the old order. More often, however, mission agencies and missionaries have continued to be welcomed, as contributors to national development.

I remember vividly the customs official in Zaire, as I left Kinshasa for Kananga, who, on learning that my visit had to do with the missionaries in Kananga, placed the necessary stamp on my baggage with some reluctance and the accusatory question, "Why do you not send missionaries to my region? We need them just as much as Kananga!" So long as they have respected the authority and institutions of the new nation, most missions have continued to be welcome.

The national churches in the developing world have readily recognized their common identity with worldwide Christianity, and have made common cause with Western Christians. This does not mean that all have joined the World Council of Churches (though many have, including some of the independent indigenous churches without Western roots). They tend, by and large, to be more conservative than the mainline denominations of the United States. But they are well -- and ably -- represented in international consultations and conversations.

How Mainliners See the Change

The radically changed context in the Third World is obviously of major importance for the overseas mission enterprise. Mainliners tend to think evangelicals are not aware of, or are unwilling to accept the reality of, the changes. They accuse them of still operating as if the world were divided into colonial powers and colonies, of paternalism toward "natives," and of trying to foist their own Western values and goals on societies in which these are inappropriate.

Certainly remnants of the old attitudes remain. The old attitudes are undoubtedly more prominent in long-term evangelical missionaries who date back to pre-independence days than in the younger liberal/ecumenical community-development workers overseas. Yet it must be said in fairness that there is probably as much paternalism in the liberal’s all-wise insistence on "appropriate technology" in the face of a new nation’s determination to have its own steel plants as in the conservative’s all-wise insistence on monogamous marriage in the face of tribal insistence on polygamy. The liberal perception that evangelicals have not adapted to the changed situation is, by and large, inaccurate. Both groups are quite aware of the changes that have taken place in the Third World; both know and respect the young churches in the developing countries; both want to work in partnership with them. The difference lies in the ends of that partnership -- the commitment to "missions" and to "mission."

Mainline liberals tend to define overseas mission exclusively in terms of partnership with overseas churches (or ecumenical agencies). They seek to make it a two-way partnership, even to the extent of occasionally footing the bill for a "reverse missionary" from a Third World nation working in this country. But since the realities of need and resources are mainly in one direction, overseas mission tends to become interchurch aid to Third World churches. The mainliners try hard to let the receiving churches define the kind of aid they want, "responding" to "requests" from the churches (although they often plant and shape the requests to which they respond). To the Third World ambivalence about missionaries, they respond either by playing down the role of missionaries or by trying to move from "old style" (evangelistic) to "new style" (social change or institutional support) missionaries.

Evangelizing the World for Christ

Evangelicals, too, work in partnership with younger churches, in the context of a radically changed Third World. The voice of Third World Christians was probably fully as strong at the International Congress on Evangelization in Lausanne in 1974 as at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi in 1975. But the basic difference is in the goal of that partnership.

For evangelicals, "mission of the church" has not replaced "missions," but has only placed missions in a broader context. They do not regard missions -- understood as reaching the unreached -- as "old style" but as the unchanged central element in the mission of the church. They carry on this activity in partnership with like-minded Third World churches, and in areas where churches (or churches of a similar perspective) do not yet exist. They engage, as they always have, in works of mercy and compassion, and they are increasingly willing to engage, along with partner churches, in ministries of social change as well. Many of them understand and support the concern of young church leaders for liberation from oppressive social systems as well as from personal sin. They do not challenge the right of Third World churches to work for such liberation.

But the ultimate purpose of their partnership, as evangelicals, is always "evangelizing the world for Christ." They see the now established and autonomous denominations throughout the developing world as an unfinished task, They seek partnership with these churches in completing the task of reaching the unreached. They are willing to engage in joint evangelization efforts with the indigenous churches in reaching their own people, or to focus through cross-cultural evangelism on areas not yet reached by the national churches.

The mainline establishment sees a Third World with churches everywhere as no longer a "mission field" in the classic sense. The planting of churches throughout the world has now been achieved. The relativism and tolerance of a liberal world view now demand a kind of respect for non-Christian religions which precludes overt attempts to evangelize among them. Evangelism, as such, is low among liberal priorities anyway. Some "old-style" missionaries are allowed to continue to function under their sponsorship (often with a high level of frustration over the "lack of support" from home), since all mainline denominations are pluralistic, and much of the money comes from "old-style" sources. But preferred partnership arrangements are with those denominations, leaders and ecumenical organizations sharing their goals: social change, development projects and institutional support. Both mainliners and evangelicals, then, are fully aware of the radically changed context for overseas mission. But their responses are different.

