Local Church and Mission Agency
What is the Best Relationship?
“We don’t need you any more,” a friend from Bible School days asserted. And he went on to say that mission agencies were unbiblical and unwarranted anachronisms from the past. It was the local church that God had ordained to be the sending agency.
“I’m tired of mission agencies coming in and raping our poor church!” a pastor protested in his workshop on missions. He was, of course, speaking of money given to missions. And, by the way, his “poor” church I discovered while having lunch with him had just built a million dollar addition.
“You’re an extension of our staff and you have no right to move to another field without our consent,” another pastor insisted. This highly qualified couple had moved from Cairo to a very sensitive area of the Arab World. Complete security was then necessary. Far from haphazard, the move was thoroughly scrutinized by our experienced mission leadership. Yet within two months this pastor and church dropped their 25% support of this couple, necessitating their return from the field at a crucial time to find additional funding.
Thus, some charge mission agencies as unbiblical, unethical, unwarranted, and unneeded relics of a by-gone era. Reaction has set in. Local churches are, understandably, demanding more input as well as output. There’s now a bit in the money’s mouth and more control is demanded.
I can certainly understand some of these reactions. I pastored for over twenty-three years in three different churches. Accountability was certainly a concern of our missions committees. From those churches young people went both into home ministry and overseas missions. It was a major thrust of ours, because our own missionary aspirations had been dashed when health problems arose.
During those years I saw agencies ignore our concerns by appointing people not yet ready for service, only to dismiss them later. And I saw churches with “nepotistic” attitudes, sending “their own” because they were “their own,” but not really called to or qualified for Christian work, and ineffective in it.
What, then, should be the relationship between the church and the agency? Are mission agencies indeed Biblical or merely of mistaken human invention? What have they accomplished? Is it wise to delegate responsibility to them? And what are the relationships to be developed between the church and the agency? These are some of the questions needing answers.
For over two centuries churches and mission agencies have worked together with mutual respect in seeking to accomplish the task of world evangelization. For the most part this cooperative effort has been quite effective, and thousands of workers have been sent from churches through mission agencies in obedience to our Lord’s mandate to bring the Gospel to every nation.
Yet in the last two decades there has been an increasing crescendo of dissatisfaction over this time-honored and efficient arrangement of responsibilities. Some have felt, and not without some justification, that mission agencies have become too aloof and too independent, an entity unto themselves, ignoring the church—except for finances.
The Biblical Basis For The Mission Agency
I have come to believe that mission boards are rooted in the Bible itself. I realize that many appeal to the Bible as the basis for the opposite conclusion.
For example, the congregation at Antioch in Acts 13 is usually the final court of appeal for those who insist that the local church has the sole sending authority and is the sole sending agency for the missionary.1 Did not the Holy Spirit say to the church “Set apart to me Barnabas and Saul...”(Acts 13:2)? And did the church not “send them away” (Acts l3:3)?
Indeed He and they did! But the force of the Greek verbs in this crucial text is often overlooked. Contrary to expectations, “set apart,” which is from the more common Greek word, hagiazo, (which means to sanctify) is not used. Rather, we find a much stronger word, aphorizo. In Matthew 25:32 this word is used to describe the separation of the sheep from the goats at the judgment day. And again, in Galatians 2:12, it describes Peter’s withdrawal from the believing Gentiles.
It would seem to be clear, therefore, that the intent in Acts l3 is that for the sake of reaching the Gentiles with the Gospel there was to be a change in the ministry relationship between the team of Barnabas and Saul on the one hand and the Antioch church on the other.
This dramatic delegation of authority is fortified by another potent verb in verse l3: “They sent them off.” Here the word is apolouo, translated as “divorce” in Matthew 5:32 and as being “set free” from prison in Acts 26:32.
A third strong verb seems to describe the termination of their present relationship with the Antioch church. It is found in Acts l3:4, expempo, “and being sent out (on their way) by the Holy Spirit.” The same word is translated, “Escape” in Acts 17:10. In effect God the Spirit was telling them all, “Release them. Let them go. Break out of here, fellas!” In English there is a subtle but profound difference between a congregation sending someone “out” and sending someone “off,” and this difference is apparently what is intended in the wording of the crucial event in Acts 13.
