DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in Missions

Written by: on October 17, 2014

Albert O. Hirschman provides a brilliant new way to look at economics in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Response to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States based on three available responses toward a product or a company. These include walking away from that product (exit), staying with that product and having a platform to express discontent or concern (voice), and finally, commitment (or lack of commitment) to that product (loyalty) that determines whether voice or exit will result. What is fascinating about this concept is its application far beyond economics. As Hirschman clearly demonstrates, this theory has application to organizations, political parties, states, and communities.

My initial thoughts upon reading this book went directly to churches. Many churches I am familiar with seem extremely comfortable with exit, because in our larger churches, leadership is held in the hands of so few that have little interest in giving voice to the masses. These leaders, being experts (consults, charismatic individuals, administrators), are far beyond the world of congregational meetings. Since there are so many church options outside my door (most are variations of my own church), and since there is little opportunity to change or influence (i.e. have voice in) the direction of my church, it seems that exit is an easy option. Why should church leaders listen to the concerns of people when there are so many disgruntled people from other churches ready to fill those empty seats? This demonstrates that extreme lack of loyalty of many church members today and the wide spread practice of church hopping.

But that was too easy!

A more instructive application for the concepts of Exit, Voice and Loyalty might be in the area of missionary work. Understanding Hirschman’s ideas, I believe, might to provide greater empathy in the missionary and encourage them to quickly establish self-government, self-supporting, self-propagating, and culturally informed churches. There are many possible missional applications that can be made from this book, but let me give you just a couple:

High Cost of Exit: It might be helpful for missionaries to keep in mind the high cost of conversion for many people.  As Hirschman states, “exit is ordinarily unthinkable though not always wholly impossible, from such primordial human groupings as family, tribe, church, and the state.”[i] For many people around the globe, conversion means not only leaving your family, your religion, and your livelihood, but it means being ostracized by both the family and the community which has been your entire life.[ii] The high cost of exit should be a central consideration for those doing mission work, especially in places strongly hostile to Christianity.

Importance of Voice: In light of the extremely high cost of exit for many convert, it is imperative that these converts who sacrificed greatly to enter the faith should be allowed a voice in the church. Throughout history, missionaries have often failed at this important juncture. Often, after paying a huge price to convert, individuals are not accepted as full-members, being treated as second-class citizens of God’s kingdom due to race, culture, social standing or education. The acceptances of nationals into positions of church leadership, according to Jonathan S. Barnes, was complicated by “inherited and internalized issues of paternalism, arrogance, and cultural superiority…”[iii] This was often the case during the later colonial drive to “civilize” the world, as missionaries moved away from the Three-Self practices to a stance of cultural superiority, leaving the native church tightly under the control of the foreign missionary. However, occasional voices of wisdom challenged these practices. Rufus Anderson, in the mid-1800s, suggested that Paul’s model should be followed, “that once Paul established a church, he left that church to grow on its own, under its own leadership…”[iv] He then went on to say that missionary churches “should have, as soon as possible, a native pastor, and of the same race who has been trained to take cheerfully the oversight of…(the) local church, with the right to administer ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper.”[v]  In many instances, national church leaders were never fully invested with authority and missionaries continued to lead the churches because of their unwillingness to view the converts as capable to take responsibility. The sad reality is that the dramatic spread of church within different countries was retarded because indigenous leaders were never given the voice to develop the church within their own cultural context, which would have clearly demonstrated to other nationals the empowerment of all individuals who came to faith. Here we see that voice is vital to both the establishment and continued growth of indigenous churches.

Further missional application from this book might include loyalty (in light of the high cost of conversion, new converts will have every reason to demonstrate a high level of dedication to their new faith); initiation (the requirements for membership); as well as further insights into exit (probabilities for leaving the newly established national church). For many who convert in areas of new missionary work, going back home for the convert or finding another church are not viable options. Understanding both the cost and opportunities (or lack of opportunities) for exit, the reasons for and levels of loyalty, as well as the importance of giving voice to nationals early on, all provide tremendous insights into the missionary process.   It comes back to the original point, that the missionary must be sensitive to the realities of those who convert, by better understanding the high cost of leaving their family, community and faith, and–the most important point— by empowering the convert by insuring they have a voice in the direction of their new community of faith.


[i] Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 76.

[ii] Ibid., 96.

[iii] Jonathan S. Barnes, Power and Partnership: A History of the Protestant Mission Movement (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), Kindle, 251.

[iv] Ibid., 664.

[v] Ibid.

About the Author


John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.