by Steve Beirn
Can the local church and mission agency work together in cross-cultural ministry to the satisfaction of both parties?
Can the local church and mission agency work together in cross-cultural ministry to the satisfaction of both parties? I believe this can and should happen. Others may not agree. Some agency personnel presently enjoy a rather autonomous relationship from the church. They may perceive any attempt to change their relationship as either complicated or too much of a bother. Some local church leadership may respond with the notion that the agency has mission professionals, so let them do what they do best. Still others on either side have deeply ambiguous feelings because they have been disappointed or even disillusioned with earlier attempts to work together. When there is no growing relationship with the local church, the agency misses out on being enriched by the many resources of the church (e.g., skills, vision, people, funds, and prayer). This simple funding model of ministry builds no church ownership—neither does it engage present or future generations within the church to become mission practitioners. The result of this “missions by proxy” approach can be the eventual demise of cross-cultural vision and expansion. The relationship is too frequently ignored, or worse, seen as a problem. Church and agency will miss synergy and any potential catalytic relationship that will bless both parties.
The history of the Church in missions has primarily been a history of great personalities or missionary societies. Only in exceptional cases has it been the Church in missions. Believers often perceived that mission was the responsibility of individuals rather than the mandate of the Church. George W. Peters states, “This unfortunate and abnormal historical development has produced autonomous missionless churches on the one hand and autonomous churchless missionary societies on the other hand” (1972, 214). The result was that the Church at large never really assumed ownership of the Great Commission. This was shouldered by mission societies or agencies.
In retrospect, we can see that when this development in missions came about, it was partly due to an inadequate view of the New Testament Church. You cannot read the Book of Acts or the epistles without realizing that the church is at the center of missionary activity. “The very fact that the church is mentioned 115 times speaks of her significance. It is worthy of note that the larger portion of these references refers to the local congregation of believers” (Peters 1972, 218). Over the last four decades there has been a reawakening in the North American Church regarding its own mission responsibilities. This has, at times, created tension and misunderstanding between the church and the agency. We have been going through an awkward adjustment phase ever since. Many are trying to recalibrate the roles of the church and agency. More local churches have become proactive, and agencies have been inexperienced at relating to this newer model of ministry. Yet we can do our best work when we work together. Those who lack the motivation to work in concert with each other will increasingly be isolated or find themselves doing a fair amount of redundant work. We need a new appreciation for one another. This can come through dialogue, prayer, and collaboration. The end result can be a spirit of interdependency and accountability.
So Where Do We Start?
Since the church and the agency share missionaries, we should start there. Scripture teaches that the missionary task and gifting are a vital part of the local church. A clear example of this is Acts 13:1-4. Here, the church becomes the God-ordained sending agent. Missionaries should be a product of the church. The church in Antioch was the ministry environment in which Barnabas and Saul heard the call of God. It was the same environment that affirmed their call, laid hands on them, and sent them out. This process is a responsibility the church should assume. We have agencies spending enormous amounts of time recruiting while the church remains mostly dormant in setting apart people for service. Many churches have lost the vision of being intentional about identifying possible missionaries. We need to trust that God will enable us to raise up whole networks of churches and agencies that will pray, learn, and work together to produce missionary candidates.
Thankfully, many parachurch organizations impart a mission vision to the younger generation. God has used them to propel individuals into missionary service. The truth is that the church should rise to that challenge, but often it does not. The parachurch should be sending interested individuals to the church for further development and affirmation. Ultimately, the church can lay hands on them and send them out. Too often, the parachurch organizations send these people out to individual donors and circumvent the church. This reinforces the old paradigm that the Great Commission is just for individuals. In the end, the church is to be the sender of missionaries and today’s agency is to be the facilitator. There are limitations on every local church. It can only impact the world beyond its community in partnership with the agency. The agency should be an effective conduit for the worldwide distribution of church resources. With logistical support and specialty training, the agency provides assistance for the healthy deployment and supervision of missionaries. It has expertise in areas like security matters, language acquisition, cross-cultural effectiveness, pension plans, and MK education options. Both the church and the agency are vital to deploying and sustaining missionaries.
If the church sends missionaries and the agency facilitates missionaries, then there are implications for our working relationship. The agency should cast vision for overseas ministry with the church. It should help the church envision greater ministry possibilities! It can also facilitate or equip the church to rise to the task. Perhaps it can identify groups of churches that can partner with the agency. It must help the church take more initiative and overcome perceived obstacles to ministry. Teamwork is built when key missionary issues are worked on together. Let me share four examples of this.
