Forrest McPhail, “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings”, 2014, 148 pages.
I don’t read a whole lot of missions and church planting books, partly because I have read a lot in the past, and partly because many do a poor job of combining a high view of Scripture and church, with a practical understanding of the realities of church planting on the mission field. Forrest McPhail’s book, “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings” is different.
In this short book (150 pages), McPhail is thinking biblically and theologically, but also very practically. Some church planting books are theologically sound, but don’t do anything to address non-Western contexts or pioneer mission fields. Other church planting books focus on majority world contexts, but seem to have forgotten that there is more to theology than telling people to mine the book of Acts for methodical insights. McPhail is able to straddle the great divide and apply Scriptural truths to a distinctively non-Western church planting context, in his case rural Cambodia.
In this book review, I want to briefly summarize the basic contents of the book, together with some of my own commentary, so that potential readers can decide whether they want to read it. And I hope that people do read it because this is a great little book about missionary church planting.
In recent years, it has become popular among evangelicals (especially Reformed evangelicals) to emphasize church planting in big cities. Numerous books, articles, and blog posts have put forth the call to plant churches in the major urban centers of the world,under the belief that what happens in the city will eventually influence the rest of society. In many ways, the renewed emphasis on cities is a good thing. We should not neglect the cities, and we should seek to influence the influencers of society in hopes of having a broader impact upon society at large.
However, with all the rhetorical emphasis on the city, some people have begun wonder, “Hey, what about the countryside? What about small towns and villages? Don’t rural areas matter too?” Although I don’t think we could find anyone who’d say that rural areas don’t matter, the unspoken message is that the countryside matters less. Way less. Rural areas are not strategic. They are not centers of influence. What happens in the countryside stays in the countryside. In sum, small towns and villages are not strategic in terms of impacting a society for the Gospel. Or are they?
It is easy to think that success in ministry depends upon us making good decisions. If God’s plans for this church / ministry are going to succeed, we need to discern His will and follow it. But what about when we make dumb decisions? Can our failures ruin what God wants to accomplish? Certainly, our decisions have a real impact in our lives and the lives of others. We should pursue holiness and make the best choices we can. But at the same time, our missteps, miscalculations, and general failure to follow God in every way do not prevent God from accomplishing his plans.
We see this principle at work in the story of Abimelech and Abraham in Genesis 20. Abraham and Sarah move into Gerar, the territory of King Abimelech. Abraham has some inkling of the trouble that is ahead, so he tells Sarah to say that she is his sister instead of his wife. Abimelech then takes Sarah as his wife, but before he gets to sleeping with her, God speaks to him in a dream and tells him that she has a husband already, and Abimelech will thus be punished. Abimelech pleads his innocence, returns Sarah, and berates Abraham for lying to him. At the end of the day, Abraham gets his wife back plus a lot of gifts from Abimelech who wants to clear his name and escape from divine wrath.
It is not uncommon for evangelists to measure their success by counting the number of decisions made for Christ, or for pastors to measure their success by the number of people sitting in the pews on Sunday. Both of these are inaccurate measures of success because they indicate little about genuine spiritual life. But on the mission field another variation of the numbers game has developed: counting churches.
Among some advocates of church planting movements (CPM), it is not uncommon to hear reports about how many churches are planted here and there in such-and-such (short) period of time. The rapid multiplication of churches is seen as evidence of the work of God in bringing many people to Christ. Everyone is quick to shout their apparent successes from the rooftops, but neither missionaries, evangelists, nor pastors are as diligent in their reporting when new churches fold, new converts disappear, or attendees make for the back door of the church.
reviewed by Jackson Wu
David Garrison, Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World. Midlothian, VA: Wigtake, 2004.
David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements examines many of the common features and practices that have led hundreds of thousands of people across the world to profess a faith in Jesus. In the book, he characterizes a CPM (“Church Planting Movements”), as “. . . a rapid multiplication of indigenous church planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment” (21). More than a mere study, the book’s triumphal tone conveys the intention to promote the idea that right vision and methodology make this God-sized work not only possible but perhaps even probable since, it is implied, CPMs are “God’s ideal” (297).
Positively, Garrison recounts a number of characteristics that have shaped CPMs across diverse cultures outside the Western world. Although resembling one another, he helpfully distinguishes CPM thinking from the Church Growth Movement (24–25). Accordingly, readers can better sort out what is empirically and theoretically descriptive of CPMs versus other kinds of methodologies. One strength of the book is that it offers a range of anecdotes from around the globe that represent the type of strategies and responses people have had where mass movements have taken place. Therefore, missiologists can assess the patterns that emerge since CPMs essentially act as large sample cases.
It has been asked whether missionaries should support themselves with secular employments (rather than accept full-time paid support) for the sake of being a good example to believers? A missionary working full-time in the secular world without monetary support from home would be a benefit to the church in two ways: 1) gives an example of living out the Christian life in the secular world, with integrity and hard work and Gospel witness, and 2) gives an example of how one can do ministry and work in the secular world at the same time.Many Thai churches are very small (less than 50 people) and can not afford to support a full time pastor or church planter. If the missionary church planter sets the precedent (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that “real” ministry can only be done by a full time paid professional, then the expansion of the church could be hindered as those with a heart for evangelism and serving the Lord think that they need to quit their job and go to Bible school before then can “really” be a minister of the Gospel. For many Thai Christians with a heart to serve, and a call to ministry, bi-vocational pastoring and church planting is probably the most viable option that will not be a burden to them and their families, and beneficial to the planting and development of new churches.
