C. Philip Slate


In south-central Colorado, nestled between gentle, tree-covered mountains and resting beside a placid lake lie the Big Meadow Campgrounds. At one edge of the lake begins the Archuleta Trail, which leads into the Weminuche Wilderness, part of a 467,400-acre plot administered by the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests.

At the beginning of the trail, one reads instructions about safety, camping, number of persons and animals permitted in a group, disposal of waste, and other items. The guidelines are all in the interest of protecting both hikers and the forest. At the end of the instructions, one reads the summary admonition: "Remember, leave no lasting trace of your visit." The ideal is to leave the forest as unspoiled as possible so other hikers may enjoy the same scenery and animal life.

Somehow that summary line reminded me about the unintended outcome of some mission work, both ours and others. In worldwide evangelization, one is expected to leave lasting evidence of one's work, not as self-aggrandizement but for the glory of God. But the failure to do so is an old story.

Evangelistic Defeats

In the 13th century, the Mongolian Empire in China opened its doors to outsiders. Beginning around 1250 or so, many Nestorian Christians began moving back into China from the borderlands, and by the end of the century, Roman Catholic missionaries also had renewed their work in China.

The Mongolian dynasty fell in 1368; Moslem invaders slaughtered thousands; and the native Chinese dynasty that followed in the 1400s persecuted foreign religions. Therein lay the downfall. Christianity had identified itself too much with the Mongolian Empire, and most of the people converted in China were outsiders, non-Chinese. Thus, by 1600 virtually nothing remained of the Christian efforts.

According to C. Cary Elwes, "Had a European traveler wandering through the streets of Hsianfu--the ancient capital of China--...asked any native whether the Christian religion had even been preached there, he would have gazed at the traveler with amused amazement and answered, of course not" (China and the Cross; p.14). There was no lasting trace of their visit, despite more than a century of work.

In some cases the losses have not been total but have been so drastic that one should raise serious questions about methods of evangelization. Everything cannot be blamed on the hearers.

In the 18th century, for example, a vigorous Russian Orthodox missionary enterprise was carried out to reach Muslims and pagans in the central and eastern parts of the empire. But because the people were inadequately taught and were not sufficiently stabilized, the apostasy rate was enormous in the latter part of that century and the early 19th century.

By the first third of the 19th century, 13,058 of 14,796 baptized Tartars, formerly Muslims, had reverted (88.2 percent loss). Among those who had been won from paganism, the losses were also great. Of 350,818 Chuvashes, 233,500 had apostatized (66.5 percent loss); 45,096 of 66,650 converted Tchermisses reverted (67.6 percent loss); and 4,409 out of 4,866 Voticks returned to their former posture (90.6 percent loss). Only the Mordvins, for understandable reasons not detailed here, remained steadfast in high numbers.

Stephen Neill remarked that "the facts are so overwhelming as to amount to a grave condemnation of the whole Russian method of evangelism, through governmental pressure and favor without the kind of Christian teaching that could make conversion anything more than nominal" (History of Christian Missions; p.439).

When Islam began in the 600's, Christianity in various forms had been in the Mediterranean Basin for more than 500 years. Christian capitulation to Islam was almost total in that area. But that was not primarily due to the Muslim use of the sword. The population also sought possible relief from a corrupt Roman government. But at that time, Christians had such shallow faith--they had been so ill taught after whatever conversion they experienced--that there was no real protection against the simple and aggressively taught new faith.

Different with Us?

One might be tempted to say that Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox missions are different from those of churches of Christ and that teaching a more accurate Gospel will not have such results. It is to be remembered, however, that the Russian Orthodox Church itself is a product of mission work from Greece and that for some reason it has found a home in Western Russia. The Roman Church also is firmly ensconced in several places in the world, although transplanted from another country. Therefore, one may not dismiss their successful and unsuccessful works purely on the grounds that their initial message is not as biblical as we (properly) hold it should be.

But what about work by churches of Christ? Has it been more durable because a more accurate message has been taught? Between 1886 and 1939, fewer than 140 missionaries from churches of Christ went on their own or were sent out to at least 17 countries. Apart from Japan, perhaps China, the Philippines, and two or three African countries, nothing of a durable nature remains. In several other countries, there is no lasting trace of their visit, and in some cases what remains is so meager that it discourages workers.

