Research Fuels the Missions Movement

”by Justin┬áL. & David B.”

Without researchers, we might never know unreached people even existed, much less what their needs are.

As Cameron Townsend ministered in Guatemala, he distributed Spanish Bibles. But he quickly discovered that the Maya tribal people to whom he gave the Bibles did not speak Spanish. Townsend could have devoted the rest of his life to translating the Bible into the Mayan tribes’ languages. It would have been a wonderful ministry. Instead, he asked himself a question: “How many other languages lack Scripture?” The research for the answer to Townsend’s question is little mentioned today, and still largely incomplete. Yet even without the final answer, Townsends research sparked a staggering response: Wycliffe Bible Translators, the largest independent mission agency in North America. Were it not for missions research–the careful, systematic, patient study and investigation in the field of knowledge about missions, undertaken to discover or establish new facts or principles–it is probable that Wycliffe would not be what it is today.

Without research, mission agencies like Frontiers, Christian Aid Mission and Cooperative Services International might never have been formed. For that matter, the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board and the Christian and Missionary Alliance would not hold to their emphases on unreached peoples were it not for missions research. Men and women trained to investigate and document mission efforts and the harvest field–trained to seek out new opportunities and to identify barriers holding up progress–are acutely necessary. Unfortunately, missions research is rarely viewed this way. We ought to consider research more seriously and realize the role it plays in our lives, our every day activities, and especially our ministries.
”Why do we need research?”

In the medical profession there are numerous types of doctors. Some are surgeons, some practice family care, some take care of children, some are paramedics and still others are rresearchers. No one claims that any single field of specialization within medicine is the most important. No one, for example, would advocate that researchers stop testing new cures and devote all their time to surgery. Even though research physicians are doctors just as much as the surgeons are, we couldn’t afford to displace them. Without research, we would not have a cure for polio or have penicillin to help fight off infection. Likewise, many mission researchers are equally capable of being missionaries. In fact, most researchers started out as missionaries on the field, but have given up deployment to concentrate on an endeavor with even more far- reaching effects: research. Clearly, this doesn’t mean research is any more important or deployment any less important. It simply means we believe God has called us to spend our time and energy investigating and understanding the problems of missions in order to find solutions. From these will emerge ministries that respond to discovered needs.
”What constitutes research?”

Collecting data. First, we collect original information. Data is never invented; everything about a country ultimately originates within that country. Sources often include newswires, government censuses, books by scholars specializing in the field, research journals, on-field interviews and surveys, United Nations documents, published reference works, missions periodicals, yearbooks and directories, Internet scanning and “informants”–people who submit comments via personal interviews, mail, phone calls, fax transmissions and e-mail. Compiling data is part of research–even a major portion–but that’s not all research entails. Data collection is a means toward an end.

Field missionaries, for example, gather existing knowledge to formulate a strategy for reaching a certain people. Non-residential missionaries (sometimes called strategy coordinators) are an example of this process: they gather information on what is being done among a targeted people and in so doing identify new options, opportunities and strategies. Researchers, on the other hand, collect data for the purpose of discovering something new and previously unknown, which in turns spawns new possibilities.

Organizing and Analyzing the findings. The researcher organizes and analyzes his or her data. Computer software is often used to identify trends, but the software must always be a tool in the hands of the researcher. The analyst’s knowledge of the subject is important to interpret the software’s results. Otherwise, errors can occur. Publishing the findings. Results of research are always released through an established publisher. This process is the first line of defense against mistakes and poor research. Moreover, it makes peer critique by fellow researchers possible.

Researchers have a passion for the truth. They are concerned about it more than anything else. The process of review and critique is the effort of seekers working together to refine discoveries and identify truth.

Researchers are often encouraged to release their data (distinct from their results) to libraries. However, although the data has practical value, its greatest worth is the discoveries it yields when organized and analyzed. Serving as an information distributor would erode the time researchers have for focusing on their calling: research. They must continue to investigate further. As a result, they frequently limit or refuse publication of all their data.

Research does not end with publication. Researchers constantly seek to develop more knowledge and a better understanding of the problems they investigate. Continuing to learn is the critical goal.

