Near-neighbour strategies: lessons from history

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the fact that “unreached” no longer means “remote.” In fact, 57% of the world’s unreached people live within 300 miles of another people group which has a significant Evangelical population.

(I’m using figures from the Joshua Project and defining “significant Evangelical population” somewhat arbitrarily as having more than a population of more than 100,000 Evangelicals.)

Half of these “boundary peoples” can be found in Asia (particularly South Asia), but there are also significant numbers of boundary people groups to be found in West Africa and the east coast of Africa. So maybe if we can come alongside the nearby churches, resource them, and envision them to reach their neighbours…?

Well, maybe. It’s not a terrible idea. But let’s slow down a moment. This kind of thing has been tried before.

Robert Blincoe, in a wonderful book you can borrow from the Internet Archive, wrote about the failure of the “Great Experiment” in the 19th Century. The idea behind the experiment was to plant churches amongst Kurdish people not by evangelising them directly, but by “coming alongside” the nearby Nestorian churches and other historical Eastern churches, teaching and discipling them, and then implanting within them a missions vision for the Kurdish people.

Blincoe gives a number of reasons why the strategy failed. Perhaps the biggest one is that denominational differences between the missionaries and the local churches led to resistance and suspicion. In retrospect, it perhaps wasn’t wise to wander into Orthodox churches and start preaching ideals of lay empowerment and every-member ministry. What happened was that the missionaries, not really understanding the complexities of the theological situation, assumed that since the Nestorians were not Catholic, they must be “proto-Protestant”. (One even described Nestorius as “the first Protestant.”) The end result was that local Christians who did accept the missionaries’ teaching separated from the historical churches and formed their own denominations.

Secondly, missionary effort was directed primarily towards Christians. Although Kurdish evangelism was the end goal, it became an indirect goal, and was effectively displaced by the direct goal of teaching and preaching within churches. And of course, once they had (inadvertently) planted Evangelical churches within the Armenians and the Assyrians because of church splits from the Eastern churches, care and feeding of these churches became the main ministry.

Finally, the missionaries landed in the middle of a political struggle between people groups. They were there, ostensibly, to evangelise the non-Christian Kurds; but they did so by bringing their considerable resources and power to “support” the Christian Armenians. Missionaries weighed in to a religious and ethnic struggle on the side of the Christians, making the Kurds believe that there was a political alliance between Constantinople and the West against them.

What do we learn from this story?

For one thing, missionaries bringing their strategy and agenda and goals uninvited into a complex situation is never going to end well. Bringing cultural and operational change as an outsider who “knows what needs to be done” is, you know, colonial, and frankly anyone going that way needs to reckon with what Koyama calls their “teacher complex”:

I do not understand [the Great Commission] as an authorization for ‘one-way traffic’. I believe it calls for ‘Christ-like going’. Take note that it says not just ‘go’ but ‘go therefore’, that is to say, go on the basis of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, his love, his self-denial, his hope, his death, his resurrection… It is not ‘one-way-traffic’. It is intensely two-ways. And in this two-way-traffic situation with his people, he gave up his right of way!

I remember towards the end of our time in Japan, we were planning to hand over our church to some believers who had been co-leading with us. When we discussed the plans for the hand-over, we were shocked to discover that they had no intention of taking over.  “Why should we take over? We never planned to start a church here. That was your idea, not ours.” Oops. We had totally misread the situation, because we had come with our own agenda, our own fixed idea about what the end product was going to be. We did not allow the context to set the agenda.

Christlike going means giving up one’s “right of way”.

But even missionaries who do come to churches with a clear invitation to support their outreach to another people group, who are genuinely serving that church’s missional agenda and not their own, are still in a very delicate position and have to be fully aware of the ecclesiastical and political situation they are entering.

In the case of the Nestorians, there was a considerable doctrinal gap between the Nestorians and the Protestant missionaries which might not be there when Evangelicals are working with other Evangelicals. But we are never as similar as we might seem. The problem was not so much that there were differences, but that the missionaries made assumptions about what the differences were, and were overly optimistic about how easily those differences could be bridged. We cannot help coming with our own doctrines and ecclesiologies, and that means there will be differences. It’s only when the rubber hits the road of partnership do we realise the disruptive impact that we can have as an external influence.

Finally, near-neighbour ministry cannot be done as a quick fix, a “non-residential” way to use “cheap labour” to get a job done. The Western missionaries unsettled the Kurds and made them less responsive to the Gospel because they spent all their time and energy with their rivals. You can’t love someone by proxy; you love someone by involvement with them.

Is this the nail in the coffin for near-neighbour evangelism strategies? I’m not sure. If there is a genuine “giving up one’s right of way” partnership with local churches, if there is careful contextual and situational awareness both with the local church and with those we are hoping to reach, if there is genuine love, commitment and involvement on the part of the missionaries, then maybe there’s some benefit in such an approach. But it’s no silver bullet.

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