Missionaries Ought to be Professionals

4 September 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions, Matt Rhodes.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2022.  Softcover, 270 pages.

Before arriving on the mission field in 2000, I had spent four years in university and then four years in seminary.  I was sent to serve in the tiny British Columbia village of Fort Babine.  Almost all the people there were poorly educated and some were illiterate.  Some questioned the point of sending a man with my skills and education to such a place.  However, if anything, as I look back at it now, I was vastly underprepared.  I’m convinced now more than ever that missionaries ought to be trained at the highest levels in theology, mission, language, and culture.

Not everyone agrees in today’s world of Christian missions.  There are those who argue that the only factor that matters is the willingness to go.  Everything else is unimportant.  Matt Rhodes differs.  He believes that Scripture teaches that those sent to the mission field have to work hard beforehand to prepare themselves and work even harder after they arrive.  As the title says, there are no shortcuts.

Rhodes is responding to something called “Church Planting Movements” (CPM) in the evangelical mission community.  The name sounds innocuous – aren’t we all in favour of church planting?  But that’s not this.  CPM-methodology features missionaries who often don’t live on the mission field and who don’t proficiently speak the language or understand the culture.  These missionaries quickly make converts and gather them into churches and then move on to other locations – oftentimes within weeks or months.  They report astounding results.  For example, David Watson claimed that his CPM-style ministry in India resulted in 10 million believers and 627 churches.  All he did was hand out Audio Bibles.  Sadly, there is no convincing evidence to back up these wild claims.  As Rhodes points out, Indian census data actually showed a net decrease in the number of Christians in the area concerned (p.62).

But this isn’t just about statistics.  Rhodes shows how Scripture reveals a different path for aspiring and active missionaries.  This path involves time, hard work, responsibility, and devotion to excellence.  These are ordinary means that the Holy Spirit uses to advance the cause of the gospel through Christian mission.         

I appreciate the overall thrust of No Shortcut to Success.  I also appreciate the way Rhodes weaves mission history into his writing.  For example, he relates how Hudson Taylor (the famous missionary to China) “rebuked C.T. Studd and Arthur and Cecil Polhills for praying for the gift of tongues so that they could skip language study” (p.141).  That reminds us how the earliest Pentecostals actually thought they were speaking in known human language and hoped to harness that gift for mission.  As a long-tenure missionary in North Africa, Rhodes also draws on his own experiences.  He has observed, for instance, that in his region most missionaries don’t achieve language proficiency beyond that of a 7 year old (p.143).  Early in his time in Africa, his team tried to achieve a gospel breakthrough with prayer and fasting.  They failed.  It was chalked up to deficiencies in their prayer and fasting.  Rhodes recalls the reality:  “…none of us spoke Arabic well enough to share the gospel in easily understandable ways” (p.243).  Finally, I appreciated his helpful lists:  what missionaries need to learn about a culture (p.161), the characteristics of a mature church (pp.191-193), and factors when considering a life in missionary service (p.217).

I only have two points of criticism, both to do with history.  Rhodes repeats the old story that “the Protestant missionary enterprise began with William Carey” (p.251).  As I and many others have argued, this is simply not true.  In fact, the Reformation itself should be understood as a “missionary enterprise.”  Rhodes also repeats as fact the legendary encounter between William Carey and John Ryland.  After Carey presented his plan for the evangelism of the world, Ryland allegedly said, “Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do so without your aid or mine.”  Unfortunately, these words have often been quoted by Arminians to argue that Calvinism destroys missions.  However, there is strong evidence suggesting that Ryland never said this or anything like it.  The story is likely apocryphal.

If you’re a young person with an interest in becoming a missionary, I highly recommend reading this book sooner rather than later.  I’d also suggest it to currently serving missionaries, as well as mission board members – and anyone with an interest in mission.  The exact form of thinking that’s being addressed in this book might not be common in our circles, but the temptation to take short-cuts in mission is a perennial one everywhere, making this book relevant for us too.   

Originally published in Clarion 72.11 (September 1, 2023)