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Issues Facing Missions Today 13: The Local Church’s Direct Involvement in Foreign Missions

Issues Facing Missions Today 13: The Local Church’s Direct Involvement in Foreign Missions

A clear trend in foreign mission support by local churches in recent years in North America has been to seek direct involvement.  Robert Wuthnow examined this trend five years ago, and the following discussion uses his statistics to describe this trend.[1]  While recognizing that his description is still too general for detailed planning, it does seem somewhat helpful for trying to get a handle on what Western missions and missionaries are experiencing in the last decade or so.  I would like to suggest that Wuthnow helps us see how and why changes in the local churches’ involvement in missions is both a positive trend that at the same time undermines needed missionary work by long-term missionaries engaged in proclamation ministries.  The discussion that follows is too brief for such a thesis, and it will undoubtedly frustrate those who wish that it were nuanced in one way or another.  Nevertheless, some articulation of this matter needs to be put forward if churches in the West are to continue a long history of missionary work that is coming under threat.

Direct involvement in foreign missions by local churches might involve support of overseas projects, nationals, or short-term mission trips.  More direct involvement by local churches in cross-cultural and international ministries is a fairly recent possibility (say, in the past twenty years).  It is an exciting development, but it is also one that challenges what I will call ‘proclamation missionary work’ by long-term missionaries.  Direct involvement by local churches should be encouraged, but it can be improved, and it should not replace traditional missionary work.  Some aspects of this very broad discussion will be considered in the following post.

Interest in Overseas Projects

American churches show an increasing interest in ministry projects.  For example, Wuthnow presents the following statistics for this trend in regard to hunger or relief projects:

Nationally [in the United States], 76 percent of church members report that an offering has been taken at their congregation within the past year to ‘raise money for an overseas hunger or relief program’ (76 percent also say they personally gave money in the last year for international relief or hunger projects). Catholics are the most likely to say their congregation has done this (86 percent say so), followed by mainline Protestants (84 percent), with evangelical Protestants and members of black Protestant denominations (68 and 62 percent, respectively) being somewhat less likely to say so.  The larger the congregation, the more likely it is to have been involved in overseas relief in this way.  In congregations averaging two thousand members or more, 86 percent of members say their church has raised money for overseas hunger or relief, whereas among congregations averaging one hundred members or less, this proportion drops to 53 percent.[2]

Project involvement can offer churches the opportunity to be directly involved in ministry.  Wuthnow notes the trend to give direct support to projects—not only hunger and relief projects but also, for example, micro-enterprise development, medical clinics, water supply and purification:

Increasingly, though, congregations are channeling monies to specific programs with which they have direct connections.  These programs vary in size and function but permit churchgoers in one location to have a personal impact on individuals’ lives in a distant setting.[3]

Wuthnow offers several reasons for this trend to support projects directly.  First, churches want to be involved in decision making: they are generally interested in ‘selecting, approving, and monitoring their own projects.’[4]  Second, churches have an interest in their own cross-cultural engagement: they might, e.g., be involved in cross-cultural aid in the West, such as in helping refugees, foreign students, and immigrants.  Third, churches are interested in cutting out administrative costs incurred by working through an agency.  Fourth, working with churches overseas offers the opportunity to work with a community and establish relationships.  Fifth, direct involvement may allow congregational members to do more than personally than just send money or work through a smaller team doing the work.  They may include evangelism and other ministry alongside supporting the aid efforts.  Sixth, direct involvement in meeting overseas needs feels more voluntary and personal.  Rather than participating in a large project overseen by an agency or institution, churches giving directly for a specific need can feel a personal accomplishment and attachment, such as in programmes where these people are fed or this village now has water.  Agencies, for their part, also try to address these concerns by being intentional about connecting individuals and congregations to specific individuals or ministry overseas (by providing a picture of the hungry child or theological student that the money is helping, for instance).  Other reasons for direct church involvement in ministry have to do with short-term mission efforts by the local church.

Some short-sightedness seems, at times, to be involved in the interest in project support.  Projects are, after all, sustained through long-term missionary involvement and agencies running programmes.  Interest in supporting projects should not be an alternative to support for traditional missions—support of long-term missionaries and mission agencies.  The project emphasis, though, seems to be wreaking some havoc in missions.  For example, some churches put so much funding into their special projects that they are unable to support members pursuing missionary work that involves other gifts and takes them to other places.  Also, some local churches ask missionaries to submit paperwork for funding for their ministries as though they were just another project and not a partner in ministry with whom they have a personal relationship.  There is some peculiar irony in the fact that the desire for personal involvement in missions can feed an interest in direct involvement with projects while at the same time turning missionary relationships into project funding!