From Mainline to Parachurch Dominance

The structures through which they respond are also increasingly different. Since the liberal establishment controls the mainline denominations -- particularly the bureaucracies of the mission agencies -- the liberal/ecumenical view prevails in the official denominational structures. What takes place overseas is not "missions" but "mission" -- the whole mission of the church. It takes place through a variety of channels, by no means limited to missionaries. Among the missionaries still being sent overseas, those engaged directly in evangelization are a small minority. Most are either in support roles for the national churches or in social ministries. When I visited Zaire for my denomination in 1979, I found that although many of the missionaries are themselves evangelicals and although they regard their work (largely medical) as evangelical in purpose, only three of the 34 missionaries present were assigned as evangelists. Yet overseas mission remains in a special way the "cause" of the evangelicals, and they provide the bulk of its financial support. Hence the conflict.

The evolution from "missions" to "mission" in mainline overseas involvements has not been simple or direct. It has taken place slowly, with mixed results, and certainly is not yet completely achieved. Until the restructuring of the mainline denominational bureaucracies in the 1960s and ‘70s, control of the foreign mission agencies (which to a considerable extent had operated as semiautonomous internal parachurch agencies) had remained largely in the hands of the evangelical constituencies. After the changes brought by restructuring, evangelicals in the pews continued to identify overseas mission with their own evangelical goals. Although puzzled and often angry with the trend they perceive, they continue to trust and support denominational overseas mission activities more strongly than other aspects of denominational programming.

But in a climate of growing suspicion, they have been increasingly aggressive in two ways. One is to seek to place restrictions on the way the money they give to the denomination can be used. Evangelicals regard overseas mission as "their" cause, and they have increasingly been designating their money to support it. In some denominations, donor-designated and specialized giving now exceeds contributions to regular mission budgets. And by far the largest share is designated for overseas use. More recently, as awareness has grown that not all overseas work is in accord with their intentions, the trend has been in the direction of designating the way the money can be used overseas.

More significant in the long run, however, may be the second way evangelicals have been reacting, through the support of nondenominational parachurch organizations engaged in overseas mission. We noted earlier the declining number, of missionaries serving overseas under the auspices of denominations affiliated with the Department of Overseas Mission (DOM) of the generally mainline National Council of Churches. There are, however, two other groupings of missionary-sending agencies: the Evangelical Foreign Mission Association (EFMA), representing 37 conservative denominational agencies and 35 independent agencies; and the Independent Foreign Mission Association (IFMA), with 44 independent groups. (There is some overlapping, since a few agencies belong to two associations.) During that same six-year period in which the number of DOM-sponsored missionaries decreased by 31 per cent, the number serving under EFMA agency sponsorship increased by 15 per cent, from 6,000 to 7,500, and the number serving under IFMA increased from 6,000 to 6,500 (8 per cent).

The financial comparisons are even more striking. While overseas mission funds contributed through NCC-DOM decreased in that period from $145 million to $125 million (down 13 per cent), funds contributed through the other two associations, EFMA and IFMA, increased by 136 per cent, from $95 million to $225 million. When the agencies not affiliated with either EFMA or IFMA are taken into consideration, overall overseas mission income, when adjusted for inflation, increased in this six-year period from $317 million to $404 million. The overall number of missionaries grew from 34,460 to 36,950. The "decline in overseas mission," then, is not a decline at all. It is a shift, from mainline dominance to evangelical and parachurch dominance.

Parachurch Overseas Mission Agencies

Many of the parachurch agencies are quite small. Fully half of those engaged in sending out missionaries have fewer than 17 people overseas. But the major ones are very large indeed. The largest is Wycliffe Bible Translators. In terms of the number of personnel overseas it was in 1975 (the last year for which comparative figures were available in Mission Handbook) the largest of all agencies, denominational or independent, having passed the previous leader, the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, in the preceding three-year period. Equally as large as Wycliffe in terms of income (though not engaged primarily in sending missionaries) is World Vision International. Other parachurch groups now numbered among the top ten overseas mission agencies include the Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM) and the New Tribes Mission.

