So, what is your philosophy of missions? How is your view of missions different? How do you go about doing missions in Eastern Europe, and why is what you are doing better than what the American mission organizations have been doing so far?
– Cyril and Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs, Anthony-Emil Tachiaos
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Welcome to Episode 35 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about my most favorite topic. Well, of course, most favorite, relatively. The most favorite topic of every Christian should be the Kingdom of God, for it is the topic of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. For it is this Kingdom that we are supposed to earnestly seek, and talk about, and work for, every single day and minute of our lives. But that topic of the Kingdom of God is quite large – in fact, it encompasses the whole world (and its surroundings, as my father would say) – and within that gigantic and comprehensive topic, there are thousands of smaller topics, and each one of us is given different talents, and different abilities, and different levels of courage (or ignorance of danger, which often passes for courage), and therefore are given some topics that are their favorite.
My favorite topic? Missions. Remember, in the very beginning of the Axe to the Root Podcast, in the introductory episode, I mentioned that while I in this podcast I try to lay the axe of covenantal thinking to different issues of life and thought and action in modern America and in the world, in the final account, missions is where my heart is. Specifically, missions in Eastern Europe, but also missions in any other part of the world. I also mentioned a few times that I have certain criticisms against the currently prevalent model for missions, and that it needs to be changed – or, reconstructed, if you like. It is not the Biblical model, and worse than that, it is not even based on the Biblical worldview, and it produces results that are not just poor, they are actively harmful to the purpose of missions.
I was asked this question by a listener of Axe to the Root: “So, what is your philosophy of missions? How is your view of missions different? How do you go about doing missions in Eastern Europe, and why is what you are doing better than what the American mission organizations have been doing so far?” Good questions. Not only good in themselves, but also good for our present purposes, for if I am asking my listeners to support Bulgarian Reformation Ministries, I should explain what makes us different. They are also good questions in a strategic sense, because as the church goes, so do its missions. And if the American church today deserves an axe to its root, so do its missions. And its philosophy of missions, as well. I have already written extensively and spoken extensively on these issues, and I have sermons on SermonAudio, articles on different websites and in different Christian magazines which many listeners might have read already. But I love talking about missions and how to do missions. So, you will have to bear with me for another 20 minutes.
Let me start with the obvious: the buck, and the bang for it. The numbers I will give you now are taken from several sources and of averaged out; the sources pretty much agree, with small differences. Some sources only cover the US, others cover Christianity in the whole world, so if somewhere the numbers don’t add up, it’s not because I can’t do math, it’s because the data is not always perfect.
We are talking about money here. As a whole, the money donated or spent on Christian causes around the world amount to about $660-670 billion. That looks like an awful lot, but it sounds real to me. Of this, around $280 billion is spent on churches – that would include everything from the Roman church in the Vatican, through the established state churches in some countries, to the Protestant denominations and non-denominational churches in the US and Canada. Another $450 billion is spent on non-church and para-church organizations. Now, it may look strange that much more money is spent on non-church activities but remember, this includes publishing, education (Christian schools and universities), media, charity organizations, etc., so it is only logical that more money would go into that. All this excludes missions, home and foreign. When it comes to missions, between $20 and 25 billion is spent on home missions, that is, missions within the so-called “evangelized” nations, that is, the nations where more than half of the population claims to be Christian, whether they are really saved or not. The US and Canada would fall into this category, most of Western Europe, and most of Latin America. Finally, between $2.5 and $3 billion dollars a year is spent on foreign missions, which, in the context of all above, means missions to still unevangelized countries (the majority of the people still don’t self-identify as Christians) or to unreached peoples. Of this $2.5 to $3 billion, about half billion goes to missions to the unreached, and the rest supports missions in nations that are reached but not evangelized. Examples: Eastern Europe, China, India, Africa, etc.
Now, some mission organizations use this data in a rather manipulative way, to send their subscribers on a guilt trip: “Look how much money is spent on maintaining the churches and the para-church organizations within the evangelized world – over $600 billion dollars – and how little is spent on foreign missions – no more than $3 billion.” As a missionary, I reject this guilt manipulation. The numbers are as they should be: This is not a guerrilla war, and in a strategic war you spend more resources on fixing your home base before you advance. So it is only logical that much more money will be spent on maintaining and growing Christianity at home. Now, whether that $600 billion dollars is really spent wisely for the results returned, is a different issue, and I have talked about it in previous episodes, like “Denethor Ministries.” It also logical that 10 times more money would be spent on home missions than on foreign missions. After all, a missionary in France or in the inner cities of Atlanta or Detroit will face higher expenses than a missionary in Bulgaria, or Uganda, or in the Amazon rainforest. And, as we will see, the $2.5 to 3 billion spent on foreign missions is plenty enough, no need to increase that giving. In all these cases, it is not the amount of money given that needs to be fixed, but the form and the output of work. And I will leave the other areas to other episodes, here I will talk about foreign missions.
