Presbyterian Missions (10th of 12). Time to Say Good-bye, Perhaps.

How Everything Seems to be Ending.

Francis Makemie (1658-1708), the red-haired Scotsman who emigrated to the American colonies in 1683, envisioned a future in which Presbyterian churches would form partnerships with many “private Christian societies for doing good.”[1] That was a good beginning. Presbyterians enjoyed partnerships with the American Board of Commissioners Foreign Mission and the American Home Mission Society in the early 19th century.

But at the 1837 General Assembly the delegates debated the propriety of these partnerships. A slight majority, holding that the Presbyterian Church was the only “missionary society” to which Presbyterians should belong, expelled 60,000 members from the rolls of membership, then voted to dissolve the Presbyterian Church’s relationship with outside mission agencies. Fortunately, the General Assembly then established the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions and the Board of Home Missions. This set in motion two centuries of exciting missionary efforts in the regions beyond. We featured some of the exemplary Presbyterian missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries here and here. We honored the 95 notable Presbyterian missionaries featured in Gerald Anderson’s superb reference book, the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. An extraordinary rise in the number of Presbyterian women’s mission societies began following the Civil War, until they could be numbered in the thousands. In this way the era of sending single women missionaries began. The 1902 General Assembly recognized the right of Presbyterians to organize and support their own mission associations, as we wrote about here. This happy arrangement remained as part of the Book of Order until 1991.

In the 1950s the Presbyterian Church began winding down its missionary enterprise. It had taken flight in the early 19th century, gained height and lasted into the middle of the 20th century. Now it seems to be landing like a frisbee. In 1986 I applied to be a Presbyterian missionary, but my application sat on a desk like a ham at a bar mitzvah, as I wrote here. Missionaries were renamed “fraternal workers.” Administrators of the Commission on Ecumenical Missions and Relationships (COEMAR) desired to respect the national churches as equals. I met many national church leaders and they are tremendous people. But church administrators do not send missionaries to unreached peoples. Church administrators are overwhelmed with the daily demands of the life of the church. Catholics had accepted Paul and Peter’s agreement that there should be two administrations of the gospel. Missions may be “in the church budget,” but, without a mission agency partner, the missions that churches can administrate are church-to-church relationships.

My reader may think that “the liberals” put an end to Presbyterian mission. Not so. The problem is not who is liberal or who is conservative. The problem is the same that plunged Luther’s Germany and Calvin’s Geneva into a mission ice age at the beginning of the Reformation. Those men believed in the mission texts of the Bible. The Reformers believed in Psalm 22:27, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” The Reformers believed in Isaiah 49:6, “I will make you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” But Luther and Calvin accepted one, only one, structure for administrating the entirety of the Christian mission; the structure that we normally think of as church. Luther dissolved the Catholic monasteries in his area of Germany; Calvin did the same in Geneva and everywhere he established Reformed churches. The effect was immediate: a mission ice age descended over northern Europe. Meanwhile hundreds of Catholics carried their version of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Another conversation with Luther and Calvin would be in order, for in the New Testament there are Lighthouse and Flint, “the two structures of God’s redemptive mission.” Ralph D. Winter illustrated the two structures by referring to the warp and woof of a fabric. The Presbyterian mission came to an end because national churches were put in charge of administrating the mission.

Here are three things I believe:

  • Mission agencies send missionaries to unreached peoples.
  • Churches that partner with mission agencies send missionaries to unreached peoples.
  • Churches by themselves change the meaning of mission to interchurch aid or starting churches among people of their own kind.

Here are three things I have learned:

  • The Holy Spirit starts movements in which thousands come to faith (day of Pentecost in Acts 2)
  • The Holy Spirit sends some to be missionaries to unreached peoples (the apostles Paul and Barnabas and their team in Acts 13:1-4).
  • The Holy Spirit starts churches (Acts 14, in Lystra, Derbe and Iconium in Acts 14:21-24).

In summary, God alone starts movements, sends missionaries, and starts churches. Churches never start churches among unreached peoples, though churches should start new churches among peoples of their own kind. (This is E-1 evangelism). The end of E-2 and E-2 Presbyterian mission came quickly when all missionaries were made to report to church administrators. Being liberal or conservative had nothing to do with this. A new mission ice age has set in. But this is not the end, as we will see. The Holy Spirit enables new mission initiatives.

[1] Dawson, “The Evolving Role of Presbytery after Christendom.” 2

Presbyterian Mission History. This is Blog #10 in a series 12:

  1. What Francis Makemie Envisioned : Beneficial Relationships between Presbyterian Churches and Mission Agencies
  2. What Early Presbyterian Churches Enjoyed: Denominational Support for Voluntary Societies
  3. How the General Assembly of 1837 Expelled 60,000 church members on account of their partnership with mission agencies.
  4. The General Assembly Establishes the Board of Foreign Missions. An Extraordinary Mission Era Begins.
  5. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 19th Century
  6. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 20th Century
  7. Ninety-Five Notable Presbyterian Missionaries in Gerald Anderson’s Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions
  8. The Extraordinary Rise of Presbyterian Women’s Mission Societies following the Civil War
  9. What the General Assembly of 1902 Endorsed: Recognition and Regulation of “Special Interest Organizations.”
  10. Time to say Good-bye, Perhaps. How Everything Seems to be Ending.
  11. This is not the End. The Holy Spirit Enables New Mission Initiatives.
  12. Presbyterian Mission History: A Bibliography.