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Issues Facing Missions Today: 1. The Loss of Mission

Issues Facing Missions Today: 1. The Loss of Mission

The greatest challenge to missions in the past forty to fifty years in the west is the loss of mission.  This deserves a book.  I will limit myself to a few examples.

Exhibit A: Denominations have, by and large, lost the vision for mission.  First, loss of numbers: denominations in general have been losing numbers (except for a few), while independent churches have been growing.  Second, loss of fervor: some denominations have lost their missionary fervor, becoming more self-focussed.  Third, loss of purpose: oldline denominations—the ones that have been around a long time and put the word ‘Church’ right in their names because they thought that the word in a big sense actually applied to them—have been losing an understanding of purpose and, with it, a vision for missions.  Why?  At least three reasons.  (a) They have been losing a vision of what the Gospel is.  (b) Embarrassed by complicity in colonial expansion in the 1800s and early 1900s, they called a moratorium on missions and began to cut their mission forces decades ago, turning over their ‘interests’ in foreign countries to the nationals.  Finally, (c) challenged by falling numbers in their pews, the oldline denominations cut back the mission forces that they once supported out of denominational funds.

Exhibit B: Independent churches cannot hold the vision of mission by themselves—they cannot hold it intelligently, adequately, accurately, efficiently, or appropriately.  The best definition of a megachurch is a church that thinks it can hold the mission of the church by itself.  They can’t, and the mission of the Church is in peril in their hands.  Some work more with others, some are accountable to others, some are stable enough not to change vision and staff on an annual basis, but all too many have become the Kingdom of God.  The little independent church is better off, since it is less pretentious, but it struggles to connect to a larger vision of mission.

Exhibit C: Local churches have lost the vision for mission.  Sweeping statements apply here—of course I’m not talking about your local church.  Yet here is a list of ways in which the local church loses a vision for mission:

                1. Missionaries are not given time to speak in church services.

                2. If missionaries are given time to speak in church services, they are expected to give a ‘minute for missions’ segment in the church, or they are asked to preach.  Preaching is not really helpful at all if the missionary understands preaching to be presenting the Word of God to the people of God rather than talking about his or her mission.

                3. Churches have mission committees with people who typically do not know anything about the Church’s mission.  They may have gone on a 2 week ‘mission trip’ and are seriously concerned about the church's mission.  Yet they often need solid teaching on what the church's mission is and how to go about it.

                4. Many churches think that overseas exposure trips are mission work.  With improvements in global travel (I used to go to South Africa from America on a boat that took nearly 3 weeks!) and communication (a letter from America took the same amount of time), more average people are travelling overseas.  The two week mission trip has become a fad in American churches.  It is particularly popular as a way to send children abroad for a short time.  Look: this is not a bad thing if done properly, but it is not missions.  Put this in the education budget of the church, not the mission budget.  I’ve sent my son to Nicaragua twice, and it was great for him.  Also, missionaries are not simply people who ‘go overseas,’ they ought to be (ahem!) a highly trained mission force accomplishing a clearly defined mission.  ('Dear Missionary, Our church recognises the importance of your ministry.  However, we are so fully engaged in mission work ourselves through our own overseas project and short-term missions that we are too financially stretched to support your work at this time.')

                5. Many churches do not want to meet with their missionaries or get to know them well.  They would rather send around a ‘grant application form’ to their missionaries every year.  Whatever happened to being in prayer together and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit say, ‘Separate unto me Paul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them’?

                6. Many churches like to collect missionaries like exotic, salt-water fish.  Here is the beautiful missionary map on the back wall of the church (I really love these, but they do confuse people about missions).  On the map, you will find colourful pins showing where the church’s supported missionaries serve.  Somewhere in the church building there may be flags representing the countries where missionaries serve.  There may even be an annual mission conference held by the church when missionaries dress up in their foreign costumes, serve spicy food, and show slides of far-away places.  Look, this was not a bad idea fifty or more years ago, by and large.  People were far less aware of the world back then, missionaries tended to go to specific countries for their entire lives and stay there, and so forth.  But the exotic country approach to missions is a vestige of colonialism, and many local churches have not given this up these 50 years on.  David Livingstone is hailed as a great African missionary, but people really remember him more for his exploring the continent than for his ministry.  The focus on places in missions pushes ‘mission’ into the background.  Some churches will drop a missionary if a door for ministry opens for the missionary in another place where the local church has no interest.  ('Dear Paul and Silas, Since you are not going into Bithynia and keeping your ministry in Asia Minor but are instead relocating to Macedonia, our church has decided to drop its financial support of your ministry.  Of course, we will continue to pray for you.')  The local church needs to support the vision of a mission, not collect missionaries in localities.

