What in the world is happening with missions?

Introduction

Countless millions are passing into eternity without Christ. Over 4 billion people on this planet do not know Christ, are standing under the wrath of God and one day, if they do not turn to Him, will face the terror of the fullness of that wrath. The most urgent matter facing the church today is fulfilling the Great Commission. The question is, however, how is the church responding to this task? Is the modern missionary movement among the nations really effective? Is it fruitful? Is its work lasting? Is it truly being undertaken on the lines of the apostles and early church? Or is the missionary community causing as many problems as it is solving?

The aim of this work is to examine the methods, the practices, the philosophies and the paradigms of the modern missionary movement to see whether they are truly fulfilling the Great Commission. Whilst it is based on first-hand experience on one mission field, the issues that it raises are true for the majority if not all fields. It is not an exhaustive study on what the Bible teaches about missions. That task has been adequately fulfilled by others. It is not an exhaustive account of the problems in mission but is deliberately selective in highlighting some of the most urgent of them. Neither is it particularly balanced. It deliberately focuses on some of the problems that we face in missions rather than highlighting the successes. This is not to be negative but to seek genuine change so that more may come to know Christ. We will try to look not only at the problems, however, but to suggest some solutions that will correct the current situation.

My intention is neither to stand in judgment over, condemn nor to offend others; many of whom have the sincerest of intentions and who are far better Christians and servants of God than I will ever be. Indeed many of the criticisms that are raised here have been true of me and many more sins and defects still remain! Neither is it my intention to claim originality. Many others have influenced my thinking and a selected list of their works is included at the end for further study and reflection. I have also been greatly helped by the suggestions and comments of colleagues which have been incorporated here.

It is my hope that missionaries, mission agencies, sending churches, pastors, national believers and workers and those believers who support the work of missions will be spurred on to think critically about the situation today and to have the courage to pursue change. What is at stake is truly awesome; the fate of the lost, the ability of the church to fulfill the Great Commission and the future of churches all over the world. My appeal to you as you read this article is to weigh all that is written in the light of the Word of God. Change will be incredibly hard, there are many vested interests which will resist change in order to protect the status quo, but the question is can we afford not to change?

1. Volunteerism;

The basis of missions.

From the days of Hudson Taylor and the faith missions until now the basis of missionary work has been volunteerism. By that I mean that missionary work has been undertaken either by those who claim to be called or the willing. Some claim to feel a call to a particular country or to missionary work in general. Others are simply willing to go and desire to give some part of their lives to missionary service.

 

In one sense missionary work must be voluntary but this should not be the only basis upon which people are sent. Charles Spurgeon in his “Lectures to my students” gives us three vital elements in the acceptance of any Christian worker that might be summarized as follows. First he must have a sense of call or a willingness to do the work. If a worker does not have a sense of compulsion, if he does not feel “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel,” it is unlikely that he will serve willingly. If someone has no sense of being called of God they will hardly serve in the midst of trials and opposition. The apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1 that if someone desires the work of an overseer that is a good thing. Peter warns elders in 1 Peter that they must exercise oversight “not under compulsion but willingly as God would have you.” Second they must have that call witnessed to by the Spirit. Certain gifts must be seen in someone if they are to be sent out as a missionary. If someone cannot share the gospel, if they are not able to teach or to preach the Word of God, if they cannot train new leaders, if they are not doing those things that a missionary is expected to do why would we send them? The local church, in particular its leaders, should be able to discern these gifts in a person who is sent out. Third that call must be verified by the local church. The great danger for any individual is to mix up the call of God with something else. The sense of being called can simply be a dream, a whim, or even something mistaken in an individual. A person may believe themselves to be called to a particular ministry but does a church affirm that indeed this is their gifting? Unless the local church tests the calling of a missionary the wrong people can be sent out.

Consider for a moment the kind of workers we are sending. Many of them would never be accepted as pastors or leaders in our churches. Many missionaries would not last long at all if called upon to face the demands and rigors of ministry in their home country. Some of them are missionaries for one simple reason; they cannot make it anywhere else. Others we are rather relieved to be rid of because, although they are enthusiastic, they don’t really fit into a role in our churches. My question is this, if a person is not evangelizing, making disciples, and raising new leaders in his country what makes us think that he will do so in another country with all the challenges of a new language and culture to deal with? If a person is not a fruitful leader where they are, what makes us think that they will be in a different country? If a person has no experience of church planting before they become a missionary, how can we expect them to do so overseas?

The major problem with volunteerism is that it is so individualistic. Much of missions work is about me, my call, my experience and growth in God rather than being about the equipped being sent to do the work of the gospel. We are simply so delighted that one of our members wants to go somewhere to serve God that we fall over backwards to send them. We are not testing their call or asking deep questions about what they intend to do when out on the mission field. If we do challenge that call, the spirit of individualism is so strong that they often ignore it or take great offence at the counsel of church leaders.

In this regard I shall ever be in the debt of the leaders of my own church. Having felt the call of God to missionary service, having tested it during short terms trips, I approached the leaders for support to go to Bible College to train for missionary work. The experience I had was uncomfortable to say the least. I was grilled for what seemed an endless amount of time as to my motivations, my intentions, my gifting and so on. I was asked outright, “Why should we send you rather than see you find a job and serve as a volunteer here?” I left the room shaken! After a time I was called back and the leaders both affirmed their belief that I was called but they wisely counseled me as to what areas of my life needed looking at to be a missionary. Very few are given such an examination.

