Planting the Church in One Week
Global Missions Fellowship sends American teams to work with overseas churches to spread the Gospel
Planting churches with short-termers? In ten days? Impossible.
I must confess that is what I thought when I first heard about Global Missions Fellowship and their bold strategy.
But it's true. Global Missions Fellowship is taking teams of 15-25 Americans to countries like Lithuiana, Israel, and India for 7-10 days, and in conjunction with national believers, they are seeing God do incredible things. In the last seven years, their short-term trips have laid the groundwork for nearly 1,700 new churches.
Admittedly, they are not doing frontier missions (going where the church is not) since they rely upon existing national churches, nevertheless, the Gospel is spreading and believers are growing as these short-termers learn to step out and depend upon God. Furthermore, as the ministry adopts an increasingly strategic focus, they have found ways to push the edge of the frontier. In Manipur, India, they are working with a strong, existing church to reach the Meitei, an unreached people group.
The "Accidental" Strategy
The dream of Global Missions Fellowship began in 1985 when Rev. Mike Downey, a Southern Baptist pastor from Oklahoma, took a team of Americans to Mexico for an evangelistic outreach. By the grace of God—and with the help of interpreters—they saw many come to faith in Christ. Faced with a plentiful harvest, they were forced to ask, "What will we do with all these people?" A truly Pauline idea emerged: "We should start a church!" A local Mexican church agreed to shepherd the newborn daughter church.
Downey marvelled at the success of the "accidental" church planting strategy and wondered what would happen if they applied it intentionally. So he and others returned to Mexico and, working with five existing Mexican churches, saw five new churches planted in five areas. After seeking the Lord, he stepped down from the pastorate, moved to Dallas and started Global Missions Fellowship.
The Church Looms Large
From beginning to end, Global Missions Fellowship emphasizes the role of the local church in the fulfillment of the Great Commission—an appropriate stance since they rely on U.S. churches to recruit and send teams and overseas churches to do the follow-up.
"We like to call ourselves a 'through-the-church' ministry," says Sam Ingrassia, GMF's director of church mobilization. Over six years ago, Ingrassia was a pastor in New Jersey, and caught the vision of mobilizing the adults in his church for missions by taking them on short term trips to Haiti. He recounts, "Eight days in Haiti did more for them than I could have done in eight months ... in their comfort zone."
When ten or twenty people from a church go on a trip together, GMF challenges the church leaders to be ready for a transformation and plug those people into ministry when they return, because they will not be the same. For many team members, the GMF short term is their first trip overseas. Others are young believers who have had little opportunity to share their faith (like Ryan Smith). On the trip, they share their faith 30 or 40 times, experience cross-cultural life, and learn greater dependence upon God. They come home with "transferable ministry skills" ready to get involved.
Ingrassia explains that "when we help the church obey the 'going component' ... it is life changing for both the receiving and sending churches."
One church that has experienced this change has been New Hope Church in San Diego. "I went on a trip to Lithuania in 1995 with GMF," recalls New Hope's Pastor Joe Rhodes. "God broke my heart, ripped it open and left it there for a while. I wept for three or four days." Pastor Rhodes came back to his church saying, "We've got to change."
The theme at New Hope the following year became "Bringing Christ to the World," and their whole focus started moving outside the four walls of the church. They started doing outreaches at local parks and schools where they were accessible to the lost. They have taken ownership of the missions mandate and are focusing on a few key parts of the world, including the Meitei of Manipur, India.
Ingrassia explains, "We're capturing attention of the leaders and helping them evaluate if they have a balanced—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and uttermost parts—outreach."
There is also a sense that GMF is trying to accommodate and foster the growing desire of many U.S. churches for "direct involvement" in missions. The March-April 1998 issue of Mission Frontiers addressed this type of outreach called "Congregational-Direct missions." The standard missions are finding this reality increasingly difficult to ignore. At the 1999 meeting of the International Society for Frontier Missiology, this topic evoked heated dialogue from the participants.
The crux of the debate lies primarily on two views. Proponents of the Congregational-Direct approach are not content to leave the global task in the hands of missions professionals alone. Longtime advocates of Standard mission agencies, including Ralph Winter, are concerned about the amateurism that may accompany Congregational-Direct missions.
No one would deny that the local church should get involved in global outreach, nor would they contest the value of short term missions as a mobilization tool. But if we proclaim a too-rosy view of missions in order to get the church "out there," we risk spoiling the enthusiasm we had hoped to generate. "If, in their youthful exuberance, they discover things are very much more complicated than they expected, their mission interest may wilt as fast as it bloomed," says Ralph Winter.
