Start it up, Then Ask Permission. (4th of 5).

“Bob Blincoe, why are you criticizing the church?”

When Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine applied as missionaries, the Reformed Church of America administrators told them, “It cannot be done.” We wrote about it here. This is so interesting, because the church administrators were right. The Reformed Church of America was not able to start a new mission effort in a new location. Church administrators never start new mission efforts in the Regions Beyond. The entirety of the expansion of Christianity to unreached people depends on ordinary people who start it up, then ask permission.

Blincoe: This is where my critics will say, “Bob Blincoe, why are you criticizing the church?” This criticism assumes that sending missionaries is supposed to happen by church administrators. However, there is not a single reference in the Bible to churches sending missionaries. Harold Cook, in his article, “Who Really Sent the First Missionaries?,” wrote:

The idea that the local church is the divinely ordained missionary sending agency finds absolutely no support in the Scriptures. [In fact], in the first five centuries of the Christian era I have been unable to find any instance where the church, as a church, ever officially designated and sent out missionaries.

Who, then, does send the missionaries? Acts 13:4 leaves us in no doubt: the Holy Spirit. Looking at other instances, note that it was the Holy Spirit who sent Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:29). He sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 11:12 ). He kept Paul from going into Bithynia (Acts 16:7), then led him to Macedonia (v. 10).

It is strange that we have so little confidence in the Holy Spirit. Stranger still that we do not read our history carefully and realize that when the church has brought things under control, it has tended to stifle rather than stimulate the work. At best, as in the council at Jerusalem, it tags along behind and grudgingly acknowledges what the Spirit is doing.[1]

New mission efforts to the “Regions Beyond” are usually started by apostolic type risk-takers who set things in motion despite being told, “It can’t be done.” Most people see things as they are and say, “Why.” Apostolic missionaries dream things that never were and say, “Why not.”

The most well-known “start up” structure in the Reformed Church of America (RCA) was the American Arabian Mission, begun by Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine in 1889. Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine organized American Arabian Mission after their church, the Reformed Church in America, determined that the church did not have the funds to help them. After Zwemer and Cantine successfully began their mission, the RCA Board changed its mind. In 1894 the Reformed Church Board adopted the Arabian Mission as its own.[3] There was no cost to the Board, as the revenue needed for the mission was assured by private donors. This is the regular sequence of how mission enterprises get started:

First, A church member takes the initiative to go as a missionary to some new place.

Second, His church may caution him that it cannot be done, or should not be done.

Third, The missionary organizes his or her own mission agency.

Fourth, The church may change its mind and recognize the new reality as a good thing.

This four-step sequence became a regular feature of the Reformed Church of America. John Piet, professor of Bible and missions at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan, told Ralph D. Winter that every RCA overseas mission initiative began as a voluntary effort outside the administration of the church.[4] In not a single case were these missionaries sent by the initiative of the Reformed Church of America mission board. In every case, the Holy Spirit spoke to individual Christians who approached the board and forced the board to react. In this manner every new mission location was established. The denominational board later recognized the start up ventures, then shouldered ongoing responsibility. Thus, every RCA mission apparently began when “restless people seeking to deal with problems that were not being successfully coped with by existing institutions escaped the old formats and were driven to invent new forms of organizations.”[5] Dr. Winter writes, “This is not to be considered ominous but does underscore the crucial importance of allowing breathing space for initiatives too small to gain a 51% approval in a democratic church body.”[6]

A heartfelt handshake between church administrators and mission agencies will enable ten times more missionaries to go to the regions beyond.

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[1] Cook, Harold, “Who Really Sent the First Missionaries?” copyright 1975, Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).


[3] ibid., xvii.

[4] Author’s interview with Ralph D. Winter, autumn 2002. Piet was probably referring to pioneers like John and Harriet Scudder, who sailed for Ceylon in 1819 under the ABCFM, and Guido Verbeck and two medical companions, Samuel Robbins Brown and Danne B. Simmons, who organized themselves for the purpose of sailing to Nagasaki in 1859, thus opening the Reformed Church mission work in Japan. Ibid. 131, 134

[5] Bornstein, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Speaking of “inventing new forms of organizations,” James Cantine operated the “Freed Slave School of the American Arabian Mission” between 1899 and 1901, and Zwemer began a hospital in Bahrain that celebrated its centennial in 2005.

[6] Winter, “Protestant Mission Societies and the ‘Other Protestant Schism’.” 205-206.