At various times all missionaries have taken part in a mission’s conference. It probably included participants from various evangelical denominations as well. And over the days of the week the representatives from the various missions have discussed strategies, budgets, and programs.
On still other occasions some of us have taken part in larger conferences where the leaders of the missions and church committees come together with plenary sessions, workshops, seminars and prayer groups. The staff, speakers, and representatives represented a cross-section of the present day thinking on mission strategies and programs.
I have found that during the course of such meetings the emphasis is upon evangelization and the planting of churches amongst the masses of people in the cities. I have even heard statements like “God is moving His people to the cities,” with demographic studies cited to support the goal of reaching the masses. Claims such as, “Eighty percent of the world will live in urban settings by the year 2000,” give emotional and statistical support to urban work.
In addition, some researchers group the peoples of the world into certain primary religious categories. These are then prioritized on the basis of world population figures, beginning with the Islamic cultures, followed closely by the Hindu, Buddhist and Pagan. There is also the usual confusion over whether to classify the Catholics as Christians. A group called something like “Tribal” will likely be represented as well.
The unfortunate implication which permeates such strategy sessions is that because “Tribal” represents “only” five or so percent of the world’s population, that it should therefore demand only five or so percent of the missionary force of the world. It follows, of course, that only five percent of the missionary budget of the church should “go” for tribal work. This is what I mean by the “five percent fallacy”. It is based upon values of our secular Western society where the quantification of social and ethnic groups forms the basis upon which financial aid is granted to them.
Such arguments seem to me to depend upon percentages for their basic assumptions and not upon the teaching of the Gospel. In the fallacy argument the lower the population percentage, the lower should be the effort and the lesser the amount of money spent on that category. Remember, however, that by definition tribal groups are almost always minority groups. And these lesser minorities have always been “problems” when it comes to defining a strategy of finance or personnel. In the US, for example, a minority group may represent only ten percent of the population and yet “use up”, let us say, forty-five percent of the government welfare. In this sense the minority group is not very “cost-effective”.
There are many such minority groups in our own culture which, some people claim, are given a disproportionate amount of government concern and funding: the refugees, the illegal immigrants, the American Indians, or the Black population in certain areas, to name a few. However, if we look at minority groups in such a statistical manner, we will be constrained to define needs purely on a numerical basis. Operating from our cultural perspective and from within a privileged social or economic position, we will respond to needs in a mechanistic fashion. We may not wish to be accused of racism, but we intuitively seem to expect minority groups to know their place in a “pluralistic” society and we are upset when they become involved in riots or demonstrations for their perceived rights. Our greatest concern seems to be to see minorities assimilated fully into “our” American culture, so that we have fewer inter-racial and inter-cultural problems.
Many evidences for this dominant viewpoint exist in our society. One, which has a long history, is the attitude of “Americans” about language. The majority feel, for example, that if people want to live in the US they should speak “English”, like other “Americans”. This bias has successfully kept second generation minority speakers from learning their own languages and has led to the demise of many American Indian languages, as well as European languages which were once spoken widely in the US.
At present one fear is that red-blooded Americans might have to learn Spanish, which is spoken by millions in the US. It has even prompted attempts to amend the constitution and state that English is the national language.
I believe that such xenophobic views in our secular society also continue to influence missions strategy. The leveling process on language and ethnic structure is expected by the average US citizen to move the minority groups into middle class, English speaking America. In fact in many churches there is an implicit belief that the melting pot moves groups toward becoming Christian. The attitude of the church toward tribal groups throughout the world simply mirrors society’s views on minorities.
It is perhaps then natural to think of tribal societies around the world in the same light: their detribalization process, as they move into the cities, may contribute to their becoming Christians. It can be argued that most groups have no future in their traditional homelands, due often to the greed of wealthy land owners and developers all over the world. Won’t such minority groups eventually be as rare as a Bible in a public school and just as much an embarrassment to the missionary budgets?
