In June 1975, I attended the West Michigan Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church for the first time. In two months, I would complete my final classes in seminary and take my first appointment as a deacon and a probationary member of the conference. Sometime during that week I met with Dr. Bob Smith, who was to become my district superintendent. After a few pleasantries, Bob got down to business. “Dick, I have a fine appointment for you,” he began. “You are going to serve at Ganges and Saugatuck….”
I don’t recall what he said after that. Not hailing from Michigan, I’d never heard of Saugatuck. But since I had spent the first few years of my life as a missionary kid in India, Ganges was a name I knew. I was secretly gratified that Bob obviously had gone to the trouble to find out about my childhood, and thought it was rather clever that he was playing a joke on me by telling me he was sending me back to India.
But Bob knew nothing about my early years in Asia as a missionary kid, and he wasn’t kidding. Two months later, my wife Pam and I—with a toddler and a newborn in tow—began what became 11 years of sometimes challenging, frequently thrilling, but always fulfilling ministry in southwest Michigan. Our first stop was the Saugatuck-Ganges Parish.
It really was quite natural that I’d think “India” rather than “Allegan County, Michigan” when I heard “Ganges.” Seeing life, ministry, church, and just about everything through international lenses is just what you do when you grow up overseas. Perhaps, too, it was my being the son and grandson of missionaries that especially sensitized me to what I saw happening (or not happening) in the missions program of the United Methodist Church during those years.
By the mid-1980s, what had begun as a gnawing concern among evangelicals in the denomination had grown to alarm and had finally resulted in dramatic action. That came in the form of the launch of The Mission Society for United Methodists, an “alternative” mission agency, as some called it. It was established by an ad-hoc group of pastors and former missionaries who met in St. Louis on November 28, 1983. Within days they tapped the Rev. Dr. H. T. Maclin, a 31-year veteran of the General Board of Global Ministries, to become the founding president. The new agency was incorporated on January 6, 1984.
Chief among the concerns that led to the formation of The Mission Society were: (1) the perceived movement of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) away from programs that had the specific objective of bringing people to faith in Christ; and (2) the dramatic reduction in the number of missionaries being sent by the UM Church around the world.
To put the decline of the missionary force in perspective, at the time of the merger of the Methodists and Evangelical United Brethren churches in 1968, approximately 1,650 missionaries served around the world under those two denominations. But by the early 1980s, the GBGM—which by then had slashed its missionary ranks to slightly over 500—announced the goal of reducing that number even further to just 300, or fewer than one adult missionary for every 100 United Methodist congregations.
Against that backdrop, you can imagine my response to the formation of a new, evangelical, sending organization for United Methodists. In a word, I was thrilled! Finally, someone was actually doing something about renewing biblical missions in my denomination. I determined I would do all I could as a young pastor to support these efforts.
During the summer of 1985, I had the privilege of meeting H.T. Maclin when he spoke at the Michigan Area Pastors’ School. Blessed with a humble spirit, the grace of a true southern gentleman, and convictions of steel, H.T. represented The Mission Society in a way that was received well by many of my colleagues.
A month or two later, we were blessed to have the Rev. Virgil Maybray as the keynote speaker at our congregation’s annual missions conference. Prior to the formation of The Mission Society, Virgil had led the Evangelical Missions Council, an arm of Good News devoted to promoting missions within the denomination. Although The Mission Society was not established by Good News, Virgil and many others who were connected with Good News had been part of its formation. Shortly after The Mission Society was launched, Virgil had become its first vice president.
In the providence of God, I had met Virgil 18 years earlier—the summer before my sophomore year of college. Now, he was preaching in my church, challenging the people of my congregation to commit their lives and their resources to God’s mission, and thrilling us with reports about the new sending agency.
After the conference concluded, I made an offhand comment that would prove to change my life. “If there’s ever anything I can do to help out The Mission Society,” I said, “please let me know.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t looking for a job. I was having the time of my life with the wonderful people at the Leighton UM Church.
But Virgil proposed that I apply for the position of director of missionary personnel with the new agency. When I replied that I didn’t know anything about doing such a job, he was quick to respond that since I was a missionary kid and a pastor, what more did I need to know? I didn’t have a ready answer. (As they say, you don’t know what you don’t know.) By God’s grace, nine months later in 1986, Pam and I moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, and I became the eighth member of the staff of The Mission Society for United Methodists.
The Mission Society’s original bylaws stated that it was to be a missionary sending agency “for United Methodists and others of Wesleyan persuasion” (italics added). In point of fact, however, for its first decade, “MSUM” (as it came to be known) only accepted candidates who were active members of the United Methodist Church.
However, being an independent “faith mission” while at the same time maintaining a visible identity with one particular denomination was something of an anomaly. As The Mission Society became better known, candidates from a variety of Christian communions began to apply for service. Sadly, for nearly 10 years, we turned down many splendid applicants for the simple reason that they were not active members of the United Methodist Church. (Interestingly enough, that litmus test was not required by the GBGM.)
Beginning in the mid ’90s, however, we came to the growing conviction that The Mission Society could accomplish its desire to be leaven within a mainline denomination while at the same time serving the wider Christian community. The result was that we began to accept candidates who were Wesleyan in spirit and conviction though not United Methodist.
