Presbyterians embrace a new way of doing mission work around the world

When Faith church in Medford, N.J., decided to start a new church in Romania, its members prayed hard and went to work. They didn't ask the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for money or permission. They used their own contacts to track down a South Korean missionary working in Romania, a Presbyterian who helped them find a pastor for a new church in Timisoara, Romania's second-largest city.

Faith church is an example of what’s happening more and more in an era in which many denominations are declining, along with trust in institutions. Congregations and individual Presbyterians aren’t just praying for missionaries overseas — they’re flying off and doing the work themselves. Learning as they go along, they’re starting house churches and building orphanages, providing medicine and teaching children to read, reaching out to people in countries they couldn’t even find on the map when the work first started.

“This is a revolutionary turnaround in our denomination,” said Richard Carter, pastor of Faith church. In the past, “the model was, ‘Don’t try anything, it has to come first from the General Assembly; we’ll tell you where to send the check.’ ” But “that’s not very satisfying to the average church member — they want to know they’ve made a difference,” Carter said. “We want to do something more than put up a building. We want to be involved in people’s lives, we want to spread the gospel and build the kingdom.”

Hard numbers don’t exist, but so many congregations are sending people off to work in international mission that the PC(USA) has just created a new office for congregational relations in its Worldwide Ministries Division — a way to connect with the congregations doing the work.

“People more and more feel the calling, the desire, to share in ministry firsthand,” said Doug Welch, the PC(USA)’s area coordinator for Central and West Africa. “There are a lot of exciting things happening,” as local churches are “multiplying what we could do if we were just doing it as a national office.”

Empowered by the Internet, accustomed to international travel, connected by e-mail with networks of like-minded people from other churches in other places, Presbyterians figure out the needs, volunteer and go.

“Churches discover they don’t have to act as a huge lumbering church — one individual can connect,” said David Hackett, executive director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, an international mission group committed to evangelizing “unreached people groups” who might not otherwise hear of Christianity. “It’s very 21st century. It’s high-tech, it’s e-groups, it’s ‘If you have an interest, do it.’ ”

About 110 of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries have also established formal partnerships with people in other countries — partnerships so energizing they’ve sometimes spawned new ways of ministering and evangelizing right here at home.

In the mountains of western North Carolina, for example, Guatemalans are pouring into towns such as Morganton, to work in chicken-processing plants and at other jobs some Americans are reluctant to take. And “we’re seeing God’s hand at work,” said Virginia (Ginnie) Stevens, associate for mission with Western North Carolina Presbytery — because her presbytery has been prepared by having established, nearly seven years ago, a covenant agreement with two presbyteries in Guatemala. As a result, 27 North Carolina congregations also have established sister-parish relationships with individual congregations in Guatemala.

“We had no idea North Carolina would be a place where Hispanics were coming,” Stevens said. “We have lived in a pretty homogeneous, isolated area. Meeting people [in Guatemala] and worshiping with them . . . going down and experiencing the depth of the faith of these folks” has, back in North Carolina, made Presbyterians “see folks that could have been paper dolls as real” — and opened their hearts to being involved in ecumenical outreach ministries.

The people in Guatemala “may be poor by our standards, but to me they were very rich, because they had so much family and community and love,” said Ted Thistle of Murphy, N.C., who’s been to Guatemala twice on mission trips. “And their faith — you can pour our faith in a thimble. You couldn’t put their faith in a tractor-trailer. Because . . . all they have is God. They don’t have all the things.”

In Massachusetts, Presbyterians are seeing the fruit of a partnership that Southern New England Presbytery established about a decade ago with São Paulo Presbytery of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil.

The partnership has been a two-way street – “not a wealthy part of the world helping out a poor part of the world,” said Penny Webster, who has been involved with it for years. “This is a relationship between Christian partners, which means they both have something to offer. They came into the partnership as equals.”

One piece of that partnership emerged in the early 1990s, when a pastor and elder from Sao Paulo visited New England, and, while visiting Calvary church — a Lebanese congregation in Fall River, Mass. — took a walk through the neighborhood. What they discovered were streets full of people who spoke their language — Portuguese-speaking people from Brazil and the Azores, who are settling in considerable numbers in this chunk of Massachusetts seacoast. That revelation led to new ideas about outreach ministry. And in time, New England Presbytery asked the Brazilians to send a minister to lead a new Portuguese-language fellowship that’s met for several years now in space provided by Calvary church.

The Brazilians who came — pastor Claudio Carvalhaes and his wife, Esther — have brought enthusiasm and a new vision for outreach, said Jane L. Searjeant Watt, Southern New England’s executive presbyter. The Carvalhaes’ appeared on public access television to tell people about their church, passed out leaflets door-to-door inviting people to worship, helped recent immigrants find jobs and housing and adjust to life in a new land.

