Advice on Missions

July 21, 2016

Advice on Missions

A message from Dr. Wilbur Sanford

A Bible View of Mission Activities.

Now our aim, your aim, is that of planting indigenous churches. Many, many groups state that their aim is – the indigenous church. But many of them go about establishing their church with unscriptural methods. It’s like the saying, “The missionary should live on the level of the people.” Right! – but which level is he going to live on? Those that live in the slums, Those that live in the middle class area or should he live like many North American businessmen as if they were Rockefeller with all the servants and luxury? You have to define more clearly what you mean by indigenous, and what you mean by living on the level of the people. But I think that if we would start with Acts 13 we would be following Scripture in the matter of missions. There we find a church to which the Holy Spirit said, “Separate me Barnabus and Saul for the work where unto I have called them.”

I believe, and have mentioned for many many years that a missionary call should be confirmed in the thinking and the hearts of the members of the church where that individual lives. I don’t say “young person” because I believe that the age should be upgraded. I believe that for Argentina it is better if they send older people; people who have some years of experience behind them, preferably as the pastor of a church. It is a mature job for a mature person. I believe the Holy Spirit will speak to the church and make it known that he wants that individual on the mission field.

After I graduated from Northwestern, before I went off to the university, my wife and I did rural missionary work at Park Rapids, out of First Baptist Church of park Rapids. The deacons began to talk to me saying they wanted to ordain me. I was in no hurry, but the deacons insisted and finally I met with the deacons and they said, “We feel you aught to be ordained to the ministry.” I said, “Well, some day I want to be a missionary.” I remember Lester Sheldon said, “Well, you have the flu so much, I don’t believe we better ordain you as a missionary. I don’t believe you would survive on the mission field.” But they ordained me. The Lord, the Holy spirit began to work upon the church.

The first church we established in Argentina was in Rosario de Lerma. Rosario de Lerma is in the valley of Lerma. For several years we had a very small group. It is a good sized church now. It is the only church we have of this size, but it has 125 or more in fellowship. We had a man by the name of Andronico Coriso who was one of the teachers in the church. The church had a program of missions, of reaching the inner valley over the high front ranges of the Andes. The men took off work. In those days you could do so. You would lose pay, but you could take off work. They made trips into the valley on horseback, sometimes with me, sometimes without me. We always had meetings in three places on Sunday. One Sunday afternoon we were coming back from a place 40 Km. South of town. We were not attending the Rosario church any more. My wife said, “I have a burden. I believe that God would have Andronico quite his job as a brick layer and spend full time in the valleys.” She mentioned it to Andronico one Saturday. We did go to the Rosario church for prayer meetings for our own good. The people at the church said, “We have had the same conviction.” So they began talking among the congregation. They called a meeting of the church and called the young man before them. They took the first step. Tears came down his cheeks and he said, “Some day, but not now. I’ll tell you when I’m ready.” Some months went by and he stood on the platform and said, “I’m ready.” They had a simple ordination service and ordained him as a missionary.

Those are two experiences that make me believe that this can be the normal thing. It shows me too that maybe the churches should take a little more initiative in the matter of the missionary call for their own members – people of their own church. The church participating in the calling program – that’s missions first responsibility. Out of those workers in the church I believe God would like to reach out and take some who will go with the blessing of their local church to the foreign field.

And more and more I’m feeling too that the local church should take more responsibility in the training of that young person for the foreign field – not just turn them lose, but to give them a base before they leave the church for study, so they have a background. I believe it can and should be done, so they are not just adrift. That way the church is taking part in the plan. They should use the Bible as the text book, especially the book of Acts and other Scriptures. They should have the young people participating in studies on missions and other things.

Now I can’t over emphasis the importance of the Bible. W. G. Lewis was a good friend of mine. He owned a chicken hatchery in Lincoln, Nebraska. He used to travel around the world visiting missions and missionaries. He also repaired their teeth because many missionaries neglected their teeth. I used to sit in on field conferences on missions on a mission council, in foreign lands and at home offices. The idea of mission offices and all their hierarchy in these foreign countries bothered me considerably. But they do have them. Once Mr. Lewis listened for 2 hours to a very lively debate. (I could name the interdenominational mission board). Finally he rose to his feet and said, “Gentlemen, maybe the Bible can throw some light on the subject.” He got this answer “Mr Lewis, it’s not a matter of Bible. It’s a matter of mission policy.”

