Rev. Dr. Ron Wallace (right) poses with Mary Beth McLean, Rev. Dr. Paul McLean and Rev. Te-Chien (Andrew) Chang, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, as they celebrate the publication of the complete Bible in Hakka.
Rev. Dr. Ron Wallace has been a missionary, a pastor and an associate secretary of the national church. He spent six years working with the Korean Church in Japan, two decades with congregations in Ontario, and nine years at the helm of International Ministries. He retired from that position in June.
The Record sat down with Wallace to discuss international missions today, tomorrow and in the future.
On mission in the Presbyterian Church in Canada today:
There’s been an attrition, of course, in membership in mainline churches in North America over the past 50 years, including the PCC, and that’s had an impact on the bottom line at the national level.
In the 1960s we probably would have had 60 [missionary] units in the field; now we’re lucky to have 10 or 12 units of missionaries in the field. Then we have part-timers or missionaries who are supported by our partners rather than supported by us. So the number we actually support full-time has dropped very significantly.
And the other demographic—in the West, at least—has been short-term missions and the explosion of mission at the congregational level through mission trips and so on. … I think that’s part of the success of mission, in a way, in the Presbyterian Church. At one time almost all mission was done at the national level. … In the modern world we have modern communications and modern travel. And it’s inevitable—if you really interest people in mission, they’re going to want to do more than just send the money. They’re going to want to get personally engaged.
We have a church that is much more engaged as a whole church with ongoing mission work than it was in the past. I think that’s a good thing. The church in the future, I think, will be more engaged in facilitating that.
There are problems with it, of course, but there were problems with the old model, too. There are problems with every model of mission and I don’t like to criticize the way other people do mission. … We need to be flexible and open and realize that we live in very quickly changing times.
On the future of missionaries:
In 1900, four of every five Christians were Europeans or of European decent. By the time we get to 2050, over half of all the Christians in the world will be in the Global South and East.
You have a situation now where there are twice as many Presbyterians in Korea alone than there are in the whole of North America. This tremendous difference in the church is part of the success of missions.
But although missions have been a great success overseas, we have this phenomenon of secularization in the West. You have countries like Sweden where only four per cent of the population attend church on a Sunday morning. If you go to Copenhagen or London on a Sunday morning, over half of the people who are in church are migrants from other countries who are working there.
The same thing is happening in Canada. There’s a decline in mainline churches’ membership. But at the same time, I understand in the last census it was the first time in many decades that there has been an increase in the number of people going to church in Toronto; almost all of that has to do with the fact that Toronto has a lot of people coming in from the Global South and East. It’s not that people who are of European origin have gone back to church—so many dropped away during the 60s and after—it’s because of immigration.
And when I travel I see that change. I was in Young Nak Presbyterian Church in Seoul, for example. It was a church that I was at in 1979, when I was a missionary—I was sent there to learn some Korean. And I taught English Bible classes there for nine months. It was founded in 1945 by refugees from North Korea—25 people meeting in a tent. Now that church has about 60,000 members today. … I went back and saw a Sunday school class; at 3:00 on a Sunday afternoon, there was a boy’s class of 1,300 teenagers. …
It’s exciting to see this kind of thing. To see how the church is thriving in some parts of the world and to see how it’s struggling in other parts where it’s persecuted—because there are a lot of places where we have mission where the church is persecuted.
On the future of International Ministries:
It depends on the future of the PCC, because you can’t have a strong and vibrant and exciting mission program overseas unless you have a strong and vibrant and exciting church at home. They go together. It’s because we haven’t had that at home that we’ve had the attrition of our mission work overseas.
When I look at International Ministries, for example, my budget for this year is $100,000 a year less than it was when I started. That was almost a decade ago. There’s also been 20-25 per cent inflation over the years so costs have gone up. That contributes to attrition. Going forward, if we continue to lose membership as a church at the present rate—and every sign is saying we will—we’ll probably have less than 70,000 members in 10 years. I don’t think we’ll be able to keep the same superstructure we have now; we’ll have to adjust to these realities. And that’s going to be a hard process for the PCC because we don’t adjust to change too easily. It’s going to be a struggle, and we will do it with a certain amount of angst. It will mean in 10 years International Ministries will look considerably different than it does now.
It will probably be smaller in some ways. And I suspect down the road all our mission offices may be combined into one. We have three mission offices at the present time; I’m not sure that model will continue more than a decade into the future.
It may be that in the future, we have fewer missionaries in the field and more involved in facilitating the mission of congregations. However, in order to facilitate the mission of congregations and the mission trips and internships and things we’re doing now, it is helpful to have some people in the field … Without long-term missionaries who know the culture and the language and the history and the background of the church and have the personal context and friendships, it’s harder to do those other things.
On the future of partnerships:
Partnership is the model we try to work under. It’s hard to have partnership when you have disparities of power, particularly when you have disparities of financial power. It’s much easier to have a partnership among equals. So when you try to work in partnership, the churches in the Global South may have the numbers of believers, but the churches in the Global North still have the money. They still have the theological institutions. So people in the Global South who want to do doctoral work want to go to the North to study. Even if there’s a university in Africa where they can go and get a PhD, if they can get it from Scotland or London or Canada or the United States they want to go there because there’s more prestige attached.
With the growth of churches in the South and East, they’re beginning to do their own theologizing. In the 21st and 22nd centuries, probably some of the greatest theologians in the church will be Africans and Asians, and people from North America will want to go to universities in the Global South and East because that’s where the action is going to be theologically.
Going forward this change is going to make an incredible difference.
I’m optimistic about the future. I’m not completely optimistic about the present of the PCC. We have lots of problems and we’re not dealing with them really well; I think we have our heads in the sand a little bit about our problems. But we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to proclaim the gospel in a credible way, a believable way, to a post-Christian generation and the society we’re in. If we can’t do that, we can’t blame people for not responding.
And again, there are a large number of people coming from the Global South to live in the Global North. They’re bringing their Christianity with them—which they got from our missionaries. They’re maybe now the third or fourth generation. They’re bringing it back, and they’re going to make an impact on our society, too. So maybe in the long term, this will be a means of re-Christianizing Canada. It won’t be because we in the Presbyterian Church have suddenly learned how to do it. But maybe those who had the privilege of being part of the chain of missionary work and faith and church-building will come back and return the favour.