We do not see volunteerism as the only basis of sending workers in the New Testament. Churches sent not only the willing but the experienced and the qualified. In Acts 16 we see Paul headhunting Timothy for his team. Timothy did not volunteer for the task; Paul actively sought him out and the elders of his church also recognized his gift and set him apart for the work of the gospel. Think of William Burns who served in China. Burns had been mightily used in times of revival in his own home town of Kilsyth and in other parts of Scotland and even in Canada before he ever went to China. He was used in revival, for example, in the church lead by Robert Murray M’Cheyne in Dundee while the latter was in Israel. Burns had 12 years of experience before ever reaching China. Think of John Paton the famous missionary to the New Hebrides. He was used mightily in Glasgow in the establishment of a large church and four or five other sister churches before ever heading out to the field.

Implications:

  • Willingness or a sense of call should not be the sole factor in selecting candidates for the mission field. We should insist that candidates for missionary work be practitioners and not simply theoreticians who have no experience to fall back upon.
  • We must examine candidates closely and not be willing to send people who are not ready or qualified for the work.
  • We should headhunt the best workers that we have rather than just wait for volunteers!

2. Finances;

He who holds the purse strings, holds the power.

One of the most distressing phenomena in missions is to see the servility of national workers to those who hold the purse strings. In places where financial support for national workers comes almost fully from overseas there are great dangers. National workers become servile to the masters that they are supported by from overseas. If a missionary is the one who raises money for a national worker he stands untouchable. National workers dare not either criticize the missionary concerned, nor call him to account or even deal with his mistakes or sins out of fear that they will lose their jobs. For workers with wives, children, rent to pay or a mortgage to pay off this is an indescribable pressure. If a church in the West pays a national worker they often feel duty bound to subscribe to doctrines that they do not believe, to undertake projects that they know are unnecessary, and to work according to models that have little or no effectiveness in their locality. If a church in the West thinks that a particular doctrine or area of ministry is important, the national worker is obliged to go along with them simply out of fear that they will lose their support.

Servility is not the only problem with respect to the support of national workers but poverty. It is shocking to see national workers having to live in poverty whilst missionaries live in plenty. What message are we sending out to our co-workers when we lack nothing and they lack the means to pay for the simplest things? How can we expect national workers to live on a wage that hardly pays the rent while we insist on foreign holidays? How can we ask a worker to live below the average income of the believers that he is serving? How can we ignore the needs for medical care and other things that his family has? How dare we pay him a pittance and then tell him that he should feel honored to get even this? What right do we have to ask for sacrifices from national workers when we insist on Western lifestyles ourselves? What sort of witness is it to the wife, to the children and to the family members of a national worker when they cannot make ends meet whilst a missionary is eating out every week at expensive restaurants and boasts of his latest electronic gadget?

Missionaries can be so wrapped up in themselves and their work that they do not spend time in the houses of their co-workers simply observing their most basic needs. We must be careful also to pay workers according to their needs. One example is in the payment of translation work. Often translators are paid well beneath the minimum level that is established by a government and that is often very low itself. Often people are offered support which might have kept someone 10 or 15 years ago but not in the present situation.

Implications:

  • We must encourage the sacrificial giving of the churches that are planted on the field. Whilst they may not be able to support a national worker fully, they must be the ones who shoulder the majority of this responsibility. The West should insist that indigenous churches contribute to their worker’s support before committing their resources. Missionaries and foreign churches must be careful that they are not holding national workers or churches to ransom because of their support.
  • We must be clear what we are supporting national workers to do. As long as they are doing the work of mission, as it is presented to us in Acts and the letters, we must give them freedom to minister according to their culture and its needs.
  • We must be sensitive to the actual needs of national workers and pay appropriate levels of support and do proper research into how much people are paid for services and on how much they can live without “taking their hand off the plough.”
  • We should consider the level of support that a national worker gets not only according to living standards in that country but according to their experience and faithfulness in ministry. 1 Timothy 5:17 talks about giving double honor to elders who serve well; particularly in the Word. Should that not be reflected in some way in the way that they are supported?
  • Missionaries must be careful in their choice of national leaders. Do we appoint those who agree with us or those who fulfill Biblical standards? Are we appointing men of integrity who will stand on Biblical principles rather than going with the flow out of self interest? Are we encouraging a culture of servility or do we encourage discussion, debate and the testing of our ideas and teaching?

3. Training;

What are we preparing people to do?

One of the most enlightening and at the same time crushing moments in my life was when I realized that I was largely unequipped for the job that I was doing. I had Bible college training, some experience of ministry in the local church but essentially had no idea either what I was called to do as a missionary or how I should do it. When I realized this my immediate reaction was desperation and then a cry for help. I visited a long serving missionary at a local Bible college. I shared my desperation and then asked him, “Am I the only one out there feeling this way?” A knowing look passed over his face as he said, “Brother I cannot even count the number of missionaries who have told me the same thing.” Some missionaries are evangelists but have little idea what the church is or how to establish it. Most have come from churches in the West which are simply trying to maintain ministries and have no clue where to begin when it comes to missionary work. The problem lies in how we are being prepared.

