Finishing the Great Commission with Unfinished People

Desiring God 1992 Conference for Pastors

God, Congregation, and Codependency

That last little comment about the Baptist General Conference being responsive to our concern is more due to John Piper’s influence than to mine, I’m sure. But, remarkably, there is no other denomination on the face of the earth, so far as I know, whose official declarations of purpose include in such explicit language, the unreached peoples and the finishing of the task. When the colored brochure, which I’m sure many of you have seen if you’re in BGC churches, came out announcing that program, we mustered 45 people to help us stuff those into our outgoing bulletin. Just for fun, how many of you get our Mission Frontiers Bulletin? Well, anybody who would like to get it, just put your name on a little slip of paper on that table where this literature comes from. I should have brought a copy for everybody. I forgot to. We’ll be glad to put you on it.

In any case, we got 45 people. Now, how long do you think it took 45 people to stuff in colored brochures as this was going out into the mail? It took us eight hours to stuff 75,000 of these bulletins, but we’ve never done that before. But we would be willing to do it if any other denomination declared as its central purpose, the completion of the task. We were just singing “Thy Kingdom Come.” It’s the same thing. It’s what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Essentially, it has the same purpose as the Baptist General Conference denomination, and John was the one who made that link.

Wartime Work

In fact, it’s the linking of missions and other subjects here at these annual conferences that’s so fascinating. I’m sure that many of you, when you read the program, said, “Oh, there goes John again. He’s always getting missions in there someplace, even if it doesn’t have any relationship at all.” I don’t know how to explain this, but this is what came to me. I feel more comfortable with the atmosphere of this place with the supremacy of God, his purposes, and all of that, than I do with the subject of this conference. I’m sure there’s a connection between the two, and I think John has portrayed that just in the last hour. We’re dealing with surface problems when the deep reality is God and what he’s up to. Missions can’t be another subject. It can’t be a separate subject, obviously, when we talk about God and his purposes.

I’m very delighted to be here. I’ve never been more unprepared, for a talk, I don’t think. And you had a little bit of an inductive presentation in the last hour. This is going to be very inductive. I have been unable to bring into focus the hunch that I have, the intuition that I have, that I think would be most relevant to this subject. So, maybe you can help me.

I can’t even probably effectively explain exactly where I’m coming from. If I could, then I would be able to get this topic in hand. I’ve lived in two worlds. I’ve lived in a primitive society, as some people call them, with a language so different from English that Spanish is a mere dialect of English by comparison. My background in anthropology introduced me to some extent in advance to such radically dissimilar societies, and I’ve tried to understand each of those two worlds. I haven’t fully drawn all the conclusions that you ought to be able to, and I’m still working on that. So maybe you can help me.

In another analogy, instead of speaking of two worlds, my role in the last 25 years or so has been in the Christian military. I don’t like military analogies, but they have some value. The civilian force, the mayors of the towns, they’re the pastors in this analogy. The missionaries are the armed forces that go out across the world, tear families apart, and leave people, friends, and acquaintances behind.

They’re not supposed to be normal ventures. They’re emergency activities. They’re redemptive activities rather than maintenance activities. Now, we haven’t had any real wars since the Second World War. All these other wars have been little sideline pastimes by comparison. In a real war, there is no way to distinguish between the mayors of the towns and the generals on the front line. There’s a continuous involvement from the tiniest little town to the most specific military objective, a continuous flow of personnel.

I’m sure most of you do not remember what I remember about the Second World War because I’m much older. But they used to say, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” That meant, “You shouldn’t be wasteful of this or that.” Every automobile had a sticker on the window that prescribed to the gas station how much gasoline you should buy. You weren’t supposed to get more than you were due. There were other terrible hardships for the civilians like being unable to buy nylon stockings because they were using that kind of thing for parachute cords. And coffee was in very short supply. You can see the suffering of the citizens during a real war.

But of course, the real suffering was the separation. Missionary effort involves separation. It’s not a normal thing for people to go out on their own, even in fellowship with other people, and leave their families, their homes, and their home churches. This is an unusual, unnatural thing. In some ways, it’s the greatest sacrifice. It isn’t the heat, or the mosquitoes, or the snakes, or whatever; it’s the absence, the separation, that’s the greatest missionary burden.

Building Up or Starting New?

Over the years, this forum has helpfully illuminated a number of key themes. Leave it to John Piper to ferret out the connection to the missionary movement of any and every subject that will come up. I’ve mentioned this. But there’s always a connection, and this year is no exception. No mission agency today is unaware of the increasing baggage of unresolved problems, which contemporary missionary candidates are bringing with them to the global mission task.

I am grateful to be able to build on the insights of a number of mission agency leaders who have shared with me about this problem. I have a whole sheaf of stuff. However, I hasten to add, that I’m not going to be talking about missions very much. The introduction almost covers the field. I will be attempting to focus on the monumental problem this conference has been dealing with, simply utilizing some of the additional data and insights that are available cross-culturally from missionary experience and mission leaders. In approaching a number of mission agencies about this theme, my own impressions have been confirmed.

There is unquestionably an absolute difference, not just a relative difference, between the maturity and stability of missionary candidates a generation ago and those that are showing up at the doors of the mission agencies today. This is parallel to the fact that there is an absolute difference between the divorce rate 40 years ago and now. Then, one out of four marriages in general, broke up, but only one out of 50 church-going couples broke up 40 years ago.

