In Search of the Illusive 'Golden Skeleton Key' for Outreach to Muslims

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In his book, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today, David J. Hesselgrave observed the missiological landscape with trends that had emerged in North America and many that were exported out. He noted a tendency to package methods, franchise them, and then declare them “skeleton keys” that would open any missiological challenge. However, in his experience, he saw that most of them would end up on the scrap heap. The following article describes two such keys and the pressure this places on the missiological enterprise.

Mike Wakely’s report of a ‘Golden Key’

Mike Wakely recounts his service in Pakistan in the 1980s in a January 2004 issue of Evangelical Missions Quarterly. He refers to the allure of a ‘golden key’ that would open the floodgates of results after years of faithful and often seemingly fruitless labor. He describes these keys as offering “shortcuts to success for idealists who are frustrated and discouraged by the old methods and desperate for a breakthrough.” Glowing reports had come over from Bangladesh as to better and more effective ways to do missions, and the pressure was on for Wakely and the Operation Mobilization team to implement them. Even Phil Parshall came, as Wakely notes, to share the ‘secrets’ of success, resulting from his experimentation in Bangladesh. Long story short, after heightened hopes were dashed, the Bangladeshi key “did not fit the Pakistani lock.”

The same theme emerged in a report from the long-term missionary, Roger Dixon who served with Pioneers in West Java, Indonesia. In his first-hand report, he recounts the message of glowing success in Bangladesh to many inexperienced missionaries:

Phil Parshall visited in August 1990 & in 1991. David Garrison came in January 1991 and J. Dudley Woodberry in March. Woodberry also came again in August of ’94 and it was only then that I realized his role in the ‘insider’ movement. I consider the reporting of tens of thousands of Muslim converts in Bangladesh to be the basic motivation for the “insider” model in West Java. This report was accepted blindly by the inexperienced missionaries even though many of us advised caution in believing stories of massive Muslim conversions. We had heard many reports like that before and the official results of the Bangladesh survey were never circulated to those best prepared to evaluate it. The Bangladesh report has since been questioned and discredited but the ‘insider’ model based on it goes on.

What Dixon is saying is that various proponents of the ‘golden key’ of the insider movement came to Indonesia with glowing stories of success, but in actual fact, very “little truth in advertising.” Dixon’s report continues,

 “The impact of the ‘insider’ philosophy was strong after these visits convinced most of the agencies that Bangladesh was a legitimate model of church planting for West Java. There was a series of inter-agency meetings ostensibly to discuss ways to work together. In retrospect, it seems these meetings were actually organized to indoctrinate all the agencies in the ‘insider’ philosophy brought over from the Bangladesh model. Woodberry’s claims were touted as the proof that a great turning of Muslims could be initiated in West Java.”

Dixon thus observes the underlying selling point for the new philosophy of ministry: ‘no one can quarrel with success.’ Just as Wakely pointed out, however, success is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Another golden key: The person of peace

Excitedly the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention announced via the Baptist Press,

Missionaries have unearthed a scriptural approach to evangelism that’s often being ignored: find a ‘man of peace.’

Space precludes an in-depth analysis of the method and its way of interpreting Luke 10 as its proof-text, but suffice it to say, it likely, as in the case reported by Wakely, over promised and under delivered.

Some questions for thought:

1. Do you sense the pressure to adopt new methods, especially when they promise success?

2. Do you have a healthy degree of skepticism when something new comes along and it is advertised as ‘biblical,’ ‘previously hidden’ and ‘new and improved’?

3. How do you ascertain if reports actually contain “truth in advertising” or if they are being used to further another agenda?

4. If you are the developer of a ‘skeleton key’ what is your motivation, and would you be concerned that it might too end up on a scrap heap?

References: Roger Dixon, “The Insider Movement in West Java, Indonesia-A Case Study” (Bedford: n.p., July, 2011).

Erich Bridges, “Biblical 'Man of Peace' Approach is Key to Effective Outreach” http://www.ethnicharvest.org/links/articles/bridges_man_of_peace.htm

Also see Salaam Corniche, “Man of Peace, Show Thyself” St Francis Magazine 10,  no. 3 (August 2014): 8-24.

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