Before the Brazilian partnership began, many local Presbyterians had never noticed the Portuguese-speaking immigrants in their own communities, Watt said. Often, even when minority or immigrant groups live among us, “we don’t try as a majority church to find them, to help them, to minister to them. We don’t minister well to people who are not like us.” But with the help of the Brazilian partners, the presbytery realized “We’ve got a missionary opportunity” right here at home, Watt said – and has made a deeper commitment to reaching other racial-ethnic minority groups as well.

Enriching the life of the church

As people get involved at the grass roots, both through congregations and presbyteries, “the life of our church will be enriched more and more,” said Homer Rickabaugh, who recently retired after serving as the liaison between the PC(USA) and presbyteries involved with international mission work. “It brings renewal to individuals, revival to our church . . . God works through these folks to bless us.”

In many congregations and presbyteries, the first baby steps into international mission work are taken by one person, one Christian, who feels called by God to do something to help. At Faith church in New Jersey, that person was David Forward — “the kind of person who can’t stand to hear about a problem and do nothing,” Carter said. When Forward heard in the early 1990s of the tragedy of children in Romanian orphanages, he collected a planeload of clothing and toys to send to the children.

One step often leads to the next.

About two years later, the church sent 25 people on a short-term mission trip to Romania. Carter still remembers the look on the face of a 2-year-old girl he carried in his arms, and sat down with her on the grass outside of one orphanage. “She was absolutely enraptured,” fascinated by the texture and smell of the earth, he said. “She had been inside the cold, blackened walls” for as long as she could remember, mostly confined to a crib.

When they came home, stunned by what they had seen, the New Jersey Presbyterians realized that one week’s involvement wasn’t enough — so they formed the nonprofit International Children’s Aid Fund to provide ongoing support to children in orphanages, including operating one Christian orphanage themselves; to hire Romanian women trained in early childhood development to play with the children; and to send Americans on short-term mission trips to Romania. The project — on the web — has attracted support from Christians from Chicago to California. And now Faith church, taking another step, is committed to starting a Romanian church.

The Presbyterians who’ve gone to Romania “come back with a new worldview,” Carter said. “Many of these are not the present, active leaders of the church. I really think they’re the future leaders, because they came back with a passion” to reach out to others.

For those who do get involved, the impact on their lives and their congregations can be tremendous, Hackett said. In some churches, “mission budgets go up 30 percent. We have testimonies from folks saying, ‘It’s impacted our church more than anything else in the 20 years I’ve been in this church.’ “

These are people like Patrick Tucker, a young computer engineer who just finished five years of work in the city of Karshi in Uzbek — and who was the first person that Sunset church in Portland, Ore., had ever sent on its own into mission. Working across denominational lines — collaborating with Overlake Christian Church in Seattle and others — Sunset helped establish the North American Uzbek Partnership, an alliance of congregations, individuals and humanitarian agencies working in the former Soviet Union.

“We’ve not gone to Louisville or the General Assembly and requested permission to send missionaries out,” said Donna Hayden of Portland, who has a background in audiology and has worked with hearing-impaired children at an Uzbek orphanage. But “God has opened up opportunities for me that I didn’t seek.”

A new way of doing international mission

In previous generations, people assumed, or were taught, that the denomination took care of international mission, that “You fund, give to the big pot; we’re running the mission projects,” Hackett said. “Just send it all to us, and we’ll do it for you.”

Many older people “really trusted the institution,” he said. “But the younger folks say, ‘Who are they?’ What’s our church’s mission in the world? It’s not just sending money . . . . It’s that ‘doing it’ that excites them. Boomers and busters, Generation X on down, don’t like to give to organizations. They want to be involved . . . . Writing a check, people inherently sense that that’s fickle. It’s cheap love. Even if it’s $50,000, it’s cheap.”

Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, while independent, works closely with the PC(USA)’s Worldwide Ministries Division, trying to connect congregations and individuals who have developed a passion for ministry in a particular part of the world. At a recent conference in Cincinnati, for example, Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship linked 76 people from 43 congregations, sorting them by area of interest — so that two people from Texas who want to work with Cambodians were connected for hours of conversation with two Presbyterians from Alabama who feel a similar call.

“The day I arrived from the airport and walked into the conference room, I was overwhelmed to see each table with a different sign from countries around the world,” wrote Albert Cheng of Texas, one of the participants. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the table over in the corner with a Cambodian sign on it. Then I met my fellow Cambodian Presbyterian, Sovanna Thach [of Alabama]. I have to tell you how blessed I was to meet another Cambodian Presbyterian, because I thought I’m the one and only Cambodian Presbyterian.”