As researchers keep examining a particular field, they often investigate related areas. Each new discovery may be a solution to a missionary problem or even a new idea that can lead to a new opportunity to help complete the task. Often, a publication is released in several editions as a result of this ongoing discovery.
”Who are prominent researchers?”

Numerous Western organizations and individuals have compiled significant research on mission topics. Perhaps the best known is our colleague Patrick Johnstone, who authored Operation World. The research conducted for this prayer guide spans every continent and nation.

Other significant sources of research include the Frontier Missions Centre in Australia (associated with Youth With A Mission), Mission Advanced Research and Communication Center (MARC, part of World Vision), Wycliffe Bible Translators, the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS) and our own organization, the Global Evangelization Movement / World Evangelization Research Center. Helpful research also frequently appears in mission research journals such as the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and the International Journal of Frontier Missions.

Space in this brief article is unfortunately too short to deal with the enormous number of missions research centers in European and Third-World countries. Germany is host to several missiological research centers, as are England, the Netherlands and Italy. More are located in Africa and Asia. One member of our GEM Council of Reference recently founded a Theological Research Center in Myanmar (Burma).

Interestingly enough, some of the best research on the peoples of the world is not conducted by missionaries or other Christian workers at all, but by professional anthropologists and other scholars. You can walk into any decent bookstore and find dozens, if not hundreds, of books dealing with unevangelized peoples from the Kazakhs to the Tibetans.

Searching in a library can be even more revealing. At a large missions library in Algiers, we recently counted a grand total of 750 books about the Kabyle Berbers of the Algerian mountains! Cultural information, even books written 10 or 20 years ago, is often just as applicable to a group as documents produced three years ago, since the customs and cultural patterns of human societies do not usually change very rapidly.
”What are the effects of missions research?”

Missions research is far from being an isolated intellectual exercise. It can tremendously affect global missions.

Research raises awareness for world missions. Books like Operation World have risen directly from the results of research. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica is affected; its editors turn to missiological researchers for information to include in their sections on world religions!

Research sparks new trends. The current trend toward unreached peoples was caused by an understanding of ethnic groups. The growing emphasis on deployment to the frontiers was made possible by research which identified where the frontiers was.

It allows us to prioritize. Campus Crusade utilizes research to identify peoples in need of a translation of the Jesus film. Denominational mission boards use research to identify peoples who need to be targeted with the Gospel.

It prompts new strategies. Research gives us new understandings, which can lead to new opportunities for ministry. By examining the big picture, ministries can determine what activities are needed to help the local church grow.

It helps us prepare for the long term. Research identifies problems and opportunities which will present themselves in the next generation and over the next century. By studying demographics, economic waves, immigration patterns and new technologies, each of which have a major impact on the harvest fields we seek to reach, researchers can predict and prepare us for new developments.
”How does that help you?”

Research can help you understand why you feel God’s call to mission. Research findings provide a bigger picture of the Body of Christ worldwide, the present levels of missionary activity and what’s required to complete the task. Most importantly, they offer an increasingly better portrait of those who have never heard the Gospel. That can help you pray more knowledgeably and prepare for ministry better.

Research can also point you in the direction where you may best serve. Research measures the progress of world evangelization, identifying gaps in outreach effort. These gaps reveal themselves as unevangelized peoples, cities and countries–the frontiers of missions, where you can make the most difference.

Research can identify crucial issues that will affect your ministry. Researchers examine long-term trends that will affect the social dynamics in the region where you live and minister. This information touches on every issue from fundraising to politics to disease.

Research findings may jog your creativity to reveal new opportunities. The findings of researchers can provide new doors to ministry by identifying needs for humanitarian relief, Scripture translations or orphanages, just to name a few.

Finally, research can keep you apprised of future possibilities. Many secular fields of study are often ignored by Christians, and particularly missionaries, who have little time to spare. Yet the events transpiring in those fields will have widespread repercussions for Christian workers.

Though not as well known as mobilization or intercession, research, when done properly, can have enormous effects on every part of a missionary’s life. You never know–perhaps your grandchildren will be working for a mission agency spawned by tomorrow’s discovery!