The interest in projects also should be assessed in terms of what one means by ‘missions.’  Without undermining decades of Evangelical arguments in favour of understanding missions as holistic—not reduced to proclamation of the Gospel but also including tangible ministry to persons and communities in need—we should, nevertheless, distinguish between these efforts.  That is, ‘missions’ or ‘ministry’ may well include both concerns, but they are not the same.  Just how one articulates the difference is likely the subject of a book, but take, for instance, Matthew’s presentation of the disciples’ ministry.  In Mt. 10, the disciples are specifically told not to take any money but to proclaim the Kingdom through proclamation and through miracles and casting out demons.  Three Jewish acts of piety—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—are not reinterpreted in terms of mission but are still considered acts of piety (Mt. 6.1-18).  Almsgiving remains an ethical matter, not a mission.  The Great Commission (Mt. 28.18-20) involves making disciples among the nations through baptism and teaching Christ’s commandments—Matthew says nothing more.  And, as readers of Matthew should know, Mt. 25.31-46 is not a social Gospel text but is about the judgement of the nations for how they have received or not received the missionary disciples who will be hungry, thirsty, strangers, in need of clothes, and imprisoned (as Jesus already explained in Mt. 10).  Receiving the missionary disciples in these ways is tantamount to receiving Jesus.  In other words, Matthew distinguishes benevolence as a characteristic of the Christian community from the disciples’ mission. 

Scripture in general sees caring for the poor and needy as a requirement separate from the ministry of proclamation of the Gospel, which involves evangelism, establishing churches, and teaching or nurturing congregations in the faith.[5]  They are inseparable, but they are also distinguishable.  In practice, mission committees that see benevolence ministries and proclamation ministries as coming under the oversight of a single missions committee are, frankly, taking on too much.  Better a distinction between a ‘proclamation of the Gospel’ missions committee and a benevolence committee in funding and personnel.  Without this, committees under support evangelism, church planting, and Biblical and ministerial training ministries or, less often, they do support these without also realizing the need for the community to address issues of justice, poverty, the marginalized, education, care for the elderly, and so forth.   Granted, a medical missionary, for example, might also be involved in a ministry of proclamation, but churches will do well to distinguish the community’s support of benevolence from their support of the ministry of proclamation (a variety of ministries from Bible translation and evangelism to establishing churches and training ministers and believers in the Word).

Direct Engagement with Overseas Christians and Ministries

Wuthnow also notes that engagement with Christians and Christian organizations abroad is another way for US Christians to be involved globally.  He reports that 56 percent of Evangelicals say that this should be an emphasis, whereas 43 percent of black Protestants, 37 percent of mainline Protestants, and 36 percent of Catholics say so.[6]  One concern evident in these statistics is wariness over creating dependency rather than sustainability for overseas partners in ministry.  Perhaps less evident is the possibility that such support might actually diminish mission-mindedness in churches in the West.  One reason for an interest in supporting a national overseas can be to see monies that are collected go farther, since Western missionaries are usually more expensive to send.  Funding missionaries is not simply about getting the best ‘deal,’ though; it is about supporting an effort in missions from one’s own church, church network, and country.  Support of nationals overseas can be a good idea, but it should most often be done in conjunction with a larger plan that involves long-term missionary support as well (and therefore more expensive, not less).  In that way, a stronger partnership in ministry can be established.

Short-Term Missions

Interest in short-term missions has been growing since the 1950s and 1960s.  According to Wuthnow, interest in short-term missions greatly expanded in the 1980s.  Youth With A Mission (YWAM) contributed significantly to this, then Teen Missions International, Campus Crusade for Christ, Operation Mobilization, and Bethany College of Missions contributed.  Christian colleges increasingly offer programs overseas for students, many of which are framed as mission opportunities.  Some denominations promote short-term missions: the Southern Baptist Convention sends 150,000 members abroad each year.  Large churches often have robust short-term mission programmes.  ‘Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, claims to send about 4,500 of its members on such trips each year.’[7]  Wuthnow estimates that 32 percent of US churches sent a short-term missions team abroad in 2008.  That is, some 100,000 congregations sent such teams abroad during the year.[8]  Sending teams overseas from a church is, Wuthnow notes, particularly attractive to large congregations.  Teens involved in youth groups increasingly go overseas on a short-term trip: whereas 5% went in the 1990s, 12% went in the next decade.[9]

Direct engagement in ministry by a church through short-term missions might mean that a wider variety of skills can be made available through church members.  Persons in local churches can become directly involved in relief efforts, and businessmen likely know more than clergy about how to offer sustainable help, such as in micro-enterprise development.  Church members are not merely the source of income for this kind of outreach: they can be personally involved.