When a church building goes up on the mission field, everybody feels good. The missionary feels good. The local believers feel good. The church back home feels good. Having a church building gives the impression that a church has been established. It is a visible sign of the Christian faith in a community. Everybody feels good that the Gospel is advancing and the presence of a church building is a sign of that advance. Or is it?When the construction of a church building is largely funded by foreign money, the presence of a church building is not a true reflection of the strength and numbers of a local church. Also, if missionaries (or their home churches) are always standing by ready to supply money for newly established churches on the mission field to build church buildings, then this desire to be helpful can foster two wrong ideas: 1) church buildings are necessary in order to be a “real” church and, 2) if you need money, look to the missionary (or the well intentioned short-term visitors from their home church). When the foreign missionaries and their churches are seen as sure sources of money, then the local believers’ motivation to give financially to their own church is lessened and local believers are less likely to make decisions that the missionary doesn’t agree with. If they do, then there is the fear that perhaps the money supply will be cut off. In this way, independent decision making and partnership in the Gospel as equals is diminished. A patron-client relationship harkening back to the days of colonialism is unintentionally nurtured.
As a young missionary, I (Karl) like talking to veteran missionaries to get their perspective on things. At our recent OMF Thailand annual conference, our guest speaker Larry Dinkins spoke on cross cultural evangelism and overcoming barriers in communicating the Gospel to Buddhists. Larry & his wife Paula came to Thailand as new missionaries in 1981 where they did church planting and theological education until 2002 when they needed to go back to the U.S. for Paula to receive treatment for cancer in her bone marrow. The treatment for Paula’s cancer has been successful and she is in remission. As a result Larry and Paula have been acting as mobilizers and recruiters for OMF in Southern California as well as the Midwest. They are involved in Thai churches in the U.S. and have made numerous trips back to Thailand as well.
(UPDATE, Feb 2012: Since this article was written in 2009, Paula has gone to be with the Lord, and Larry has subsequently returned to Thailand to continue to minister among the Thai people).
After listening to Larry speak at the conference, and later in a recorded lecture, I became curious and sent him an email, asking, “If you could go back to your first term on the mission field, knowing then what you know now, what would you do differently? How would you go about planting a church in Central Thailand if you had to do it all over again?” Larry was kind enough to email me back and here’s a bit of what he had to say:
It is important to be practical and realistic in ministry, especially when it comes sharing the Gospel and establishing new churches. But is it possible to be too practical? It certainly is when the desire for results and finding methods that “work” outweigh a desire to search the Scriptures and find out what are God’s priorities and God’s methods for building his church.I have just started reading the 9Marks July/August 2009 eJournal on pragmatism in missions. One of the first articles, “Pragmatism, Pragmatism Everywhere!” by Andy Johnson frames the discussion well and is a must read. Johnson puts into print what I have been thinking about for some time: Is there some sort of disconnect in the minds of missionaries and other Christians who claim to uphold the authority of Scripture yet deny it in practice?
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about church growth in the evangelical world. Everyone wants to know how to make their church grow and there is no shortage of suggestions for how to do it. What is the key to making your church grow? Is it using a cell church model? house church model? more user-friendly sermons? better music? more skits? candles? bigger parking lot? more exciting youth programs? powerpoint? more lay leadership? something else?Protestant missionaries have been in Thailand for over 180 years yet the number of Christians in the country is still less than 1%. So, the question has been asked, when so much time, money, and effort has been put into evangelization, how come the church has grown so slowly? Again, many suggestions have been put forth. Perhaps we haven’t contextualized the Gospel well enough. Or our evangelism has been too Western. Or we have used a poor model of church. Or there is a lack of indigenous worship music. Or we haven’t been letting the Spirit lead. Or church buildings don’t look Thai enough. Or we haven’t emphasized house churches. Or we haven’t found the right redemptive analogy. Or whatever.
It is always good to know that someone is speaking from experience and not just theory. Therefore, following on from my previous post about Nevius’ thoughts on finding local leaders, I wanted to share Nevius’ account of how he and his missionary colleagues made the mistake of appointing elders too hastily:“Twenty years ago our mission in considering this subject reasoned on this wise: We are Presbyterians, and our churches should be organized from the first on Presbyterian principles. If we cannot get men for elders as well qualified as we should like, we must take the best men we can find, men who seem sincere and earnest Christians, and who may develop in character and ability to fulfill the duties of elders by having the duties and responsibilities of this office laid upon them. With these views and expectations several churches were formally and constitutionally organized. It was found, however, in not a small proportion of cases that the elders did not, or could not, perform their official duties, and were an obstruction to any one else attempting to do so. They were placed in a false position, injurious to themselves and the churches of which they had the nominal charge. Some were hardly able to sustain the character of an ordinary church member and others were in a course of few years excommunicated. We then took action as a Presbytery, determining that