Divide! Divorce! Escape! These muscular terms are very strange indeed if these first missionaries were to go out under the direct authority and supervision of the local church at Antioch. It would appear that what the leaders of the church at Antioch actually did was to affirm God’s call on these men—men to whom they owed their own spiritual lives and maturity.
What was happening here was not so much the creation of a new structure as the normal and reasonable employment of the same kind of “missionary band” within which Paul had formerly operated as a Pharisee sent out to keep the Jewish believers from going astray. The Holy Spirit Himself was now to employ the kind of structure which everyone understood and which did not have to be explained. This is similar to the use by the early church of the well-understood household fellowships (ecclesias) and churches (synagogues).
Let’s look further. This new team differed from the local church in terms of organization, direction, outreach, and the addition and subtraction of new members. Antioch was not consulted when Titus, Timothy or others were added to it. Nor, significantly, did it interfere over the dispute between Barnabas and Paul over John Mark. The Bible does not point out that Antioch even helped them financially (see Philippians 4:15), though we may presume they may have.
Surely if Antioch as their “sending church” had exercised such authority and control over “their” missionaries, there would have been at least some direct involvement in their activities. Such was apparently not the case. Logistically it would seem to have been quite impractical when the only means of transportation and communication were horses and wind-blown boats!
What relationship, then, did Antioch sustain to this new team? (1) It recognized that it was God Himself who calls workers to such ministries. The call originates from Him and not us. (2) The congregation had become the proving ground for these aspiring missionaries, where their gifts and ministry were first authenticated. (3) It became persistent partners in prayer with them (4) It eventually received them back from their mission for a hearing of God’s working and the restoring of their physical and spiritual strength.
What seems clear is that, while providing for Paul a haven from the incredible strain of his ministry, Antioch dictated neither its design nor details. We can readily assume he was open to their advice and sought (whenever possible and beneficial) to follow it.
What we see here then, without term or title, was the Spirit’s employment of the first Christian missionary agency to the Gentile world. Like the term, Trinity, the name nowhere appears in the Bible, but the concept does. Here was the nucleus of an independent team, set free to function as God directed, and under the leadership of proven, capable and Spirit-gifted men. Thus a new mission agency was born.
The Beneficial Contribution Of Mission Agencies
Over the past two centuries, mission agencies have been effective instruments in spreading the Gospel and establishing the church worldwide. Any objective examination of their role will have to admit their strategic and motivational importance in the providence of God.
William Carey’s renowned treatise, An Enquiry Into The Obligations Of Christians To Use Means For The Conversion Of The Heathens, was written in response to a group of local church leaders’ refusal to encourage him in his desire to form a missionary agency. Rigid Calvinists, they believed that “God would save the heathen in His own way and time” and certainly without the help of a cobbler named William Carey. Carey’s use of the word, “Means,” in the title of his little volume refers to mission agencies like the one he was eventually able, under God, to establish.2
Within twenty five years of this event a dozen or more of such agencies were formed on both sides of the Atlantic. The modern missionary era had begun. It would appear that if it had been left to the local “church” of that day, 90% of this world might still be in spiritual darkness.
Today we live in a world where the sun never sets on the church of Jesus Christ. We must admit that humanly speaking this is primarily the result of two centuries of ministry by missionary agencies! In Carey’s day, about 98% of evangelical Christians were found in the predominantly Protestant countries of northern and western Europe, England, and the eastern United States.
The church movements streaming out of the Reformation were mostly vital, but in all the confusion they had given up the kind of structure of outreach which the Antioch church had relied upon, and they had no thought of following the pattern of the missionary Friars of the Catholic tradtion which they were rejecting. Tragically, Reformation Christianity for two centuries stood still, locked in a “fortress” mentality. Only a few groups broke loose into an active, assertive and positive missionary outreach, such as the Moravians, Anabaptists and Quakers.
It did not take long for mostof the major Protestant traditions to become so institutionalized as to be inward, protective, and resistant to the ever-expanding pulsations of His will. Only then was God able to use a clear-thinking youth named Carey to raise up a prophetic movement that scaled the walls of self-satisfaction to get the message out to the excluded. Jesus was such a positive catalyst for change and outreach to those rejected by the Jewish institutions of his day. Paul took the Gospel torch from the Jerusalem church and, to the chagrin of some of its leaders, ran all over the Gentile world. The monastic movements the Reformers rejected were not just cloisters of men who sat in silence, especially when the Friars appeared, but often were innovators who reached out beyond the walls of a politicized church institution. Thus, the modern missionary movement said to the by-now arthritic churches of the Reformation: The Spirit of God is not content with your sitting and singing of “a mighty fortress.” His dynamic impulses are always outward beyond the walls of your contentment. And Paul’s team structure was rediscovered.