When it comes to the $2.5 to $3 billion given to foreign missions, the lion share of that giving falls on the shoulders of the American church. Canada, Australia, South Korea, and the UK compete for a distant 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th place – very, very, very distant. American Christians are very uniquely generous to their own missionaries – and to other missionaries as well. A good number of Australian and Canadian missions, while manned by non-US missionaries, are still funded with American money. Not only are American Christians generous in absolute numbers, they are generous in terms of per capita as well: The average American Christian donates to missions far more than the average Christian in any other industrialized nation. While there are many things for which the American church can and must be prophetically called to account, in terms of the individual commitment of the average American Christian to see the world evangelized – and open his wallet to this purpose – American Christians must be commended. As a missionary, I must say, there is no other nation on the planet where a missionary can call his listeners to donate, and see genuine understanding, compassion, and willingness in their eyes. That’s why when I am often asked, “You think God’s judgment on America is imminent?”, I reply, “Not yet. If He had planned to judge her, He would have given that willingness to donate to another nation. We still have plenty of time to turn things around.”
Given all this, it is safe to assume that the American church spends on missions about $2.5 billion every year. It may look insignificant compared to all the other expenditures of all churches in the world, but in reality, it is an enormous amount of money compared to the task. The American church supports a little over 50,000 full-time missionaries around the world, with an estimate of another 50,000 part-time mission workers; given that the majority of these missionaries are in Third World countries where the living standards are very low, this is a very generous support, and, as I said, God bless the American church for it. At the current price of gold, $2.5 billion is about 67 tons of gold – or two 18-wheelers’ net cargo weight of gold – spent on missions. While I don’t have the exact data of the cost of missions before 1900, it is reasonable to accept that the whole church didn’t spend that much – what only the American church spends in a year – on missions between AD 30 and AD 1900. We have been extremely blessed, and we have served as a blessing, and that’s good.
But this is where the good news end.
For despite all this money we have spent on missions in the last decades, we have no bang to show for the buck. The results are, at best, meager. That is, if we have any results at all. Missionaries in the past have converted whole nations on a shoestring budget. Some missionaries even went to their mission fields as servants, or worked with their own hands to provide for themselves some meager existence while proclaiming the Gospel. Others spent years in jail, or were even tortured and executed. No, I am not saying that modern missionaries necessarily have to go through all this, persecutions in themselves do not warrant success; although, God does have persecutions in store for some modern missionaries, undoubtedly. But these missionaries in the past converted whole tribes and nations, without having all the wealth of our modern world. Forget about whole nations, out of 50,000 full-time missionaries around the world, we don’t even have a thousand examples of successfully developed missions that have impacted their cultures. We probably do have some in some marginal and peripheral tribes in some areas – in fact, I recently watched a movie about such a missionary to Papua New Guinea who changed several tribes from a culture of death and even cannibalism to a Christian culture. But these are rather exceptions. In the vast majority of cases – tens of thousands of them, missionaries don’t make any impact on the culture, and even where they are able of planting a church, that church later disintegrates when the missionary gets called back home. Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists are notorious for their low rate of success on the mission field; Pentecostals and Charismatics are much better at planting churches, but their cultural influence seems to always lag behind, if it exists in the first place. In Europe, there are well-developed and established branches of American Presbyterian and Baptist mission organizations in almost every country. Despite the fact that they are very well-funded even for the European standards, such missions have had close to zero growth, let alone any cultural impact. In Eastern Europe, when the fall of Communism presented an unprecedented opportunity for missions, Presbyterians just failed to appear until almost 10 years after 1989, and then, their missions have been just lingering aimlessly and without results. Baptists and Charismatics did fill the gap early, and they they did some mass evangelism. There was some growth in the mid-90s which later reversed, because it failed to produce impact. As of now, Europe maintains its fame of being a “graveyard for missionaries.” Situation is a little better in the Muslim world, but then, it is not clear who can claim the merit for the increased number of conversions, the missionaries or the horrors of war. In short, we have next to nothing to show for the two truckloads of pure gold we have been burning on missions each year for the last several decades. Or, to put it another way, new converts on the mission field are becoming dearer and dearer to us with every year – really dearer – and there is no cultural impact whatsoever. Where there is growth of Christianity around the world – like in China – it can’t be connected in any meaningful way to American missions. But then again, the growth of Christianity in China has been only at the individualistic level; there is no change of culture yet, and no visible impact on the culture.