If today had suddenly come upon us, we would be absolutely and totally traumatized by the incredible change for the worse, despite the ocean of self-help and recovery literature, which is more of a symptom than a cure. The framers of this conference turned a neat phrase in speaking of the problem of finishing the task with unfinished people, but they did not intend by this metaphor to define the problem completely.

You can contrast a well-built but poorly finished building, which only needs completion, to a poorly built building, which almost has to be torn down and rebuilt in order to be finished. One requires a lot more finishing, if you will, than the other. In other words, the metaphor of finishing isn’t all that useful. So I would like to approach this whole subject of unfinished people, whether they’re the one kind or the other, from the unusual view of the American family as it is seen from the standpoint of non-Western society. This involves a drastic and unusual thesis.

Learning from Outside Our Culture

I’m going to proceed, not on the assumption that American candidates for missionary service need further finishing either before going or after arriving to be capable of handling the job required in cross-cultural mission service, but that the problem of their inadequacy — this is my thesis — cannot even be best understood unless it is looked at from outside our society, outside our culture, unless we are able to learn something profoundly important from the mission field. I have long believed that God has put us into missionary endeavors, not merely to be a blessing to the peoples of the world, which is the obvious biblical mandate for mission. But that he has sent us also to receive.

I’m not about to plunge into the whole question of dialogue with other religions and all the wonderful things we can learn from them. I merely believe that as the gospel penetrates the world’s kaleidoscope of peoples, each person, as it comes to the Bible, sees it with new and different insights. And that, as a symphony orchestra that was disbanded and scattered all around and finally brought back piece by piece, the overall music would be more beautiful and wonderful, as every new voice or instrument was added to that orchestra.

So, missionaries are in the business of reestablishing the comprehensive diversity of God’s creation, not simply trying to teach everyone to speak English, to be Americans, to wear ties, and to have aisles down the middle. We’re out there to help those people become who God intended them to be, and then, to learn from them as a global family of Christian believers. In other words, I’m saying we need to learn from the believers, not from the unbelievers. Although, we could learn something from the unbelievers as well, as you might see in a moment.

Gleaning from Global Common Sense

Is it not obvious, for example, that rural agricultural societies might readily help gain for us the pungency of some of the agricultural parables? That’s a rather superficial example. However, I have not very long believed that there is something else we can receive back from our mission endeavors around the world. It’s something that does not come so much from the Christians or from some other religious tradition, but something that comes from comparing notes about things that are so basic that cultural and religious differences are not all that important.

I’m thinking of things like breastfeeding. Is that a culturally developed invention? Or is it something more basic? I say this despite the widespread disapproval of our own society’s medicine men for many years. The fact that 200 million Americans could go headlong in the wrong direction for 30 years without any insight gained from the rest of the world, Christian or not, tells us the sad story that many of the American problems, those we’re talking about here, will not so easily be solved unless we are willing to take note of the experience of humankind all around the world.

And this is something to which our missionaries can introduce us. Specifically, the very nature of the unfinishedness of our contemporary mission candidates is something which it may well be that our own society does not have the resources to appraise clearly. What is it that I’m getting at? What is it about the American family I’m hinting at which is visible to people from other lands, but which is invisible to us, and accounts for a great deal of the kind of unfinished candidates that are putting a great strain on mission boards today? Now, that’s just an introductory statement. I’m going to go into this somewhat inductively.

The Care of a Family

I’d like to read from an article in the “L.A. Times” magazine, which is from January 19th. This is in Helena, Montana:

Something is at work here at the Intermountain Home. You can feel it. The children have stopped kicking each other. They don’t set fires. They don’t abuse animals anymore. They don’t sexualize each other. They don’t throw knives. But, that’s not the magic. The magic is that you see the children when they come in like wild animals, but in six months they’re children. They look like children, they feel like children, they have fun, they giggle, they laugh.

Fifty percent of the children who come to hospitals and to residential treatment centers could benefit from longer stays. But, it costs $73,000 a year to keep a child even at this Intermountain Home. By comparison, it costs four times as much to five times as much to treat an abused child in a full-time hospital. It costs from $400 to $500 a day, which is about half again as much for a residential treatment center in the L.A. Area. Long-term, scientifically solid studies are rarely conducted by any program in terms of helping children because they’re expensive and difficult. Many of the families whose children are treated move frequently. Privacy laws rule out long-term studies. The real question, of course, is whether this kind of intensive therapy, which clearly works on a small scale, can be applied on a larger scale.

Now, these are comments at the very end of the article. Let me read a phrase or two from the beginning of the article if I can find it here:

They use an innovative long-term program for treating severely abused children. This home in the isolated mountain ring city of Helena, Montana is often a last-chance stop for children who, like Brian, have been brutalized by adults until their minds have snapped. In the aftermath of neglect, sexual abuse, and even physical torture, they face a raft of problems, including psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and affliction suffered by Vietnam veterans haunted by the horrors of war. These children can be savagely violent, emotionless, sexual molesters of other children, and fire starters. There’s evidence indicating that such children, untreated, are likely to become the most brutal of criminals — the Ted Bundys, the Dahmers, and the Richard Specks of the next generation.

In a normal treatment center, if a child behaves well, he’s rewarded. If his behavior is unacceptable, he may be banished. Eventually, the child learns what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. There are a few alternatives to this approach, and if it fails there is little recourse, but to keep the child in an institution for the rest of his life, for his protection, and for the protection of other people. The Intermountain Home and the program it’s modeled on — that of Forest Heights Lodge in Evergreen, Colorado — claims success with a far different program — one that showers abused children with a constant and consistent nurturing that they never got from their parents.