Thus, even to hint that mission agencies are perversions of God’s missionary purposes, or a temporary substitute when churches go bad, is to miss the flow of Scripture and of history. This is not to say that the agencies—anymore than local congregations—are immune to institutional dangers. They too can become fortresses protecting their own vested interests in areas, thankfully, already reached. And they too can lose the vision for the half of the world, yet unreached. It is tragically true that some agencies have seemingly allowed the scaffolding for erecting the church on the field to become part of the building itself, thus becoming a permanent fixture of a national church instead of a temporary work-station that can move on and pioneer elsewhere.3
The Wisdom Of Delegating Responsibility To Missionary Agencies.
When a new president of the failing Avis Rent-A-Car company took office, his first question to his board was, “What shouldn’t we be doing?” In other words, “What are we trying to do that we’re not really equipped to do?”
The local church is wise indeed to discern not only its strengths, but its limitations. It was wise for the church leaders at Antioch to invest their confidence in proven men (originally from other congregations!) whom God Himself had called to advance the Gospel. God gave them a job and the church let them do it. They trusted God for them, with no “strings” of control attached. They did not, nor could not, micro- or macro-manage their movements. Remember there were no telegraphs, no telephones, no E-mails, no jets nor jet-set advisors. They did not, nor could not, know the circumstances faced by these brave men who risked their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
Wisdom still stands on our missionary streets and cries out, “Does anyone understand?” How can Joe Smith who sits in “Pew l5” every Sunday morning know how to advise a missionary in crisis in Marrakech, Morocco? Or what can that American pastor say to an elder of an underground church in Tangier, whose flock has been fearfully divided by an informer who has infiltrated the group and sent some to prison? What will he tell them—to hold a dynamic, evangelistic crusade? Or perhaps, (as actually happened to one of our couples in crisis after being expelled from a country), their Pastor will tell them to come home and be his assistant where their gifts could be better used!
Some churches and pastors have come to deeply regret their unwise interference in cultures and situations beyond their grasp. Their ill-informed advice and spotty oversight from a distance have contributed to the shipwreck of missionaries “under their care.”
The responsible missionary agency is a God-given resource for churches and missionaries. It provides a field support system for planning, pastoral care and encouragement. It trains in language and culture. It attends to medical, psychological and sociological needs unique to the cross-cultural situation. It furnishes an on-site frame-work for accountability, responsibility, and fellowship. And what shall we say of the personal details of health insurance, retirement, fluxuating cost of living overseas, continuing education, family relationships, taxes, political developments, relationships to embassies and governments, emergency funding, orientation testing and debriefing, etc.
An accredited missionary agency will provide for all of the above needs and more. The membership of a local church which may presume to possess the necessary expertise in all of these matters will unintentionally draw down a heavy responsibility on themselves and indeed may put “their” missionaries in grave difficulty, perhaps in the grave itself. Both the mission agency and the church should remember that we are all ultimately accountable to Christ and shall be held responsible for those whom He has placed under our care.
The Cooperative Relationship Between The Church And The Mission Agency.
When Barnabas and Saul were commissioned by the Antioch Church, the scene in Acts 13 was one of prayerful, earnest and mature concern. Humanly speaking, their leaving was certainly to be a loss to the church and its leadership. Yet, when God called, those matters did not matter. A spirit of “fellowship in the Gospel” pervaded the atmosphere. The “interests of others” (Phil. 2:3,4) took precedence over self-interest. How essential that the church and agency be reciprocal in their concerns.
Everything that has been said so far becomes even more serious whenever missionaries are supported by more than one local congregation. Wanting to engage congregations as much as possible in field understanding, a mission agency could easily spend an incredible amount of man-hours and money in corresponding with every congregation on a given family’s support list—increasing significantly the cost of overhead. With that increase in overhead there would then perhaps be protests over that! This is why missionaries themselves need to identify their primary “sending church,” if there is one, and ask that it relate to the mission directly in all matters of concern.
