MISSIONAL & Are You a Mission Station or a Missional Community? #DonaldMcGavran

by Bob Whitesel, 3/17/15. 

Missiologist Dr. Donald McGavran often criticized the “mission station approach” to missions. Still, if this is the first time you’ve heard the term it doesn’t sound so bad. But a little history about the term and how it was abused can help us be more effective in helping others today.

The “mission station approach” to outreach became a fairly common term to describe how in mission work, a foreign entity (like the Lutheran Church of Germany for example) would set up “mission stations” (such as in South Africa) to reach indigenous peoples.  

The mission station was a little enclave, sort of a transplanted European walled-city, that would provide a microcosm of European Christian culture amid the indigenous peoples of the mission field.  The language in the mission station was the language of the missionaries, and the culture was as well.  The missionaries at the mission station expected the indigenous peoples to come “into” the mission station, learn a European language, dress in European clothes, be taught about Christian culture and accept Jesus.  Needless to say, this was terribly ineffectual.

However, it was not until the great missionary awakening that people like William B. Carrey, Albert Schweitzer, and others popularized the more effective contextualization approach. They argued that you “sift” or evaluate culture, rejecting some elements that are anti-Christ and accept other elements that are morally neutral (see Charles Kraft’s “Christianity and Culture” and Lesslie Newbigin’s “Christ and Culture” for an extended … 300+ page… discussion on this).

A colleague of mine, Dr. Ryan Bolger pointed out in a white paper to the American Society of Church Growth (2002) that today most churches have become “mission stations” in North America: we speak a different language, live a different culture and we expect the unchurched people to come “into” our mission stations and adopt our culture.  This is why Darrel Guder in “Missional Church” (1998) points out that in North America we live in a culture that is hostile to Christianity … thus effectively making churches in North America missionary organizations.  (Guder’s book is an excellent introduction to the missional church … it is a modern contextualization of classic Church Growth principles.  And, it is the most highly regarded book outside of the Bible by emerging post-modern church leaders.)

Thus, I think it strategically judicious to embrace the life of missionaries in the North American context (doing so while embracing strategies that are effectual and successful in missiological experience and contexts).