Too often that is the story. No one knows how much some young missionaries have suffered at the hands of mission board officials. I was at a church in Wisconsin some years ago and stayed over night in a home. The woman of the house started to open her heart about her daughter. She had written to her daughter and given her a good scolding. She was out under an interdenominational mission board. They were trying to make all the plans at the board level and direct the mission stateside. The mother said she wrote to her and scolded her saying that God raised up those men and she had better obey them. That mother was putting more importance on the words of men than she was on the Word of God.

It is a great danger, a great temptation, and a great tendency of mission boars to become Presbyterian when they get into the business of missions. I spent 14 years under the Conservative Baptist Mission society. While I was on furlough the office sprang one on the field. They were ordered to establish 7 districts in Argentina and they were told to get the churches together and organize 7 associations of churches. Now, that’s alright if that’s what the people want. That’s alright if the people know what they are doing. Then the idea was to appoint one North American for each of those 7 associations. They were then to have a council made up of 7 Argentinians and 7 North American missionaries, if it would work.

Part of it may have been because I had been pushing for years for the North American mission board to please consider the people to whom the work belonged – the Argentinians and their churches. Then while I was up here I got another letter saying that they had decided to do something Baptists had perhaps not done before. They would have the two sevens each elect one so they would have a two – two committee to head up all the plans on the field. Well, it’s more Presbyterian than Baptist.

I believe that a local church planted on the foreign field is on a par with any church in the States and that the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable, not only of raising up that church, but of guiding it. The Holy spirit is just as capable of guiding it as he is of guiding the church here at home.

The church sends a missionary out. Once he gets a church established, then what is the situation? What happens then? My membership is in the church in Argentina. I believe that a Baptist, when he moves, should move his membership. It has gone back and forth several times. All the Southern Baptist missionaries have been doing it for a long long time. We tell the people in a foreign country that when they move they should unite with a church of like faith and practice in the area where they live. Did the missionary do it? The same is true regarding tithing. But does the missionary tithe? I have had Argentinians come to me and ask about whether some other missionary tithes. He preaches tithing, but we don’t know if he practices what he preaches. Several people here in the States have said to me, well a missionary earns so much more than the nationals. Is that good? I don’t think it’s a matter of whether it’s good or not. It is biblical to tithe. I often say to them. “If the man pays his taxes anyone can walk into the tax office and ask what the missionaries salary is. He isn’t going to hide that. It’s there.”

We have worked in poor areas. We have worked in middle class areas. Even in the poor areas time moves along and there will be somebody in the church who earns more than we do. And in the poor areas in Argentina, nearly every woman has more dresses than my wife. They wear out twice as many shoes as we do because they don’t take care of them.

If we believe in the autonomy of the local church, we should not adopt a policy or practice that will require the missionary to become, on the foreign field, that which the home church would not tolerate.

Now we have difficulties in doing this on the mission field. We have difficulties many times with the thinking of new missionaries. If we say “We want you to go out into a new area and settle down, become acquainted with the people, make friends with them, sow the seed, and plant a church. Let the people participate in the plans from the very beginning.” It is surprising how many will draw back. They want to see success before they start. Too many fear failure. Now we have had some success, but we’ve had many failures. We started 10 churches, but we’ve tried in at least 10 other places to get churches going and haven’t succeeded. We got souls saved, but we didn’t get a church established. Well the tendency to me seems that so many missionary volunteers want security with a big machine. It’s like wanting to be lost in the crowd so they will not have to produce or have success guaranteed before they start. They want to be part of a big organization so that at no time will they be in danger of defeat. I can remember when we were with the Conservative Baptist Mission Society we had some new missionaries come. The home office was telling us that we should organize like General Motors. When a new missionary comes say “You go there, or there.” No, we don’t believe that way. We won’t do it. We had made our survey. We have our information at hand. We have recommendations to make. We can tell new missionaries where there needs to be a church, but that’s all. The Holy spirit said to the church “Separate unto me Barnabus and Saul for the work where-unto I have called them.”

That makes it hard to get new recruits for the mission field. I had one man ask me, “If I come to Argentina could I dedicate myself to the ministry of music?” I said no. If one comes to Argentina he’ll have to plant churches. Music is a good talent that can certainly be used, but the main thrust is to get out there, get into the culture, and start churches.

We learn too much from the interdenominational mission boards that has carried over into some big fundamental Baptist mission boards. Too much of it is Presbyterian hierarchy. It is mostly rules and regulations.

What do the people on foreign fields think if all of a sudden you plant three missionary couples in an area? If the priest doesn’t preach it from the pulpit, it will be told on the streets. They will be saying “We have an invasion of Yankees.” Sometimes they think a missionary is a foreign spy. They might believe that because during World War II some spies did go to South America and other countries disguised as missionaries. If too many missionaries are in one place the people are suspicious.