At Bible College we were told repeatedly that what mattered if we were to become missionaries was having a seminary education and having the support of our home church. If a candidate had those two qualifications a missionary society somewhere would accept them. Let me be clear, no amount of seminary education can prepare a person for missionary work. Whilst seminaries often have some value, they are not equipping people to actually do the work that God has called the church to. Instead we are producing a theoretical knowledge which has little value in the light of practical needs.

Howard Hendricks said, “The greatest crisis in the world today is a crisis of leadership and the greatest crisis in leadership is a crisis of character.” Whilst we as churches and missions value academic achievement more than experience, faithfulness, and character mission work will be fatally flawed. Our ability to pass exams or write assignments will not equip us for ministry and has no link whatsoever to the Biblical qualifications of God’s servants. When we examine passages like 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 we see that almost all the qualifications for leadership in the church have to do with character. The only other area of qualification is the ability to teach. People with deep issues with sin, with ungodly characters and little experience are being sent to the mission field simply because they tick our boxes. The result is that often missionaries are utterly unable to preach, teach or pastor. We are sending out people who have character flaws which are leading to deep problems in the churches in which they serve.

Often the opinions of the “home church” are utterly ignored by mission organizations. The pastor, elders or congregation may have deep reservations about a candidate and may even be utterly opposed to them going out but are ignored by the relevant mission society. As a result clearly unqualified people are taking on roles of leadership on the field and the results are depressing. Not only so but vast amounts of resources are being directed towards the support of people who should never be on the field.

This stands in great contrast to the apostolic model that we have in the book of Acts and the epistles. In Acts 13 we see the calling of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles. They had established the church. They were in leadership of the church in Antioch and had first-hand experience of what it meant to do the work of mission. The point is this, they were not only called of the Spirit but were the very best that the Antioch church had. Who are we sending out, the willing or our best? Are we prepared to send out our most experienced, most gifted and most fruitful workers or is our interest only to hold on to them and send out whoever “feels called” to go? Timothy had a good name not only in his church but in his locality; suggesting not only that he was experienced but that he had a gifting that was not only for one local church. Before he ever left home, Timothy already knew something of what the work of mission entails.

Notice a vital element of both Timothy’s preparation for the work; it was in the local church. Timothy learned the job in Lystra and Iconium, in Thessalonica as he established the church in Paul’s absence, in Corinth as he delivered Paul’s decrees, and in all the places where Paul established churches (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2, 1 Corinthians 16:10). His training like that of Titus and other workers in the Pauline team was on the job and church based. Look at the list of names of those accompanying Paul in Acts 20:4; are they not all from churches that Paul himself had helped to plant? These men knew Paul as a person. They knew his doctrine and work. Paul could say to Timothy, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings. (2 Timothy 3:10)” Timothy not only knew of all these things, he had followed Paul’s example in living them out in practice! The apostolic practice was not to send those who had knowledge alone but those who had the experience, the character and good name to fulfill the task before them. In Philippians 2:22 Paul says, “You know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.” Are we sending out this kind of worker? Seminaries cannot possibly be regarded as being sufficient for the task of preparing missionaries. Degrees and certificates cannot replace preparation in the local church.

Notice also that workers were not sent out alone but worked in teams. They were not left to figure out what to do as they went along but had one who was a master in missionary work to mentor, teach and guide them on the way. Paul describes himself in 1 Corinthians 3:10 as a skilled master builder or architect. Where are people like the apostle Paul today who know what it means to do the work of missions not only theoretically but practically? Why are we allowing missionaries to plow a lonely furrow all by themselves with no support, counsel or mentoring on the ground?

Implications:

  • Local churches should never send out missionaries on the basis of seminary training or knowledge alone but upon their gifts, experience and character.
  • Local churches should not abandon their responsibility to train workers for the harvest fields by sending candidates to Bible College and having no role in their preparation.
  • Local churches should be selective as to where they send their workers for seminary education. Churches need to ask what theology and experience teachers in these institutions have before agreeing to finance a student there. Churches must examine whether courses are actually applied to the work of ministry or simply theoretical and abstract.
  • Theological education should not be divorced from the local church or from the work of mission. Boards of theological institutions should be filled with pastors and missionaries with the greatest wisdom and experience.
  • We should not so readily accept those who are ready to go but send our best.
  • We should have the courage to say “no” to candidates who are not yet fit for the work.
  • We should send our best and not the rest.
  • We should seek to send workers in teams lead by “master craftsmen.”

4. Para-church organizations:

A help or a hindrance to the spread of the gospel?

Para-church organizations have played an enormously important role in mission in the recent past. The creation of organizations like the China Inland Mission and the Baptist Missionary Society was absolutely fundamental in the modern missionary movement. The church at that time was not fulfilling its responsibility to obey the Great Commission. The famous example springs to mind of the chairman of a meeting who said to William Carey, “Sit down young man! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you and me!” If God was pleased to use such efforts and such organizations in the past is it right that we continue to undertake missionary endeavor through these means?

