The Summons to a New Era in World Mission

by I. W. Moomaw

Dr. Moomaw, formerly a missionary with the Church of the Brethren and later executive secretary for Agricultural Missions, Inc., is now retired and living in Sebring, Florida.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  March 17, 1982, p. 298. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The intensifying quest for justice and human rights by millions of people across the earth gives a new dimension to world mission, calling for a depth of witnessing, caring and humility beyond anything we have yet employed. The nonviolent quest by the world’s poor challenges the churches with the most urgent summons of this century.

The Christian Century for December 22, 1976, carried a discerning article by Mark Juergensmeyer on “The Fading of an Era,” in which he vividly described the departure of the “last evangelistic missionary couple” from the Punjab state of north India and saw that departure as signifying the end of the “great missionary era of the church.” From his perspective it was indeed the end. However, the present world arena issues a clear summons to a new era of world mission. The intensifying quest for justice and human rights by millions of people across the earth gives a new dimension to world mission, calling for a depth of witnessing, caring and humility beyond anything we have yet employed.

For example, four years ago, when my wife and I were on field study assignment in Nicaragua, there came a knock on our door late one evening. One of the visitors, an agronomist from the Inter-American Institute of Agriculture, said: “Two questions bring us at this late hour. First, are North Americans aware of the burning desire of the people for justice and freedom from the yoke of Somoza? Second, can the Protestant missions as now focused help to bring justice and reconciliation, thus helping to avert the bloodshed that is imminent?”

The questions struck me, for I knew he was speaking not for the people of Nicaragua alone but for tens of millions of others -- from the urban ghettoes and farm labor camps of the United States to the plantations of the Philippines -- who are crying out for justice. Only a year earlier, in Guntur, India, I was talking with three young men, students from a nearby Christian college, one of whom was area secretary for the World Student Christian Federation. Their searching eyes, precise language and homespun clothes gave me a clue as to their concerns: poverty, land reform and peasant unrest. They spoke of these, and then came the stinger: “Do we Christians believe the gospel is good news for the poor? Why then do we mostly verbalize and nothing else, until so many in distress see their best hope in the promises of Marxism?”

On that same trip I met church executives in Japan and the Philippines as well as India. A Christian council secretary seemed to speak for many when he said: “Our priority is to make a more worthy response to the cry of the people for justice and human dignity. From the villages to the cities, the gulf between the rich and poor is widening. Christ has shown us the way, but by installments the world is moving toward disaster. The poor have waited too long.”

Thus I began to realize as never before that the churches north and south are at a turning point in world mission. We have several choices. We can ignore the awakening of the poor and carry on as usual, accommodating a watered-down gospel to the status quo. We can refer to the poor as leftists and troublemakers, as do their opponents. Or we can see God’s spirit in this awakening, calling us to relate openly to God’s purpose of creating a more just world in our time.

The pioneer missionaries did well. Working in difficult circumstances, they moved among the people with dedication and compassion, calling disciples and establishing churches, schools and hospitals. Their relief and welfare work was significant. Education opened the way for young people to enter business, government and the professions. No doubt many of the people were enriched spiritually, and a new sense of human dignity enabled many to advance socially and economically.

However, there were only limited efforts to join the people in trying to change the environment or the system in which they lived. Even though they had become Christian, they were not “set at liberty” as Christ intended (Luke 4:18-19). Large numbers are still subject to bonded labor, the sting of the landlord’s whip and the grasp of the moneylender. Nevertheless, God blessed those early efforts, and today the church has capable leaders in nearly all nations of the world.

Although from the beginning most missionaries envisioned the rise of autonomous, indigenous churches, the real advance was made after World War II and the end of colonialism. With political independence came increased desire for a church rooted in the people’s own life and culture. As a rule the mainline Protestant denominations welcomed these moves, and much progress has been made in the transfer of leadership, property and institutions.

But political independence, hailed with joy, did not bring the better life the people had expected. There were almost unbearable social, political and economic burdens, felt deeply by the Third World churches with a large membership of landless villagers. Some of the colonial powers left significant improvements behind, but the heritage was largely one of poverty, depleted resources, and the same old trade patterns favorable to the West. Economic aid from the United States was primarily in the form of military equipment; the rest, very limited, was poured in at the top with the hope that it would “trickle down” to the poor. The result only enriched those in power and further impoverished the poor.

The “green revolution,” with its potential for higher crop yields through the use of hybrid seed and fertilizer, was of most help to large operators who had capital and equipment. Unplanned-for mechanization of farming and the consequent grab for more land tended to squeeze out the small farmers, bringing about unemployment and the shift of millions to urban centers.