                7. Many churches like to define what the mission should be.  ‘We support church planting, and we want to plant fifty churches in the next five years around the world.’  Local church visions for missions like this usually come from one or two people in the church that are excited about something good but have no understanding of the devastation that they are planning.  Suddenly the church writes its missionaries a letter asking whether their work includes planting churches—if not, they are dropped from support.  Imagine a missionary family that has given up some job in the west and become dependent on mission support getting a letter like that!  It happened to us, and we’ve heard it happen to a number of other colleagues.  The antidote to this sort of power abuse by a local church of its missionaries is to work more directly with mission agencies—but first the mission agencies need to change (my next point).

Exhibit D: Most mission agencies have lost the vision of mission.  Yes, it is true—and I am not trying to be sensationalist about this.  I’m not saying that they have the wrong mission—they probably have pretty well worked out mission statements, and they likely are all passionate about their stated mission.  True, some of the agencies have such broad statements of what their vision for mission is that they lack any focus (I have worked for mission agencies like this, and it makes ministry difficult as there is little support from the mission for your ministry).  The problem with mission agencies typically lies not in their vision and mission statements, though, but in their practice of mission.  Let’s set aside mission agencies with a singular focus, such as Bible translation, relief support, development, or medical missions.  Let’s talk about the ‘sending agency’ missions.  Someone gets excited about foreign missions in a local church and is directed to a mission sending agency.  They get screened with the usual screening: they are Christian, can articulate some sense of calling into missions, pass a battery of psychological tests, and seem to have a way of fitting into the many things going on in the mission agency’s fields of ministry.  This is enough to convince people that some kind of mission is taking place. 

However, at a cynical and darker level (I am willing to go there in order to urge us all on to better practice), I  might suggest a different dynamic.  The mission agency is struggling in its home office to fund the operation, and its leaders are glad to get new recruits who will have to pay 13% operational funds.  There may be other benefits to the agency or its key members as new recruits contribute some of their support to the overall work of the mission.  The mission agency needs to keep accepting missionaries to fund its operations and replace missionaries who have left the mission.  The mission agency, furthermore, functions more like an employment placement agency, helping to place workers who come with their own pay in overseas jobs.  This is not necessarily all that bad, as long as the overseas ‘job’ has a decent ministry, but the point is that the mission agency probably does not have a clear understanding of its own mission beyond placing people overseas.  The mission agency needs to understand how it relates to the mission of God as it is laid out in Scripture and then ask itself how it is accomplishing this mission.  If it did, it would probably be a leaner, highly qualified, and focussed mission.

Exhibit E: Missionaries have little understanding of the mission of the Church and little training to accomplish this mission.  Sure, not you, or not the missionary you support—I’m talking about the other ones.  I could come at this from various directions.  Here is one.  Most missionaries have not been to seminary or Bible school anymore.  Mission agencies require a little training—probably unaccredited—for their missionaries.  They will be asked to acquire a little Bible knowledge, some cross-cultural training, and so forth—perhaps a semester’s worth of study at a very low academic level--but nothing approaching what typically used to be the case for missionaries in the days when people had less education in the general work force in the West.  No wonder churches do not want missionaries to speak in a service!  Poorly trained missionaries also do not have life-long learning built into the ethos of the mission.  The best kept secret of mission agencies in our day—speaking ever so broadly--is that the mission force is less equipped for service than the people they serve.  Instead of thinking about missions as an agency putting into service its crack force to accomplish a mission, the reality is that undertrained people with big hearts are sent abroad to be nice.  That may very well be nice, but it is not accomplishing the Church’s mission.