While much of short-term missions seems to be about cross-cultural exposure and involves unskilled labour and untrained personnel engaged in brief but expensive trips abroad, this can be a way of delivering highly skilled ministry to meet a specific need.  This does not, however, seem to be what drives the short-term mission movement.[10]  Personal, direct involvement is a strong motivation for what is called ‘short-term missions,’ although one needs to ask how many of these trips are really ‘missions’ in a meaningful sense of that term.  Most short-term missions, valuable as they are, should be funded through an educational fund and not a mission budget (as many Christian colleges seem to recognize).  Indeed, some of our own efforts in the ‘East Mountain’ community in Stellenbosch, South Africa are framed as ‘internships,’ not short-term missions (and they involve Biblical training, spiritual formation, and mentoring in ministry).

Some Conclusions

Using some analysis by Robert Wuthnow, this post has described how local churches show a growing interest not just in supporting ministry abroad but also in being more directly involved.  In many ways, this is a good development.  This direct involvement has taken various forms, such as in projects, support of nationals and overseas ministries, and short-term ‘mission’ trips.  While recognizing that, in the 21st century, more direct involvement by local churches is possible and should be sought in missions, this nonetheless requires serious reflection.  While also describing these trends, this post has offered some suggestions, including:

  • Create three separate church committees that oversee benevolence ministries, proclamation ministries, and educational ministries rather than lumping these into one committee called the ‘missions committee.’
  • Let each committee oversee an area of ministry: the benevolence committee might oversee compassion ministries and relief or development projects; the proclamation missions committee would oversee sending mostly long-term missionaries involved in particular mission work (next point); and the education committee would oversee internship programmes that would improve and reframe much of what passes as short-term missions today.
  • Appreciate the importance of sending long-term missionaries involved in proclamation of the Word, from Bible translation to evangelism, to church planting, to Biblical and ministerial training of believers and ministers.
  • Develop meaningful ways (probably through mission agencies, with their expertise in this area) for local churches to engage in overseas missions and ministry directly, without undermining long-term missionaries and mission agencies.
  • Avoid treating missionaries as 'projects' but relate to them as partners in ministry.



[1] Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009).
[2] Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith, p. 142
[3] Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith, p. 143.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Bruce Longenecker has attempted to argue that Gal. 2.10 sees remembering the poor as part of the Gospel (Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).  Many would point out that Jesus’ ministry, based as it was on Is. 61.1-2 and 58.6 in his inaugural sermon in Lk. 4.18-19, involves ministry to the poor, the social outcasts, and the needy.  I would see this as the inseparability of the good news itself and the transformed lives and communities that result.  The church’s mission was to take this message to the nations, the result of that ministry was a whole different way of life that involved care for those in need.
[6] Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith, p. 151.
[7] Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith, p. 167.
[8] Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith, p. 168.
[9] Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith, p. 167.
[10] Readers may be interested in following this discussion further through several writings noted here—some obviously promoting short-term missions and some more cautious and reflective.  See Paul Borthwick, Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the American Church? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012); Tim Dearborn, Short-Term Missions Workbook: From Mission Tourists to Global Citizens (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003); Brian M. Howell, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012) (Howell examines short-term missions from the perspective of an anthropology of tourism and pilgrimage); David Livermore, Serving With Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012); Roger Peterson, Gordon Aeschliman, and R. Wayne Sneed, Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission: The God-Commanded, Repetitive Deployment of Swift, Temporary, Non-Professional Missionaries (Minneapolis, MN: STEM press, 2003); Robert Priest, Effective Engagement in Short-term Missions: Doing it Right! (William Carey Library, 2012); J. Mack and Leeann Stiles, Mack and Leaeann’s Guide to Short-Term Missions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000).