Planners have failed to see that mass poverty is systemic to a considerable degree, and deeply rooted. It is not cured by a mere increase in the gross national product or the spread of “technical know-how.” Today the romance of easy economic aid is over. In a recent report to the directors of the World Bank, the then-president Robert S. McNamara spoke sadly: “After two decades of effort the gap between the rich and poor is widening; the battle against hunger is being lost. Some 800 million people are trapped in absolute poverty.”

Probably the darkest cloud on the world horizon is hunger. Exact figures are hard to secure, but Jean Mayer, nutritionist at Harvard University, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) agree that around 1 billion people suffer from lack of food; 400 million are at the edge of starvation. It is estimated that some 15 million of these are in the United States. We are informed that every day more than 12,000 people die of starvation, and the numbers increase as population grows. But, figures do not show the anguish of parents who must tell their children there is no food, the tragedy of malformed bodies, or the physical pain as the body devours itself from a lack of food.

At the heart of the food problem is the unjust distribution of cropland. A current study by the FAQ reports that in Latin America 7 per cent of the people control 90 per cent of the arable land. In El Salvador there were 30,470 landless campesino families in 1960; by the year 1975 the number had more than doubled -- to 66,975. Some 80 per cent of the land is controlled by only 14 families. In the Amazon valley of Brazil multinational corporations are allowed to carve out estates of several hundred square miles. Indians, the traditional owners, are pushed off the land and often killed if they resist, so it can be diverted to mining, oil extraction and crops for export.

In the United States small farmers and sharecroppers lost approximately 50 per cent of their land between the years 1960 and 1980, owing largely to mechanization of farming without regard for the social consequences, and the inequitable allocation of price-support payments. It is an error to assume that larger farms are more efficient. In fact, subsistence farmers and small operators can use land more efficiently on a per-acre basis than can agribusiness, if provisions are made for the capital and counsel they need.

Equitable access to land is clearly a moral and religious issue and a central part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Sufficient food can be produced. The tragedy of world hunger exists largely because many are too poor to buy food, or because the system denies them access to land.

The rise of the poor people’s quest for justice is a hopeful development. From the United States, across Latin America and much of Africa and Asia, the peasant peoples who are awakening ask not for political power or luxury but only for some land to till, work to do, and freedom from exploitation. Their methods are nonviolent, although violent leaders arise when pleas of the oppressed are ignored too long or those pleas are met only by violence. Called leftist or communist by those in power, the poor and their supporters priests, nuns and others -- are frequently shot down by security police known as death squads.

Indeed, the peasant peoples in their quest for work to do, some land to till, and a chance to take part in public decisions that shape their lives can be the best safeguard for political freedom and democracy. Their ideals are high. In Nicaragua one month after the fall of Somoza the Federation of Church Leaders issued a statement: “We have finally crossed our Red Sea, leaving slavery behind, to walk toward our God-given promise of liberation. We must now bring to it our best in the light of our faith in Christ.” However, over 30 years of pleading, struggle, violence and oppression by the Somoza regime have left a complex of problems in that country that will not quickly be solved.

Sensitive leaders are pained by the exploitation of their people, from the outside as well as from within the country. During a trip to Central America I met in consultation with a group of professional people who were friendly to the United States but pained by our ignorance of their plight and by the lack of understanding between the north and the south. Innocently I asked what might be done. After an awkward silence, a physician spoke: “We have our own problems and we are working on them. With you as a people there is no problem, but you must do more to curb the CIA, the military and the multinational corporations. The CIA and the military help to train death squads and keep brutal dictators in power. The multinationals absorb vast areas of land, and their crew leaders reduce the campesinos to a slave-like system. Too many are riding to affluence on the backs of our poor.”

Such concern among sensitive church leaders is worldwide. As nearly as 1977 the Christian Conference in Asia, meeting in Penang, Malaysia, had as its theme, “Jesus Christ and Asia’s Suffering and Hope.” In 1979, 150 evangelical church leaders and missionaries gathered in Madras issued a declaration saying in part: “Central to God’s nature is love for justice. We are called to express that love in religious, social, economic and political ways, always relying on nonviolent methods.” The voice of the poor came through in 1980 at the WCC’s Melbourne Conference on Mission and Evangelism: “We can no longer pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’ unless we are at work in solidarity with the poor of the world.”

This summons to a new era comes at a time when the mainline church boards in particular tend to be hesitant. Properly, they wish to avoid errors of the past and allow freedom for the younger churches to develop their own liturgies, structures and ministries. Workers are not sent overseas by those denominations unless invited by the host churches or institutions. Some governments curb the granting of visas.

Nevertheless the mandate to “go” has not been rescinded. The calling of disciples and the founding of churches is still a central purpose of mission. But the peasant awakening calls for clear and creative efforts for expressing the gospel in concrete ways, making it relevant to people where they live. Obviously the churches cannot do all that needs to be done; there is much that the people and the governments must do for themselves. However, a focus on the liberation and development of people is a unique contribution that can best be provided by the church.