In some cases para-church organizations are helpful. Para-church organizations can provide information to churches sending workers. They have experience in various legal and financial matters and can provide a framework for local churches to work together in the sending of workers. They can also be a help in obtaining visas in countries and so on. Para-church organizations may also be necessary on the field and in sending countries where local churches are not fulfilling their Biblical roles. However, the real problem underlying much missionary effort is that the mission society or para-church organization has taken over the role of the local church. It is the church who sent out Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13. Paul did not lay hands on Timothy alone. The elders of the church set him aside for ministry and recognized his Spirit given gifts.

We see no other agency in the New Testament than the local church or networks of churches working together in a common mission. The sending, supporting and oversight of workers was done by local churches and must be done again today. No other organization can possibly claim its mandate from the Great Commission. Christ gave this Commission initially to the apostles who were the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20) and this commission throughout the book of Acts and the epistles was undertaken by the church. It is interesting to note that the churches that often are most stable, who are lead by national leaders rather than missionaries and that are able to reproduce themselves are from a Brethren or Presbyterian background. In these cases the local church has a high level of involvement in not only the sending of missionaries but their oversight and support. Is it coincidental that when local churches drive mission efforts, the results are often more long lasting?

Another issue to consider is that para-church organizations inevitably get caught up in an effort to perpetuate themselves. Without money, prayer and workers no organization can possibly survive. Therefore the focus of an organization often becomes the generation of these things instead of the work of mission. The irony is that groups that are set up for a specific purpose and to meet a specific need have to spend so much time and resources in surviving as organizations that their original goals are often forgotten!

Para-church organizations also have a tendency to create problems in a given field and can even hinder the spread of the gospel. Well meaning international organizations recruit large numbers of national believers and leaders into their ranks for a specific area of ministry. The problem is that these vital workers are taken out of the local church and therefore weaken the very churches that they purport to serve. It the experience of many churches that good workers and leaders are so busy in their ministries with a para-church organization that they have no time for the local church. Workers miss Sunday worship, midweek meetings and have no time to serve in the local church. Churches that are crying out for workers are therefore deprived of the few resources that they have.

In addition, international interdenominational missions have often sown the seeds of doctrinal confusion in the churches that they plant. Believers can become confused as to what to believe when missionaries from different theological backgrounds come and repeatedly change what a church does and believes.

The fact that God in His sovereignty and grace often uses imperfect means and methods is no reason for us to continue using them. The history of missionary work is replete with examples of people who were unprepared and unequipped for missionary work who have been used of God. We have seen God use mission agencies to stir up churches to fulfill their responsibilities and to reach fields that had never been touched. We are indebted to para-church organizations for doing what the church should have been doing all along. Our love, gratitude and respect for such organizations should not cloud our judgment when it comes to missionary work. Whilst God uses imperfect vessels to accomplish His purposes we should have the courage to ask big questions about who should undertake missionary work. Just because a person who we hold in high esteem serves with an organization does not mean that we should support it. Just because an organization has had a glorious past should not mean that it should perpetuate its work today.

We must remember that when people like Hudson Taylor were recruiting missionaries the revival in Ireland was occurring and churches were being stirred by movements like the Keswick convention and the ministries of men like D.L. Moody. We are not living in revival, nor do we see such spiritual movements touching the church in a significant way in the West. Churches are at a low spiritual ebb on the whole and our imperfect methods can no longer be overcome by personal godliness. We can, in other words, not afford to keep unbiblical methods.

Implications:

  • Churches should only support workers who are sent through agencies which genuinely respect the role and responsibilities of the local church.
  • Para-church organizations must have the courage to close down their ministries when their task is complete or the need for them no longer exists.
  • Churches that send or support missionaries should be “hands on” in terms of oversight, support and care of the people that they send. Visits to the field, regular communication and things like teams can be an invaluable help in mission work.
  • Workers engaged in para-church ministries should be redeployed into church based work and in particular in the work of church planting. We should not be financially supporting workers of para-church ministries if they are not thoroughly involved in and accountable to their local church.

5. Evaluation;

The tyranny of the success syndrome and its effects.

A missionary to Morocco from my home church told me before she died of her family’s labors in that land. Her grandparents had helped found a mission there but ultimately had only seen a tiny handful of people become Christians after decades of ministry. Her parents saw less than 10 converts in over 35 years of ministry and she herself had seen little fruit. Yet before her passing she had the news from Morocco of scores and scores of people coming to faith. Today it is unlikely that she or her family would ever be supported.

Today the bottom line of missions is success. Mission work has become enslaved to the cult of success and the tyranny of statistics. What matters today is not the condition of hearts but how many people we stuff into churches. Indeed if we took some reports seriously some countries would have been converted several times over already! What is valued is not faithfulness but how many churches we have planted, how many converts we have baptized, how many hours we have spent in various activities and how many projects we have done.

Mission societies and indeed churches who support mission work measure success in terms of what can be counted. Hence the plethora of photos on Facebook of each activity, the obligatory photos at every meeting, the glowing newsletters that never speak of disappointments and heartbreaks but only of our victories and the production of endless reports that tell the tales of our successes.

Evaluation forms sent to missionaries and national workers demand to know how many have been baptized, how many goals have been met and how many bodies have been in our meetings. Workers are stressed out thinking of ways to justify themselves and their ministries. The expectations of donors, supporting churches and sending agencies are pressing missionaries and national workers alike into work that is neither lasting nor of great value.

