The Christian missionary community is approaching a pivotal point.
Left to take a lead on missionary matters for many years, the church is increasingly wresting back its responsibility. Missions are no longer shown the red carpet and never before has the UK church sent so few missionaries overseas. All of this has long-term implications for the viability of many missionary agencies – some feel they are hanging over a cliff and a single finger grip away from freefall.
Five messages are changing leaders’ thinking about mission and therefore the emphasis of their churches’ contribution to world mission. Missionary agencies have been slow to respond to changes at home and on the field and need to rediscover how to serve the church.
The five channels
Until relatively recently one strong message was being played loud and clear: ‘Go into the world and make disciples’ – sending missionaries to countries that the gospel had not reached. This message is now accompanied by four more messages that can appear to compete both with it and with each other. The messages played on all of these channels have validity; however there is a need to ensure that they are balanced correctly – complementing each other.
Channel 1 – The Need At Home. The church in the UK is seen to be in numerical decline and the need to reach people at home has never been greater. The church’s teaching is being challenged by society at large and is increasingly at odds with new legislation. Sexuality and gender issues are challenging the church and spending energy responding to these is seen as vital at this time.
Channel 2 – The World Is Coming To Us. Why go overseas when the world is coming to us? Professionals, students and migrant workers from all over the world are coming to the UK. Our priority should be to reach those who will be returning to their home country.
Channel 3 – It’s More (Cost) Effective to Support Local Ministry. Local ministers understand the language and culture better than any expatriate worker will ever do. They have the responsibility for leading their churches and reaching their countrymen. It is better value for the mission budget to support a number of local ministries than spend £40k each year to send a British family.
Channel 4 – We Should Be Helping People, Social Justice and Community Development are Vital. How can you preach the gospel to people who are homeless, hungry, oppressed, enslaved and sick, without doing something to help them?
Channel 5 – There Is Still a Need To Go. The Lord told us to go into all the world and make disciples. From the very beginning that is what the church has always done.
Impact of Channels 1-4
Under pressure with respect to time, people and financial resources, it is tempting for the church to focus more on Channels 1-4 and, of course, for many smaller churches, sending missionaries just seems impossible.
The UK church has traditionally sent most missionaries to Africa, South America and India, and now these countries are the largest sending regions in the world. There may be a feeling that our job is done and that there is no longer a need to send missionaries. Of course there are many countries classified as Unreached, meaning the church is so small that it has little chance of making an impact, humanly speaking.
With resources scarce, churches are now more likely to evaluate the cost benefit of investment in missions. ‘Are we getting the best return on investment?’ Agencies and individual missionaries have been slow to understand, perhaps resentful of thinking like this. There is a growing feeling that agencies may not be good at supporting, monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of their workers. Most agencies need a minimum number of workers to be credible, or even financially viable. This can create a conflict of interest when some missionaries should really come back home.
Confidence in missionary sending has been eroded in the eyes of some leaders and, in an effort to regain some control, churches have started reviewing the effectiveness of their own missionaries and their agencies.
UK church culture
Most missionaries are sent at the initiative of the individuals concerned. The author spent two years encouraging churches to regain the initiative to identify, train and send missionaries to where they are needed, challenging church members to let their leaders lead. This approach was considered novel, but welcomed by church leaders and members alike. Despite this, church leaders admitted privately that they are still likely to wait for individuals to present themselves to be considered for missionary service.
The UK has a growing aversion to risk. Health & Safety Gone Mad makes the headlines when applied to childhood pastimes such as conkers or snowballing, yet this culture is gaining traction in the church. There is clearly a responsibility to prepare for and avoid unnecessary harm, but the tendency is towards complete risk avoidance. At the same time, American theologian Walter Bruggeman describes the malaise of the Western church harshly: ‘I don’t mind dying for Christ, I can do that. But I don’t want to be inconvenienced.’
The mission field has been traditionally manned by single women. Opportunities to serve in paid full-time Christian ministry have opened up over the past 20 years or so, even where a complementarian view of ministry is held. Is it possible that some of those women, who might previously have only been able to follow their vocation overseas as missionaries, now serve in churches at home?
The church is starting to get to grips with Millennials. This group stereotypically wants its talents to be recognised and to be given early responsibility. They will wait until the last moment to commit in case a better offer presents itself and when engaged expect to make a meaningful difference in a short amount of time.
Mutually exclusive models?
To some extent there is direct competition between some para-church agencies whose primary focus is one of Channels 3-5, with very few who aim to work in all three. For ideological, and perhaps sometimes commercial, reasons, one channel is promoted as best and the other two faulty.
It is entirely correct that locally trained gospel workers will be more effective in ministry than expatriate workers who have to learn a new language. At the same time it is our experience that direct funding of local ministries creates many difficulties. Models that did work have combined funding with support and accountability to their foreign partners.
There are strands of the broader evangelical church which have sympathy for and quote St Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words,’ and they favour Channel 4.
On the other hand there many who take exception to this and express caution about a social gospel, but some risk over-reacting, coining their own motto: ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Only words are necessary.’ Visiting agency speakers may have felt the need to tickle the ears of churches that feel strongly about this.
Churches need to understand the various messages that have caused them to hold their current view of missions. Might some need to rebalance their emphasis across Channels 1-5?
To better serve the church, missionary agencies need to recognise and adapt to the change in culture. Do agencies need to move out of their single Channel 3-5 silos and take a multi-channel approach, or at least not publicly imply that the others are defective?
Sending agencies may need to be more strategic with respect to the types of roles that need to be fulfilled by expatriate workers overseas and to be clear about their value. At the same time, how can churches be helped to understand the time it takes for missionaries to be fully effective in their roles?
It is likely that a number of mission agencies will close over the next decade. There is a feeling in the church that there are too many at present. How do we ensure that experienced ministries are not forced to close which the church, after a short time, will need to restart?
Can we think strategically about the funding of mission agencies? Sending churches want the support infrastructure of mission agencies but many are reluctant to pay for it. Mission agency general funds often come from smaller non-sending churches and individuals, including Baby Boomers. Smaller churches are in decline and may not exist in the same numbers; Generation X and Millennial individuals are unlikely to support institutions in the same way, preferring instead to support individuals.
How do we develop a better trusting and understanding relationship between churches and agencies, joint ownership leading to partnership?