August 20, 2017

Pioneer Missions: A Review

Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings
Forrest McPhail

Reviewed by Don Johnson

Please note: the Kindle edition of Pioneer Missions is available until April 16, 2017 for no charge.

Forrest McPhail, veteran missionary to Cambodia with Gospel Fellowship Association Missions, has written a book on missionary work that can be applied to many church planting ministries around the world, including much of our efforts in the ‘First World’ nations where most of us minister. His objectives are focused on the work in Southeast Asia and, not surprisingly, his ministry examples come from his experience on the field there. He offers five objectives at the beginning of the book:

  1. To encourage and strengthen my fellow laborers in the Gospel, particularly those laboring on pioneer mission fields;
  2. To give God’s people at home a more thorough understanding of what pioneer missions is like on a daily basis so they can better pray and help prepare potential missionaries;
  3. To raise awareness among Gospel workers about the necessity of strengthening their understanding in certain areas of theology before they attempt to tackle pioneer missions;
  4. To encourage God’s people to greater discernment in their support of opportunities to preach the Gospel throughout the world.
  5. To encourage God’s people to pray specifically for Buddhist Southeast Asia and to send forth more laborers for His work there.[1]

He acknowledges that applications will vary, depending on our ministry location, but, he notes, “biblical principles will remain the same in every place.”[2]

The book is especially focused on what McPhail calls “pioneer missions.” That is, church planting in fields where there has been little to no gospel witness of any kind in recorded history. He says, “A pioneer mission field is like a plot of land that has never been used for farming.”[3]

The chapters of the book are organized around eight factors that affect missionary efforts on pioneer fields.

  1. Preparatory work is foundational for evangelism.
  2. Guarding the Gospel is crucial.
  3. Intense discipleship requires dealing with sin.
  4. Believers face profound isolation and persecution.
  5. Maintaining New Testament simplicity is crucial for church life.
  6. Misapplications of Bible truth regarding poverty abound.
  7. A consistently spiritual focus of ministry can be difficult to maintain.
  8. Changing times can obscure unchanging needs.[4]

What follows in this review is not a complete discussion of all these factors, rather, it highlights some of the teaching in the book that was impressive to me. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but these thoughts especially stood out.

When it comes to preparatory work, the missionary must realize that conversions are not instantaneous and consequently churches simply will not spring up overnight. Preparation involves a commitment to the long haul of teaching potential believers about their need of salvation and God’s solution to that need in the person and work of Christ. The teacher cannot really teach, however, without personal preparation himself. He must be committed to understanding the people he is preaching to, especially from their perspective.

“One mistake missionaries often make is that they turn to books written by foreigners in order to learn what the host culture believes, rather than earnestly seeking to understand what the people believe from their own words and practices.”[5]

Well-meaning efforts have gone into translating tracts from English to the languages of other nations. There is a desire to use what has been fruitful elsewhere, but the result often reflects a failure to understand the audience. English tracts present the gospel within the context of an English speaking world-view. No matter how well translated, tracts like this are much less successful than those written first in the language of the people, from their own perspective.

No matter the field, the Christian worker must be on guard to keep the gospel clear and free from adulteration. A great temptation on many fields is syncretism, an approach that merges Christian ideas with pagan lifestyles/doctrines. The end result is not Christianity – “Syncretists don’t repent. Even if they appear to adhere to the faith externally for a time, they do not turn to God from sin to serve Jesus Christ.60 Instead, they manipulate truth, adjusting it to their own self-serving purposes.”[6]

Challenges come as Christian converts are taught to embrace a new lifestyle that is distinct and separate from their former pagan past. Missionaries need to thoroughly teach new believers Bible principles and also learn to trust them to express these principles in putting them into practice for major cultural events. McPhail tells the story of Cambodian believers who planned a Christian wedding. It included elements that were surprising to him, but communicated a testimony of the kind of change Christianity had brought into the lives of the believers involved. Their pagan families were able to understand the change in their lives, but the gospel was not compromised in the process.

A very profound discussion of simplicity in church life should challenge North Americans. No doubt we are used to programs, spending money, putting on events and such at our churches in ways that are far from simple. Perhaps we have lost something in the process:

“We were very concerned to keep the ministry of any local churches we started as simple as possible so that the ability of those churches to reproduce themselves would not be hindered. We did not want to create a model of ministry that could not be duplicated by national believers.”[7]

Isn’t that what the ministry is all about? McPhail offers us a simple outline of the simple church life, Acts 2.42.

