Reformed Quarterly Volume 7, Issue 4
John E. Kyle is coordinator for Mission to the World of the Presbyterian Church in America. A seasoned missionary with over twenty-five years experience, Kyle served with Wycliffe Bible Translators in several key positions in the Philippines. While on leave of absence from Wycliffe, Kyle acted as the first coordinator for Mission to the World from 1973-1977. Formerly a vice-president for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, he also directed several Urbana Missions Conferences. Kyle was the speaker for this fall’s RTS Missions Conference sponsored by the Society for Missionary Inquiry. In the following interview, he assesses the state of missions today and looks toward its future.
Q. Where are the biggest opportunities for mission work in the world today?
A. It depends on how you break it down. Geographically, China, India, North Africa, and the Middle East are very crucial unreached areas of the world. If you break it down by religion, the Muslims, the Hindus, the tribal people, and the Buddhists would probably be key areas to reach.
Q. What kind of progress are we making with the unreached people of the world?
A. Wycliffe continues to be on the cutting edge of entering a tribal or minority culture in isolated places, doing the linguistic research before translation, and then reducing the language to a written form. They have worked with over 1100 languages.
As I see it, we have done a pretty good job of reaching some unreached people in rural areas of the world, but the real task facing us is evangelizing the unreached in urban situations. During the last Urbana, I focused attention on these mega-cities developing because thousands are moving from the country to the city. In one city alone there can be dozens of complex ethnic groups, a barrier just as formidable as tribal groups.
Q. What particular difficulties do you encounter in an urban ministry?
A. First, you must recruit people who are comfortable in an urban setting. Most of our young people live in the suburbs; they shop in malls and have, perhaps, never even been downtown. They must be willing to learn cross-cultural skills and a new language.
Second, the ministry requires a family or an individual who is totally committed to Christ, the work of the church, and to the Great Commission and will stick to that commitment. I say that because urban ministry work is frustrating and requires clever strategy. People in the city often isolate themselves behind the walls of apartments, and the missionary must figure out how to get through those walls and evangelize the people.
In the future, mission agencies will recruit more international teams for urban work. For example, instead of sending a team composed of all Americans to Mexico City, there would be on that team a Filipino, a Brazilian, a Kenyan, or an Australian. The idea that a mixture of races and cultures can get along and work together should send a powerful message to urban people and possibly open more doors for ministry.
Q. What do you see in the future for missions?
A. We will see more opportunities in communist-held countries like China, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. There will be a greater openness to our sending technical-type short-term missionary “tentmakers” to those countries for the simple reason that the Soviet Union wants the Western world’s help in developing its economy. The Soviets realize that communism has basically been an economic failure, and they want us to bring in all our skills and money to help them build their economy as we have done in mainland China. The same thing is occurring in Eastern Europe.
Therefore, we will see more missionaries with tentmaking strategies, with perhaps some support by the North American local church, but mainly funded by the person working for some educational institution or business overseas.
I also believe the future will see better trained missionaries. RTS is serious about training their missionaries, and they have the faculty to do it.
We will see higher costs in the mission field due to inflation, and we’ll have to deal with that. However, I believe we will see more Western missionaries going overseas, despite the fact that mainline denominations have cut back their missions efforts. Like Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Missions, I feel that this is the sunrise of missions and that we will see more revival within the Christian church in the next five to fifteen years.
Q. Why are so many people not interested in missions?
A. A person who is not interested in missions has not been properly exposed. Few churches stress missions, mainly because the pastors themselves lack education and exposure. The primary reason I was at RTS this fall was not to stir people up to become missionaries, but to try to get these potential pastors to see that it’s their responsibility to expose themselves and their congregations in every way to the cause of missions. I want them to see their responsibility to the Great Commission.
When pastors are really turned on, the people will follow them. Many are not doing evangelism because the pastor has not helped them to do it. Some simply don’t want to be confronted by the needs of other people, either overseas or here. And many need to be convinced because they are afraid of the cost. Jesus made a lot of strong statements about following Him, and multitudes of Christians fear that. But they forget that Jesus Christ loves them and died for them. He promises to be with them to the end of the age. Following Him is costly, but if Christ is leading, He will take care of them.
Q. What, then, are key areas in missions in which a pastor should be educated?
A. First, he should go to a seminary which has a first-class missions program in order to expose himself to mission work. RTS has established such a credible program by retaining Dr. Paul Long, a man with an earned Ph.D. in world missions and with many years of missions experience. The result is an exciting and practical curriculum, not the usual boring, classical missions courses which students could not care less about.