Many of the independent parachurch agencies, such as the Africa Inland Mission or the Brazil Gospel Fellowship Mission, focus on one region or country. Others, like the Mission Aviation Fellowship (which supplies aviation, radio, and purchasing services to mission agencies and churches in 15 countries), or the World Radio Mission Fellowship (with shortwave broadcasting in 15 languages from the famed "Voice of the Andes" radio station, HCJB, in Quito, Ecuador) provide highly specialized services. Some, like Youth with a Mission (with a thousand young people serving one-year terms overseas) and Teen Missions (sending teen-agers on summer work programs and evangelistic teams), offer mission opportunities to a specialized American constituency. The Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, one of the major youth-oriented parachurch organizations, plays an important role in recruiting for overseas mission service. The triennial Urbana conventions, attended by tens of thousands of young people, are focused almost entirely on presenting the missionary challenge.

Despite the mainline perception of a decline, then, the overseas mission movement is stronger than ever. But a massive shift has taken place, from mainline to evangelical, from church-sponsored to parachurch. On the basis of the available data, we are indeed "leaving it to the independents."

Two Symbols: The WCC and Lausanne

The World Council of Churches has had a particularly significant role in defining overseas mission for the mainline liberal establishment. A longtime symbol of church unity -- one of the most enduring of the liberal Christian goals -- the World Council with its wide-ranging social concerns, is viewed by mainline liberal/ecumenicals as the centerpiece of overseas mission. Its church conciliar model is congruent with the church-partnership mode of mainline relationships. Because the assemblies and committees of the World Council are peopled by denominational power elites, there is a minimum of the kind of influence from grass-roots evangelicals which tends to moderate the positions and actions of the denominations themselves. The World Council, therefore, is probably the place where the liberal/ ecumenical vision of world Christianity is purest, where the devotion to social-change goals is most fully realized.

If there is a symbol on the evangelical side corresponding to the World Council and its network of ecumenical agencies, it is probably the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization, held at Lausanne, Switzerland, with the Lausanne Covenant and Lausanne Committee that came out of it. Whether the Lausanne Committee will develop into a permanently staffed evangelical counterpart to the World Council remains to be seen. Such a development does not appear likely. The "spirit of Lausanne" remains active; follow-up national congresses have been held in a number of countries (a major one for the United States is planned for 1981 in Kansas City). But the committee lacks the conciliar base of the World Council, and ecumenism (as an end in itself rather than a means to other ends) does not have the priority for evangelicals that it does for liberal/ecumenicals.

Perhaps the greatest impact of the Lausanne Congress has been its symbolic importance to the evangelical community. The Lausanne Covenant provided what is probably the best and most widely accepted statement of the evangelical concept of the theological basis for mission. It affirmed the centrality of evangelism in this concept of mission, and provided an authoritative definition of evangelism: "the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God"

From the mainline perspective, probably the most significant thing about the Lausanne Covenant is the seriousness with which Christian social responsibility is taken. Not only is the fifth article of the covenant devoted to this theme, but the relationship of social concern to evangelism was one of the most intensely discussed issues at the congress. The Christian judgment on "every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination," the denunciation of injustice and the call for Christian sociopolitical involvement are clear and explicit.

Bringing the Two Themes Together

The Lausanne combination of evangelicalism and social responsibility is probably closer to the spirit of Third World Christianity generally than is mainline American Christianity. The relativistic scientific world view which underlies mainline liberalism finds it hard to be completely comfortable with the exclusiveness of the evangelical claim. Because of its respect for other religions, it is at best ambivalent about evangelization of non-Christians. Its witness is necessarily unaggressive witness, and it is far more comfortable with social witness. Third World Christianity does not share this reticence. My own contacts with overseas churches and visits with church leaders in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia have left me with a clear impression that Third World churches, for the most part, combine an uncomplicated evangelicalism with an intense social concern, based on the experience of oppression. The balance has much to teach the churches of the First World.

Too much can be read into the symbolism of Lausanne and Geneva. Yet the differences are real. They were brought into sharp contrast by the two "world evangelism" conferences sponsored just a few weeks apart in 1980: the meeting of the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism in Melbourne in May, with the theme, "Your Kingdom Come," and the Consultation on World Evangelization, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee, in Pattaya, Thailand, in June, with the theme "How Shall They Hear?" Melbourne focused on the identification of Christianity with the poor and marginalized of the world in their struggle for liberation and justice. Pattaya focused on the worldwide evangelization task, in terms of specific strategies for reaching tribes, cultures, communities and groups as yet unaware of the gospel.

How shall we bring the two themes together, in a balanced gospel which gives full rein to both emphases? Third World churches themselves offer a model, and perhaps their growing influence is the best hope for Western Christianity.