We Changed Our Attitude About Missionaries
Why do we preach missions as a priority and respond to mission needs and opportunities as options, attachments, and often as distractions? Does the way in which the local church responds to the world missions mandate lack credibility? Does the local church comprehend the extent and nature of the mandate?
These are serious questions in light of the method I was using as a pastor for my involvement in mission endeavors. Although I had a thorough commitment to world missions, I had followed, without question, the usual method of “supporting missionaries.” One day it occurred to me that I needed to ask some hard questions. Why do churches have such different approaches to local staff as compared to foreign staff? Why is the work at home “ours” when the work abroad is “theirs”?
Beyond these issues, why do we treat our young people who are willing to become missionaries as virtual orphans? Consider two young people who grow up in the same local church. Both are taught missions. Both are aware of the significance of being a part of a “missionary church” and of being a missionary. Both prosper in Christian nurture, growth, and service. Both attend the same highly approved Bible college and seminary. One prepares for cross-cultural missions. The other prepares for a hometown pastoral ministry. Nearing graduation, both call home for some pastoral guidance. Here is where the story changes. The pastoral graduate receives a “call” from the local church to come home. He is provided with a check to cover moving expenses, given an office and a salary, and provided with various benefits all covered by the church budget. He is all set—“welcome to the ministry.” The missionary is encouraged to find a mission board or choose a place of service in the world. He is instructed to raise funds, try to get prayer support, and may be allowed to speak at the church with the possibility that some in the congregation will want to support him in his work. Left to this process until adequate support for his work has been garnered, the church then bids him good-bye as he goes off to his field.
Admittedly, this scenario does not fit all local churches. But we know that it all too often describes the contemporary norm for missions. I know, for I was caught in this process. So solidly entrenched were we in this approach that it did not quickly occur to me that it should be challenged and changed. Yet, the deeper I got into the process the more disturbed I became. Other questions came. How did this process develop? Is there evidence of it in history? Is it biblical? Has it ever been challenged? Is there a better way?
Unfortunately, there is a historical record! It appears that the evangelical church, even since the Reformation, has not been willing to examine its responsibility to world missions.
Our Historical Failure in World Missions
William Carey of England has been termed “the father of the modern missions movement.” Actually, there was a missions movement and some mission boards before Carey’s day. But there was no widespread interest in missions. A few individuals had taken interest and scattered efforts had been organized. The church as a whole sat on the sidelines, often critically. At one point Carey’s ministerial association met in Nottingham without a clear agenda. At the prompting of the presiding officer for discussion subjects, Carey proposed a debate on the question of whether or not the church should use means for the conversion of the heathen. It is commonly reported that Carey was quickly rebuked by Mr. Ryland, the presiding officer: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” Although disheartened, Carey was not defeated. He developed his more complete “Enquiry” into the matter and in October of 1792 preached his challenging sermon from Isaiah 54.
Shortly after the sermon in which Carey called the church to “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God,” a missions agency was organized for the purpose of beginning a work in world evangelism. Sadly, every history note of the time shows that even though boards and agencies were organized and Carey and his party did leave for India, this movement began without the support of the church.
Carey’s forerunner was the Austrian Von Welz. Around 1664, Von Welz sounded “the first general and vigorous missionary appeal to the church.” He addressed “the slumbering conscience of the church” with three searching questions: “(1) Is it right that we, evangelical Christians, hold the Gospel for ourselves alone, and do not seek to spread it? (2) Is it right that in all places we have so many students of theology, and do not induce them to labor elsewhere in the spiritual vineyard of Jesus Christ? (3) Is it right that we spend so much on all sorts of dress, delicacies in eating and drinking, etc., but hitherto thought of no means for the spread of the Gospel?”
This appeal was rebuffed by “one of the leading and best men of the clergy...denouncing him as a dreamer, fanatic, hypocrite, and heretic, and arguing that it was absurd, even wicked to cast the pearls of the Gospel before heathen.”
With such attitudes the birth of the modern missions movement was slow and painful. Carey got to India, but without much help from the church. And so the story goes for two hundred years.
In response to such a history we must seriously ask another searching question. In Von Welz’s and Carey’s concern for spreading the gospel, did they uncover a problem which gripped the church or a principle which should guide the church? It is my firm conviction that the evangelical church, for the last four hundred years, has been blinded with a problem. There are a few notable exceptions. Some local churches have accepted their opportunity and responsibility in world missions. But the vast majority of our local evangelical congregations still treat world missions as an option and missionaries as orphans. This is the problem we must address. As a local church pastor I was determined to do so.
We Changed our Attitude
The first step I took was to change my attitude. Then I needed to lead the church and our missionary friends to change theirs. Admittedly, that attitude had been shaped by our evangelical heritage. We just assumed that the way missions had been done was the way it should be done. Namely, that missions was the work of boards, agencies, and individuals. The local church was not expected to do anything but respond to requests for prayer and funds. Missionaries and the boards would do everything else. The church had no other responsibility. It would simply support them in their work. The church would not refer to world missions as its work. It would not assume any responsibility for the board or the missionary. Its praying and its giving would be incidental...and insufficient.