The transformation to an interdenominational agency of Wesleyan heritage became complete when the name of the organization was officially changed to The Mission Society in 2008. Today, although the majority of our missionaries and partners are still United Methodists, The Mission Society includes more than 200 cross-cultural workers who come from 12 denominations. (Since The Mission Society’s founding 25 years ago, 465 missionaries have been approved.)
Internationally, The Mission Society collaborates not only with United Methodist central conferences and autonomous affiliated Methodist denominations, but also with a variety of other Christian communions in 32 countries to which its missionaries are assigned.
Unlike some missions whose work focuses on a specific area of ministry (such as Bible translation, disaster relief, or radio broadcasting), the ministries of The Mission Society are as varied as they are numerous (see sidebar on page 15). Nevertheless, our core mission is very simple: The Mission Society exists to lead the Church to the world, and to lead the world to Jesus.
Pointing the Church to the world
If churches are measured by how “missions-minded” they are, mission agencies should be measured by how “church-minded” they are.
Speaking at a missions mobilization conference we had the privilege of leading in Ghana in January 2008, Robert Oboagye-Mensah, presiding bishop of The Methodist Church of Ghana (and a newly-elected member of The Mission Society’s board of directors) said, “God does not have a mission for God’s Church. God has a Church for God’s mission. Mission was not created for the Church; the Church was created for mission.”
If that is true, then it’s high time that mission agencies do a rapid 180° turn and begin to help the Church get about its mission rather than assuming that the Church somehow was established by God to support the agency’s mission.
It was precisely this conviction that led The Mission Society to establish in 2000 what is now one of the two branches of our Missions Operations division: the Church Ministry department. Over the past decade, through seminars, conferences, workshops, and coaching, we have provided training to help hundreds of congregations and thousands of pastors and leaders to more effectively mobilize themselves to reach their communities and the nations for Christ.
It’s not just American churches that we are mobilizing for missions, however. Beginning in 2003, The Mission Society has conducted missions mobilization conferences that have impacted several thousand pastors and leaders from scores of denominations in more than 20 countries, primarily in Latin America and Africa.
It is not the Church’s job to help groups like The Mission Society reach the world. It’s the mission agencies’ job to help the Church reach the world. What we are discovering is that when we work hand-in-hand with the Church, Christ is honored and his work is accelerated.
Pointing the world to Jesus
Leading The Mission Society’s more than 200 missionaries whose ministries reflect tremendous diversity can feel a bit like herding cats at times. But the diversity is only on the surface. At their core, Mission Society missionaries share one common purpose, and that is to offer people Christ. There still is “no other name under heaven by which people can be saved.”
Two biblical themes increasingly shape our understanding and practice of mission. The first is the Incarnation. Dr. Darrell Whiteman, vice president for mission personnel and preparation and resident missiologist at The Mission Society, teaches our missionaries that Jesus’ incarnation is their model for cross-cultural ministry.
God in Christ Jesus went to incredible lengths to communicate his love to humanity. Jesus, says Whiteman, did not just become a generic human. He became a first-century Palestinian Jew who spoke Aramaic with a low-prestige Galilean accent! Philippians 2 reminds us that Jesus emptied himself of all the prestige of being God’s son in order to identify with human beings. If God so fully entered a particular human culture in order to connect with humankind, should today’s missionaries do any less?
Whether it means living in an apartment in the middle of a predominantly Muslim immigrant community in Atlanta or amidst an unreached tribal group in a village in northern Ghana, living with and learning from the people we seek to lead to Jesus is not only a core value, but also a key ministry strategy for The Mission Society’s missionaries.
But the Incarnation not only defines a missionary’s lifestyle, it also shapes the missionary’s message. Although the gospel never changes, the ways in which it relates to the diverse human family must be as varied as are human cultures themselves.
That leads to the second theme that continues to both challenge and instruct us, and that is what we refer to as “radical biblical contextualization.”
What does that mean? Well, throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ followers seemed to be discovering something foundational about missions (see Acts 15, Acts 17, I Corinthians 9). The manner in which the Good News of Christ is conveyed and the outward forms of expression which those who receive it exhibit must take on the look and feel of the local culture if the gospel has any hope of penetrating deeply or spreading broadly throughout a people group.
Our missionaries are trained and prepared to discover where God (whose prevenient grace reached them before they found him) is already at work among peoples who have yet to know Christ. I fully anticipate that as the least-reached peoples become followers of Jesus, their resulting worship and witness will proclaim that Jesus is Lord in ways that may look and sound very unfamiliar to our Western Christian eyes and ears. I’m confident, however, that the Shepherd will have no problem recognizing his sheep and calling them his own.
Both the call to the church to engage the world and the call to the world to embrace Jesus grow out of the Missio Dei—the Mission of God. It is as ancient as God’s call to Adam and Eve in the garden, and as abiding as the promise of the One who said he would be with us always, even to the end of the age.
As The Mission Society celebrates its 25th anniversary, it is with a renewed commitment to follow Jesus as he walks the streets of the city and the dusty pathways of the village. We celebrate the fact that mission in the 21st century is the enterprise of the worldwide Church. Even as the mantle of leadership in the global Church is being passed from the North to the South, we enthusiastically embrace the opportunity and the challenges of becoming servants to the global Church as it reaches out to the least-reached peoples of the world.
The Scripture not only gives us hope but spurs us on: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9-10).
Dick McClain is the new president and CEO of The Mission Society. To read more about the Mission Society’s 25th anniversary, click here.