I’m fairly passionate about missions. I minored in Missions in Bible college and took all the missions courses the seminary offered. I have heavily promoted missions during my 44 years in pastoral ministry and count the dozen or so extended missions trips I’ve taken as highlights of my pastoral life. My purpose in this post is to share (for what they’re worth) some conclusions I’ve come to over the years.
FIRST—NOT EVERYTHING CALLED MISSIONS IS MISSIONS. My understanding of missionary work is formed by the Book of Acts. The clear pattern there is evangelism, discipleship, establishing churches, and training pastors / elders. When I came to my present pastorate I studied the list of supported missionaries and discovered that of 16 entities only two were on this program. There were radio stations, schools, accountants working in missions offices, airplane pilots, medical programs, sports teams, and renewable energy programs. Not to denigrate any of these worthwhile endeavors and not that they are not worthy of support, but the program practiced in the New Testament resulted in the planting of churches, and although these entities provided benefits to churches, they did not birth them. So we took them off the missions budget. Our missions budget is limited to those who evangelize, disciple, plant churches, and train national pastors for those churches.
What this means, for example, is that when a bona fide missionary plants a church and remains as it’s pastor, he is no longer a missionary. We don’t support pastors. The church he pastors supports him. We support missionaries and missionaries are continually working themselves out of a job and starting over again in the next region.
Please don’t assume that I disdain the supporting ministries listed above. I do not. We support them but not on the missions budget. The missions budget is reserved for New Testament missions only. There’s an unfortunate mystique that attaches to missionaries. Once they are endorsed by their home church and a missionary agency they become golden and beyond question. After some painful experiences, we have learned that we have to ask the tough questions. Here are some of the ones we ask…
To what degree is your home church supporting you? This is very telling. Who knows the missionary candidate better than the church they grew up in? And if they’re whole-heartedly on board financially--that says a lot to us. There are extenuating circumstances, of course, and we are sensitive to those, but as a rule we consider this a critical component of our evaluation process.
To what degree have you been involved in the Acts missionary pattern? Don’t tell us what you’re going to do when you get there—tell us what success you’ve already had in evangelism, discipling, church-planting, and training leaders. None? How do you know you can do it? Rarely does a coach ever put a person on the varsity who’s never played ball before. But American churches do, and it’s not good. Every veteran missionary has horror stories to tell of new missionary appointees who arrive on the field after 5 years of deputation, then spend two or three years in language school, and finally decide this isn’t my cup of tea. Meanwhile they’ve drained three or four hundred thousand dollars out of the pockets of churches, money that could have made a massive impact somewhere else.
Are you willing to engage in an extensive internship before you go? College and seminary can give you knowledge and techniques but not wisdom. A mission trip can give you a taste and build excitement but not experience. A pastoral internship gives the appointee an opportunity to develop his evangelism skills, master fear of man, and determine his aptness to teach. He can make his mistakes in a forgiving context rather than offending an entire pagan culture. And his work-ethic can be evaluated by a seasoned mentor before he lands on the field—which is no small matter. There are more than a few missionaries currently on the field drawing support from churches who are lazy and unmotivated, and who actually hinder the work of the gospel. We don’t want to enable such so we want to know—are they hard workers?
Is your wife and family firmly on board with this and is your marriage strong? In the distant past we had missionary wives who resented the distance from her family and the hardships of harsh living conditions and who wore their husbands down over time. Sometimes there are medical problems with a child or spouse that add stress and create serious distractions to the missionary enterprise. Way too often we’ve seen promising couples fail to return for a second term.
By now some are wondering (if you’re even reading this far) why I’m such a curmudgeon about missions and missionaries. And my answer is—we have high expectations for our missionaries. We view our missionaries as extensions of our pastoral staff. We vet them the same way we do a candidate for our pastoral staff. That being the case, if we wouldn’t accept them as a pastoral staff member, we certainly won’t hire them to go abroad as our representative. We hire pastoral staff to work with youth, music, community outreach, and discipleship, and we also hire pastoral staff to work in foreign regions as our Acts 1:8 agent. Admittedly, there are grievous failures in the pastorate. Each of them leaves spiritual destruction in its wake, but none as serious as missionary failures. They leave the reputation of Christ and the value of the gospel ruined sometimes for generations. We are not willing to risk that.
Having said all that, allow me to affirm our love for and unstinting support for missionaries. When we assume support of a missionary we try to be their largest contributor. We don’t take on new missionaries while our existing missionaries face shortfalls. Our missionary conferences showcase our current missionaries and provide opportunities for us to lavish love offerings on them and show them our gratitude. When they appeal to us for special projects we give serious consideration to each and dig deeply to help. In the last decade alone our mid-sized church (350 or so) has invested nearly $700,000 in project giving above and beyond our regular quarterly support—and the Lord has blessed us for it.
Finally, the caveat. I do not profess to have all the answers, nor am I arrogant enough to expect that everyone will agree with me. I admit my views and our practices are a bit outside the mainstream. I only offer these as a testimony of how God has led us in the matter of missions and a brief recitation of why we do what we do. Our desire is to honor God in this matter and whether you “do it like we do” is not important. What is important is that pagans are brought to faith, discipled in the great truths of the Scripture, organized into churches, and gifted with able pastor-teachers.
Soli Deo Gloria.