Their goal is to allow them for the first time in their lives to develop a strong bond with another person. Thus, they are not corrected so much as accepted. This treatment is based on the attachment model. The principles of which were noted in mid-century by a psychoanalyst, and developed . . .

So they’re really making progress. Well, no one comes out right out and says so, but the basis for the treatment is the closest thing to family-style love that an institution can create. What an embarrassing admission because that’s rather pedantic and simple. It’s embarrassingly simple for technical people, as if to say, “Our program is really just common sense. That’s what good parenting is about. We’ve rediscovered what Grandma knew.” You have to go that far back. There’s so much research and science on children that something has been forgotten. Kids need to be touched, need to be hugged, and need to be nurtured. They need to feel loved and feel worthwhile. What an incredible insight. It just staggers your imagination that something like this would be printed in the L.A. Times.

Critical Moments of Development

The article continues:

There is no universally-accepted roadmap to how a child develops, but the attachment model has gained credence since the 1950s. In a nutshell, it says that the first months of a child’s life are critical to well-being, more so than science ever imagined. For it’s in those early months that children build their first emotional and psychological bridges to the outside world with the critical help of a nurturing caregiver — father, mother, or someone else. The quality of their lives will depend on those bridges.

Now, they’re going to explain something that of course, no one would ever know otherwise unless they read it in the L.A. Times:

The early part of the attachment process works like this. Babies get hungry, wet their diapers, cry, scream, kick their legs, and wave their arms, and tension builds until a parent answers.

Some of our most recent evangelical books say, “Just tell that kid to go jump in the lake so he is not going to start dominating the parent.” The article continues:

The child is given a breast and cradled, the diaper is changed, or the mother sings to the baby softly. The mother and the child come down from the stressful peak together, relaxing and comforting each other. As children get older, they begin to explore the world and take in new experiences and people, but always — if the attachment process was a healthy one — with a knowledge of a secure home base to return to.

Notice, this is something that a counselor cannot provide. And in fact, the pastor can’t provide it. And the average church does not provide it. The article continues:

As children get older, the baby has been taught the rudiments of human relationships and that other people can be trusted — to soothe, nurture, and care. These are indispensable psychological nutrients for human development. But, if emotionally-crippled parents respond to children’s crying with neglect or violence (whether they learned it in a seminar at my home church, or just were disposed that way), the children can begin to numb out to actually stop feeling pain, and to stop expressing needs, both physical and emotional. They never develop basic skills for bonding, and cannot bond in a healthy way to others.”

This was William Cowper’s experience. He could not bond. It continues:

They have been taught that there is no one for them to depend on, so they will never trust. Each child in this home situation has been constructed artificially, but very effectively. Each child has an attachment figure — one counselor with whom he or she has chosen to build the kind of relationship a daughter or son should have formed with parents. Once the child gravitates toward a counselor, that counselor begins taking on the role of a parent (what a brilliant idea), holding the child, giving a bottle, getting the child up for school, and going to special events. This is the attachment theory in essence, and the centerpiece of treatment at these two institutions. Each child must build a strong bond with a counselor. Yet staff members mustn’t get too close. They mustn’t get too involved so that they begin to lose their professional distance.

What Changes Peoples’ Lives

Then, of course, this doesn’t go on forever. They say:

A cornerstone of the treatment is the extremely long stay in a residential setting, which allows the intense feelings and emotions that bond human beings to come into play. Foster parent programs often make things worse for abused children because they move children around, and break the attachments they form, again, and again, and again. And then, children are afraid to form them because they know they’re just going to be broken again. It’s naive to assume that the most pregnant therapeutic moment is in a counseling hour in an office. We give too much credence to therapy, and not enough to how we live.

I remember Larry saying last night how he was so proud of this brilliant advice he gave to this fellow that gave him a new insight, and so forth. And later, he saw him and the fellow remembered not that, but the conversation out in the grass. The article says:

What changes people’s lives are the people they live with.

Well, enough of this article. I thought it would be interesting to bring up the rediscovery of the family, so to speak, or at least a somewhat bizarre, partial reconstruction of the family as a prologue to making some comments about how very different the American family is when viewed from other parts of the world. I don’t think the average person in this country is prepared for insights along this line. This is where I struggle the most. I don’t know exactly how to explain myself.

Outside Our Age-Specific Stratospheres

A seminary student at Fuller once came down to Guatemala. I met him for the first time after he was there for three or four months. I said to him, “You were looking forward to coming down. You read books on Guatemala. You knew a lot about Guatemala. What was the most astonishing thing after coming here to Guatemala?”

I don’t think I would’ve ever guessed. Not because I didn’t know the situation which he described, but because I didn’t somehow put the two together. He started speaking in breathless tones about this church he went to, and to the young people’s meeting on a Sunday night, and how, in this little group of 25 or 30 people, there weren’t just certain ages but there were a lot of different young people from maybe about four or five to 16 or 17 or 18. Of course, we couldn’t handle that because we’re stratified. Sixth graders will not talk to fifth graders. We’ve been trained that way. He said, “There were 15-year-olds bouncing kids on their knees that weren’t even their own siblings.” And he went on and on. He was just so staggered. How did they do that? Where did that come from?

That isn’t even a part of their Presbyterian heritage down there. They were doing that not because it came out of some Presbyterian literature through the mission board; they were doing that because, in Guatemala, they have families. They have families in Guatemala. If you’ve never seen one, you could go and see one. You’d be surprised at what a family is.

