Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 3, Number 1


Research Assisted Missions: A Rationale

Ed Mathews
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

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.

1. Rationale for Missionary Research

The term "research" suggests a variety of things to people.
  1. Some see it as a panacea--a solution to the problems they face.
  2. Others see it as a collection of numbers, graphs, and statistics that remind them of the agony of algebra classes.
  3. Some see research as a needless waste--time and money spent on something that has little to do with mission work.
  4. There are those who see it as unbiblical or unChristian because it demonstrates a lack of faith in God.
  • 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.

      Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend your money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good and let your soul delight in the richest of fare, Isaiah 55:1,2.

    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.

      Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my unfailing kindness promised to David. See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples. Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor, Isaiah 55:3-5.

    Hence, the prophet returns to his call for repentance.

      Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. Isaiah 55:6,7.

    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:

      As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it, Isaiah 55:10,11.

    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,

      This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples... You did not choose me, I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last..., John 15:8,16.

    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,

      Some say that the Holy Spirit solves all communi- cation problems in evangelism. Indeed, when He is present, proclaiming the Gospel ceases to be a problem. But what does such a statement mean? Can we blunder ahead making obscure or irrelevant state- ments? Will the Spirit untangle all the confusion we create? To use the Holy Spirit to rationalize our neglect of research is nearer blaspheme than piety...Trusting God must not be employed as a device to save us from the labor of either biblical or anthropological study (1976:127).

    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.  

    Stott, John R. W.

    1976 Christian Mission in the World. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press.

    This site mirrors the JAM site at the ACU web site.
    Mirrored by permission of ACU Missions Personnel
    Direct questions and comments to Ed Mathews,

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