Meet Our Contributing Editors: This month we talk with Doug Priest, executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship International, about missions trends, short-term missions trips, and the worldwide multiplication of urban squatters.
How did you get started in missions?
My parents went to Ethiopia as missionaries before I began high school. We first heard about it when I was a sixth-grader, and I said, “Oh boy, I get to be Tarzan!” My younger sister was very excited because she wanted a monkey. (She actually did have a pet baboon for a while.) I attended a very good boarding school in the capital and thoroughly enjoyed those years. I’m really grateful to have had that opportunity, and obviously it shaped my life.
What’s your own experience as a missionary?
My wife, Robyn, and I served in Kenya, Tanzania, and Singapore for 17 years. In Tanzania we worked with the Maasai speakers in community development and church planting, and in Singapore I explored areas for future work in Asia. During that time the then-director of CMF resigned and the board contacted me. I’ve been the director for 18 years.
All of this combines to give you a unique perspective on missions. What trends are you noticing?
The church as a whole seems much more involved in missions. To quote Rick Warren, in the past, mission agencies expected churches to pray, pay, and stay away. Today churches form partnerships with national church leaders, they have a hand in developing strategy, and they make trips to the field. God is stirring the heart of his bride to be deeply involved in growing the kingdom of God around the world.
This often includes short-term mission experiences. What’s your take on the value of these trips?
Short-term trips can be done very well, and they can be done very badly. I once wrote that those going on short-term trips should spend 10 hours in preparation for every hour they would be on the field. That may have been a bit over the top—I’d scale it back to five hours now. There is spiritual preparation because the enemy is waiting to pounce on the unprepared, especially in a cross-cultural setting. Emotional, intellectual, cultural, and even physical preparation is important, too. Listen, if we are asking others for resources to help us with our trip, we owe it to them, to the local people, to the missionaries, and to the Lord to do it right.
What are some practical ways people can prepare for a trip?
Actually, Standard Publishing has a set of three journals; one is for preparation beforehand, one while you’re there, and the third for when you get home.* Also, it’s important to pray throughout the entire trip to ask God to guide every step while we’re overseas.
We also need to be humble. So often we think we can go into another country and just solve the problems we see. But it doesn’t work that way. It works best to go in as a learner and to be very careful about making assumptions and suggestions. I think it’s important to listen much before we speak little.
What other trends do you see?
For a period of nearly 100 years, until the end of the last century, the church held to an unbiblical view that missions could be either evangelism and church planting, or performing social ministries. The two sides distanced themselves from each other and presented a truncated gospel. Today we have grown up and churches want to be heavily involved in issues of justice, poverty, HIV/AIDS, clean water, trafficking, and more.
Another key trend is the focus on the urban poor as the largest unreached people group in the world. The United Nations projects that by 2050, one half of the world’s population will be squatters and urban slum dwellers, and two-thirds to three-fourths of the world’s population will be urban. Missions have targeted primarily rural groups, but these demographics mean our focus must shift to the cities.
Those are amazing statistics. By 2050 half the world will be squatters or urban poor. That’s stunning.
That’s what I’m seeing around the world; here in the States one noticeable trend is that churches of every size really want to be strategic in their missions involvement. When I was growing up it was common for churches to support as many missionaries as possible. Some made it a point to have missionaries on each continent. Often the support was not sizeable, and we called this the shotgun approach to missions. Today we are seeing churches considerably narrowing their focus, perhaps supporting just three to six different mission areas.
Child sponsorship is making a comeback. In the 1970s and ’80s it was a big deal, then it wasn’t talked about much until the last decade. I think churches should look into this as a way to connect their congregation with a specific area of the world. If people can visit the children they sponsor, so much the better.
It’s really exciting to see U.S. churches partnering together in mission projects. Speaking personally, the CMF partnership with Missions of Hope International in Nairobi, Kenya, among the urban poor includes about 60 congregations here in the U.S. These churches work together, they strategize together, they cooperate. When one church has a “success,” the other churches hear about it and feel it’s their success as well.
For the last couple of years we have pulled leaders from these churches together at the Hope Partnership Dialogue in Indianapolis, Indiana. I think this past year we had representatives from 22 churches and 11 states. They were all working together, all hearing the same reports, and all making valuable suggestions. Just think, churches pulling together to accomplish a common purpose as opposed to every church doing its own thing.
For churches moving from “shotgun” to “strategic,” what are some criteria they can use to decide where to focus?
People are serving as missionaries for a shorter period of time; remember that when a missionary transitions off the field, you don’t have to automatically add someone new. You can consolidate your giving among your other missionaries or consider going into a new part of the world.
Other times a church begins supporting a missionary and it’s assumed the church will continue that support indefinitely. It might be good to consider making a commitment to the missionary for his current term through furlough, then reevaluating. That gives the church some flexibility without cutting off support abruptly.
Every church has its own ethos and DNA, and some things will speak to the church more than others, so as people become educated about missions, as the minister and leaders look into it, they may develop specific areas of interest.
We talked about short-term trips. Another thing I’ve noticed is you’re considered a long-term missionary if you go on the field for even a year or two. What impact is that having?
One time I studied our statistics and discovered that the number of missionaries we had on the field after six years was the same number we had after 12 years. But in the second six-year period we recruited and sent four times as many people. So that demonstrates the revolving door. And it takes almost as much work to recruit someone who will stay on the field for one year as it does someone who will stay for 10.
Who are the rising stars in missions—the people in our movement we need to watch?
One of them is Ash Barker, an Australian who works among the urban poor in Bangkok. Kendi Howells Douglas, a missions professor at Great Lakes Christian College, is involved in writing, teaching, and inner-city ministry. I think we’ll see her name a lot in the academic sphere.
Another one, Rachel Oblon, serves at Parkcrest Christian Church in Long Beach, California. She speaks at CIY conferences and preaches at her church. I think she is going to be very influential.
You and Ash are doing some things together, right?
There’s a group of us who feel very strongly that the new frontier in missions for the next century is ministry to the urban poor. We started a journal called New Urban Mission and held a conference this past January in Bangkok. We hoped 50 people would come and would have been really happy if 75 people came. In the end, 200 people came and it was thrilling. The next one will be July 2014 in Kuala Lumpur.
What are you most excited about at CMF these days?
Well, let me tell you about my week. It’s a typical week in many ways. We have a couple staying with us who have finished up their time in Kenya and are now planning on opening a new work in Malawi. Next door to my office I can hear a guest from Ethiopia who’s visiting with one of our staff. We have a new team ready to join him in Addis Ababa working among the urban poor. Today one of our staff leadership teams is in Mexico City with a group of 19 people from Generations Christian Church in Trinity, Florida, doing some health screening and training. REACH, our summer college intern program, has 39 people serving in 11 different countries.
We’re researching new opportunities in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. All in all, lots of ministry is taking place! God blessed us in 2011 and 2012, and we were able to plant 160 new churches with our partners. It’s just a good time to be involved in ministry around the world.
*The Mission Trip Devotions and Journals for older teens and adults are Called (item number 022501113), Challenged (022501213), and Changed (022501313). Learn more at www.standardpub.com.
Jennifer Johnson, one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.