Now, things that happen suddenly get in the paper, even good things that happen suddenly. But usually, it’s bad things that happen suddenly. Things that happen gradually don’t get in the paper, are not even noticed, and it’s almost impossible for the consciousness of a society to take seriously gradual changes for the worse or the better. We just accept them eventually. And this is why it’s so difficult for me now to proceed because we accept industrialization. We accept urbanization. We accept our school system. We accept postponed marriage. These things are invisible to the fish that swim in this kind of water.

We can’t question the impact of industrialization right down to this moment on the family, or urbanization in churches (where no one knows each other very well), or the schooling process (which separates children for many hours). You can’t question things that are so well entrenched that they become part and parcel of our society. I just throw that out as a warning because it’s hard for us. I’m sure that I could stand up here and make a few statements that would sound very radical if I didn’t watch out, or even if I did watch out. Were the truth ever known, as John says at the end of his Gospel, the whole world could not contain the pages of anguish and agony that you could find in the boarding schools of England down through history, or maybe in the mission field.

A Child’s Participation and Purpose

I didn’t have any kind of negative attitude toward the missionary boarding school in Guatemala. At the time, a tourist wanted me to take him up in that neck of the woods, which I’d never been to before. So I went up there, and let the man and his wife go in and see some folks who were part of the administration of the school. I was standing outside the door. It was a great big corrugated iron door made out of the corrugated roofing material. And there was a three-inch crack, and I saw a little kid sticking his nose through there and looking out. And I was watching other things. First thing you know, he got out the door. I don’t think this was supposed to happen. That door should have been shut. But he got out the door and I remember to this day, he was so short that he put his arm around one of my legs. He wasn’t a teenager. He was six or seven years old. He looked up at me, and he said, “Are you my daddy?”

In that school, parents were not allowed to visit because as the people who run the school put it, “They’re more troubled than the children. It’s only when the parents visit that we have trouble with the children, so let’s just not have the parents come during the school year.” If there’s a birthday that happens to occur during the school year, they make that allowance. It turned out that school was full. Our children were unable to go there. Maybe that’s for the best. We started a school where they could go and come back every day. This second missionary kids school wasn’t just for missionary kids but for Guatemala kids. It’s a big school today. So we escaped that experience.

Now, I’m not saying that all boarding schools are evil or anything, I’m just saying that we perhaps are unaware of things that are an accepted pattern in our society, and what they do to us. There is a fragmentation of our society, the spreading out, not only of the family into different jobs and the mother, father, and children to different schools. What happens when school becomes so prominent a feature of an industrialized society that we don’t have to bother with teaching young kids to be helpful?

See, in Guatemala, families work together. There are ingenious techniques for helping the children of the family feel important and participate. I must confess that when those children are really little, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. The little girls follow after the mothers with little bottles on their heads because older women carry bottles and other things. They really use their heads. But with these little girls, they’re always falling off, and the mothers have to stop and help them, and so forth. But when they get a little older, they carry a bit of a payload in those bottles along with the mother. And when they get to be 10, 11, 12, or 13, they are really helpful.

The little boys go with the fathers to chop wood. Wood is the source of heat, cooking, and so forth. And the splinters fly all over the place. You can see what a little kid can deal with, picking up those things and stacking them up. When the father is on his way to come home, the little boy has a little bundle. And bigger boys have bigger bundles. They follow along, and they’re doing what their fathers are doing. They’re very proud of what they’re doing.

Continuity of Responsibility

In fact, in a World Vision article recently, there is a lurid, crocodile-tear report of child labor conditions around the world, and how the world is enslaving poor children, while of course, we’re liberating them and stuffing them in schools. But the article ends with a final comment, and the pathos of it just bleeds through the page. He says:

The worst, most insoluble dimension of this problem is that the children often love what they’re doing.

You can’t get them away. They’d rather do that. We never worked overseas, we just went down the coast to Guatemala. But we used to drive back and forth to Mexico. We had a one-month vacation every year. How do you like that for luxury? It took us 73 hours to get home. We put our kids in school, so they knew their classmates from the previous year, and so forth. Well anyway, coming up, our four daughters were pretty close together and mainly younger in the earlier years. We really had a job trying to keep them amused while Roberta and I traded off driving 24 hours a day. We would go down to the capital city where this was not available in our part of the country, and buy crayons, color books, and comic books, and stack them away.

Each day, we would ladle out one more. Maybe twice a day we had one more new thing for them. Well, when you drive constantly, you do have to stop for rest stops and stuff. Along one of these bleak Northern Mexican roads, one time we were stopped and we got back in the car. And what did we see? These precious crayons, which we had purchased for their enjoyment. They had found a couple of beer cans along the side of the road and were grinding the crayons up the way the little kids in Guatemala would grind corn because our kids had already learned how to grind corn. The little girls — and ours were all girls — would be given these little stones just their size, and they could actually grind. Now, they weren’t much help in the earlier years, but they were helping. They sensed a continuity of responsibility.

They didn’t come home from school and have someone look at the pictures they’d drawn for which there was no earthly value, and pretend like this was great, and pin it up for a few months, or something. They knew what they were doing was valuable. They never eventually saw those things in the waste basket because they were participating in a significant fashion. And there were no adolescents in that society. I’m not trying to glorify the Indian or anything like that. I’m just saying they did things differently. It would take an excursion to sense the difference.