Exhibit F: The approach to financing missions is disconnected to the mission of the Church.  When missionaries are asked to articulate their own sense of calling to a particular ministry in order to raise support from a host of churches in the west, there is a 'hole' in the 'system' for financing. The articulation of the mission and the evaluation of it lack key partners.  Where is the input from the particular ministry, which is probably overseas?  Where is the role of the mission agency in supporting and promoting the ministry?  Where is the needed networking of various churches that would engage the local church, the mission agency, and the ministry in conversation?  In fact, where is the seminary in the dialogue?  The system for financing missions in our day is most often that of 'everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.'

Imagine an alternative: churches band together in a variety of ways to accomplish a mission.  The seminary professors who understand the mission of the Church and overseas realities are involved in this discussion.  The dialogue partners identify, with a mission agency or the denominational mission agency that has an understanding of the Church’s mission, gifted people with good Christian character and help them train to an advanced level.  They take on themselves the task of financial support for these missionaries recruited for the cause so that they are not distracted by fund-raising—although the missionaries participate in articulating the mission and speak publicly in various venues.  Without articulating a plan in full here, the point is that the mission is clearly articulated and owned by dialogue partners who are responsible for fund-raising: a fellowship of churches, seminary professors, and the/a mission agency/agencies.  They clarify who should go, where they should go at this time, what training is needed for the mission, when and where they should be relocated in 5 months or 5 years, what team they need for the work, and so forth.  And the mission is driving the fund raising that the churches and mission agency/ies (not the missionaries) recognize as their responsibility to raise inasmuch as this is equally their mission.

Instead, missionaries are given tin cups and made to feel like beggars from philanthropists and churches with their tax exempt status and benevolence funds.

This is why I love 3 John—that little letter that nobody seems to know what to do with in our New Testament.  In it, John the elder asks Gaius to fund some missionaries.  Let’s unpack three verses briefly:

You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God [here’s the request for funding];  7 for they began their journey for the sake of Christ [that is, they are part of a clear, Christ-focussed mission], accepting no support from non-believers [that is, this is a mission that belongs to God’s people and needs funding from God’s people].  8 Therefore we ought to support such people [note: the request doesn’t come from the missionaries—the church in John and Gaius is actively working to fund the mission], so that we may become co-workers with the truth [mission giving is not philanthropy: those giving are part of the mission just as much as are the missionaries] (3 Jn. 6-8).

Maybe one other thing to note about 3 John is that the church is actually the problem!  John has to write Gaius because Diotrophes is controlling the church and obstructing this mission.  All too often, the ‘Diotrophes’ pastors, mission chairmen, or committee members, with their powerful status dictating the direction of missions in a local church, chase hair-brained schemes in mission work that have nothing to do with the Church’s mission.  Perhaps they will get a building named after them in a far-away country.  Perhaps they will get to take a fun trip to a tropical country.  Perhaps they will feel fulfilled by preaching at a group of appreciative-looking nationals.  Perhaps they are on a power trip by overseeing  funds, programmes, and people through their church’s mission programmes, feeling ever so powerful in their local church and abroad.  But one thing Diotrophes was not doing: he was not in synch with the Church’s mission and not in cooperation with others like John and Gaius in defining the Church’s mission and assisting it.

In conclusion, we might note that there are some good things going on in the midst of all these problems.  Consider the Lausanne meetings in Lausanne, Manila, and Cape Town since the 1970s—meetings called to clarify and articulate the mission of the Church as seen by the Evangelical movement.  Lausanne offers a helpful 10,000 foot high perspective for the more particular and practical discussions that need to take place, but this is helpful.  Scholars also need to engage the subject at a much deeper level than is possible at a large conference and through committees.  Yet this blog post points to a whole different matter: the need to reshape our very understanding of the practice of mission in the North American churches in particular.  Denominations, independent churches, local churches, mission agencies, and missionaries need a very different understanding of how to go about the mission of the Church.

Already in this blog, I have pointed to some of the changes that need to take place.  My current focus is to get a clear understanding of the Church’s mission from Scripture—this is the first step and what readers will find in my ‘Why Foreign Missions?’ postings.  Yet I throw down the challenge to get on with rethinking mission practice in our day.  I have been blessed with some wonderful mission partners, churches, and individuals who are doing some excellent things for the Church’s mission in our day.  I do have hope moving forward, even as I call for significant changes in the practice of mission.