Challenges for a Constantly Changing Mission Context

by Paul McKaughan

Impressions gleaned from interaction with mission leadership across the country.

For four years my wife and I have lived full-time in our motor home. We have traveled nearly 100,000 miles, logging more than 550 meetings and interviews with mission leaders from forty different states. Four years ago I stepped down as president of what was then EFMA (now The Mission Exchange) to take on a new three-fold assignment with The Mission Exchange: (1) encourage mission leaders, (2) cross-pollinate within our mission community, and (3) help mission leaders where I am able. Let me share with you some of the impressions gleaned from my interaction with mission leadership across the country. My reflections are broken down into three categories: (1) the context in which we are doing missions, (2) missions itself, and (3) the pilgrimage of senior mission leadership.

Reflections on the Context of Missions  
Technology. Technology has reshaped both the cognitive and geographic map of missions. Today, mission executives spend almost as much time on airplanes and in airports as they do in their offices. Geographically, because of technology our world has gotten much smaller and more interconnected. This barrage of technological change has given the leader a sense of urgency about organizational change that missionaries on the field often don’t share. The tools we use have changed far more rapidly than do the people who use them.

Growth of the Global Church. The growth of the Global Church and its mission community is causing great jubilation, but also uncertainty as to the place of a North American mission agency in a global world. Are we to be U.S. agencies working with great cross-cultural sensitivity in a global world? Or is it better to be a globally-melded agency of which the U.S. branch is just one partner?

Lack of growth in the U.S. Church. Mission executives are infinitely more optimistic about the state of the Global Church than they are about the Church here at home. A number of mission leaders have expressed consternation, and even frustration, that their efforts to work with the parts of the U.S. Church (minority and ethnic churches) that are growing have not been productive. These churches have not produced a fruitful harvest of recruits or money for traditional U.S. missions.

Reflections on Missions
Fragmentation of missions. A composite picture of the U.S. cross-cultural mission ecosphere does not exist. There is some understanding of the individual parts, but these have a tendency to function in an insular fashion. The U.S. mission community is indeed very fragmented.

Lack of hard data. We know that the growing edge of missions is in the area of social or holistic ministry, yet how big or effective are these efforts? Business as Mission is exploding with vibrant activity. Are these efforts mere noise, or do they represent a new break-out strategy? The lack of understanding of the U.S. mission composite picture has serious ramifications.

“Generalization” of missions. Over time, missions have universally broadened their focus and most have become “full service” missions. This undisciplined broadening places agencies in direct competition with each other at almost every level. The broadening of focus also often dulls the cutting edge of ministry and makes it hard for leadership to evaluate the usefulness of all the various organizational additions.

Parochialism and isolation. Mission leaders are working incredibly long hours. They are working so hard at their jobs that they have limited awareness of what else God is doing in the world outside of their own organization or area of expertise.

Self-sufficiency. People in the mission community are unbelievably generous. However, the NIH (not invented here) syndrome constantly rears its ugly head. Missions find it much harder to receive than to give. Often this is because in the broadening of ministry focus, we all have our little in-house experts. These experts, like experts the world over, like to give evidence of their competence, rather than merely adapt capable work done by others.  

Consideration of theological issues. There are two theological issues that are very much “in process”: (1) extraction and cultural accommodation (What is religious and what is cultural? and How much or little can new converts or churches keep as part of their cultural identity?) and (2) finding the right balance between word and deed ministry (between proclamation and social involvement). This is especially significant today because of a deep generational commitment of young people to social action.

Recruitment and growth. Most missions are struggling with recruitment of new missionaries. There is a feeling that even short-term ministries are not growing as they were. Most of the career mission growth is in a mere handful of agencies.

Financial pressures. Financial pressures are causing leadership to consider mergers or alliances of various types. This is good and needed. Some missions are using the present financial crisis to re-configure themselves for the future. Others are merely hoping that things will get back to normal soon and that they will survive the crisis. However, today could well be the new normal. Strategic “right sizing” seems to be in order.

Reflections on the Personal Pilgrimage of the Mission Leader
The “in-transition” mentality. There is a very high cost to leadership in today’s mission world. Many qualified people are not willing to pay that price. They have families and ministries that they feel demand greater priority than does the mission organization. Leaders are going into senior positions with very time-bound commitments. For many, the top job is seen as a parenthesis rather than a permanent calling.