The Meaning We Miss

Here’s another shocking example. I was in Singapore three or four times in a two-year period, and that’s a very amazing and marvelous city. One of the things I like most about it is on every taxi cab, across the windshield, where you have this little bluish area to cut out the sun, there’s a little statement that says, “Towards a non-smoking Singapore by the year 2000.” They’re going to banish that drug. They have banished other drugs too. It’s rather horrendous what they do to people who come through the airport with drugs. They do not leave Singapore. They do not survive. Singapore is a very, very orderly country.

One of my daughters lived there for a year, and going down the street, her baby was very, very well-endowed compared to the other babies. The Chinese mothers would ask her, “What kind of formula do you use?” Everybody in Singapore uses baby formula. My daughter couldn’t even explain clearly how she uses her own breast milk because that’s not done in Singapore. Singaporeans are very progressive. It’s the only country in the world where everyone speaks English and uses chopsticks. They’re very Chinese in some ways and they’re very Western in others. And there’s a question mark arising more and more prominently as to whether this Westernization is all to the good. I could tell them lots of things that are wrong with Western society. That wouldn’t be any problem, but I could not have anticipated what they saw to be the trouble.

Here’s a secular newspaper. Reading the paper, it’s talking about the Oscar ceremony. This was about two or three years ago. The ceremony is about two or three hours, and all these gorgeous people come up there and receive these Oscars, other awards, and stuff. There are paper remarks about the fact that every single person spoke humbly and gratefully for somebody else. People were saying, “It wasn’t me, it was this supporting actor. It was my director. It was somebody else. It was the scriptwriter. This was a great story, no one could have wrecked it.” There was all this fake modesty, which is so marvelous in our eyes in American society. It’s a grace in a way. But the paper went on with breathless tones. Nobody in three hours was ever grateful to their parents. I wouldn’t have thought of that. I wouldn’t have missed it. It’s not American.

It went on to talk about school books, and we all know what’s wrong with the school books, and stuff like that. Here I am reading Dick and Jane, the dog, the teacher, the garbage man, and so forth. What are they going to say about the school books? They say that there are no parents in the school books. See, it’s a small country. This is almost a national phobia, and I have to admit it’s a worthy phobia. These two things would’ve never even caught my attention. I had to go over there and look back. I had to look through their eyes to even see the degree to which our society has lost it. We really have lost it in certain key areas. We’ve lost a sense of authority in the family to an extent that we don’t realize and in the church even.

Problems with Privatized Christianity

I remember the first time I was so staggered being in an Indian church situation north of Mexico City about 50 miles away. It was a rambunctious, industrialized town of about 100,000 people. Up in the mountain, across the highway, is a very precipitous little hill where an Indian tribe has huddled and sought refuge, the Otomi. Now, these are all evangelical believers. The pastor, Venancio, found a Spanish Bible and became a follower of Christ, and along with a few of his followers, he was then thrown out. He was rejected by the tribal group. They found the only land that no one wanted, which was that precipitous little hill. They built their homes on the edges of that steep, rising hill. And gradually, more and more, were bailed out of the pagan tribe into this Christian tribe. And these people now are very highly trusted down in the city of Ixmiquilpan. They’re the carpenters, the bricklayers, and the electrical workers, who are absolutely trusted. It’s a phenomenon.

The thing that arrested my attention was that — I don’t know how I happened to hear this — Venancio goes around to each home, once a month, and checks up to see if they’re clean and orderly. I don’t know if that’s a reasonable thing for an American pastor to do. I can’t imagine that happening in America. I was shocked. I thought, “What right does he have to invade people’s privacy?

This is as bad as the Mormon church that sends elders to every place.” Another terrible thing the Mormons do is that they urge upon every family, a weekly devotional service run by the head of the family. In all the years, now, for 50 years, I have been in evangelical churches that I respected and was blessed by, and I have never heard a sermon on why, how, or whatever about family devotions. The Mormons have a wonderful, big, thick book. There are three or four pages for every day of the year, and it’s designed so that even little kids can participate in that service and not just have to sit quietly and be there.

But of course, if the Mormons do it, we couldn’t do it, right? We couldn’t possibly stress a weekly devotional service in the family if they do it because it has to be wrong. Well, here’s an amazing thing. I don’t think counselors or pastors can deal with many of the problems of human society. We’re not set up for it. Our churches are now urbanized so that nobody knows each other very well. We’re not going back into the same village or town that we came from so that the truth on Sunday is applied and held accountable by the same people all through the week. I remember years and years ago saying to myself, “Churches can’t help drunks, not true alcoholics. We’re an outpatient clinic structure, aren’t we? We help people if they come, but if they don’t come, we can’t go after them. People can’t come here and say, “Here, we’ll take you in for 24 hours, or 36 hours.” We don’t have that structure.

So, of course, with Alcoholics Anonymous, even if you move to a different town, you can get in there. There’s no two-year limit for association. It’s a permanent thing. I remember years ago saying, “Churches aren’t structured right to deal with certain kinds of problems.” When it comes to our staff, they are so protective of their family life that there’s nothing left over to work with. The family will take the whole thing. But they’re a very imperfect, partial family at best. We used to joke in Guatemala years ago about how we needed some visiting grandparents. We didn’t think of it as our shouting problem, but we did notice that that was something. We were all more or less the same age. God had something better to give us than stratified classrooms, stratified workforces, and outpatient clinic exhortations, as incredibly valuable and beneficial it may be.