The obvious question here should be: why are American missionaries so unsuccessful in relation to the means they are provided with? Why are the results so meager? Why do we have missionaries who spend years in a field, and produce not more than one local church which later disintegrates? Granted, sometimes God may use our visible failures to produce success for His plan, but that is not always the case; and besides, our job is to plan for success, not to plan for failure and then find excuses in God’s secret plans. Which means we need to answer these questions. Why are we a failure? What needs to be changed to make us a success? And in the answers to these questions is where my philosophy of missions becomes clear; and also where the character of Bulgarian Reformation Ministries is seen.
Here’s the answer (ready?): Modern missions have abandoned the comprehensive message of the Gospel which addresses the whole man. That is, man, his individual faith and thinking, his individual ethics and conduct, but also man in his institutions and his culture, family, local community, civil government, economic and business practices, education, science, monetary policies and taxation, issues of liberty and justice. Put it another way, modern missions have abandoned the comprehensive Gospel of the Kingdom. Missionaries advertize their missions as “planting churches” and “converting souls” at home: this is what the home churches expect to hear. (Thus, the problem to a great extent is the American church itself.) When missionaries go to the mission field, this is what they focus on: converting souls and planting churches. Sometimes they speak about “discipleship,” but as I said in my article on ChristendomRestored.com, “The Empty Rhetoric of Making Disciples,” discipleship is simply a rhetorical buzzword, there is no Biblical difference between discipleship and conversion. The essence is all in the content of the message, not in the technique of delivering it. This is an important truth to remember, so I will repeat it: Changing the technique of delivering the message won’t help, if the message is truncated; changing the message will do the work. And more than that, changing the worldview of the message, from a truncated, individualistic, pietistic worldview of personal salvation and church planting to a comprehensive, kingdom-building message of addressing the whole culture in everything it believes, speaks, and does, will only do the work.
Modern missionaries are seldom trained to understand, and therefore seldom realize that the Gospel is comprehensive, it affects the whole culture, and therefore a society permeated by the Gospel will by necessity develop a different culture than a society that is not evangelized. It is like the personal moral character of a man who has been evangelized: evangelism is not simply changing formal intellectual propositions in a man’s head: evangelism means challenging his whole way of life and changing his whole way of life, until there is visible transformation in the life of a person. If a missionary doesn’t work towards that transformation of the personal life of his listeners, he is not really preaching the Gospel to them. The same with the culture in general: evangelism is not simply offering intellectual propositions to a culture, nor simply saving a few people out of it; it is challenging the whole way the culture lives and operates, and changing the whole way the culture lives and operates, until there is transformation in the life of the culture. If a missionary doesn’t work towards that transformation of the life of the culture, he is not really preaching the Gospel to that culture. And when he is not preaching the Gospel, he won’t have any results.
I have seen it in practice: when American missionaries hit the field, their automatic assumption is that everyone else is just like Americans, and that every culture is just like the American culture; it’s just the people need to “believe in Jesus.” They do not address the foundations of the culture: they either do not understand the religious character of these foundations or don’t care to address it. They do not understand why pagan nations have the family and business and education practices they have; they have no idea of how these practices are related to the prevalent religions in these cultures. They do not understand the religious foundation of government corruption and injustice. Etc., etc., etc. And because they do not understand them, they do not address them. And when they do not address them, they only address issues that are peripheral to the culture’s life. And the rule of evangelism – or any kind of public actions and speaking – is this: when you only address the periphery, you are relegated to the periphery. When missionaries in Europe, for example, are relegated to the periphery of the society and no one listens to them, it is only because their message has only touched the periphery of the European culture. When the message is an “axe to the root” message, hitting at the central issues of a culture, and the religion behind these issues, and offering the solutions of the Gospel, then only can a missionary gain hearing in a culture.
The people out there are not stupid. They have a comprehensive view of reality. And when a missionary comes with less than a comprehensive view of reality – and comprehensive solutions for problems – he is ignored. That’s how a “graveyard for missionaries” is formed – and the blame is on the missionaries.
