Interview with Doug Priest

Doug Priest paused for an interview during the recent National Missionary Convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
By Brad Dupray

Doug Priest has embodied the theme of the recent National Missionary Convention, “Get Your Hands Dirty,” through his life in missions and ministry. Doug spent 17 years on mission fields in such places as Kenya, Tanzania, and Singapore while also serving in stateside ministries in Los Angeles and Dexter, Oregon. He holds a PhD from the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, and has degrees from Northwest Christian College and the University of Oregon. Doug has served as executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship for the past 13 years. He and his wife of 31 years, Robyn, have two daughters, Nicole and Andrea. Doug paused from his duties as convention president for this interview during the gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What did you hope this year’s National Missionary Convention would accomplish?

I was looking at a focus to expand the concept of mission to include elements of good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and liberty to the captives, in addition to the more usual evangelism and church planting emphasis.

How has it stacked up?

I’m ecstatic about how that message is coming through.

Explain the convention theme, “Get Your Hands Dirty.”

Anybody can do something in missions. Missions is not just for the professional missionary. Missions is for everybody.

Did you want to change things up at the convention, or was it “don’t mess with success”?

The convention has been growing rapidly in the last few years, and I just wanted the emphasis to expand the definition of missions. Not to change up what’s going well at all, but to give people some different ideas of what they can do and how they can be involved.

Is there something the North American Christian Convention can learn from the National Missionary Convention?

I love both of our conventions. Both of them are meeting important needs. In these economic times it’s getting harder and harder for people to attend two conventions in the same year. Jeff Stone (the 2009 NACC president) announced at the NMC that the NACC will provide free scholarships for Bible college graduates of 2008 and 2009. I like that. It’s important because more youth and college-age students attend this convention than the NACC.

Do you see the potential of the two conventions working together more closely in the future?

There are several models I have heard about. One is for each convention to meet every other year, another is to combine the two conventions. I don’t really know what’s best, I just know that it’s getting difficult to have two conventions per year for many people. The purposes of the conventions do overlap. I believe there’s a false dichotomy that the National Missionary Convention appeals to one part of the church and the NACC appeals to another part of the church. We both have the same interests and goals.

Are people in our independent movement still wary of mission organizations?

That’s yesterday’s news. It’s ancient history. I was on 16 different college campuses this fall and was asked that question only one time.

Does anyone even know about the United Christian Missionary Society?

The UCMS has not used that name for 40 years. Even among the Disciples of Christ, most don’t know what the phrase is.

What’s the difference between a CMF (Christian Missionary Fellowship) or TCM of today and the UCMS of yesteryear? Is there truly a philosophical difference?

CMF, TCM, Pioneer Bible Translators, Team Expansion—all of those groups are voluntary. The UCMS was a denominational agency. A percentage of the offerings of the churches was sent to UCMS headquarters. With CMF [and the others] it’s voluntary; the churches choose whom they want to support.

What does an organization like CMF offer to churches that a local church can’t do on its own?

Churches can do what we [CMF] do, and many churches do it very well. We’re not the only way to get missions done. We do some of those things so churches don’t have to do it, which allows churches to concentrate on other priorities. We take care of things like getting visas, doing the financial bookkeeping for the missionaries, providing publicity, and caring for the missionaries on the field when they need assistance.

Is there resurgence in missions or is it just that the surge continues?

I think the church today is much more concerned about social issues than at any time I can remember. That’s true here in the States, and it just extends around the world. So many churches are going out and cleaning up their neighborhoods: painting junior high schools, picking up litter, caring for unwed mothers, being concerned about HIV and AIDS. Since missions has always been involved in these kinds of works, it’s natural that missions is growing. The things that people are wanting to do in their community they’re wanting to do around the world. If it’s OK for a church to go out and plant trees in their neighborhood, it’s a small step to think we can also plant trees in the deserts of Africa so poor people don’t have to face soil erosion and loss of crops.

Does short-term missions represent a change in thinking?

No. What fueled short-term missions was the disposable incomes that Americans have. Part of it is world economics; we just have more money than we have had before, so people can afford to go on short-term mission trips. Short-term mission trips are a recent phenomena.

How recent would you say?

They’re only about 20 years old. A quarter of a century ago few people went on short-term mission trips. Today it seems that few people don’t go on short-term mission trips! The statistics are that for every one-career missionary that is sent (career meaning three years or longer), 60 people go on short-term mission excursions.

Is it taxing to the missionaries on the field who receive these visitors?

It can be taxing. The key is preparation on the field and before the trip so that those going on the short-term trip have something valid to contribute. The second key is the debriefing that takes place afterwards.

How do you do that?

The debrief is led by the youth minister, the missions committee that sent them, or—if the people who went are scattered—the agency that sent them. [The goal of the debrief is to] review what you saw, interpret your experiences, describe how you’ve been touched, and consider what will be your next step. Are you going to make some changes in your lifestyle, are you going to read to become more aware, are you going to pray so this doesn’t become just the latest experience?

Are short-term missions a good use of resources? Wouldn’t it be better for someone to direct the thousands of dollars spent on a short-term mission trip to support someone who is there for the long haul?

The assumption of that question is that people who spend the money to go on the short-term trips would give that money and not go on the trip. The answer to that is, in general, no. Of course the money could be used for the mission itself, but that assumes the person would give the thousand dollars instead of going, and most people simply won’t.

Are short-term missions the key to raising up long-term missionaries?

It’s one key. It’s an important key, it’s a memorable key, but it’s not the only key.

How does a church challenge someone to dedicate his life to a long-term overseas commitment?

I think the church needs to have a developmental program to recruit, train, and send missionaries. Short-term trips are one aspect of that program.

What do you see as the future of missions?

I see more people involved in missions. The church in the southern hemisphere is now larger than the church in the northern hemisphere. So when we go, we need to look for the church that is already there and work with them. It’s a totally different role today because the church is worldwide. We’re not going into areas as the know-it-all, pioneer experts, we’re going in to serve the church that is already there and get on board with what God is already doing.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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