Training Missionaries to Reach Resistant Peoples
Timothy C. Tennent
The purpose of this article is to explore how we who are involved in the training and preparation of a new generation of missionaries can best prepare them to reach resistant peoples with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The first part of this article will make some defining observation about the expression “resistant peoples.” The latter part of the article will make several strategic points which are designed to provoke reflection on some new and better ways of training missionaries who face this task. In both cases this paper is designed to be practical in its orientation.
What Is Meant by “Resistant Peoples”?
When we raise the question concerning how we can best train workers to reach “resistant peoples,” we are met with an important challengewhat do we mean by the phrase “resistant peoples”? While the term is widely used in our classrooms, the literature and in the local church, it is an insufficient phrase for those of us involved in strategic planninginsufficient because it is too vague and too broad to say anything meaningful at the strategic planning level.
For example, one can quickly note that there are at least four categories of resistant peoples which make up the unreached world, with an accompanying host of variations and combinations on each of the themes.
First, there are those groups which are culturally resistant. Recall, for example, how D. Hesselgrave has reminded us of Nietzche's and Ruth Benedict's analysis of certain societies which may be termed “Apollonian” societies, antagonistic to change, as opposed to “Dionysian” cultures, receptive to change.1 It is a simple rubric underlying an important point. Namely, some societies resist change simply because all change, indeed, any change is perceived to be bad. The truth claims of the gospel cannot easily undermine a pre-existing cultural bias against accepting any new beliefs or practices. We can restate the gospel in a dozen different ways; it still doesn't matter, because it represents change.
<M%-1>Second, there are those groups which may be called theologically resistant. These groups, ranging from Mormons to Muslims, have been predisposed to reject certain Christian doctrines out of hand because of their own theological self-understanding. Their beliefs have been shaped by an explicit rejection of certain particulars of Christian theology, whether real or perceived, genuine or caricatured. “Allah has no partners,” claims the Muslim; to affirm the Sonship and Deity of Jesus Christ represents a fundamental theological impossibility.2 We must be prepared to discuss detailed theological questions and issues regarding the Deity and Sonship of Jesus Christ.
Third, there are those groups which are nationalistically or ethnically resistant. Such a group's identity, not theologically, but ethnically, involves a rejection of another group, including their beliefs. The Tiv in middle-belt Nigeria, for example, resisted Islam not because of its theological content, the insufficiency of its truth claims or the weakness of its worldview, but because the dominating Hausa of the upper-belt were Muslim. Precisely because the Hausa were fiercely committed to Islam and in those trappings victimized them, that meant that the Tiv would be predisposed to resist Islam. Likewise, there are groups who identify Christianity with Westernization or with colonialism or some other alien factor which causes the group to reject Christianity.
Many of the nineteenth-century Hindu revival groups such as the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj rallied around a revitalized Hinduism because it was a way of reasserting traditional Indianness in a context dominated by British colonialism. My Ph.D. dissertation focused on the Bengali theologian Brahmabandhav Upadhyay. Before he came to Christ he was convinced that being a Christian meant having to wear pants, eat meat and drink alcohol. Once he came to Christ he spent the rest of his life seeking to demonstrate that being a Christian was not tantamount to renouncing his Indian heritage and culture.
Finally, there are resistant groups which are politically resistant. Included here are those which are behind political walls where traditional missionary work is not permited, and since their confines are also frequently lacking a viable witnessing church, we assume that they are resistant. In fact, many have never had the opportunity to even hear or respond to the gospel, and therefore our assessment that they are resistant may be premature. How do you compare the 23 million Koreans who have not heard the gospel because of the political realities in North Korea with the Malayalam speaking Mappillas off the coast of Southwest India who have repeatedly rejected the gospel and remain fiercely Islamic?3 There is a significant strategic difference in our approach to such groups.