I believe it is far better, in keeping with the example of the Apostle Paul, to just move into an area, become acquainted, make friends with the people, start a Bible class, win people to the Lord and organize a church. The missionary needs to let the people learn from the start that he wants the people to get involved in the church and that he isn’t running the show.

You say, “Well this missionary has had a lot of training. What was he trained for?” On the foreign field they don’t put much stock in your training. It makes no difference to them if you have a college degree. It doesn’t give the missionary any prestige. The missionary just needs to know how to be an example to his flock so they will look to him for guidance.

Sometimes it is hard to convince the people that you are sincere and that you mean it when you say, “This is your church.” You need to look into God’s Word and to the Holy Spirit for guidance in decisions that need to be made. For several reasons it is hard for them to believe you are sincere. They are not accustomed to a democracy where the people have a voice in the government. Also some of them think North Americans come to their country just for some advantage. Before troublesome times came to Argentina there were some 8000 North Americans living in Buenos Aires. I think there are very few now. Of those who remain, many live in luxury. They have servants, maybe even a chauffeur. In many countries there is a lot of anti-American feeling. It may be unjustified, but that is beside the point.

For that reason, it’s better that missionaries be scattered around the country. They don’t need to get together often. Their friends should be the people with whom they live. As much as possible, their social life should be with the people, especially those of the church. If the missionary wins the confidence of the people they will no longer be suspicious of him.

The new missionary shouldn’t be offended if the people look down on him. In his new setting he is ignorant of many things. In all his studies, he doesn’t know their country and their culture like all of them do. He struggles with the language and finds it difficult to communicate with those around him. He doesn’t even know the names of the foot ball teams, so why should the young people look up to him? For years the people may go on laughing about the queer and stupid things he said and did as a new missionary. A good friend of mine went to the store to buy three dozen eggs (huevos). He got the word for eggs mixed up with the word Jueves (Thursday). He asked for three dozen Thursdays. The store keeper ask him if he wanted them all in the same week. Missionaries should expect to make blunders and not be offended when they are laughed at. Missionaries should study all they can about the country they are going to and have a good start on the language before they arrive.

It is a mistake for several missionary families to live together in a compound where they are isolated from the people. It isn’t wise to have anything like a mission station or a compound. Missionaries need to make a serious effort to become one with the people they work with.

Things are moving rapidly in this world. The day will soon come when there will be no more institutional missions. I don’t believe we should be involved in institutional missions, not even schools. Let me give you an example. When I was with the Conservative Baptist Mission Society there was a large group of churches in the Cameroons. The son of a dear friend of mine went there as a missionary. When I was in the States on furlough I visited him in his home. He said he was going there to upgrade the churches. His way of doing that was to start a school for the pastors. He wanted to give them a better education. He was going to raise his own money to do it. The last time I was in Minneapolis I called him and had a friendly chat with him. I waited for him to bring up the subject of the school. He said, “Wilbur, it didn’t work. We brought the pastors out of their towns, out of the bush and gave them an education. Now they don’t want to go back to their churches. There is no prestige in pastoring a little church in the bush. They are now capable of getting good government jobs.”

You may ask, “Don’t you believe in training the pastors?” Yes I do. In the winter months we spend much of our time training pastors. We do it in the churches. In the summer months we get them involved in tent meetings. Once we have the pastors trained we let them do the training of others in their churches.

I was recently thinking about II Timothy 2:2. That word “commit” means to turn it over without any strings on it. “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” We have some good teachers. I haven’t taken time to teach them all I learned when I studied educational administration. I have just given them a simple course on teaching in homiletics. They have had the Bible subjects. They have also been taught the fundamentals of music and church history. The Lord has raised them up and they can teach. It has become a part of them. Some of them are profound Bible students and my heart is blessed when I hear these Argentine men preach. I have learned from many of them. They have dug out things that I had never thought through. Sometimes they ask me questions that I can’t answer.

No one should tolerate the accusation that we are imperialists. We work together with the people. That makes a strong band. It is a tie that holds us together in a bond of love. We are united in the struggle, and it is a struggle. The Lord says, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).


The above article came by way of a woman whose name is Kathryn Gray. She once heard Wilbur Sanford speak. She must have copied his message in short hand. It was written in cursive on 14 sheets of paper 8½ x 17½.

I had the privilege of knowing personally Wilbur Sanford and his wife Dorothy. They did the paper work to get us into Argentina. We worked together the first year we were in Argentina. I learned a lot from them. They did a good work in Argentina. A great number of people came to know Christ as their Savior under their ministry. I was privileged to know him and learn from him. I was at both of their funerals. They were both buried in Argentina. Russell George


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