This summary is an oversimplification, but I think the point is clear. It is just at this point that I started changing my attitude. I am happy to report that the church I serve changed its attitude also. How was this done?
Our traditional approach to missions was to invite a few “missionary candidates” to our annual world missions conference. Most of these “candidates” were unknown to us except by letter, phone, and referrals. Through such information gathering we learned where these missionaries were going and what they planned to do. We knew that, in their opinion, they were in the process of raising support for their work.
They would come to our church at their instigation or our invitation. The church had a genuine interest in missions. It was not that we were not a “missions-minded” church or that we did not want to be bothered. We had a heart for missions and we wanted involvement. But the problem was still with us. The work of missions was still their work, not that of the church. That is where we changed our attitude.
There is still a twinge of guilt as I reflect on the public drama of our exchange of attitudes. As our missionary guests would sit on the front row during a particular conference session, I would address them rather sternly (only to make a point) with the injunction: “I want you all to know that we do not want you coming here to raise money for your work...” That is where I felt so awful. They had not been warned about my approach or purpose. They are so often accused of being beggars anyway. The process of raising money on an individual basis for missions is an expensive and often terrifying venture. Now they were facing a stern, firm pastor rebuking them publicly in the presence of a great church congregation. The tension was such that I could not bear to let the matter rest there. The point now needed to be made. Very quickly I changed my facial expression and the tone of my voice for this concluding statement: “...but I do want you to know that our entire church genuinely appreciates your being with us to offer your services to this church for its work of world missions!”
That was how we changed our attitude. A genuine change of stance will usually be followed by a change in action. That was our next step.
We Changed our Approach
If this attitude change was to be more than a clichŽ, it was obvious we must take our task more seriously. If the work of world missions belonged to us as a church then we could no longer treat missions as an appendage to the church, an option for the church, or a burden on the church. It was our central business and deserved center stage in all that we did. “Foreign” missions must be taught, administered, and funded right along with everything else we refer to as the church’s work.
First, we began referring to the missionaries with whom we worked as “staff.” This terminology helped us focus our responsibility for them. Hopefully, it provided a little security for them. They could see their relationship with the church as more than a church merely “supporting” them. The church now became the entity of primary responsibility. Rather than just being supported by the church, the missionary was now supporting the church. The church assumed responsibility for the mission abroad just as it did for the mission at home.
In taking this step with existing missionary staff, the church had to face another question. If the church recruits “full-time” staff for its local mission, why not do the same for its foreign mission? So we did.
New Level of Responsibility
Our second step recognized the need for another level of local church responsibility. How would this staff be chosen? Who would be approved? To answer that, the church began providing a full year of ministry internship for the prospective missionary staff.
Following the completion of required formal training, prospective missionary staff are invited to live and work with the local church for a minimum twelve-month period. During this time the candidates minister in the local church and are observed and nurtured in personal growth patterns and personal relationships. Gifts, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses are evaluated. Needs are addressed and bonds of friendship, encouragement, and prayer are cultivated.
New Sending Procedure
Third, during this year of ministry evaluation, the church seeks to match the individual with one of the targeted missions of the church. Here we depend upon the boards, agencies and missiologists to inform us of the desired targets. These specialists certainly know more about those needs than does the local church, so we depend on them for information. But the church knows more about its staff. By matching the knowledge of the mission agency with the knowledge the church has of its staff, a more strategic and effective placement can be made.
New Assignment Method
Fourth, we choose the agency to which our staff will be assigned. This is a three-way decision including the church, the agency, and the staff. Using this approach a three-way bond of interdependence and responsibility is established.
New Authority and Accountability
Fifth, we delegate authority to the agency and instruct our staff to be accountable to the agency. There are some limits to this delegation. By not delegating all authority, the church maintains its responsibility. It must have some responsibility to remind it that this work of world missions still belongs to the church.
New Funding System
Sixth, we fully fund the work. That is a matter of faith. Some have raised the question about the inability of some churches to fully support a missionary. There are many ways I respond to that concern, but let me raise one question: Is it proper for fifty or one hundred people to say “We can’t,” while saying to one, “You must”? It’s all a matter of the simple question—“Whose work is this anyway?” Finally, we seek to provide an abundance of care, prayer and encouragement for all our staff, wherever in the world they may be.
The brief message of this article is intended to serve as a thought provoker. It is not a completed script. It neither addresses all problems, nor answers all questions. Perhaps it raises more questions than it answers. If so, there is nothing wrong with that. Hopefully, it will stimulate the conscience of our churches to seriously address this pressing question of world missions—“After all, whose work is it anyway?”
Reprinted from CAM International Bulletin. Used by permission. CAM International, Dallas Texas. Copyright 1993.