The Expansion of the Ministry
Since their beginning in 1987, GMF has seen across-the-board expansion of their ministry. Some trips yield more fruit than others, but their initial average of five churches planted per campaign seems to be holding steady. What has changed is just about everything else: more countries visited, more campaigns, more short-term and long-term workers, more sending churches and more professions of faith.
Several reasons may account for their explosion of growth in the last six or seven years—from 23 trips in 1993 to around 95 in 1999 and 132 planned for 2000. They have grown to 29 full-time staff; 19 of whom regularly lead overseas teams.
Certainly, the addition of a San Diego-based office (GMF West) has spurred the growth of the ministry. Dan Hitzhusen has led the Western office since its inception in 1995. Dan, along with his wife Lorie, had previously worked with Josh McDowell Ministries and Campus Crusade for Christ before moving to Dallas to join Global Missions Fellowship in 1993. An additional eight full-time and about 25 part-time people comprise the GMF West team. They are hopeful that other regional offices will follow, possibly in Los Angeles or Seattle.
Secondly, the growth may also stem from changes in methodology. In past years, GMF teams were led solely by full time workers, but today they are training part time volunteers, lay people who usually take time off work to participate as associate team leaders. In this way, they are able to share in much of the responsibility and enable the ministry to expand.
They also refined their overall church planting strategy. Hitzhusen explains, "We used to say, 'Go wherever. As long as you plant churches and win people to Jesus, be blessed.' Now we tell our leaders, 'Try to be strategic about where you go and who you work with. Look for those nationals who have a focus to bring the whole country to Jesus, not just plant a few churches.'" As they plan their trips, they prioritize the goal of serving "church planting movements."
The Nationals Hold the Key
The staff of GMF is well aware that the success or failure of their model rests in large part on the national churches, for they are the ones who do the follow-up, actually making disciples. They refer to responses at their evangelistic meetings as "professions of faith," and realize that the actual making of disciples will occur under the supervision of the national church.
A national translates as an American, GMF team member gives her tesimony in one of the nightly evangelistic meetings.
Once the preeminence of the churches is realized, the concept is displayed in a different light. As Hitzhusen describes, "We're not a bunch of Americans with the 'Great White Hope' come to save them, but a bunch of servants who come to ask, 'How can we serve them?'"
When searching for indigenous ministries to work with, they look for "people who are Biblically based," says Hitzhusen, "who have a heart to reach out, integrity and good standing in their community." Beyond this, they are seeking those who place the advance of God's Kingdom ahead of desires to expand their own ministry.
Unfortunately, they have seen the wrong kind of people too: those "looking for money from the U.S. so they don't have to work very hard." Leaders go in advance to prepare the national team to receive the American team.
The nationals who work with GMF typically express much gratitude for the Americans' presence, saying they are both a "great encouragement" and "a challenge" to the local believers. Emotion fills the earnest plea of one national who closed his letter of thanks in big print: "COME BACK!"
But the resident urgency evidenced by such petitions makes some wonder about the risk of nationals becoming dependent on the "special blessing" the American teams seem to bring with them. These voices of caution have witnessed (in settings outside of GMF's work) the gradual debilitation of national churches as successive short-term teams leave them anticipating the next American-borne surge.
The Bridge from Boomers to Xers
Historically, GMF has not actively recruited young people for their campaigns and have primarily focused on mobilizing the Baby Boomer generation. Hitzhusen estimates that the median age of those that go on trips might be 38, but he has had people from 16 to 89 years old on trips with him. There are plenty of mission agencies with short-term programs designed for teens and college students. The number of those geared for the Boomers pales in comparison.
Nevertheless, GMF's fast-paced, interactive, let's-just-see-what-God-does style may fit well with Generation X, and GMF has been making room for Gen-Xers. Chris Roberts heads up the recently-developed, Gen X division at GMF West. Although her official role is "to recruit and lead young adults on mission campaigns," she says that "it is more like leading them on a journey to see a glimpse of the Glory of God." In August, she led a team of Gen-Xers to India, who were "thrown into a new culture, and faced with a new challenge to sharing their faith." She believes that, "they discovered the meaning of being dependant on God. Through this dependence they were able to see Him move."
Chris and the rest of GMF's Gen-X staff are praying that God will raise up a generation of passionate worshipers who will seek His glory and then go and make His deeds known among the peoples.
The Bottom Line
Global Mission Fellowship is an agency coping with the changing face of missions: targeting busy Boomers and eager X-ers; facilitating hands-on, global outreach for believers and churches; refining their strategy as they go. How exciting to consider the resulting hundreds of new churches filled with new believers! Hopefuly they will be able to maintain their vital partnership with national ministries without becoming the "secret ingredient" to church growth. Perhaps GMF will be a bright light for the Gospel—and the constructive use of short-terms—as they present the incomparable Christ and equip the Church to go as He commanded.