Doing mission well: Far-sightedness

Howard Culbertson
Monday, February 3, 2014

ImageGood missionaries are often far-sighted.  Such far-sightedness does not mean defective vision. Rather, it means they look down the road in visionary ways. Envisioning possibilities for the future, they follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance and take steps -- big and small -- toward that future.

Early 20th century Nazarene missionaries Harmon and Lula Schmelzenbach are good examples of far-sightedness.

In 1907 two single missionaries, Harmon Schmelzenbach and Lula Glatzel arrived in South Africa on the same ship. A romance between the two young missionaries blossomed. A year later, they married and before long moved north to pioneer the work among the unreached Swazi people.

Harmon and Lula had some tough days in Swaziland: health problems, hostility (including death threats) from the Swazis, opposition from colonial authorities, and the deaths of three of their own infants. Such tough times did not, however, detour them or cause them to lose their focus.

Looking ahead, Harmon built a church building even before he and Lula saw their first conversion. Long before people began coming to services, Harmon would go to pray at the altar of that small building. 

ImageIn that period of time many Western missionaries planted one congregation which they then pastored. Harmon Schmelzenbach visualized something different.  He dreamed of a Swazi-led church-planting movement sweeping across the land. So, before very many churches had sprung up, he and Lula started a Bible college to train leaders. The Schmelzenbachs began envisioning a health care ministry and got the denomination to send medical missionaries to get it going.

Likely the most compelling evidence of Harmon’s far-sightedness were his trips to government offices in other African countries to officially register the Church of the Nazarene.  He envisioned a day when there would be Nazarene churches all across the African continent.  With that thought in mind, he secured necessary legal recognition for the denomination in countries near Swaziland.

Some of those countries later tightened up the registration process for religious orgnizations or even closed it.  Harmon’s far-sightedness paid off by enabling the Church of the Nazarene to enter places where other mission organizations could not because they had not been registered prior to a cut-off date.

Far-sightedness means more than simply dreaming about the future.  It is taking concrete steps toward that future.  To be sure, far-sightedness in missionary work does not necessarily entail a detailed plan. It just means having the wisdom to take steps now -- even baby steps -- in the direction of some future destination. Far-sightedness could also include discerning trends in culture, economics, politics and even the denomination and having the wisdom to proactively alter strategies and tactics.

It is possible to be a hard-working missionary without ever exhibiting far-sightedness.  Like almost any one, missionaries can get caught up in simply doing the things clamoring to be done right now.  Fortunately for the world mission enterprise, there are missionaries like Harmon and Lula Schmelzenbach who are far-sighted.

-- Howard Culbertson served as a missionary in Haiti and Italy for 15 years, and spent the past 25 years as a professor of mission at Southern Nazarene University.