We are interested in being effective missionaries. We are concerned with relevant communication in cross-cultural situations.
How do we determine effectiveness? What is relevant in any given circumstance?
One cannot know without blending the principles and procedures of doing research with the proclamation of the Good News.
A. Ignoring Reality. In everyday life, research is a nonthreatening, commonplace, essential phenomenon. We gather information for use in decision making: namely, we check the weather before planning a picnic, we ask a financial consultant before investing our money. Fearing (or belittling) research is a product of ignoring reality.
What, then, is the rationale for doing missions research? There are many reasons. We shall mention two: the missionary is responsible and evangelism must be audience-oriented.
1. Missionary is responsible. Though God is sovereign, man is still responsible. As the apostle Paul wrote, "By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. BUT EACH ONE SHOULD BE CAREFUL HOW HE BUILDS," I Corinthians 3:10.
Nevertheless, some people cite Isaiah 55:11 as proof that missionary research is unnecessary. For, God said, "My word...will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire..." As one missionary put it: "I have no responsibility whatsoever, other than preach His word and leave the results to Him." When asked about the results that this missionary had had, he replied "I do not have the faintest idea--that is not my concern!"
Is this what Isaiah 55:11 means? Does this passage make research unnecessary? Is the missionary not responsible? A look at the Isaiah passage in its context will give us the answer.
The Jews were in captivity. They were preoccupied with surviving. Concern for spiritual things was waning. So the prophet addressed those who felt spiritual thirst and spiritual hunger. He begged them to accept the food only God could supply, the food that would truly satisfy.
God, then, makes two promises to those who respond: (1) He will make an everlasting covenant with them and (2) Israel will be a witness to the heathens.
Hence, the prophet returns to his call for repentance.
The pardon of God cannot be given until the thoughts and ways of Israel are in tune with the thoughts and ways of the Lord. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts," Isaiah 55:8,9. That, however, is the problem. Man has difficulty trusting. We want to earn (or to deserve) our pardon. It shall not be so. Instead, as a needy creature, we must rely (not on material prosperity but) on the Maker as creation does. Then, the "word" (or promises) of God will come to pass. So the prophet continues:
The "word" that will not return empty refers to the promises of God to bless those who repent of their materialism. He stands behind His promises. This passage does not promote a "leave-it-to- God" attitude in regard to mission work. That is both poor exegesis and faulty stewardship. The Lord requires results from His people. A missionary is responsible (in part) for what occurs or does not occur in evangelism. Jesus said,
2. Evangelism must be audience-oriented. People everywhere see and hear through a "filter" composed of learned patterns of thinking, behavior, attitudes, and understanding. No one is obligated to listen to us. Missionaries must earn the attention of their audience. Numerous studies conclusively demonstrate that unwanted messages can be avoided, misinterpreted, or rejected (through selective listening, selective understanding, and selective acceptance).
Too many missionaries preach overseas exactly what they preach at home. They proclaim the message of God to non-westerners as if they were westerners (sparing no expense for advertising, printing, transmitting, and illustrating what they say). What good is all of this if it fails to address the audience in a way it can be understood? Creative communication is worthless when it is seen as foreign or irrelevant. The principle of proclaiming an audience- oriented message is the strongest single argument for the use of research. For, in cross-cultural evangelism, we cannot know our audience unless we have access to the results of research regarding our audience.
B. Removing Objections. Missionaries need research-based strategies which are culturally relevant and biblically sound. Objections against such research are removed not only by seeing reality but also by reading scripture. The Bible heartily endorses careful research and advance planning.
1. Biblical perspective on research. It is an error to assume that research is unscriptural. On the contrary, the Bible advocates it. "Any enterprise is built by wise planning, becomes strong through common sense, and profits wonderfully by keeping abreast of the facts," Proverbs 24:3,4. Indeed, "it is dangerous to rush into the unknown," Proverbs 19:2. And, "a sensible man watches for problems ahead and prepares to meet them," Proverbs 27:12. So, "we should make plans--counting on God to direct us," Proverbs 16:9.
The ever-present danger in doing mission work without appropriate research is that "a man may ruin his chances by his own foolishness and then blame it on the Lord," Proverbs 19:3. Therefore, disciplined planning is not an option in Christian missions. Rather, research is the necessary preparation for cooperating with God as He guides us through His Spirit. John Stott wrote,
2. Definition of missionary research. It is assuredly easier to define missionary research than it is to get missionaries to do it. Nevertheless, we attempt both to define and to encourage missionary research. We will tackle the easier task first, namely, a definition.
Missionary research is the careful gathering of appropriate empirical data to assist in doing culturally relevant evangelism. The purpose of such activity is to enhance our message and method of proclaiming the Good News. No greater goal can be achieved. No pains should be spared in achieving it.
Our definition has three critical parts. (1) Missionary research is the careful gathering of useful information. The process of collection is thoughtfully planned so that the results have the highest potential of reliability. (2) Missionary research gathers appropriate empirical data. Subjective belief is tested by objective reality. Hunches, intuition, and guesses are scrutinized in the court of empirical (tangible) data. The work of God must be based on fact, not fiction, on truth, not fantasy. (3) Missionary research assists in doing culturally relevant evangelism. Nothing we do can guarantee results. "We sow...God gives the growth," I Corinthians 3:6. But, there is no need to sow in ignorance, to toss the seed on thorns and rocks, on the road and in the ditches. Likewise, there is no need to sow the seed in the wrong way, to sow the seed in the wrong season. Research can assist. It is not the total solution, but it is an essential step in the process of seeking and finding the lost.