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Global missions are too critical to the work of God’s Kingdom to be owned and controlled by denominations.
This more or less sums up the consensus of church leaders who gathered in visionary clusters in the post-Revolutionary War era as they set in motion the organizational efforts that would launch the first American-based global mission venture.
This was an organization with the unwieldy title: the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). They held their first meetings in 1810 and sent their first missionaries to India in 1812. Most were New England Congregationalists, but by the time those first missionaries set foot on mission launching ships they had welcomed other Reformed representatives to their board as well, including representatives from the Reformed Church in America. That’s about as ecumenical as folks got back then—Reformed bodies getting together with other Reformed bodies—but it was a deliberate move to ensure that no one denomination would control the work. In their minds global mission was too critical to the work of God’s Kingdom to be owned and controlled by denominations.
The reasoning behind this was simple: denominational structures were too inflexible and inner-focused to be of much use for the mobilization and sustenance of global mission programs. It was one reason why, these pioneers reasoned, global missions had been so long neglected in Protestant circles. Denominations, particularly those forged in Reformation fires, were so focused on internal matters and competitive sectarianism that the global reach of the gospel became secondary at best to what they were about.
I was thinking about this recently as I pondered a proposal that had come before the 2021 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America to create an independent agency for global missions. The motion was shot down quickly as voices from all sides of our diverse body raised objections. I don’t remember exactly what those objections were, but I remember thinking at the time that they more or less boiled down to this: We’ve never done it that way before!
But, in fact, we have. It’s the way RCA first sent missionaries to their respective fields, under the auspices of the ABCFM. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the RCA, along with other denominations, decided to create their own global mission agency. For the previous thirty years, the RCA cooperated and operated out of an independent missions model, a model that would set the stage for the way the RCA operated when global missions became denominationalized.
There’s an iconic story that has long been told in RCA mission circles about how that earlier emphasis on independent agency shaped the RCA’s vision for mission. It’s a story that arose out of the pioneering mission work of David Abeel in China. Even though the RCA has long claimed Abeel as a denominational missionary, he was, in fact, sent to China by the ABCFM in 1842. Other RCA missionaries followed in Abeel’s wake. And they were highly successful in terms of what today is called “church planting.”
When these new church plants became organized congregations, the RCA determined that they needed to be put under classis supervision, in this case the Classis of Albany, as they could conceive of no other way the church could be Reformed.
The missionaries disagreed. “The church in China has to be independent,” they said, recognizing in this case an important tenet of global missions—that the gospel is best embraced and practiced contextually. It made no sense for the growing Chinese church to come under the governance of a body so far removed from its context. The Chinese church, these missionaries understood, would not thrive or even survive if it was put under the supervision and control of an outside ecclesiastical institution.
A flurry of telegrams related to this matter flew back and forth between China and Albany over the next months: the denominational execs maintaining that the Chinese church be put under classis control, the missionaries maintaining that it shouldn’t.
Then came the critical telegram from the missionary community united behind this message: “If you insist on putting these churches under classis control, we will quit. Every one of us (and there were quite a few missionaries there at the time) will quit.”
The missionaries won. The RCA then made it a point of policy to never create denominational churches through its global missions program. There would be no RCA congregations in Mexico or China or the Arabian Gulf or Ethiopia or Kenya or India or Japan or Taiwan—because this work, as the ABCFM board understood, was too critical to the work of God’s Kingdom to be owned and controlled by denominations.
What I wonder while looking back at this early history is whether it might be good for us to reconsider the recent motion, not as a way of dealing with our current crisis (which precipitated the motion), but as a way of recovering the impulse of those pioneering global mission efforts. The reasoning of these pioneers, it seems to me, was sound.
In general, denominational structures are neither flexible nor focused enough to negotiate well the complexities of a globally contextualized ministry. Too many other concerns drive our business. This is to say nothing, of course, about the impressive impact RCA supervised missions have had and continue to have in various parts of the globe. It is, instead, to wonder out loud if that impact could be even greater if global missions were put on a more independent footing—one that would give them not only more contextual flexibility, but also remove them from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that our denomination, like all denominations, are wont to suffer. Is it not, perhaps just as true today as it was in 1810 that . . .
Global missions are too critical to the work of God’s Kingdom to be owned and contolled by denominations?