A further fallacy of the five percent is that it represents God to be like a city mayor, complete with his demographic survey coordinator who defines strategy on the basis of where human masses concentrate. The more people there are at location X, the more missionaries, pastors, or churches should also be at X. It is as if the Great Coordinator commands: “Our computer studies show the probability of a higher conversion ratio in the city of Bombay than in the village of Butu, therefore go ye”. This analogy, as we should know from Scripture, is nonsense. God is always interested in the individual, the one in a hundred or the one in a million. He spares no effort to rescue the one. There is no Biblical evidence that strategies are to be defined on anything but the basis of concern for the individual.
Another fallacy is that missionaries somehow, to use an accepted metaphor, “reach” the cities. And yet cities are characteristically divided into social blocks: groups which reflect ethnic, social, linguistic, or economic ties. This is especially the case in the inner city or the outer squatter area, where people are less mobile because transportation is a factor. Even housing there is of the simplest type and often a luxury. It is within such groups that people are effectively “reached”. Even cases of mega-churches, such as in Korea, California or Texas, the discipling and teaching of believers is best done effectively in small groups. Further, throughout the world, pastors typically minister to small congregations, usually about the size of the smallest “tribe”. It is therefore misleading and confusing to imply that city ministries are somehow more cost-effective and strategic concerns of missionaries and church budgets than work with tribal groups.
Another fallacy is about the use of money. Once this topic is raised at a missions conference the crowd listens carefully and things become serious indeed. Where, the pastors and strategists ask, can we best put “our missionary budget”? “Where will be best “see results”? “How can we ensure a cost-effective budget with our missionaries”? Although there are thousands of ethnic groups without the Word of God, most of them are small “tribes”. Why not then have a budget in the church for missions which represents the “real” needs of the world? If 80 percent of the people in the world live in cities, why not then put 80 percent of the budget into city ministries?
Why are these considered serious questions today when the very churches which pose them have moved from the city to the suburbs? There seems to be no real interest on the part of the evangelical churches of America to remain in the inner city for their ministry. Instead inner city missions are established by the very churches which moved out of the cities to care for the needs of people who still live in the city. This is an unusual strategy on the use of money.
Is God perhaps confused? Doe He have a strategy that only missiologists or professors can comprehend? Or is His “strategy” misunderstood? On what basis does He love every individual, every ethnic group, and call His servants to go everywhere? The goal and strategy of God is certainly to meet the needs of individuals in their social and ethnic setting. He always wants individual disciples who are willing to go elsewhere, not masses of secure lukewarm people.
There are other problems which unfortunately grow out of the five percent fallacy. One is to suggest that 850 million Muslims need Christ more than say, 150 Bantu people in Africa. This too surely follows from our Western metaphors on investment: the more shares owned and controlled by a Company, the better the chances for a dividend. We know that a General Motors portfolio is a better deal than loaning your brother-in-law $500 to patent his latest invention. Further, a diversified investment policy will return good dividends when we study the yield patterns, much like the professional better who knows the horse’s statistical race patterns. It is never best, we are told, to put all our money on one horse, or on one particular missions category, such as supporting work among “tribal” groups.
Very slowly, but not subtly, the tribal groups become of lesser important because they are smaller and, like ethnic inter-city groups, their potential yield is less. Our society values the sure investment, the guaranteed return, the shared profit, and the feeling of fiscal responsibility. The Scriptural commands on teaching and discipling all peoples have nothing to say about size, except that the Lord spared noting to reach, metaphorically, the one lost sheep.
I do not think that I have distorted the view that has often prevailed in mission strategy meetings which establish financial policies for the “unreached” categories. My fear is that any emphasis which is derived mainly from statistical demographic studies will be built squarely upon a system of Western numerical values and judgments that has not proved very sound for our own country. As such it will severely misconstrue the needs of the small tribal and ethnic groups. Surely these must be considered upon the basis of their own needs and the commands of the Scriptures, not upon financial investment models from our own society.
I think that if larger missions and churches gradually adopt the “cost-effective” management syndrome they will not take advantage of new situations quickly. It is then the small mission, the small church, which responds to particular needs because they have learned to hear the heartbeat of the small group. Their needs do not have to be represented in the budget or the five year plan in order to respond because the “five percent” argument is foreign to them.