Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Is the Church Ready for Missions?

Since the beginning of the Modern Missions Movement (at the time of William Carey) the work of missions was done mostly through missionary societies and boards. These organizations have been mostly independent of the church or have been cooperative organizations of denominations. The result has been that for the last 150 years or more the church as a formal, local body has not been directly involved in missions. Our purpose here is not to examine the use of these boards or societies but to understand that they were a product of their time, God has used them, there are positive and negatives with such a structure, etc. In recent years there has been a move to bring missions back under the direct control of the church formal. In this case, when I say church I am saying a local body under the preaching of an elder or elders.

I also acknowledge that there have always been churches directly involved missions, so I am not saying that each and every church without distinction has been “hands-off” in missions. Nor is it my intention to imply that churches have taken a formal position not to be involved in missions. But I am speaking about the reality that the majority of churches have out-sourced missions through denominational boards or missions societies and that many in the Church view this as the norm and therefore as good. With the recent move to bring missions back under the umbrella of church, we have to ask the question “Is the Church ready for missions?”

Possible Challenges
1) Missions under Elders?: The role that the majority of mainline churches have played is to be the collector and distributor of funds. Churches have given through boards, missionary societies and sometimes directly to the missionary.  Again, please let me stress I am not making a judgment call but only stating what has been the fact.

The issue: Can one church raise the funds alone & if not will they be forced to return to the board structure? Again, I will not debate here the validity of boards, but rather focus on the church. How will a church or churches participate in missions if they cannot raise the funds alone? How can they prevent a board (if such is deemed necessary) from being disconnected from the church? The simply answer might be to appoint elders or another church officer (director of missions, etc.) of the supporting churches to the board. Theoretically, this sounds good but it does not solve the issue. What we keep this board from again becoming disconnected from the local body?

2) Problems on the field: Sometimes there are issues on the mission field that require an immediate response or help. Does the church have a structure in place to accommodate that? War or natural disaster can displace a missionary family in a matter of hours. Will the missionary have to wait until Sunday for a church staff member is around to answer his call for help? Will the missionary family have to wait until the monthly business meeting before something can be done to help them?

3) Missionary & Family:  The pastor and church workers are also sheep. They need support, encouragement, council, etc. and so does the missionary. I confess that I never understood the struggle of missions until I became a missionary. It is lonely. The fact of the matter is that most missionaries could spend their entire lives in a place and never be considered a “part” of the local people. Even in places where churches are planted the missionary will still be seen as foreign.
I recall talking to a missionary who worked with Burmese refugees in Thailand. He shared that when he gave his missions report he always included the adventurous stories of hiking through the jungles, avoiding military patrols, etc. What he never shared with them is that most days were spent sitting staring at a concrete wall fighting depression, loneliness and discouragement. Is the church ready to minister to the missionary family? Can the church view the missionaries as a part of the church community and find ways to include them?

4) Administrative issues: I can testify that this is a time-sucking nightmare. The advantage of a board is that they are accustomed to sending missionaries and dealing with the issue of keeping a missionary in a place. The majority of mainline churches have spent the last 150 years or so participating in missions in a very limited way (esp. the Southern Baptist Churches I am most familiar with). Their participation is usually limited to offerings, viewing a video a few times a year and participating in short term missions apart from a long term mission strategy.
Can the church be brought to understand that the way things work on the mission field is not at all like the way things work in the US? Often money is extorted just to accomplish simple things like getting the electricity turn on, getting your package at the post office, etc. Common services in the US are complicated social and financial transactions in many places. And this will not change any time soon.

How would the average church meeting go if every month the missionary was sending his needs? Will the church be willing to pool the resources to help a missionary file his taxes overseas, get health care coverage, necessary documents for immigration/VISAs, etc.? I am excited to see the move to bring missions back under the church and the church to be “hands on” in missions. But I can also see that some congregations will be challenged and unprepared to take on the administrative aspects.

5) Missionaries Contribution to the Church: If the missionary is a part of the local church (which he should be) what does he give to the church? What is his role or gift to minister to the body? Is he seen as an extension of the ministry of the church or simply as a drain of resources? Does the congregation recognize him as a “staff member” or elder or is he seen as “contract labor?” How should the church view the missionary? I don’t have an answer.

I pray my motives will not be impugned. My heart is not to be critical for the sake of being critical. I write this as I sit in South East Asia. I wonder how I can be more effective. I worry that I am not part of the church and wonder if I am serving the body of Christ the best I can. Also, as our little ministry grows I am gravely concerned about how missions will continue through the small effort we have started. I also see that the “modern mission movement” must come to an end. The world has radically changed and we must respond to those changes- not with a new message, but with wisdom on how to get the unchanging message of the Gospel to new audiences in new situations.

 I hope this article will be one factor to open the conversation about how we (the Church) will make disciples of the nations in the next 500 years.

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