Support Groups and the American Church’s Lack of Depth

This is very different from churches on the mission field. In America, no one knows anybody. They know who they are. We have name-tag syndrome. I’ve often said, “Once a church begins to tell the members to wear name tags, it’s already too late.” But the village churches of the world have a completely different dynamic. We major on the crumbs of society. We major in displaced persons. We can give people in the fellowship of the church, at least once a week, the semblance of a real family, love, friendly noises, and goodwill, which is genuine and valuable. We can do that, but they may need a lot more than that. In fact, the great surge of attendance in America is not so much evidence of the power of the gospel, I’m convinced — although, I would not question the power of the gospel — as it is a symptom of a society breaking down. Many a missionary needs the society he goes into to break down to build an American church. Many a missionary ends up with a congregation of what anthropologists call the deviance of society because normal families don’t need what the church has to offer.

It’s just like in this latest “Leadership Magazine,” which we’ve all probably seen. There is this rather disturbing comment that people in support groups may sit in judgment on the traditional church. In their view, traditional ministries fail to meet their inner needs. The church starts to look pretty shallow to them. They’ve spent weeks pouring out their hearts and confessing their struggles in a small group, so they’re not too impressed when they walk into a Sunday school class and hear people talking about the football game, or offering prayer requests only for their Aunt Sarah’s minor surgery. They tend to criticize others for their lack of depth.

Now, the same exact thing could be said about a person who comes from a rich, functioning family, into a church of shards, pieces of broken pottery that are assembled on Sunday with great benefit, but not complete adequacy. Churches around the world are filled with families. In fact, the ancient synagogues, as best I can understand — and therefore, the churches that followed their pattern almost to a T — were set up basically around a number of extended families whose elders constituted the elders of the synagogue. And when a member of one of these families was going wrong or doing something they shouldn’t, the church as a church didn’t sit in judgment so much as the elders as a group would say to the elder who was in charge, “Hey, you have to see about that.” There was a group dynamic of elders, but each of them represented an authority structure that was more powerful, more permanent, and I believe, more biblical and theologically significant than that of the church itself because the church thus, enhanced those extended families.

The Importance of Pastors

Now, we don’t have extended families. We can’t build churches like that. My problem now that my time has gone is that it might take too long even to describe what could be done. But I would like to say this at least before we go into questions. I think pastors are the most important people in America today. They’re more important than the missionaries. They’re more important than anybody else. If anyone is able, they are the ones who ought to be able to do something about this incredible decline of traditional family structure. I could say biblical family structure because you see it in the Bible, but you see it outside the Bible. It’s just like how you see breastfeeding outside the Bible. It doesn’t mean it’s evil just because it’s outside as well as inside. This is what gives rise to the fact that many unfinished missionaries will go to the field and be finished by pagan family structures that they witness.

Now, that’s a very radical statement. It’s just like a mother, let’s say, who was taught not to nurse her baby and to feed it a bottle who might go overseas and learn to breastfeed. I don’t know where it would be in the world today where this would be the case because we’ve been so influential with our Nestle baby food ads and billboards all over the world. But she might find someone nursing a baby, and say, “Oh, is that how you do it? Or is that how it could be done?” Whether those people were Christians or not, they could learn something about the creative purpose of God. Now, this is why I feel at home in the context of this sacred place. I think Larry was trying to say the same thing several times. Solving problems is nothing compared to discovering or rediscovering the creative purposes of God, which would do away with those problems in a more fundamental way. Otherwise, we’re putting Band-Aids on problems that are much more serious.

Superficial Cures

I remember talking to a missionary, a surgeon who performed three gallbladder operations per day out on the Navajo reservation. I asked him, “What is causing all this gallbladder trouble?” He said, “That’s not my problem.” He has said these long tails of the Navajo sheep are just pure fat, which the Navajos love, and that’s the source of their gallbladder problems. He knew that much, but that’s not his problem. His problem was to take the gallbladders out after they’d been damaged by a structural feature of society that’s been there for centuries, which the Navajos themselves would consider totally invisible as a problem.

What could be more normal than the gaiety, the wonder, and the fellowship of a social event in which the sheep’s tail is prominent and wrecks their physical inheritance? Now, these are the kinds of things that we need to talk about. I don’t mean to say that counseling problems are usually superficial, or Band-Aid problems, though probably sometimes they are. I would be more concerned to make clear my opinion that there are problems behind those problems.

I think Larry was trying to say this last night himself when he talked about the deep-down problem of the soul. He ended up talking about primary community. Now, God created a primary community, didn’t he? Shouldn’t we, as pastors, take more seriously whatever it was that God had in mind, whether it still exists or not? Can it be rebuilt? After listening to a man who had planted 15 churches and talked to our staff one Thursday night, “Has it ever occurred to you to try, instead of planting another church, plant a town?”

Now, in my situation, we have a little town. Everyone lives there. They work together. This is an unusual situation. It offers opportunities that we’re slow in catching up to because they’re not normal or common in American society. In certain parts of America, there’s this sequence of events that have taken place. There are companies, businesses, and commercial outfits that aren’t out to help people but earn money, but they have nevertheless recognized that women can’t come to work unless somehow their kids can come with them. So they have childcare facilities.

Then they still have problems getting there every day because they have older people. They discover older people. So then, they have older care facilities in the same place. Then, the next stage is that they realize that these older people could help them take care of the younger people. In one huge place in Massachusetts, they have a building twice as long as this one, but not as wide. At one end, they have certain kinds of adults and children. Some are just babies and others are older. Some adults really can’t help anybody, but most of the adults and most of the children help each other. It is called a senior-care childcare facility. Imagine, we’re reinventing the family. Now, in most of the world — as in the Baskin-Robbins ice cream store in South Pasadena, California — whole families work together.

