Fifty years ago, the face of missions in Churches of Christ was shaped by the pioneering work of Howard Norton and 25 teammates who arrived by ship in Brazil on June 17, 1961. Five more joined the team six months later.
Howard Norton loves mission work and has most of his life. From 1961 to 1977, the Nortons worked as missionaries with the Sao Paulo, Brazil, mission team establishing what would become a model for modern mission work. Today, 254 Brazilian congregations and 11,000 members comprise the church that has grown from the beginnings of the Brazil mission team.
Mission work has been a major life emphasis for the Norton family. Today, they live in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where Howard is president of the Amicus Association, which includes the Baxter Institute of Biblical and Cultural Studies and the James Moody Adams Clinic located adjacent to the Baxter Institute. Baxter is a training school for Christian leaders in Latin America.
From 1977 to 1996, Norton served as a professor of Bible and missions at Oklahoma Christian University; he was dean of the College of Biblical Studies from 1992 to 1996. Norton also served as editor of The Christian Chronicle from 1981 to 1996 and later as editor of the Arkansas Christian Herald. He serves on the boards of the Continent of Great Cities and World Bible School.
Norton joined Harding University’s Bible faculty in 1997, directed the annual Lectureship and edited Church and Family magazine. He is on leave from Harding while leading the Baxter Institute.
He has served as a minister for churches in Brazil, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. He has also served as an elder for the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City and the College Church of Christ in Searcy, Ark.
Norton holds degrees from Abilene Christian University and the University of Houston and a doctorate from the University of Sao Paulo.
He is married to the former Jane Pearce. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Why did you become a missionary?
Although I had known since childhood that I wanted to be a preacher and had begun preaching by appointment when I was 16, I never entertained the idea of being a foreign missionary until I went to Abilene Christian University in 1953.
I determined at the beginning of my freshman year that I would attend every religious activity on campus if at all possible. Mission study on Wednesday evenings before church was one of those activities. I heard appeals by those who had been on the mission field, those on the field and those who were planning to become missionaries. They inspired me and made me ask if perhaps I myself should go.
Dating and marrying Jane Pearce sealed the deal because she had desired since childhood to be a missionary and live in Latin America. Why did your mission team choose Sao Paulo, Brazil?
We based our choice on need, prayer, a democratic vote and research. We learned that three new babes in Christ in Sao Paulo had no one to nurture and encourage them. This perceived need pulled at our heartstrings and inspired us to consider Sao Paulo. Prayer also was a part of the decision process as we asked for guidance in determining the place God wanted us to go. Most of us never had been any farther beyond the borders than Canada or Mexico.
Our team chose three possible places of great importance: New York, Hong Kong and South America. I personally wanted to go to Hong Kong. We voted, and South America won. Continued research by teammates Ted Stewart and Ellis Long convinced us that the key country in South America was Brazil, and the leading industrial, middle-class city was Sao Paulo. How did the concept of going as a team come about?
Many of the first-wave missionaries after World War II were veterans. They were led through the experiences of war to travel the world, sense the spiritual needs and preach the Gospel to the lost. These pioneers usually had no missionary training and often went alone with their families. They were sold on what they were doing and convinced us that we also ought to become missionaries.
They often followed this plea with an exhortation that resonated with us: “Go to the mission field, but go as a team. Ask your friends to join you.”
Several of us had known each other nearly all our lives. We were close friends, and many of us had worked together in student government. In a way, we were already a team just waiting to be called. The Lord Jesus had been preparing this team a long time before we realized it. What is your assessment of the growth of the church in Brazil in the past half-century?
On one hand, I am very pleased with the growth and stability of the church in Brazil since our team arrived there June 17, 1961 — or since Arlie and Alma Smith arrived in 1956. Although churches everywhere have their problems, I am continually amazed at the love, unity, doctrinal soundness, evangelistic spirit and qualified elders, deacons and preachers that are scattered over this vast nation.
Our whole team looks with wonder at what God did through our feeble efforts and what he is still doing through the work of those who followed us.
On the other hand, I am disappointed that the church has not grown as rapidly as we had hoped. I don’t know the number of members and congregations in Brazil, but I know that our dream was for grassfire growth throughout Brazil and South America. This hasn’t happened yet. Why has the church grown in Brazil in the past 50 years?