Underlying all this is the unbiblical notion that workers produce success rather than God’s Holy Spirit. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered but God gave the growth.” Surely the great test of success is faithfulness. 1 Corinthians 4:2, “Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” We need to ask the question, is this missionary or national worker doing the task that the Bible entrusts us with? The question is not how big is your church but to what degree have you been faithful to the work that God has entrusted you with?

Implications:

  • Donors and mission societies alike must have a very clear and Biblical understanding of what the Bible understands success to be.
  • We must support not only that which has “results” but that which has long lasting value.
  • We must not channel our support to the places which seem to yield the most fruit but those who are most faithful to the model of ministry that is given to us in the New Testament.
  • Is our giving to mission driven by a results based philosophy that comes from business and marketing or by Biblical criteria?
  • We must consider whether we are forcing workers into a wrong mentality by insisting on having photographs of aid being delivered, literature being given out and so on. We must ensure that our expectations of missionaries and national workers do not actually perpetuate a success syndrome.

6. Accountability;

To whom shall we answer?

To whom is the missionary really accountable? Some are accountable to a mission leader or leadership. Others are accountable to their team leader and others to no one at all. It is true that ultimately we are all responsible to God. The true judge of our work is God Himself and so we are not to be overly swayed by man’s opinion of us (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).

However accountability is part of the New Testament model of mission. We see Paul returning twice to Antioch to report to the church as to what had happened amongst the Gentiles in his travels (Acts 14:27, 18:22). It is interesting to note that he spent some considerable time with them. He did not simply meet with the leadership or send an emailed report. We are not told how accountability worked in detail but simply that it rested in the hands of the local church.

Why do I raise this point? There are so many lone rangers, accountable to no one, who are deeply damaging the church of Jesus Christ and the cause of the gospel. Even those who started well have often fallen into sin, into unbiblical practices and wrong theology and have treated believers and national workers in a sinful way. What happens in this case? National churches are left to suffer the consequences. Their voice is rarely heard, their opinions irrelevant and there are many believers who have sacrificed much in the work of the gospel who are now without a church or fellowship simply because of the behavior of an individual. Yet they are still funded by well meaning supporters.

Implications:

  •  Donors and churches should ensure that workers are genuinely accountable; whether it be to their sending church or to the leadership of the church that they are working in.
  • Mission organizations should not take the place of the church in holding workers to account. The church must not abdicate its responsibilities.
  • Where abuses of power occur and sin is reigning in a worker’s life they must be disciplined by their church; whether it be their sending church or the church which they are part of.

7. Priorities;

What is of first importance in mission work?

One of the phenomena which alarms me the most in mission work is that of project driven ministries. By that I mean that there are churches and mission efforts that do little else other than to go from one project to another and never actually fulfill the mission that God has entrusted to us.

Put it this way, would you rather support a ministry to starving orphans or a tiny mountain church with 8 or 9 believers? What attracts your sympathies more, a work amongst abused women or poor children or training church leaders? It is right that we be moved by the tremendous needs of the world. It is right in many cases to financially support the efforts of churches to relieve the distress of others. It is still true today that, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” However, are we funding these projects to the detriment of those who are working with local churches? Are we forcing churches to focus on social projects, because that is where the money is, instead of focusing on the tasks that the Bible gives us in mission?

K.P Yohannan makes the point in his book, “Revolution in world missions,” that after all the time and money that has been spent in India on schools, hospitals and so on there have been very few people saved by these works. Are we feeding the poor, educating the illiterate, protecting the weak and helping the helpless at the expense of preaching the gospel, establishing believers, planting churches and raising up leaders? How can the Great Commission be fulfilled while we are so focused on projects that we have no time for much else?

The root of the problem is a loss of understanding in the church as to what the greatest need of our day actually is. Of course the church should abound in good works and be involved in the society to which it belongs but have we lost sight of the fact that man’s greatest problem is his sin and therefore the only solution is the gospel. Wherever the apostles went they planted churches; not schools, not hospitals, nor farms but local churches. Without gospel ministry how will nations be transformed, injustices righted and issues like poverty addressed? If man’s primary problem is spiritual we will never be able to address other problems like social injustice or poverty? Gospel ministry must take precedence over every other activity and that task is inseparable with the planting of churches. Many commentators affirm the fact that the gospel spreads fastest and most effectively through the planting of churches. The Bible, however, knows no other means of undertaking gospel ministry. The Great Commission given at the end of the gospels was fulfilled by the planting of churches in the book of Acts.

Our problem therefore is a lack of understanding of what the work of missions actually is. The Bible not only describes what mission work was like in the early church it prescribes what we must do today. Our problem is that we essentially believe that we are free to pursue the ministries that we want and in the way that we want to do them. Each one seems to have their own particular way of fulfilling the Great Commission. Is that really right? Until we see that the book of Acts is normative in how we are to undertake our mission and until we see that the patterns found in the epistle are not some out of date manual we will never be effective in the work that we are doing.

Paul and Barnabas did not make things up as they went along. They understood clearly “the work that I have called them to do. (Acts 13:2)” Acts tells us how they fulfilled that work and by implication what our work is today. The pattern that we have in Acts 14:1-28 is clear. The gospel was preached (1, 3, 6-7). Disciples were established and strengthened (21-22). Elders were appointed (23) and the cycle was repeated elsewhere.