The different outcomes from evangelizing in new territory, whether done by churches of Christ or other churches, are traceable to several variables: length of work, methods used, warfare (as in China), etc. Of course, in unreceptive countries the best of methods and sincere dedication yield few tangible results.

To my knowledge, most, if not all of those earlier missionaries with churches of Christ loved God and knew Scripture. But in several cases, their work was so short-term that they never acquired an understanding of the peoples among whom they worked. In other cases they followed methods that already were known by some Protestants to be fruitless in the production of stable, long-term expressions of the Christian faith. It is one thing for a church to be killed off while faithful; it is another matter for it to fizzle out through lack of direction, local leadership and spiritual nourishment.

Time Will Tell

Many nonviable churches, like nonviable governments (Marxism, for example), may survive for several decades before their true nature can be observed. Often, the second or third generations of believers raise the awkward and vital questions neglected by the first generation, and unstable Christianity either dies a slow, agonizing death or negotiates some type of syncretism with one or more pre-Christian religions in their area.

This is a historical, long-term perspective on planting new faiths in an area. When churches in Korea, Russia, Germany or anywhere else look, sound and smell like they belong in another country, there is a grave danger of reversion or even disappearance in the second or third generation--whatever church is involved.

The solution to these common and disturbing outcomes is to work harder and to work wiser. A good collection of helpful literature, written by our people and others, is currently in print on the biblical and practical approaches to starting churches that are likely to survive spiritual and cultural trials. Such literature should not be neglected. Furthermore, most of our Christian universities, colleges and preacher training schools have at least one person who can share some of these principles at the local church level.

Mission experience alone is not the basic criterion of helpfulness since it is possible for one to work 10 or even 20 years in the wrong direction and never recognize it. Most long-term workers, however, learn several lessons the hard way and wish to pass them on to others to prevent duplication of mistakes.

Many seasoned missionaries cringe to see uninformed individuals and churches spend multiplied thousands of dollars in endeavors that are known to have unhealthy long-term results. Respect for church autonomy makes it difficult to know how to offer suggestions without being misunderstood. But how can one keep silent when money given by hard-working people and widows on Social Security is being used to support known failures or to achieve results that could be realized with a third (or less) of the expenditure? It is not easy to keep silent.

A Better Way

Fortunately, we have workers in several places in the world who have much to show for their work because, among other things, they followed wise methods and tested principles. Places like Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and the highlands of Guatemala are cases in point. Isolated churches in Western Europe got off on the right foot and still survive as viable churches, while others, after a quarter of a century or more, have been unable to pay their utility bills. They were taught (inadvertently, I am sure) to be dependent on others for leadership and funding. But there are better ways to spend sanctified money and to employ human effort.

The summer of 1995 marked the completion of a 15-year plan carried out by a team of four couples in Campo Grande, Brazil. Now a solid church of about 250 members exists, self-supporting and self-edifying.

More than 16 years of work among the Kipsigis of Kenya has produced about 140 churches, several with elders.

Sustained wise work in Singapore has realized a dozen or so viable churches with evangelistic thrusts. Some fine preachers have developed and are supported by national churches.

In all these cases (and others not mentioned here), workers followed some fairly well-known and tested principles.

The stakes are high. These issues are not matters of petty opinion or preference, unless wasting God's money and sending people to produce long-range failures are desirable outcomes.

Except in cases of despotism and severe persecution, it is possible to evangelize in such a manner that future generations will be able to see durable evidence of that effort. Of course, God looks on the heart and can see the invisible spiritual dimensions of one's work. But it is His will that those who trust and obey Him express that trust in visible ways, like worshiping and serving churches, extending compassionate service and evangelizing. In other words, God wills that there be some lasting trace of your visit with the Gospel.

Reading List

For a reading list of materials on principles of cross-cultural evangelism and/or names and phone numbers of valuable resource people, contact C. Philip Slate at the Department of Missions, Box 29433, Abilene Christian University, Abilene, TX 79699.

published as: Slate, C. Philip. 1996. No Lasting TRACE of Your Visit. Gospel Advocate 138 (July): 16-18.

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