The world encompasses a wide variety of reasons for resistance or perceived resistance: cultural, theological, national and political, among others, as well as combinations of these. Each reason requires different kinds of strategies if we are to be effective in the task of training those God has given to us. Therefore, we must do a much better job articulating what we mean by “resistant peoples.”
With these observations in mind, let us now turn to some strategic reflections.
Some Strategic Reflections
At Toccoa Falls College we are currently seeking to equip around 140 mission majors, many of whom are committed to reaching resistant peoples in several of the above categories. I would like to highlight six principles which are helping to guide our training process.
First, without sacrificing the time spent grounding our students in the biblical message, we must become more receptor-oriented in our training. That is, we must help our students not only to understand the gospel message, but to understand it in light of the beliefs, worldviews, perceptions and challenges of those on the receiving end. This means an increased emphasis on anthropology, world religions, cross-cultural communication and cross-cultural theologizing. Put quite plainly, it is not unusual for people groups in the 10-40 Window to ask a whole range of new questions which our Western theologizing has not prepared us to answer.
I have had the privilege for several years of teaching the main academic year here in the United States and then teaching in India each summer. Offering many of the same courses on two different continents has been a very constructive way to observe how theology is formulated in two different cultures. What has struck me is that my Indian students persistently ask their own set of questions. Consequently, I have been singularly impressed with the need to do a better job in formulating theology cross-culturally.4
Our program at Toccoa Falls College is rooted in an anthropology core of four courses in sequence as well as courses which acquaint students in the beliefs of the target people groups.5 We offer courses in belief systems, world religions and even individual courses in Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. This not only gives us sufficient time to explore the beliefs of the receptor groups, but also to examine specific strategies currently being used to reach them. We have become far more intentional in preparing our students to understand the beliefs, worldviews, thinking processes, cultures, etc., of the target group. This emphasis has helped us in the task of contextualization as well as in the task of de-contextualization, i.e., learning to separate the Christian gospel from elements in our own culture which we have unwittingly united with the kerygma, the gospel core.
Second, we as missiologists need to increase our discussions about bolder forms of contextualization. Whether we are talking about Jesus Mosques in Bangladesh for Islamic converts, Christian Sannyasins in India for former Hindus or Soka Gakkai-styled lay discussion and discipleship groups in Japan to win and grow Buddhist converts, new ideas are being promoted today in ways we haven't seen on this scale. The last few issues of Mission Frontiers have been highlighting this development. I was pleased to read the report in the August 1997 issue of the Southern Baptists' Commission magazine and later reprinted in Mission Frontiers about the Jesus Mosques and the work in Benin. This is, of course, only one part of a larger movement within some mission circles to experiment with bolder forms of contextualization.
One of the comments made in the Missions Frontiers article by those opposed to Jesus' Mosques was the following statement: “Muslim forms cannot be divorced from their meanings.”6 That has to be one of the most theologically-loaded phrases I've read in some time. If that statement is true, then it reverberates outward affecting all of our missiological strategy. If it is not, we still have to seriously discuss how Islamic or Hindu or Buddhist forms might be legitimately redirected toward Christian ends. We desperately need far more interaction about the pros and cons of using and/or redirecting and/or replacing non-Christian religious forms with Christian ones.
Third, we must train our students to be trainers and equip them to be equippers. Three of the four types of resistance outlined earlier all demand an increased emphasis on our promoting “in culture” changes, rather than using external agents of change from outside the culture such as is sometimes promoted overtly or inadvertently in traditional Western missionary outreach. Take for example an Apollonian culture which is against change for change's sake; or a culture proud of its own ethnic heritage and suspicious of a Westerner; or a culture with political restrictions which make long term residency of Western missionaries illegal. In all three of these cases, the answer is found in an increased emphasis on the non-Western missionarysomeone who is either a member of the target culture or a near culture member.