I will not deal here with the philosophy or theology of mission, or with details of mission program (initiative from the people themselves and the wide variation from region to region would preclude the latter). Rather, I suggest some areas of ministry that call for greatly increased emphasis if we are to provide a Christian response to the people’s quest for justice. Such areas include:

1. Rediscovering the power of the gospel when applied in context to issues where the people jive. We find the blueprint in Luke 4:18-19. In his book Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld says that “the road to sanctification passes through the world of action.”

2. Taking a deep look at ourselves and our way of life. The churches of the north have been generous in sharing food and relief supplies. However, waste in the U.S. and a continual reaching out for more and more of the world’s scarce materials raise sobering questions among our friends in the poor nations. Only two centuries ago our new nation was born on a continent rich in natural resources, but wasteful procedures have seriously depleted those resources. Might our way of life be in part a cause of the misery and injustice we are called to correct?

The U.S. also has social and religious problems: declining church membership, violent crime, drug abuse and racism. The mission field is not “out there,” and the mandate “Go ye” speaks to all of us. World mission begins wherever we are.

3. Developing more creative ways to work as equal partners with churches in the Third World. Such issues as hunger and the denial of human rights are our problems as well as theirs. In our global neighborhood, mission is a two-way process, of mutual learning from each other, of both giving and receiving.

4. Pooling resources and working with all Christian agencies. John R. Mott, pioneer in world mission, foresaw this need as early as 1938. In an address at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, he declared:

The task is too large for scattered and piecemeal efforts. The burdens of oppressed people will not be lifted, the inequities of forced labor will not be abolished, the injustices of the machine age will not be righted, the sinister encroachments of military power will not be extirpated, the sinful practice of racism will not be done away with, the menace of religious intolerance will not be removed until the Christian agencies working under God’s power are joined together in Christlike unity.

5. Addressing specific issues. While we need to take a comprehensive view, issues like the spread of hunger and the need for land reform merit careful study and attention. As a bishop in El Salvador explained to me: “We have done well in sharing bread and the cup of cold water, but we must now deal with root causes. Just access to land is clearly a religious issue, but for reasons of timidity we too often leave land reform to the Marxists. It is not God’s plan that a few should live in idleness and luxury while the masses are condemned to a life of deprivation. We must now confront the powers and principalities in a spirit of reconciliation and justice. The gospel speaks to all, rich and poor alike.”

While land reform is difficult, much can be done by supporting the people in regard to legislation, legal assistance, land settlements, loans to redeem lost land, and firm, friendly persuasion. In Peru I met a landowner who had originally held 270,000 acres, but he had trouble with the campesinos. Work was delayed and crops disappeared. A Catholic priest persuaded him to begin reform by taking the campesinos on as business partners, renting land to some at a fair rate and selling tracts to others. The owner told me: “I am now doing better financially than ever before. Moreover, I can hold my head erect and move among the people as a friend and neighbor.”

6. Relating to the people’s quest for justice. The people have spoken, and a solution will be found; the question is when and how. Will it come by nonviolence and reconciliation, or will it be delayed until violent confrontation and bloodshed occur? We have yet to develop and use the dynamics of nonviolence. This force, if boldly employed, can serve the best interests of both sides.

7. Working for world peace. The problems of poverty, injustice and hunger cannot be solved as long as the nations spend over $500 billion each year for armaments. Two decades ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired is in a sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This is not a way of life at all; it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” Given the interdependence of our world, there are no enduring military solutions to international problems. We are entering an era when both military and political security will go to those nations best able to relate helpfully to the developing Third World.

8. Finding a new basis for sharing funds, materials and personnel. In our world family there is no place for the earlier concept of “giving” and “receiving” churches. All need to share and learn from each other, to bear one another’s burdens. A bishop in Latin America, in referring to a missionary couple from North America, said, “You cannot send us too many like them.” He was asking for persons with vital religious experience, persons who will live with the people, radiate God’s love, and see problems as mutual concerns. They would be global-minded and capable of dealing with large affairs, yet would lead by the heart rather than by power. Such persons would be so well qualified that the desirability of their appointment would be obvious.

Some years ago I stood with U.S. ambassador A. S. J. Carnahan on a hill overlooking the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone, once the center of the slave trade. After speaking of those who did so much to free the world from slavery, the ambassador reflected: “The West has received much from the older and poorer nations -- cheap raw materials, rich cultural and religious concepts, and the ability to make the most of adversity.” Then he mused, “Everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.”

The nonviolent quest by the world’s poor challenges the churches with the most urgent summons of this century. It would be shortsighted, indeed cruel, to minimize the difficulties involved. But if the churches of all lands will join hands in the spirit of him who said, “My Father is working still, and I am working,” the course of history can be changed toward the quality of life God intends for all human kind.