And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2.42)

“Acts 2:42 tells us what the first local New Testament church busied themselves doing. This verse provides for us the four basic elements of local church life. Anything that goes beyond what is entailed in these four activities is secondary in nature.”[8]

Can you characterize the ministry of your church by those four activities? Perhaps we might do better in North America if we likewise simplified our ministries.

Perhaps the most outstanding contribution of this book is that devoted to the role of money on the mission field. Money can be a distraction from the mission for the missionary, for the people, and for the mission churches.

Missionaries must realize they are not on the field to simply be conduits for foreign funds from the wealthy west to the impoverished regions of the world. The work of the missionary is to preach the gospel, not provide relief. In fact, this is the only real legitimate ministry of the gospel.

“However we apply the Great Commandment, it cannot be allowed to mean that the church needs relief or development organizations in order to fulfill the Great Commission. The apostles and their co-laborers obviously had a different paradigm for missions than that promoted in many of the new books on missions today.”[9]

When reaching impoverished people, we must avoid giving the impression that Christianity is a means to wealth. Some people in such nations are quite willing to give Christ a try if they think prosperity will result. It goes without saying that we must do more than “try on” Christ for any real born again experience to take place. But some missionary relief work will give locals the impression that if I say the right words, I can get the good stuff. Great crowds have been known to gather at meetings where handouts are available; some of these crowds have been reported as revivals or ministry success. When the heat of persecution or other trials come, these crowds melt away.

“Who is ultimately to blame for this deplorable state of affairs? Not the Cambodians! Instead, it is the often well-intentioned foreign Christian donors who have been told that believers must feed the body before they can feed the soul. They have been persuaded that missions must be ‘holistic,’ meeting the physical needs of a person so that you can minister to their spiritual need.”[10]

“God’s people back home allow their emotions and hunger for optimistic reports to sweep away their theology and their life experience in evangelism when it comes to what happens on the mission field.”[11]

There is much more to be had from brother McPhail’s book on this topic. I have gathered many quotations in my notes; there simply is not enough room to include them all in this review. I think I have given enough to whet your appetite for the book. I hope so! You should buy it and read it. You should think about your own missionaries and your own ministry. There are good insights here for evaluating even more mature congregations.

I should probably note for the reader that brother McPhail is publishing this book himself through Amazon’s Direct Publishing program. This enables those of us with few resources to get our efforts to market, but perhaps some weaknesses stylistically might elude our best efforts. If the reader detects any deficiencies of this sort, I would hope they look past them to the content of the material. Early in the book it seemed to me that some points were a bit repetitive, but as I continued and engaged with the thinking behind all that was said, I noticed very few instances of this. Perhaps it is just me as a reader, you may not notice anything of the kind. However, there are services that a publishing company can offer to enhance the work of even the best of us. Regardless, any deficiencies of this sort are very few and far between. All and all, the book is an excellent resource for pastors, church-planters, missionaries, and lay people interested in supporting solid missionary efforts around the world.

One final note: Not only does the book contain excellent information, it also includes an extensive bibliography that is well worth your time perusing and making something of a shopping list for your own education. I am sure there may well be even greater theological differences with some of these books, but the list still includes many resources that would be helpful to any minister in our day. The list also shows that brother McPhail is well versed in the subject he writes about. His thoughts are not just pulled out of the air; he has given a lot of time, not only to ministry, but to thinking about ministry. I think you will profit much from it.

Note: I received a free copy of this book for the purposes of review.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. Kindle Location 207-208, p. 16 []
  2. Kindle Loc. 217-218, p. 16. – Please note, all references of pagination are provided by my Kindle, I am uncertain how accurate this would be for a printed copy. []
  3. Kindle Loc. 263, p. 20. []
  4. Kindle Location 219-220, p. 17. []
  5. Kindle Location 303-305, p. 23. []
  6. Kindle Location 449-451, p. 33. []
  7. Kindle Location 752-754, p. 53. []
  8. Kindle Location 770-772, p. 54. []
  9. Kindle Location 961-963, p. 67. []
  10. Kindle Location 1213-1215, p. 84. []
  11. Kindle Location 1216-1217, p. 84. []


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