Certainly one of the most dramatic changes in the twentieth century has been the emergence of third-world missions. In India, for example, since the early '70s when India ceased issuing new visas for Western missionaries, the missionary force began a rapid decline from thousands down to just a few hundred. Fortunately, for every Western missionary who left India, God has raised up at least two national Indian workers who are crossing cultural boundaries with the gospel. It would be foolish for a Western organization today to target India without networking with indigenous believers. It would be foolish for a Western organization to target Muslims in Nigeria, for example, without taking into account the growth of new Christians among the people groups in middle-belt Nigeria.
Networking with national believers also helps to prevent the notion that we have been set apart as the guardians of global orthodoxy. Are we really in a position, for example, to decide which African Independent Churches (AICs) are “in” and which ones are “out” based on our understanding of their orthodoxy? Western formulations of theology may not always be entirely applicable in their contexts. Sometimes we are simply unable to “hear” their orthodoxy because it is not being expressed in the familiar strains and forms of our own theological traditions.
I have been involved for the last ten years in a church-planting ministry in northern India which trains Indians from southern India to plant churches in the north.7 Southern Indians are culturally distant from Nothern Indians, but they are still far more effective and culturally close than a missionary from the West. I applaud several new ministries such as the International Institute of Christian Studies who have committed themselves and their resources not to sending missionaries to do missions per se, but to sending missionaries to train and equip national believers to more effectively carry out their God-given task of reaching the unreached people groups in their country for Christ. We need to acquaint our students with these kind of ministries, both in the classroom and in their field internships.
Networking with third-world missions is not the first step in relinquishing our role in global evangelism. On the contrary, every church on every continent should be both a sending and a receiving church. We have gifts which the global Church needs. Likewise, we need the insights and experiences of our brothers and sisters around the world to help in our own appreciation of the full grandeur of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Fourth, we must continue to be vigilant in recognizing the vital link between missiology and theology. Solid, biblical theology should lie at the heart of our missiological task. I see theological challenges both from without and within which deserve our attention.
First, as noted earlier, we face unique theological challenges from without. We must help our students to understand the difference, for example, between the theological challenges which face us in an Islamic context versus the theological challenges which face us in a Hindu context. We must give our students the theological preparation to face new questions which often are not raised, or are not raised in the same way, in our normal biblical and theological courses. In our courses on Islam and Hinduism respectively, a great deal of time is spent dealing with the theological issues and challenges which arise out of these unique contexts.
Second, we face theological challenges from within. We must increase our vigilance in defending historic doctrines such as the uniqueness of Christ, the importance of personal response and the centrality of the Great Commission in the Church's mission among our own. It takes spiritual conviction to give your life to reaching resistant peoples. Granted, many of our students want to go and “do” missions for a summer here or have a cross-cultural experience there, but we need people prepared to commit their lives to full-time mission work.
The problem is, the very basis for missions which provides the motivation for students is being eroded even within evangelicalism. The most blatant example is the problem of creeping inclusivism which continues to seep into the consciousness of the postmodern evangelical community. I want to say clearly that, from my understanding of Scripture, any theology, whether it comes from Catholic or Protestant circles, which says that Christ's death is central, but a conscious response to the name of Jesus is not, undermines the very foundation of the Great Commission and is in direct violation of Acts 4:12 and Romans 10:13-15. To say that Jesus' death is ontologically essential but not epistemologically necessary is nothing but a thinly veiled theological construct which repeats the old problem of separating the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. Faith must be explicitly in the historical, objective work of God in Jesus Christ, not merely a subjective experience of “faith” which is not necessarily or cognitively related to Jesus Christ. Our evangelical students coming to us in the last several years are already predisposed towards inclusivism. We can no longer assume that our students share our theological convictions. This has led us to be more intentional in the theological preparation of those who are considering a career in cross-cultural work.