Second, a preacher needs to get out of the church and overseas for short periods to visit with missionaries and see first-hand what is happening on the field.
Third, he should be reading evangelical and missions materials. It will not only give him good sermon illustrations but will also keep him abreast of the latest developments in missions.
Next, he should not be afraid to open his pulpit to missionaries, have them in for Bible studies and missions conferences, and encourage families to pray for them and keep them in their homes. Some pastors are a bit afraid that if people start giving to missions, it will decrease the local church’s work. But historically it has been shown that the church involved in missions always grows.
Q. How can an ordinary church member become educated about missions if he does not get any help from the pulpit?
A. It is very difficult because I believe the church is where one should be educated about missions. Frankly, I would not have needed to be the Director of Missions for InterVarsity if the local church had been doing what it should.
However, a person could simply write InterVarsity or other missions organizations to find out what missions opportunities (both short and long-term) are available. Many organizations need certain skills, like administrators, secretaries, painters, even just someone to swing a hammer for a week.
Next, find a missions-minded church and visit it. You don’t have to join, just be on the lookout for missions activities or conferences and attend one. Scout out missions literature that might be available and put yourself on the mailing lists to find out what’s going on in the world. Publications like “The SIM News,” Wycliffe’s “In Other Words,” and Tyndale Publishers’ “Church in the World” are excellent and can be had very cheaply. It would not hurt to take a course in missions if you could afford it.
Q. What changes have you seen in mission work in your twenty-six years of involvement?
A. The growth of the para-church organization, I believe, has been paramount. The reason, I think, has been the cutbacks in mission funding, outreach, and personnel in the mainline denominations. The more the cutbacks, the more para-church agencies will be formed.
Another change has been the growing interest of college students in missions since 1972. Many churches will pay students’ expenses to Urbana so they can come back to the local church and report to the congregation what happened to them at Urbana. This creates enthusiasm.
More planning is occurring in missions today, and more agencies are working together on strategies. For example, at MTW we have 52 cooperative agreements with other agencies. If we cannot use a person’s skills in our own work, we can assign them to one of these other agencies and encourage our churches to support them.
Today more money is going into missions. The recent survey by World Vision showed that $1,243,000,000 was poured into missions in 1985, pushing the total over the billion mark in North America for the first time. There is much more financial support among Christians available if we can just get those who have money to get their priorities straight.
We have also redefined long-term missions and career service to mean possibly only fifteen years instead of a lifetime. This would allow someone to come along at age forty or fifty and serve until sixty-five. This type of thing, along with short-term projects, was frowned upon in the 1960’s. Mission boards generally felt, “After all, if you don’t mean business, don’t do it. If you really love the Lord, you’ll go for a lifetime.”
Q. Have you found that short-term missions projects like Servants In Missions Abroad (SIMA) have encouraged people to get involved in missions when they otherwise would not?
A. Yes, absolutely. World Vision did a survey which showed that in 1985 at least 28,000 people were overseas in some capacity. This past summer, I would estimate there were as many as 50-60,000 people overseas serving short-term out of North America. That’s a vast number of people compared to some 3,000 in 1965. This is not counting the work of the local churches, some of which send out 100-200 people directly to the mission field overseas without going through mission agencies.
Right now we are seeing about twenty-five percent of the short-term, two-year SIMA program missionaries return for more service. We’d like to see fifty to sixty percent return; I think we need to tighten up in the ways we help these people out there on the field. We would like to see some of them come back as career missionaries, but we are not averse to their remaining in the local church and making a significant impact on both the world and home missions committees here at home.
Q. Looking to the future, are you optimistic about the growth of missions?
A. Yes, I am very optimistic. I set the original goals here at MTW, and we reached them by 1984. Our former coordinator, Paul McKaughan and the committee set new goals for 1993. Vision ’93 calls for 800 missionaries on the field and a 24 million dollar budget. Right now, we have 525 missionaries on the field and a twelve million dollar budget.
We don’t believe these goals can be reached, humanly speaking. That is why we began asking people to pray for us daily from July 1,1988 to June 30,1989, for sixty-five more career missionaries this year. And we have had a deluge of cards sent back letting us know that people are praying daily for this need.
Although the challenge is a big one, it doesn’t scare me. My only question is: Is the vision big enough?