I’ve recently been studying the modern missionary movement (date range of the 19th and 20th centuries) in preparation for a few articles and upcoming conference presentations. While learning more about the phenomenon of modern missions, I noticed some parallels and interesting implications for Christian schools. Was the modern missions movement of the 20th century the result of progress or an anomaly? Long-term missionary endeavors have been grouped into two categories: modern missions and tentmaker missions. Modern missionaries move to a foreign country and proclaim the gospel as vocation, while tentmaker missionaries proclaim the gospel alongside of their vocation. The latter type of missions work has seen a resurgence in recent decades.
The trend back towards tentmaker or bi-vocational missions may seem like a major step backwards to an earlier era. However, it is probably more helpful to consider how this strategy compares to earlier times, how societal factors contribute to this comparison, and the way Christian education has adapted its education to equip students in both professional and biblical contexts. All of these factors have a parallel to how we view trends in Christian elementary and secondary education in both the United States and around the world.
Generally speaking in modern missions, individuals enter a new geographic location clearly identifying themselves as “missionaries.” A network of individual financial donors and mission agencies monetarily support these men and women to do full-time ministry and preach the gospel to their new community. The primary purpose of tentmaking missionaries is also preaching the gospel, but this evangelism couples with their chosen vocation. Individuals enter a new geographic location through a professional capacity, such as working with a NGO, teaching English, or pursuing business. They finance their own living expenses and require minimal financial support. Evangelizing and discipling are central to their life and work, but they do not explicitly announce themselves as missionaries. How ought these trends in gospel ministry inform how we think about Christian education? It seems to me that an approach to Christian schooling would be very different in an era where the target market seeks out the offering compared to a market where the purchasers are actually more interested in some of the secondary benefits rather than the biblical world view instruction.
At first glance, the shift in mission approaches may appear to be the consequence of other trends in the global society at large, such as professionalization, specialization, and institutionalization. The worlds of 47 AD and 2018 AD seem to be worlds apart. With the rise of ever-advancing technology contributing to an ever-shrinking world, how could 21st century missions be in the same place as Paul? Despite these large differences, our current world’s reception of the gospel is closer to 47 AD than to 1947. So, “Modern” mission work as we understood it was actually more of a long parenthesis driven by societal developments. This is also true of Christian schooling. The audiences, receptivity and messages that resonate have all shifted and how we adapt will be one indicator to how committed we are to the goals of Christian schooling rather than just the activity.
20th century America launched mission work all over the globe. Spreading the gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation was a priority amongst American Christians, which happened to be a significant percentage of Americans. While there were not necessarily more members of the true church during this time, individuals who upheld Christian moral values populated the land.
Even if an individual did not personally possess a saving faith in Christ or attend church regularly, their parents or grandparents did, and they respected their upbringing. To go out and proclaim the gospel in a foreign country was admired, or at the very least respected. In a country with more morally Christian citizens, there is more financial support for this type of modern mission work. Of course our world has changed over the past several decades. These same changes have impacted the way we do Christian schooling – it is not assumed by the broader population that Christian schooling is a good. It is more and more marginalized. To what extent ought we be prepared to do what we already do in more “stealth” ways? Certainly this is already the case in certain places around the world.
There are more significant similarities than differences when comparing Paul’s lifetime to the contemporary age. Our world is also increasing its hostility towards the gospel. In the first-century church, missionaries like Paul entered worlds that were ignorant to the gospel or hostile towards it. The initial recipients of the Great Commission went out into the world and became martyrs for their cause. This has not changed. Yes, there have been pauses but, by and large, the world is just as hostile to the message of the gospel than ever. The implications for Christian schools are the same. So as long as others want quality academics and a safe caring environment, we have a real opportunity to deliver more than they ever wanted—genuine Christian education.
While some may look back on the later part of the 20th century as the heyday of Christian schooling, now is the time where new opportunities meet greater needs. In order to effectively educate, substantial cross-cultural training and competency is needed.
This shift has been both philosophical and practical. Philosophically, schools have adjusted on the basis of the belief that biblical literacy should not be solely reserved for ministry leaders. This lends to the practical transition of teaching spiritual and professional content under one roof.
The rising generation has a growing degree of cultural and ethnic sensitivities. This shows a new interest in what God is doing around the world. Students today are prepared to respond to compelling stories of what God is doing globally. In addition, strong vocational preparation equips students to respond when they feel called by God to a particular place or need. Dr. Debbie MacCullough, a 1987 graduate of Cairn’s University, has responded to God’s call in an international capacity. MacCullough has taken her “tentmaking” missions approach to the African continent, serving as a principal project member on the Paths to School Improvement (PSI) project. “This project is designed to help Christian schools develop a plan for improvement, based on seven standards, distinctly Christian and achievable regardless of financial limitations,” MacCullough explains. Schools in Rwanda and Uganda are already improving after merely two training sessions within the PSI curriculum.
In locations where direct Christian instruction is prohibited, believers are finding new ways to minister with these new challenges. Students go to places where they can’t talk openly about the gospel, and they commit to doing gospel-centered ministry through education. In the face of these challenges, students are learning to navigate unprecedented complexities. New tools are at their disposal. Stealth ministry is possible because of new vocational preparation. All of this growing expertise serves the Christian school movement as conditions shift all over the world presenting new challenges and obstacles.