Fifth, we must continue to encourage the training of Christian tentmakers. If ninety percent of the unreached people groups are in the 10-40 Window and the vast majority of the political countries within the 10-40 Window prohibit traditional missionary access, then it is only logical that a much higher percentage of our resources should be utilized to equip and to provide the missionary structures so that our students can enter restricted access countries as professionals, not as traditional missionaries. Accordingly, our program at Toccoa Falls has two main tracks with several different majors under each track. We have a missiology track which trains and equips our students for traditional missionary access endeavors, especially church planting, which is paramount to any vital missionary program.
But we also have a second track called Cross-Cultural Studies. The very name of the degree diffuses possible problems for our students entering sensitive countries. Within the track we have two majors: medical professionals, for those training to be doctors or nurses; and TESOL, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Approximately one-third of our majors in the School of World Missions at Toccoa Falls College are preparing to be English-language professionals. In addition to our normal anthropological and missiological training and the required hours in Bible and theology, they will take Introduction to TESOL, Methods and Materials of TESOL, TESOL Practicum and Communicating Values through TESOL. The result is that a number of our graduates are landing jobs to teach English in China, Japan, Mongolia and Kazakhstanall countries within the 10-40 Window. Tentmakers have the advantage of being able to get to the field quicker and to get into the 10-40 Window with long-term visas. Also, they require far less resources from the sending church since they are all either fully or partially self-supporting.
Sixth, we need to integrate the strategic role of prayer and personal devotion into our overall professional training. We no longer have the luxury of assuming that our students have solid personal lives with deep relationships with Christ who only need the professional skills and tools to get the job done. Our students need to be taught and given models of prayer and personal devotion to God. Spiritual formation is as important as professional formation. The recent “Praying through the Window III” which culminated in the Praying Through the Window daily during the month of October 1997 has been one of the best initiatives in recent years to help our students in this area. Spiritual strongholds operative in the 10-40 Window do not collapse because we have applied the right technique, but yield, in part, because our efforts have been bathed in prayer and our dependence is upon the Lord Jesus Christ to go before us. We begin classes by praying for an unreached group and set aside regular prayer times when we as the faculty can get before God with our students and pray for unreached people groups. This not only gives our teaching more credibility, but it models the most important part of our task as missionaries.
In conclusion, besides challenging us to rethink what is meant by the expression “resistant peoples,” I have attempted to point out some practical ways which might help us in our common calling to equip a new generation of missionaries to complete the Great Commission. May the new rally cry, “all peoplesnothing less,” be increasingly true as we seek to finish the task given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 D. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 591.
2 See, for example, such passages in the Qu'ran as 2:116, 117; 10:68; 17:111; 51:51.
3 Joshua Project 2000, Unreached Peoples List, 4, 8.
4 Two of the most helpful books in this area are Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989) and Lamin Sanneh, Encountering the West: Christianity and the Global Cultural Process (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993). Books such as Eugene Nida and William Reyburn, Meaning Across Cultures (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1981) and Dean Gilliland, The Word Among Us (Waco, TX: Word, 1989) provide excellent demonstration of the need for a contextualized theology. Much of the work of such theologies is still quite young.
5 We offer the following anthropology core: Cultural Anthropology, Applied Anthropology, Ethnography, Religious Belief Systems.
6 Mission Frontiers Bulletin (July-October 1997): 19. The statement was made by Warren Chastain of the Zwemer Institute of Muslim Studies. The article is a reprint from the August 1997 issue of the Commission, a magazine of the International Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention.
7 The Indian church-planting organization is Bharat Susamachar Samiti and is primarily known for its theological training institute in Dehra Dun, U.P., called the Luther W. New, Jr. Theological College, or NTC.
Training Missionaries to Resistant Peoples, Timothy C. Tennent
Premillennialism and the Alliance Distinctives, Joel Van Hoogen
Approximating the Millennium: Premillennial Evangelism and Racial Reconcilliation, Douglas Matthews
Implicit Christians: An Evangelical Appraisal, K. Neill Foster
Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor
©2006 by K. Neill Foster