##An Absence of Fathers

I had some quotes I was going to read from a woman you need to know. Here’s the “Reformed Journal.” It couldn’t be too far off, it was in the “Reformed Journal.” Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen wrote about “Men, Women, and the Farm.” She is saying that the absence of the wife from the home isn’t the problem; it’s the absence of the father from the home. She talks about the fact that back in our history, and most of the rest of the world, the father and the mother are both home. The father disappearing is just about as bad as the mother disappearing. It’s worse of course, when they’re both gone. Once in my whole life, when my father was at the age of 93, I went to work with my father. Now, John Newton’s father took him to work, even though it was a lousy relationship. It might have been something. I found out who my father was.

Otherwise, he was a man who came walking down the street at about 5:05 a.m. every day. I had no idea who he was, the people that he supervised, and so forth. But you see, in most of the world, children do know who their parents are. Wives do work with their husbands. They see them under pressure, they see them achieve, and they see them fail. It isn’t the secretary that sees them achieve and sees them fail. How many millions of men marry their secretaries because those people are closer to them than their wives? The American structure is itself a much more foundational problem, it seems to me, than the problems that surface — the symptoms of that deeper problem. Well, again, I want to stop now because there may be comments and questions.

Questions and Answers

Your comments raise the question: “Should the world look to North America for missionary force?”

I was talking to somebody about that in the intermission. He was saying the Evangelical Free Church is trying to deal with its missionary personnel problems. At one point he said, “Am I right that you don’t seem too concerned about this?” I said, “Well, no. I’m just telling you that every board has these problems. You certainly ought not to try to solve them all by yourself. Compare notes, and so forth.” But I went on to say, “It may very well be that God isn’t going to be able to use America.” We have the weirdest background you could imagine for the mission field in many, many cases unless we go to a highly urbanized setting that’s similar to our own. But there’s a rising tide of missionaries from the mission field. There are a lot more Russians — and I mean Russian Russians — who are missionaries than anybody ever knew about or could have believed that are filtering down into those central Asian republics.

The Holy Spirit wants the kingdom to come, wherever he is at work, and we don’t have to go and tell these people that they have something they should share. I remember an Armenian in my Sunday school class back in Pasadena. He was a very wealthy retired electrical contractor, the biggest in Southern California, and he went back and forth through Soviet Armenia. He was telling me how a Pentecostal pastor from what was then Leningrad, 32 years ago, decided that God wanted him to go and reach the Armenians, who were external Christians but didn’t even have a Bible practically in the republic. He has built thousand-member congregations down there over the last 30 years. Nobody from America went out there, and told them, “You need to read the Great Commission twice.” All over the world, this is happening. There must be 40,000 third-world missions people going. I honestly think one of the most creative and strategic things an American missionary could do would be to help third-world people be missionaries.

As you know, most of our missionaries are located in yesterday’s mission fields where Christians are coming out the ears. I met people whose grandfathers were between ministers when I got to the field. Churches were there before there was a single church in California. We slept for 250 years after the Reformation before we discovered the Great Commission. They may be sleeping too. And yet it is too late now. This vision has swept Latin America, it’s swept Asia, and it’s swept Africa. There are thousands and thousands of third-world missions, but they’re falling all over themselves in terms of organization, training, and missiology. I think American missionaries could help more strategically in that area than in any other way.

How could we get a mission board that begins to see itself, not as a job placement for Americans, but as headhunters for national workers? How can we get them to turn that around and begin to do just exactly what you just said?

You know what? That’s your problem. The mission boards cannot do anything else from what they’re doing if the churches refuse to support anybody over there but only will support their own people who go. The American church is a big problem. I’m going at three o’clock to talk to the pastor of a large church here in Minneapolis. There’s a couple on our staff who were on their way to the mission field and came for a two-year internship. They grew into a very responsible set of positions, the two of them. The man has 47 people working for him. He’s a godly, spiritually-minded, intellectually-alive, tremendous benefit, not just on the job, but between in our whole community.

The church has written him a letter saying, “We can’t support you beyond June because you’re not a missionary. But all you’re doing is making a tremendous contribution to missions.” They didn’t add that last statement. One of my most recent secretaries has just gone onto the field. She is working in London with the Kurds, and that’s great. She couldn’t get into the Kurdish situation in Iraq so easily, and so, there she is. Well, I feel like saying, “Teri, there are more Kurds in San Diego than in London. Why don’t you work in San Diego?” The obvious answer is that no church would support her. They don’t recognize what a mission field really is. So the answer to your question — and about four other major questions — is that you pastors have not somehow enlightened your people as to the fact that missions is not a career that certain people perform but a cause in which all of us must be involved in which the pastor in this country is one of the most key people.

A man called me up from another church. They also are going to try to cut this couple off that’s been with us for two years now and are “disobeying the Lord” by not becoming real missionaries. This man is the head of the mission committee, not the pastor. I said to him, “Do you think there’s any way to convince your mission committee that your contribution as a church would be greater in helping these people if they stay here than if they go?” He said, “Well, how could you justify that?” I said to him, “How can you justify the fact that you’re staying home and heading up the mission committee? How can I justify the fact that I’m staying home? Don’t you believe that what we’re doing is important and that without these kinds of things in the war, it won’t work? You have 450 people behind every person who pulls a trigger. Can’t we believe in the war effort, not just in a certain kind of a hero out there on the front line?”

I said, “What you need to do is to convince your church that your part-time salary is justified. And when you do that, you will have convinced them that what this couple is doing is justified.” But this is not easy to explain. Missions has to involve cockroaches, mosquitoes, dangers, and heat. Missionaries who have those advantages in their letters can validate their true calling. They’re really lucky.