God is the one who causes healthy growth. I do believe, however, that most of those who have worked there did many things right. They dedicated themselves to preaching and teaching God’s word and avoided a social gospel approach to missions. They loved one another and showed Brazilians how to love one another in spite of disagreements. They modeled unity, morality and forgiveness in their relationships. They emphasized establishing churches that would follow the biblical example of choosing qualified men to serve as elders of local congregations. They recruited some of the best and brightest to take their places when it was time for them to leave the field.
Furthermore, they remained vitally connected to Brazil when they returned to the United States. To God be the glory, forever and ever! What do U.S. church leaders need to understand about missions in South America?
First, they need to understand that mission work in South America requires preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, baptizing those who believe and then teaching those who are baptized to obey everything Jesus taught his disciples. There are no shortcuts.
Second, they need to understand that their missionary must gather the saved into a local church that submits to the lordship of Jesus Christ. This church must look like the one that Jesus envisioned when he built the church.
Third, they need to understand that their mission effort depends largely on the person they send to the field. The high-quality missionary will be doctrinally sound, morally upright, a hard worker, have good common sense, know how to get along with people and persevere to the end. If he doesn’t have these qualities, watch out. Are there any favorite moments from your years on the field, any stories that stand out?
Don Vinzant and I are first cousins, and we were both on the Sao Paulo team. Our team was divided philosophically over whether or not we should support national preachers with U.S. dollars. So were Don and I. He and I had been debate colleagues in college, so we knew how to argue a point.
We got into a huge debate over this issue during a Sao Paulo team business meeting. It spilled over into the coffee break. Don argued that it was all right to support national workers, and I fought fiercely against it.
The discussion raged. Finally, it occurred to both of us that I was helping support a national preacher and he wasn’t.
The lesson: It’s very difficult to be consistent on mission methodology.
The moral of the story: Don’t let “how to do it” wreck a team. Are Brazilian Christians taking the lead in missions to their own people?
Yes, Brazilian Christians have always had the desire to preach to their own people. Relationships are important to them, so it is a natural step for Brazilian Christians to share their faith with loved ones and friends.
Besides personal evangelism, churches have been active in starting new congregations in neighboring parts of town or neighboring cities.
Continent of Great Cities, inspired by the Sao Paulo mission team model, recently guided a few groups of Brazilian friends to form teams and move to key locations in Brazil for the purpose of church planting.
We hear frequently about mission work that is generated by Brazilian churches, preacher-training schools or personal initiative. U.S. individuals and churches, however, do partner financially with Brazilians in their mission work. What is your assessment of the receptivity to the Gospel in Central and South America?
Central and South America fit Jesus’ description of the field that is “ripe for harvest.” These two geographical areas are two of the most receptive areas on Planet Earth. I sometimes tell people that Honduras, where we are now serving, is so ripe that the fruit is falling off the trees.
What has happened in Latin America since 1950 is almost unbelievable. Whereas there were virtually no known works of Churches of Christ south of Mexico midway through the 20th century, churches are now scattered throughout a large portion of Latin America. Still, we have hardly scratched the surface of what needs to be done in this part of the world.
In the words of Jesus, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” What direction do new world mission efforts need to take?
First, we must restore the vision that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” and that no one comes to the Father except through him. This is Jesus’ claim about himself. Since it is true, new world mission efforts must make preaching Jesus the central task. I agree with a friend of mine who told me recently, “We can upgrade people’s lives physically, but we haven’t helped them eternally unless we’ve taught them about Jesus.”
Second, American missionaries must learn to serve like the Christ who became a man, lived like a servant and died for his enemies. This is not the image we missionaries sometimes leave. We appear arrogant, come as gods, live like kings and smash our enemies. As professor Duane Elmer says, we must not only serve humbly, we must appear that way to those we serve. What advice do you have for U.S. churches involved in missions?
Choose your missionary wisely. Be as thoughtful when choosing him as you are when choosing your local preacher. What does he believe? How does he feel about Jesus and the church? Is he dependable? Can you trust him?
Choose your mission field carefully. Some places are hard as granite, and others are ready to harvest. While they all need the Gospel, it is imperative to be realistic about what you can expect from the field you choose. Don’t send a person to work where the soil is rock-hard and expect amazing numerical results. On the other hand, don’t accept excuses for poor results in a place that is ripe.
Finally, mission work is Jesus’ last recorded commandment before he returned to the Father. It is not optional. Therefore, stay the course and never, never give up on mission work.