Cheng is himself an example of how one person, driven by the force of faith, can inspire international mission work in his own community. He is a Cambodian who fled from a prison camp in his homeland across the border to a refugee camp in Thailand, emigrated to the U.S., and later converted from Buddhism to Christianity after he began working as a custodian at Canyon Creek church in Richardson, Texas.

He escaped when he was 19, when the Khmer Rouge soldiers became distracted by an attack by the North Vietnamese. Fifteen prisoners ran for freedom. Between the land mines and the artillery, only Cheng and one other man made it. “It is not my will to become a Christian,” he said. “The Lord — I was found by him.”

After his conversion, Cheng worshipped in English on Sunday mornings at Canyon Creek, then went on Sunday afternoons to worship again with a non-denominational, Cambodian-speaking congregation whose pastor, Chheng Nuon, became a mentor and friend. In 1998, Nuon went back to Cambodia to visit, to preach to his family and friends and to start a small church that met in his sister’s home. Later, Nuon moved back to Cambodia to become the pastor of two small churches. Determined to support Nuon’s work, Cheng and an elder from Canyon Creek, Sharon Wittmann, asked the children at Canyon Creek’s Vacation Bible School to use their offerings to assist the Cambodia churches – and the children in 1999 raised more than $1,000 to buy Cambodian-language Bibles.

Nuon had lived in the U.S. for almost 20 years, and because of his faith “he has given up everything here in the United States, all the luxuries we enjoy,” Wittmann said. “He’s back living in the jungles of Cambodia” with no electricity and no running water. “You could spin the globe and pick a spot, say ‘We want to help people there,’ but it doesn’t mean as much as if you’re helping somebody you know.”

In Cambodia, “these people, from so many generations, they never know peace or justice or love,” Cheng said. “All they know is bombing, from B-52s and their own people as well. I think about that and I’m just breaking my heart.

Through its Web site, Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship has set up about 75 e-mail networks of people interested in ministering to specific indigenous groups — from the Afars of Ethiopia to the Zoque of Mexico — and it uses those networks to link people and congregations who want to be involved, often cutting across denominational lines. PFF works through a wide net of connections, from denominational staff members at PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville, with which it is in close contact, to medical mission and literacy groups and other relief organizations.

Almost every Sunday, members of PFF’s staff visit churches, spreading the message “that you can be involved in international mission,” Hackett said. But the idea of congregations’ working in partnership also means “they’re not Lone Rangers,” he said — they’re not all on their own, learning everything from scratch.

The idea of more congregations and individuals becoming involved directly in mission can pose some sticky problems for the denominational staff, who both encourage the enthusiasm and recognize that some well-intentioned projects will work better than others. Some see it as an issue of control — of wanting to know where the PC(USA) is being represented in and in what ways. But denominational staff members who specialize in international work also know the politics of the areas in which they are working, where alliances and tensions exist, what’s been tried before, what’s worked and what’s gone down in flames.

Last year’s General Assembly approved a policy paper, “Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership,” which underscores the idea that Presbyterians work internationally in partnership with churches that already exist in those lands. “It’s not a Presbyterian thing anymore to just go bulldozing into a country and start a new church, new hospital, new whatever,” said Bryan Reiff, the PC(USA)’s new associate for congregational relations. “There are many countries where Christian proselytizing is frowned on” and, in some places, “can be life-threatening.”

Among common mistakes American churches make in trying to work abroad, Reiff said, are assuming there is no indigenous church in an area, and relying too much on a ministry fueled by money. A church that gives $50,000 can be very generous, but that $50,000 might not be enough to fund the ongoing costs of a project or might be so much money, given so fast, that it disrupts the relationship of those who receive it to the community in which they live.

Reiff, who just started work in congregational relations in April, said he wants to offer churches working in international mission the expertise of the denominational staff about the politics, history and conflicts in particular parts of the world — and to share what they know about what’s worked there before and what hasn’t.

“I get really excited about the opportunities” that presbytery and congregational partnerships provide, said Welch, who coordinates mission work in Africa. But “as these kinds of links get made outside my awareness, then I am unable to be of help to them. And questions that are unasked go unanswered . . . . I don’t see my job to control or be a barrier to go through, but clearly this office has a wealth of experience and connectedness” that can help others who are new to international mission work “avoid the potholes of life.”

Americans working in mission also need to recognize the gifts of the people in other countries, Rickabaugh said. “Our church needs renewal, and one of the ingredients of that is listening to and learning from Christians in other places,” he said. Some people “still have an old-fashioned view of the missionary going out in the bush with a pith helmet and going to preach to them for the very first time . . . . The folks on the other side may be economically deprived, but we have a lot to learn.”