When we look at the epistles we see people like Timothy and Titus engaged in establishing churches. What did they do? They taught sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:1-2). They taught people how to live as families (Colossians 3:18-4:1 etc.). They made sure that every believer fulfilled their role in the family of faith (Titus 2:1-10). They gave Biblical priorities to the churches such as prayer (1 Timothy 2:1-8). They taught the roles of men and women in church (1 Timothy 2:9-15). They appointed elders (Titus 1:5). The apostles and their helpers planted churches not centers, hospitals, schools or ministries. While the latter are not bad things they are not the first things and our focus must be on the first things first!

My question is simply this, what is of first importance in missionary work? I am not asking us to abandon social projects; they are the fruit of our faith and can be a powerful witness if used well. I am asking us to turn back to the New Testament for our model of mission. I am asking us to assess all that we do by this model and pursue it relentlessly! I am asking us to free churches from the shackles of projects to concentrate on this great work!

A key issue in this regard is what a missionary actually is and is not. Our definition of what a missionary is has been blurred over time to include anyone who leaves their home country for another regardless of what activity they are engaged in. A missionary is someone sent from an established church with a view either to planting a church or to assisting in doing so. Their work might be finishing the process of establishing a church, like Titus or Timothy (Titus 1:5, 1 Timothy 3:14-15), or be starting from scratch. They may be using professional skills to gain an entry into those countries which would forbid missionary activity. Their primary focus may be enabling church planting without actually being in local church leadership. However, for someone to be a missionary they should be involved in the planting of a church where one does not exist or establishing a church which has not grown to maturity. This principle may need to be broken where either sending churches or national churches are not fulfilling their Biblical responsibilities but this should not be undertaken lightly and should only be for such time as churches cannot or will not fulfill their roles.

If this definition of a missionary was to be accepted mission work would be impacted in two ways. First it should put an end to lone rangers on the mission field. A great sadness in missionary work is to see people coming as “missionaries” but who are under the authority of no local church; whether that be in their country of origin or on the field. They may attend a church but never come under the authority of its leadership. At times missionaries go from church to church or are simple frequenters of a church whilst actually being spiritual freelancers. The problems that this can cause are great!

It should also cause a radical redeployment of resources. Instead of workers being involved in ministries that have no link to a church planting effort they would be forced either to redirect their efforts to church planting or leave the field altogether. The European Christian Mission had the courage some years ago to make church planting their sole aim and to ensure that all their personnel were engaged in this activity. If someone was not alternative arrangements were found. However they defined a missionary as one engaged in as church planting.

Implications:

  • Donors should be moved not only be the faces of needy children but the need of the lost, the needs of local churches and national leaders and give accordingly.
  • Churches should send missionaries out to do “the work” that God has entrusted to us of planting churches and not simply to be engaged in piecemeal work that focuses on just one element of the task.
  • Those who are engaged in projects or in areas of work such as leadership training should be expected to show how their work actually relates to “the work” of planting churches.
  • Churches should not finance lone rangers who are accountable to no one.
  • Organizations should consider radical change to ensure that all their workers and all their resources are directed to church planting as the New Testament defines it.

8. Cultural imperialism;

Has the day of tin hats really passed?

The caricatured image that I had as a child of missionaries was of a stern faced man with a moustache dressed in khaki fatigues and a tin hat! Historically missionaries have brought not only the gospel of Jesus Christ to nations but also their culture. In some cases this has been a genuinely Christian culture. When Hudson Taylor worked against the binding of women’s feet and when William Carey fought against the abominable practice of the burning of widows Christian culture brought great blessing to a culture. Indeed in reality all missions is imperialistic in nature; we have a king, the Lord Jesus, who has a kingdom and we are seeking to spread that kingdom all over the world. That kingdom has its own values, behavior and priorities that will change whatever culture that it comes into contact with. Where people bow the knee to Jesus, their culture and worldview will change. This kind of imperialism can only be considered to be good!

However the bitter reality is that missions has also brought Western problems and Western arrogance with it as well. The role of a missionary as “the great white hope” has been destructive in places like Africa where mission work has been too closely associated in the past with colonialism. Sadly the problem of colonialism has not gone away with the passing of the British Empire or other colonial powers! It is alive and kicking today. We have assumed that Western civilization, education and norms are part of what we need to bring to a nation.

A great problem facing mission is the assumption of missionaries that our Western way of life is right! It is the confusion of what we hold dear at home with what is genuine Christian culture. Whilst missionaries look in disdain at the culture, the behavior and even the architecture of the people that they serve they remain colonial. Whilst we assume that the people we serve need a liberal democracy we are mixing up politics with the Bible. Whilst missionaries spend time with one another and with those nationals who speak their language we can hardly say that we have learned from the mistakes of our colonial past. Whilst we do not make it our priority to speak the local language but expect others to speak ours we are showing a terrible lack of respect. Missionaries do not speak the local language with any proficiency even after 10 or more years of ministry and expect translators when they preach.

When missionaries look down on the people they are trying to evangelize how much fruit can they expect? When they look down on local believers and leaders what sort of legacy can they leave other than a bitter one? One must be careful not to be uncritical of a culture or national church. Missionaries will deeply struggle with cultural differences but until they abandon their colonialist mentality and humble themselves before God they will do nothing but create great resentment.

