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Book Review: “Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings” by Forrest McPhail

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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 “Pioneer Missions”, there are two groups of people that the author is aiming at:  potential or new missionaries, and churches on the home side who may be confused about missions.  For these readers, McPhail answers the following questions: “What is “missions,” and what is it not? Who are “missionaries,” and what do they do? What is the “Church,” and what is her responsibility? What is the “gospel,” and what does the stewardship of it look like? What is a “disciple,” and how are they made? What is “patronage,” and how can it impair the work of evangelism?” (Kindle loc. 70-73)

McPhail organizes his answers to these questions into eight chapters which address “eight factors that contribute to the privileges, priorities, and problems faced by pioneer missionaries.” (Kindle loc. 219-220).  The eight factors are as follows:

Factor 1: Preparatory work is foundational for evangelism.

Factor 2: Guarding the Gospel is crucial.

Factor 3: Intense discipleship requires dealing with sin.

Factor 4: Believers face profound isolation and persecution.

Factor 5: Maintaining New Testament simplicity is crucial for church life.

Factor 6: Misapplications of Bible truth regarding poverty abound.

Factor 7: A consistently spiritual focus of ministry can be difficult to maintain.

Factor 8: Changing times can obscure unchanging needs.

 

In “Factor 1” McPhail addresses the missionary’s need to have the right mindset when starting upon missionary work.  Language and culture learning are absolutely essential, and it is necessary to take the time to learn what people are really thinking, not just assuming you know what they are thinking because of something you read in a book.  Learning how to present the Gospel clearly involves learning what people already know and believe.  McPhail properly emphasizes that all of this will take time.  The missionary is like the farmer who sows diligently and waits for God to do his work.  

In “Factor 2” McPhail tackles the danger of syncretism.   This is a really important (and often overlooked) issue in modern missions so I am glad he dedicates a whole chapter to it early in the book.  No one wants syncretism, of course, but sometimes missionaries unintentionally encourage it through their own impatience for conversions, and the downplaying of the necessity of repentance.  I’ve heard other missionaries be dismissive of those concerned about syncretism and true repentance as being overly critical, judgmental, legalistic, and not gracious enough towards new believers who don’t have their lives straightened up yet.  But McPhail gets it right here.  These are serious concerns, and they are biblical concerns.   In Scripture, God takes syncretism and hypocrisy very seriously, and missionaries need to do so as well.  McPhail provides a more biblical view of the issues, compared to those who downplay these topics for the sake of starting a movement of some kind.

“Factor 3” deals with discipleship and church discipline.  This chapter makes it clear that McPhail has a pastoral heart and tries to walk alongside new and struggling believers to help them have joy and freedom in Christ.  But he also doesn’t paternalistically wink at sin as if we can’t hope for much more from these new believers from a totally non-Christian background.  Sin is serious and church discipline is needed.  And McPhail does church discipline, a practice that doesn’t get much air time in church planting literature, especially in those resources written for missionaries.   Discipline is a necessary part of discipleship for the sake of the holiness of the church.   I’ve heard missionaries excuse themselves from exercising discipline with church members, claiming that they might lose the relationship and not have any opportunity to speak into that person’s life.  But the author of this book never ventures into those slippery, slimy, pseudo-biblical waters.  Thank you, Forrest, for not side-stepping this difficult and unpopular issue.   

“Factor 4” continues the theme of discipleship from the previous chapter, but now addresses the external pressures of social isolation and persecution that new believers can face.   The cost of discipleship can be hard and this chapter helps readers know what the local believers may be up against, and will need help to get through.

In “Factor 5” McPhail offers his understanding of the basics of church in pioneer situations, namely keep it simple and stick to New Testament basics.  Often times when I hear this kind of philosophy, a disregard or disdain for theology and doctrine goes along with it.  I don’t hear that in this chapter, though.  Rather, it is a call to return to the primary tasks of being the church, and resisting the urge for the missionary to encourage secondary activities that are often present in larger, older churches in the West such as age-graded Sunday schools, facilities for youth events, or church vehicles.  McPhail cautions against missionaries being overly directive in shaping the growth and development of the church.  He writes, “[t]he missionary must teach God's Word and emphasize its principles, but leave the major task of application primarily to the local believers.” (Kindle loc. 764-765)

“Factor 6” and “Factor 7” both relate to the ways that the use of money can negatively impact the mission of the church.  McPhail’s context is Cambodia, which has seen a massive amount of international aid and a corresponding number of “rice Christians” who profess faith in Christianity in order to get financial benefits.   He reports that all sorts of aid agencies and well-meaning individuals and ministries give lots of money, but this sets bad precedents, creates dependency, and unwisely puts the missionary (or local pastor) into the position of financial patron for the local believers.   

McPhail asserts that the task of ministry is all about spiritual disciple-making, not economic uplift (as beneficial as that may be).   The poor whom the Bible obligates Christians to care for are the destitute without food, clothing, and / or shelter.   However, there is no biblical obligation to help people who have basic needs met to improve their lot in life.  McPhail and those who work with him have helped many individuals with physical and financial needs, so he is not opposed to helping the poor.  What he does oppose is putting caring for physical needs on the same level with evangelism and discipleship, claiming that both are equal important in fulfilling the Great Commission.   He sees the imbalance in this area harming the church in Cambodia today.

The only major point in the book that I would disagree with is McPhail’s claim that covenant theology (which he consistently calls replacement theology) is responsible for the overemphasis on mercy ministry today, and that dispensational theology is the necessary corrective to this distortion of the spiritual task of the church.  While I agree with McPhail’s conclusion (the mission of the church is spiritual, and the church and its ministers are not obligated to do social needs / mercy ministry), it seems misplaced to lay the blame at the feet of covenant theology.   The major source of the imbalance in missions today is probably due more to evangelicals drifting from Scripture and seeking to do “missions” that are more acceptable to the world than it is due to a carefully thought-out covenant theology.   McPhail does admit though that there are some amillenialists (I would be one) who agree that mercy ministry is an individual mandate rather than an obligation of the church as a body.   So I found myself heartily agreeing with McPhail’s conclusions about the mission of the church, although I couldn’t recommend the way that he got there.

“Factor 8” is the concluding chapter and consists of a call to committed ministry that keeps the main thing, the main thing.  Sacrifice is necessary, and missionaries need to be willing to lay down their lives if they want to see the church grow.  

 

Overall I really appreciated “Pioneer Missions” and have found myself starting to recommend it to fellow missionaries.  McPhail covers a lot of ground in just 150 pages, thus making it a good read for both potential and new missionaries.   Although the author is writing with the Cambodian context in mind, I can easily see missionaries in a variety of settings getting a lot of good insights and practical helps from the book.   

I appreciated his no-nonsense call for missionaries to set proper expectations for the mission field, to be serious about studying language and culture, and to be serious about the Gospel and avoiding syncretism.  This book presents a realistic picture of pioneer missions with the challenges and difficulties that it entails, but also presents a positive hopeful picture of what God is doing and can do.  

McPhail has been engaged in church planting in rural Cambodia for 15 years and you can tell that this book is written on the back of on-the-field experience.  If you want a thoughtful, biblical reflection on practical missionary church planting, “Pioneer Missions” is a great book to dig into and share with your friends and co-workers.

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