We are in a big denomination and we seem to be getting nowhere in missions. Should we stay in the bigger denomination to help from within or should we leave to a smaller church to more immediately be involved in missions?

I’m a member of a big denomination that doesn’t believe in missions. It’s called the Presbyterian Church USA. And your church, in its background, has a glorious missionary tradition. So does mine. What should we do about it? I’m still a member of that church because of the influence of John Wesley, who said he was going to stay in the church he was born in until they threw them out, and they haven’t thrown me out yet. Meanwhile, I have helped to start renewal activities within the denomination. There are five different organizations that I’ve helped to start, and one of them alone, called the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, has its own version of the Global Prayer Digest, which you can see out here. In the last four or five years, they’ve raised over $3 million that is exclusively designated for frontier mission outreach.

Now, the people at the headquarters don’t like nasty letters from Patrick saying that they’re liberal. They don’t like nasty letters saying, “We’re not going to give any more money to the denomination.” They apparently have no defense against somebody who comes to the door with a bag of money and says, “Would you be willing to spend this money in a certain way?” And that is an out. At least your denomination, I think without reinventing the wheel, could find out how it’s been done very amicably within the constitutional provisions. The key word is pluralism. They allow for homosexuals and everybody else — even evangelicals and mission-minded evangelicals. If you can press home the legitimacy of that type of pluralism, then it’s like a citizen of Minneapolis. The city of Minneapolis isn’t doing all you want to do with your tax monies, but it’s doing some of the things you want to do.

So long as you can do what needs to be done, either as a private enterprise within that city or as a formal part of the city government, one way or another, there is tremendous opportunity. Now, the Baptist General Conference has turned a corner, but it didn’t turn a corner because John said to himself, “These guys aren’t thinking in terms of frontiers so I’m going to join another denomination.” It turned the corner because he sweated and worked with a long paper and many, many other things he did, which I’ll never know of, and he sent to them and worked with them, and things changed. So, I would say there certainly is reason to stick with the city of Minneapolis. And even with the United States, which is a rather wretched government in some ways. If you want to know what I mean by that, we put millions of dollars of tax funds into motion pictures that promote the sale of cigarettes in unmarked packages in other countries of the world.

It was Jimmy Carter who recently quoted the World Health Organization saying that we kill more people in Colombia with our cigarettes than they kill in the United States with their cocaine. This is mainstream American evil projected out upon the world. The flap about the Japanese bringing all these girls over from Korea and feeding them into their armed forces. Here we are saying, “Oh, isn’t that terrible?” What about these great big battleship cruisers that come into Pattaya, Thailand, and unleash 3,000 or 4,000 men with advanced notice so the government can scrounge up girls from all over the country? The government gets $11 million out of 11 days, and hundreds of thousands of girls are involved. This is the United States of America in its most official stationery.

There was a scholar in Japan who rummaged around and found that the military did order something about this, and he got the goods from the government. And then, the phone line brought in a bunch of 60 and 70-year-olds who said, “Yeah, it’s true. This is true.” And then, the whole country reeled and confessed that maybe it was true. We haven’t confessed. We could find a thousand pages of documents for every one that they could find. This is not lost on the mission field. Missionaries are in a terrible position to preach the gospel when this is the result of the gospel in our own land.

What kinds of strategies can we use to break down this structure of our society that’s loosened the ties of the family? Are there other things that have been discussed, talked about, developed, and worked on by missionary church planters that would be effective in our communities? How can we be reaching for the right people to start to break down this thing

I don’t know of anything more basic that we could deal with than the covenant. The family is a covenant that we have been given in the Bible. That is the most precious thing we’ve ever lost in the history of Christianity, and it wasn’t really an evil thing we did. We didn’t think we were going wrong when we urbanized, industrialized, and schoolized, and so forth. These are not evil things in themselves, but they were a trap. It was a primrose path, and I think that now, we can expect strong Christian leaders from strong Christian families around the world to help us. I remember a couple at a table, maybe it was in this church, teaching Perspectives one time. They were both from India, and they smiled, and they said, “Ours was an arranged marriage.” They were just radiantly blessed as a couple. Most marriages in this world are arranged. The trouble with a marriage that is contracted by the members is that if anything goes wrong, they weren’t too sure when they were married that this was the best thing. Was anybody?

So if anything goes wrong, they can’t rely on their parents’ judgment that it’s going to work out because they were the ones who thought it was a good idea. They think, “Maybe we were wrong.” Our marriages are the most unstable on the face of the earth. No country anywhere near our size has remotely the divorce rate that we have or the crime rate. We have 22 times as many people behind bars as in Germany and many other countries. Missionaries go out with the gospel to preach to sinners who live in virtually crimeless societies in comparison to ours. It is really shaking, and yet on the other hand, just because we have all these problems, we are agonized and brought back to the word, to the Lord, and prayer like nothing else. I mean, we’re forced to pray because of these problems, and maybe we can help because all over the world, they too, are following our lead.

They’ve not only stopped using the breast in Singapore, but urbanization, schoolization, and all these other evils are descending on the whole world. So having wrecked the world, and having lived through it somehow here, we might ultimately be the best missionaries to those similarly urbanized populations of the world. But as for other ways to fix America, frankly, this is a little bit out of my line. I don’t know how to fix America. But look, if anyone could do it, it’s the pastors of America. That I believe.

(1924–2009) was a missionary who founded the interdenominational U.S. Center for World Mission (now known as Frontier Ventures).