What is also concerning is not just the attitude that we are conveying to local believers, and to nonbelievers also, but the change that we see happening in some believers. When you see national believers who are have lost their national identity and have become American or British it is a terrible thing. When you see leaders who are so far removed from their culture that they cannot relate to their own people any more it is simply tragic. One instance I heard of was of a local preacher turned up at a church to preach with an i pad, i phone and various other technological gadgets when the congregation had no hope of possessing such things. Another thing that I have observed is national workers dressed in Western clothes looking utterly out of place among their peers. Imagine a national worker rebuking a waiter in another town for not having decaffeinated coffee on offer! What example is this to the waiter?

Not only so but missionaries are introducing practices which are not Biblically based but culturally driven. Take the times of our meetings. The times of our meetings are often just a reflection of when we have meetings in our churches at home rather than a reflection of when people can actually come to church. We can insist on a Sunday school for children when Sunday might be the worst possible day for children to come to such a meeting.

Implications:

  •  We must examine ourselves as missionaries, churches and agencies to see what attitudes, values and principles are derived from Western culture and what comes from the Word of God.
  • We must genuinely understand that whilst God has blessed many Western nations, we have many sinful cultural traits.
  • We must beware that we do not make Westerners of the national churches and workers that we serve and so make them irrelevant to their own people.
  • We must be careful not to be a stumbling block to believers and unbelievers alike in our dress, our eating habits, our living standards and so on.

9. Tribalism;

Are we simply planting our flag?

Evangelical believers hold their convictions very dearly. Whatever end of the spectrum of evangelical thought you might belong to one thing is certain; you have convictions and practices that you hold to with great feeling. It is right that we insist on sound doctrine and promote it in the churches that we serve in (1 Timothy 6:2-5, 20). However there is a difference between separating from false doctrine and sectarianism. There is a difference between seeking to teach the Bible and bring the benefits of the church heritage that we have in the West and being tribalist.

We are guilty of importing theological debates and divisions that would simply never have existed in national churches had we not done so. We are guilty as missionaries of factionalism and tribalism. We have imported denominationalism and sectarianism regardless of where we stand in the evangelical world. One example stands out to illustrate the point. A national pastor was challenged not long ago as to whether or not he believed that the King James Version of the Bible was the inspired version. He replied to the effect that as he would be preaching to people in his own language the whole issue of Bible translations did not interest him…much to the disgust of the questioner!

One of the strangest experiences of missionary life has been being checked out for soundness of doctrine! On one occasion I was invited to lunch with a missionary leader with great influence in the country where I serve. He and his wife exuded joy and warmth towards me until the moment that I confessed that I did not share their view on the millennium! At that point they turned to the people next to them and never spoke to me again. I have felt as uncomfortable as you would if you had been caught in public in just your underwear as time and again people have probed and tested me as to what I believe. It is good to be discerning and to seek to work with those of sound doctrine but have we taken this to such an extreme that church unity and simple Christian charity cannot exist? The greatest insult that one believer could muster against me one day was, “What do you know about the Holy Spirit? You’re a Baptist!” Where had he learned to speak like that?

We are also guilty of planting our flag for a mission or denomination. On the surface this looks good to supporters. Our mission is working in x number of countries, our denomination has y number of churches in a given field and so on. Where is the glory really going for these churches; to God or to our group? Would these groups really exist if missionaries had not insisted on them? Indeed I was shocked not long ago when the group of churches that I serve amongst was classified as a denomination when in reality they are all independent churches linked by a common history and doctrine. Do we have to import the disunity of the Western church to other places? These churches have enough challenges themselves with divisiveness, competitiveness and arguments without us adding to them! Does the organization that we serve with really have to be in every country or can we simply serve those who are already there in ways that they ask us to do?

Implications:

  • As churches and organizations we need to define properly which doctrines are of absolute importance and which we might differ on without major harm.
  • We need to ask ourselves are we cutting ourselves off from people with whom we should be co operating because of our insistence that they have exactly the same doctrines and practices as us? We may not plant a church with certain people but could we find other ways of working together?
  • Are we importing the theological debates of the last four or five centuries or simply seeking to teach the Scriptures? Whilst we have to be honest in saying that our interpretation of Scripture will be influenced by the background that we come from do we have to bring labels, denominations and small mindedness with us?
  • Agencies and sending churches must ask the question, can a field do without us? Can we support the efforts of national churches without establishing a physical presence in the land?

10. Pragmatism;

The new standard of truth

One of the greatest features of evangelical life all over the world is Biblical illiteracy. In the country in which I serve, there is an absolute dearth of Biblical knowledge and practice. There is a crisis in orthodoxy (what we believe) and orthopraxy (how we live). Not only is the church subject to every wind of doctrine but often the lives of believers are so scandalous that others will not come near the church. Whilst the church falls prey to ecumenism (sitting at the same table as other faiths and churches that do not preach the Biblical gospel) and to heresies like the prosperity gospel, it continues to fail to make a significant spiritual impact on the land. Preaching is at a low ebb, teaching is shallow, and as a result the majority of believers neither know what they should believe nor how they should live. Yet these are but symptoms of a deeper malaise. Both missionaries and national leaders are driven by a principle which is producing these deep problems; namely pragmatism. What works, what produces results, what looks good and makes us successful has now replaced what the Bible teaches.