Lack of control. Power, be it financial or in the arena of decision-making, is more diffused than it has ever been. Leaders are aware that they exercise less and less actual control over their organizational destiny. The economy, governmental intrusion, corporate governance, and local and national church and mission members all seem to be conspiring to limit the leader’s sphere of control.

Finding leaders from “outside.” Many missions are reaching outside of the present mission family for their top leaders. This requires care, both on the part of the leader and the board of directors. Many have not survived the transition. They did not know where the cultural minefields were.

Gender issues. The issue of a role for the president or director’s spouse is especially sensitive today. Some missions are appointing husband and wife as co-directors. This is an age where marriage is seen as a totally shared experience. Wives who have been an integral part of their husbands’ ministry on the field find the adjustment to the more corporate model of most mission offices undesirable.
If what I have shared seems negative, perhaps that is because a lot of mission leaders talk with me about challenges they are facing. These are challenging days for thoughtful mission practitioners. However, there is no spirit of defeat. I am convinced we have never been led by a godlier, more gifted, or better prepared group of leaders. That said, here are some thoughts I give to this wonderful group of mission leaders God has raised up “for such a time as this”:

• Cultivate a broad vision of what God is doing in the world. This gives perspective to what is taking place in your mission. It also gives you the ability to see the complementary role your ministry can play in the bigger divine drama.

• Realize that the Sovereign of the universe is active in history, and that these days, so pregnant with challenges and opportunity, are a gift to his Church, of which you are a part. Thank him for his gifts.

• Use the financial pressures you are facing as God’s provision to help sharpen the focus of your ministry. Eliminate those once-promising efforts that now dilute your organizational sense of focus.

• Free yourself from the myth that “bigger is better.” In today’s world, small and strategic will win out over large and unfocused almost every time. God’s blessing and bigness are not synonymous.

• After you have refined your focus, make it a priority to find complementary partners both at home and around the world.

•  Learn to value and receive God’s gifts to you from other churches and ministries. They will enrich and enhance your own focus.  

• Accept with thanksgiving the fact that God has raised up a host of men and women around the globe who are answering his call and are now assuming leadership in world evangelization, even if it diminishes your freedom of action.

• Develop relationships with the many new (even experimental) streams of cross-cultural mission God is raising up in our own land.

• Rejoice in the fact that God allows you and me to be involved in his mission.

All of us realize as never before that the mission is God’s mission. We who represent the traditional mission community from the U.S. should never again be able to think of ourselves as the “only game in town.” Those days are gone. Today we are aware of our limitations. I am incredibly optimistic about the future of missions from the U.S. We have a significant and fruitful role to play in world evangelization. The One who called us still sends us as his representatives to disciple the nations.



The Mission Exchange provides a series of learning initiatives for church and mission leaders. If you have the ability to talk on the phone and access the Internet at the same time, you have all the technology you need to join a webinar! 2010 upcoming webinars include:
April 8:  Overcoming Death by Email, Ted Esler, executive vice-president, Pioneers

April 22: Shaping Spiritual Formation: How Cross-Cultural Missions Serves as a Crucible for Character Development—Part I, Steve Hoke, vice-president of people development, Church Resource Ministries

April 29: Shaping Spiritual Formation: How Cross-Cultural Missions Serves as a Crucible for Character Development—Part II, Steve Hoke, vice-president of people development, Church Resource Ministries

May 6: Involving the Next Generation in Missions, Jim Tebbe, vice-president of missions and Urbana director, InterVarsity

May 20: Observations and Trends from 200 Conversations with Mission Leaders, Paul McKaughan, The Mission Exchange

June 3: Means and Meanings: Conducting Online Surveys and Focus Groups, James Nelson, research specialist, Global Mapping International

Register for the webinars at: For those unable to participate, webinars are also recorded.


Paul McKaughan has more than forty-five years of mission experience, ranging from fourteen years in Brazil to denominational and para-church leadership roles. He served as COO for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and coordinated the Lausanne II Congress. Paul served on the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission. He led EFMA (now The Mission Exchange) for fifteen years, before accepting the assignment of Ambassador-at-Large. Paul and his wife, Joanne, travel the country coaching, mentoring, and consulting with mission leaders.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 226-229. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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