This leads us to the philosophy of Bulgarian Reformation Ministries. In fact, to the philosophy of any and every mission effort in the future which will be successful in challenging the darkness and bringing the light of the Gospel to the nations. And the philosophy is simple: no holds barred. There is no topic in the society that is outside the scope of the Gospel. There is no headline in the newspapers that is outside the scope of the Gospel. There is no government policy, or educational practice, or business practice, or family issue, or a court verdict, or social action, that should escape his scrutiny and be safe from his judgment. Being a missionary is not a one single issue job; it is the job of a revolutionary, one who takes on the world and defeats it, in all its complexity.
But just speaking on issues in itself is not enough. That speaking must be God’s speaking; therefore, a missionary must have a comprehensive theology from beginning to end, whose ends are all tied to Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Whether he speaks on personal righteousness or social justice, his speaking must start with the presuppositions of the Bible and end with the conclusions of the Law of God, for every area of life. He can’t afford to be ignorant of the worldview of the Bible; and he can’t afford to compromise that view with the views of the world. He must go to the religious roots of everything he speaks on. If he speaks on taxation, he must know what religion and what religious presuppositions are behind it. If he speaks on science, the same thing applies: what religion is at the bottom of modern science? And so on, with all the other topics he must speak on. And when he exposes the religion at the bottom of all these elements and practices of a culture, his next job is to present how these elements and practices would change if the Gospel was at the bottom of all of them. “Here’s your current system. Here is the list of injustices and wrongs and desolation and destruction it produces. Here’s the religion and the religious presuppositions at the bottom of it; why you have this system and not something better and more just and more practical. And here’s what you can have if the Gospel was at the foundation of your thinking and action.” This tactics is called “pushing the antithesis.” If you haven’t heard of it, google Cornelius Van Til, and then Greg Bahnsen.
And finally, a missionary is supposed to replicate himself. Believe it or not, with all the seminaries we have today, and all the money that goes into them, and the high cost of seminary education, theologically trained missionaries are a rarity. I mean, trained in the applications of their theology. That’s an issue we will cover in a future episode, when we talk about seminaries. But if theologically trained missionaries are a rarity, then theologically trained local disciples are doubly so. Education has always been the Achilles’s heel of missions, the chief reason for the death of missions after the missionary has gone back home. A simple routine of attending church and listening to a sermon doesn’t constitute education. There has to be a concentrated effort of getting his listeners to read, learn, understand, and communicate on their own, with the same depth and the same vigor and aggressiveness as the missionary himself; and with the same laying the axe at the religious roots of the culture. The prophetic voice of the missionary must be multiplied in many prophetic voices of those who have converted to Christ through him.
Only then, a mission will be successful. And in future episodes, we will go into greater details about building an intellectual foundation, and about the principles of organizing local covenant communities, and about creating an alternative society of alternative presuppositions and alternative solutions. A mission can’t be a simple factory for personal conversions. It is a war of worlds.
Back to Bulgarian Reformation Ministries. How did we go about the task of missions? What did we do? Why is there in Bulgaria today, a little over 20 years after we started the mission work of Christian Reconstruction in Bulgaria, such a significant presence? It started with one family, Maggie and I. There was no Reformed theology in Bulgaria. There was no Christian education. There was barely any Protestant Reformed presence in the culture or in the public arena. Today, we have more than a hundred Christian homeschooling families, a homeschooling association and legal professionals working for it; Reformed churches in several large cities; a publishing house which prints and sells the books we translate; work among the minorities which changes cultures that used to have deep pagan roots, wide presence in the political and influence within the libertarian movement, media presence, entrepreneurs and professionals. And it has been growing exponentially in the last several years. I keep meeting people who are product of our ministry through other people, not through me. And all on a shoestring budget.
How did we do it? Simple. No holds barred. Address everyone and everything on the foundation of Gospel, and give the solutions of the Law of God. And don’t apologize for your faith. And never limit your testimony to personal conversion and church planting.
And in future episodes, we will talk about the importance of books, and then about how to establish local communities.
The book I will assign this week is Cyril and Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs, by the Greek professor and historian, Anthony-Emil Tachiaos. Read carefully to see how Eastern Europe was Christianized. And then think twice where you donate your money for missions.
So, visit BulgarianReformation.com. Subscribe to the newsletter to see how we have done it, and continue doing it. And help me continue the work. Pray and donate. And God bless you all.