How has this happened? First our paradigm of mission encourages it. Missions on the whole and indeed supporting churches are interested in one thing alone; results. Therefore there is a pursuit of what will produce results rather than what God has commanded. Second missionaries have imported it. As pragmatism reigns in Western churches and believers lose their sense of discernment and theological moorings it is inevitable that they will bring these problems to the field that they are serving in.

The tragic reality is that workers have little doctrinal understanding, little ability to discern between truth and error and do not see the ministry of the Word as a great priority. Pragmatism is now at the steering wheel of the church and while it steers our course, we will head towards disaster and, ironically, irrelevance. When the church neither knows, nor proclaims, nor practices the truth of the Word but pursues relevance it will not only lose its spiritual health but the very relevance that it craves.

Implications:

  • As supporting churches and donors we must prioritize what kind of work we support. Church planting must be given our fullest support and other ministries, however useful they might be, must come after that.
  • Mission workers must be thoroughly grounded in the great doctrines of the faith before ever undertaking such work.
  • Churches, both in the West and in the countries that we send missionaries to, must be catechized; by that I mean that there must be intentional, orderly and comprehensive teaching of God’s Word so that believers know what to believe and how to behave. This must take precedence over projects and the mass of activities that threaten to drown us.

11. Resources for churches;

Is the tail wagging the dog?

A dog needs a tail. Without a tail dogs will lose their sense of balance. The tail is a vital thing but if the tail begins to direct the dog there is trouble. The work of God needs resources. Younger churches need finance and the wisdom, experience and knowledge of churches that have existed for centuries. Older churches have a breadth of knowledge and experience that can be vital in advising younger churches as to what they really need. The problem comes when older churches begin to direct younger ones to the extent that they begin to control them and begin to impose resources upon them that they neither need nor can relate to culturally.

One thing that is never lacking in mission fields is a plethora of seminars, workshops and conferences. Each denomination, organization and church grouping seems to be pushing its own particular leaders and methods. Indeed one could be so busy going to these events that one never actually does any work! One can see the same faces at all the seminars that are put on and at each seminar they faithfully support the ministry being promoted and then…go on to the next seminar! We have conferences from international ministries for leadership, discipleship, counseling, and no end of other areas of church life that spend vast amounts of money in given fields. First a seminar is organized at great expense. Then books or materials from this ministry are translated and then their ministry is shared in churches on a wider basis. Often the resources brought to the field are so full of illustrations, concepts and realities that are relevant to the West that they fail to communicate to other cultures!

In every field there are countless resources being printed that basically say the same thing and have to do with the same thing. Not only that but well meaning donors plough resources into books, courses and other materials that have been of personal benefit to them but which have no real value for the field. I value deeply the spirituality and wisdom of the Puritans. However to print the works of Jeremiah Burroughs and John Owen in a young church with new Christians seems foolish to say the least!

Instead of national leaders and churches telling the West what they need, we tell them what we think they need. We tell them that unless they are trained in this method, these skills or with these materials they are simply not going to be good enough. In essence the tail wags the dog!

Implications:

  • Publishing projects should be driven and overseen by local churches, guided by the wisdom and experience of overseas friends, rather than well meaning donors.
  • Ministries should be careful to ask whether they are reproducing what others are already doing.
  • Instead of spending large amounts of money on large conferences, select groups of local leaders can be trained in specific areas and then teach those principles in their local church or group of churches in a way that will be culturally appropriate.

Conclusion

After surveying missionary work and its paradigms the question still remains; do we have the courage to change? It may mean reforming or even abandoning centuries old practices or organizations. It may risk offending those who are sincere in their desire to serve but are not doing so according to Biblical principles. It will mean more work! It will entail more work for churches and their leaders in particular. It will mean more preparation for those who go out as missionaries also. It will mean sacrifice for many people who will have to change the whole nature of their lives and ministries. However I would invite you to think about this, if huge swathes of Asia and Europe were evangelized and covered with churches by Paul and his team why should we not imitate them and expect similar results? If the church of the first century could overcome Greco- Roman philosophy, pagan religions, immorality, the cult of Caesar and the sheer military might of Rome can the same not happen today? Now is the time for the church to take back its responsibility for the Great Commission. There is simply no other way to see that Commission fulfilled and there is no time to waste; the world’s billions have such need of the gospel!

The author is a cross cultural missionary engaged in church planting in Albania.

 

Recommended further reading:

“Missionary Methods; St. Paul’s or ours?” and “The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes which Hinder it” by Roland Allen

“Planting churches cross culturally” by David Hesselgrave

“Paul the missionary” by Eckhard J. Schnebel

“Church based Missions”, “Church based theological education”, and “Church based training which is truly church based by Jeff Reed (part of the paradigm papers that can be found on the BILD international website)

 

 

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Responses

  1. Thanks. Excellent article and depth of thought.
    With a number of people from ‘3rd world’ counties coming to the West for education and migration, we have a large mission field right at our backyard. Everyone of these new migrants are potentially more effective as a missionary as they don’t have to deal with cultural and language issues when they go back.
    Yet churches are more interested in sending more missionaries overseas than spreading the gospel to these. Maybe there is less ‘glamour’ in evangelizing your neighborhood and slums.


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