Missionary From Heaven

Buildings will crumble, institutions will be nationalized, and programs will be corrupted, but the redeemed from every nation will inherit eternal life.

Robert M. Johnston is assist ant professor of theology at S.D.A. Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

" 'AS THE Father has sent me, even so I send you'" (John 20:21, R.S.V.).

Jesus was the Missionary from heaven. Repeatedly, in the Gospel of John, He said that He was the Sent; and "missionary" comes from the Latin missum ("to send," whence also "missile" and "missive"). Jesus was sent by the Father, and we are sent by Jesus. We are sent as He was. Thus Jesus is the model for all Christian missionaries.

The essential point of His example as a missionary is seen in two verses: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (chap. 1:14, R.S.V.); and "For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning" (Heb. 4:15, R.S.V.).

There are two extreme types of missionaries: the adapters and the transformers—those who change (intransitive), and those who change (transitive).

There are those missionaries who are changed by their new environment, perhaps to the point of becoming indistinguishable from the national, so far as that is possible. They are usually liked by the national people, but they lack a reason for being. They adopt local culture and customs and introduce nothing new. In all things he is made like his national brethren except one: he receives a larger salary. These are the extreme adapters.

There are those missionaries who seek to change the environment they find. They reject the ways of the nationals in toto as they attempt to introduce innovations. But they are deeply resented by proud peoples, so even their innovations are rejected by them. Or perhaps their innovations are accepted only as long as they, as persons of authority, remain in the field, which it is hoped, is not very long. As soon as they go, or are gotten rid of, their great "improvements" are jettisoned and their monuments toppled. These are the extreme transformers.

These two types of missionary often resent each other. The transformers resent the adapters because they seem to be playing for popularity; the adapters resent the transformers for their seemingly high-handed, arrogant, and insensitive manner. One seems to be playing to the nationals. The other seems to be making a bid for the attention of the upper hierarchy. Great care must be taken that sides be not thus drawn.

Actually, even in their extreme form, these two types are useful to each other if they can stand each other. One, by being simpatico, gains good will for the missionary enterprise and thus wins entree for the transformers; while the latter type affords justification for the missionary enterprise and hence for the adapters.

But the adapters are accused of too readily nodding to complaints of nationals, thus gaining popularity at the expense of the transformers. And the transformers are accused of doing things primarily to curry favor with visiting VIP's—making superficial innovations for show, since (were the truth told) the would-be changers really change very little!

Change-making Not Simple

Change-making is not as simple as some think. Anthropologists have developed the culture concept, according to which one must study, and deal with, a people's social structure, cultural pat terns, and psychology as a whole, never piecemeal.

A small change—if successfully introduced—may result in other unforeseen changes, and tampering with the patterns of life may result in serious side effects.

This happened in the case of an enthusiastic new missionary to a certain Eastern country. She was distressed to learn that the people of that country slept on the floor, and she set out to convince the Adventist workers in her sphere of influence that sleeping on Western-style beds is a better way. In some cases she was successful, and a new status symbol was born. As an unforeseen result, the workers needed larger rooms in their houses, and there fore larger houses, which were more ex pensive to heat. The "revolution of rising expectations" was nurtured in a perverse way, creating artificial needs requiring higher salaries to satisfy them. As this fad spread to other workers, an unhealthy gap was created between the modernized pastors and their traditional flocks. And, ironically, backache was introduced, for the beds were not of high quality.

Another well-meaning missionary was disturbed to find that in his field families did not sit together in church. The men sat on one side and the women and small children on the other side. This had to be changed! Families should sit together! So he preached, and gradually he was successful in breaking down the traditional pattern of separation of the sexes. He did not realize that the strict separation of the sexes outside of the home was a necessary safeguard, insulating women from trouble in a society in which the male voice has irresistible authority. The unforeseen result was an increase of promiscuity among the young people in his church.

Any stable culture is like a brick wall or a knitted sweater: You cannot pull out one brick without weakening the whole structure, and you cannot pull out one thread without starting the unraveling of the whole garment. There are bricks and threads, perhaps, that should indeed be removed, but the operation must be performed with the utmost skill and understanding.

Of course, social or cultural change of any serious kind can be imposed from the outside only by force, the persuasion of pressure, and only in the face of determined resistance, resulting in much disruption and bitterness. What is digestible will be swallowed, but what cannot be digested will be vomited up at last and will not be absorbed.

Perhaps the influence that is most lasting is unconscious—to both parties! Technological innovations that genuinely commend themselves will usually be accepted unless there is a serious problem in doing so. But in the matter of values, the missionary's example is all-important. A missionary, for example, cannot preach the virtue of a sacrifice persuasively while he appears to be materialistic. He must himself live sacrificially, not only according to his own perception, but in the perception of the people he serves.

Religion externally imposed will be an external religion only. The experience of the Spanish missionaries in the Philippines is instructive. The earnestness of the friars should not be doubted. They applied themselves to learning the local dialects and preached and taught diligently. They used every means available to them for breaking the natives away from their heathen ways, not hesitating to call upon Spanish arms. The troops made periodic raids upon the scattered villages, and the people soon learned that it would save them a lot of trouble and inconvenience if they settled debajo de las campanas ("under the bells"). There, in the barrios drawn around the churches, the padres could more easily catechize them and keep a watchful eye over them.

"Split-level Christianity"

The result is what is called in the Philippines today "split-level Christianity." One modern Filipino writer assesses it this way: "The spiritual impact of Christianity is difficult to evaluate. . . . The response of the Filipinos to Christianity, as to the other aspects of Spanish rule, was selective, not total acceptance. . . . Many overtly accepted the external practices of the new faith, which were often colorful and attractive, but they retained an inner loyalty to the old beliefs that had sustained and comforted their ancestors." *

Innovation and renewal is always best introduced from the inside out. This is the only way to do it while respecting free will. But how can that be done?

The innovator must be one of us, somehow. Yet he must come from the outside or he would be no innovator! If he were like us in every respect, he would have nothing to offer us that we do not already have. If he were different from us in every respect we could not accept him.

So neither of our two extremes—the total adapter and the total transformer—is the ideal. Neither is the ideal a compromise midway between the two. The ideal is one who is completely both.

The model is provided by Jesus Him self. He is the God who became man, putting on human flesh. He became one of us. He shared our total experience, even at its worst. Yet He never forgot who He was, nor gave up that which He came to bring to us. He was "in all points tempted like as we are, yet with out sin" (Heb. 4:15, K.J.V.). "In all points"—that shows the extent of His adaptation. "Yet without sin"—that shows the limitation of His adaptation. No bribery, no factionalism, no murmuring, no self-seeking, no power plays, no political maneuvering, no ego trip.

A national may counter my suggestions and preachments by saying, "You don't really know it like it is—how it is to be me, to be one of us." But none can say Jesus doesn't know what it is like! He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.

He was the Sent.

And so we are drawn to Jesus and all He embodies, because of what He is. What Jesus was absolutely, we can be only relatively. He came from heaven; we only come from America, Europe, or wherever. But His example beckons, the lesson remains.

The most important thing about a missionary is not what he does, but what he is. He accomplishes most by being what he should be. Only such an accomplishment will remain after he has gone, for he will leave his monuments in the hearts of the men and women he has touched.

Buildings will crumble, institutions will be nationalized, and programs will be corrupted, but the redeemed from every nation will inherit eternal life.

"As the Father has sent me, even so I send you."


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Robert M. Johnston is assist ant professor of theology at S.D.A. Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July 1977

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