A congregation quite naturally has a vested interest in missionaries it supports. Nothing said in this paper is intended to suggest otherwise. How can this interest be constructively expressed?
A supporting congregation may:
- Recognize and validate the candidate’s call to missions. It is the church that is the sending authority at the human level, and without its discerning and enthusiastic support, no candidate should leave these shores.#4
- Research and evaluate mission agencies. Often candidates are young and need guidance in their selection. The IFMA-EFMA agency consortiums are reputable and trustworthy. In another vein, should the church become aware of field situations affecting the missionary personally, inquiry should be made of the mission agency. Reputable boards will be willing to cooperate.
- Love and care for the missionary. Sustain the bond at home and also abroad. This will manifest itself in many different ways: communication, financial support, re-entry, “furlough” accommodations and transportation, birthdays, anniversaries, and integration into church life when they are at home, etc.
- Maintain prayerful interest. That missionary is certain to fail when the church fails to sufficiently undergird that one in prayer. And it is more than, “Lord, bless the missionary. Amen.” Know their needs. Ask questions. Listen with the “third ear” for emotional vibrations. Don’t expect “sainthood.”
- Provide spiritual help. Not all stresses on the missionary are professional in nature. Many personal problems have their roots right back at home. Those needs, like baggage, have gone with them overseas. The home church is often aware of them and can be of help to all concerned in finding a solution. Family problems are often magnified in field situations, and counseling may be needed without suspicion or condemnation.
- Be sensitive to the prerogatives and priorities of mission agencies. Churches need to remember that “no man can serve two masters.” In terms of accountability overseas, mission leadership is first in the chain of command. Leave field decisions in the hands of capable leadership. This is not to say that mistakes cannot be made on the field—just as they are made in home churches! Church leadership, however, should at least call the mission to get a full picture of the situation and then make its recommendations known. One couple I know of under Arab World Ministries left the field before completing their first term, and not once did their local church ask the mission leadership about the situation.
Mission agencies also need to look to the interests of the church in the following ways:
- Consult with the candidate’s sending church in depth, seeking to ascertain together the candidate’s fitness for overseas service. The agency must be able to expect, however, total candor from the church and affirmation that the church itself is committed to this person whom it endorses without qualification.
- Brief the church as to its own policies in ministry and be willing to meet with church leadership to share relevant information and answer any questions asked. This can be done through a local representative of the mission, a visiting missionary or preferably through the candidate department.
- Cooperate with the church in any internship or training program deemed essential. Working together, an appropriate evaluation of a candidate’s gifts, aptitudes, needs and fitness for service can be formed.
- Inform the church of any significant change in field assignment that might be deemed by the church as a change in their status as missionaries (e.g. From field ministry to home administration).
- Notify the church leadership of any change in status due to health, disciplinary or financial reasons.
- Respect the church’s basic doctrinal position to protect the missionary’s right to function within the framework of his faith, provided that there is no infringement on the freedoms of others to function within their belief systems as well.
- Be prepared to provide the church, upon request, with an annual financial accounting of the mission as a whole, and with permission, the missionary’s personal accounts as well.
“As the Father has sent Me,” Jesus said, “So send I you”(John 20:21)....”The Holy Spirit said, “Separate to me Barnabas and Saul...”(Acts l3:2). GOD IS THE ULTIMATE SENDER. The church and mission agency are under His Lordship to get the job done together, respecting HIS specific calling to each. How tragic if in the midst of a dispute over control, the missionary never gets sent! Or if sent ill-advisedly he or she is severely handicapped in their ministry!
We must remember that Satan seeks to subvert the work of God, not only by evil, but also by extremes. And is it not an extreme when either church or agency seek to do the work of God without each other? When we do that we also do it without Him Whose work it truly is.
And we must not forget what Jesus told His disciples when they were ready to forbid someone ministering in His name because “he was not one of them.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “...For whoever is not against us is for us”(Mark 9:36-40).
Let us then labor together under the Lordship of Christ until the task is finished and our Lord returns. We shall then give account of ourselves to Him Who Is The Ultimate Sender.
You may contact Jack Chapin at 5802 Radnor Rd., Indianapolis, IN 46226 Phone: 317-545-6699 Email: [email protected]