1. Affirmation of the call. The church should have plenty of ministry interaction with any potential missionary. Over time, the character and competency of the individual will become evident to church leadership and the church can affirm that person’s potential and readiness for service. When the leadership affirms the person, they can then lay hands on him or her. Tom Telford writes, “Don’t let people lay hands on themselves. An individual must certainly feel called of God and have a willing heart. But when God calls people, he usually calls loud enough that their church and friends who know them can hear it too” (Penny 2001, 270). The Holy Spirit gave a specific sense of ministry direction to all the church leaders at Antioch regarding the future ministry of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:2). An agency should be certain that a candidate has an acceptable ministry track record with the church or return him or her to the church. The church and agency can then design a preparation plan for such an individual.
2. Ministry vision of the church. Growing numbers of churches today have established their own plan to exert mission influence. They possess an agenda for the future. These churches view their missionaries as an extension of their own ministry vision. They might not see any connection between their sense of direction and the direction of the agency. Tom Julien states it this way: “Missions is not what the church does for the missionary, but what the church does through the missionary” (2006, 25). The challenge for the agency is whether or not it can identify compelling reasons for the vision and seek church participation in that ministry direction. In the end, the agency needs to ask whose agenda will be served and why. These questions can be answered more easily when the agency listens to the ministry aspirations of the church to find common ground. Here, the agency is to be both the servant of and partner with the church. When the agency discovers the church’s own compelling reasons for its vision, iron may sharpen iron. The church may find that under scrutiny its compelling reasons may just be superficial preferences or tradition, and thus not justified. This discovery should lead to the development of fresh vision and action on the part of the church. There are organizations that can serve the church by assisting in the formation of fresh vision. Unless some time is given over to discussions like this, the proactive church may not entrust people to that agency.
3. Decision making. Missions-active churches view their missionaries just as much a resource of the church as the agency. Therefore, when major decisions or changes are to be made (like ministry location or role changes), the sending church should participate. There should not be any “act and inform” on the part of the missionary or the agency to the church. If agencies unilaterally make decisions, then it is not a healthy partnership model. At the same time the church should not attempt to micromanage overseas ministry. The key communicator in all this is the missionary who should discuss this with all appropriate parties. The agency cannot be expected to discuss major issues with all supporting churches. It should, however, talk to the sending church and perhaps any other church that has significant support and involvement with the missionary. This should all be determined ahead of time.
4. Member care. The agency and the sending church should discuss the best course of action to meet more serious needs of their missionaries. If the needs are disrupting ministry effectiveness, family well-being, or personal integrity, then discussions should take place. While there are confidentiality issues here, each ministry can strongly encourage the missionary involved to inform a select group so someone in each party is informed. Shared time, expertise, and funding can be a rich blessing in delivering effective care.
Now Where Do We Go?
In the days ahead there will be many other issues that will force the church and agency to rethink their relationship. One such issue is the concept of church-based church-planting teams. A church supplies an entire team of missionaries to the same field. This is already happening through a number of churches. Due to the significant involvement of the church, there are many adjustments to be made by both church and agency in their working relationship.
The church and the agency need to be intentional about building relationships. In our church ministry we have a preferred agency list. We cannot have personal, effective working relationships with everyone. We have identified ministry relationships in which we want to invest. Our missionary candidates are directed to this list. We initiated a symposium on the topic of missionary preparation and invited our preferred list to attend so we could learn from each other. In the days ahead there will be many new challenges and opportunities. It will be easier when we face them together. We may need standards of excellence in place for the church/agency relationship upon which everyone will agree.
My final comments are for the agency: Please be patient with the local church. Open up lines of communication. No perfect church exists. However, Jesus Christ loves this imperfect Church and is planning to build and complete her. I want to challenge the agency to pray for its church constituency. I would like the agency to celebrate the fact that many churches are taking ownership of the Great Commission. This momentum can easily be capitalized on by the agency. I encourage agencies to reflect on and discuss the question: How can we help the church be what it was intended to be? Hopefully, the agency will harness this new interest rather than feel threatened by this relative newcomer.
Julien, Tom. 2006. Antioch Revisited: Reuniting the Church with Her Mission. Winona Lake, Ind.: BMH Books.
Penny, Russell, gen. ed. 2001. Overcoming the World Missions Crisis. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications.
Peters, George. 1972. A Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody Press.
Steve Beirn is mission pastor of Calvary Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He has served on the local church side of missions for more than thirty years and was on the board of directors of TEAM for ten years. You can visit the church website at www.calvarychurch.org.
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