by Gary Corwin
The state of missions engagement among evangelical churches in North America is changing.
The state of missions engagement among evangelical churches in North America is changing. A generation ago the driving force was the desire to see the Great Commission fulfilled—that is to say, that at least some from panta ta ethne (all the nations or peoples) of the earth be discipled as followers of Christ. Today that divinely given task is often subservient to the goal of congregational participation. Instead of strategic planning to maximize the extent of peoples discipled, getting church members engaged in missions through personal experience is frequently a higher priority.
In fairness it must be added that such involvement often results in a heightened commitment to the Great Commission. More frequently, however, it is a short segue to checking missions off of a personal life-task-list. Hardly a day goes by that strategic needs and concerns don’t lose ground to the tyrannical pursuit of personal experiences. Yet the level of blindness to this trend, purposeful or not, seems to be growing exponentially.
National church leaders in many of the areas receiving so many experience-seekers are too polite to say anything, but wonder privately what has taken place: "Whatever happened to the old time missionaries who would sacrificially give of themselves for those to whom they were called to live, work, and incarnate the gospel?"
Certainly the sweeping changes that have taken place in the church landscape of North America can be credited, at a minimum, with providing a catalytic context for changes in the way mission and missions are viewed. Assumptions derived from church growth theory have spawned a plethora of derivative assumptions, along with their corresponding functional models for church life. The definition of success is now captured in the word “mega-church.” Full-service meet-every-need church life now seems the decision-driving goal. Demographically driven church planting increasingly trumps congregational renewal not only as the primary strategy, but also often as the only one worth seeking. And seeker sensitive and seeker driven emphases, while attracting some new people in, have often fueled an upsurge of self-centered consumer Christianity at the expense of a God-centered worship and focus.
All of this has exposed, and often also been the churches’ way around, a problem that has existed far too long on the mission agency side—an inadequate and inattentive posture toward the desires and needs of churches to really own their own mission strategy and process. Most agencies have been slow to wake up to this reality and now, having to face the negative consequences head on, are scrambling for answers.
For many it may be a case of too little, too late. A shift has already taken place in the minds of many church leaders, and the shift is to the priority of domestic church planting at the expense of strategic international needs. The international scene is still on the radar screen of these leaders, but it tends to exist as one more Christian-experience service that they, as a full-service church, can offer to their members.
So what is an agency to do? At least three things: First, acknowledge the problem and do some works of repentance for your part in helping to create it. This will no doubt involve some written acknowledgements through your communication organs, but it should also involve some face-to-face discussions by your top leadership with key church leaders. A number of agencies have already begun doing this and some progress, though small, is being made.
Second, it should involve aggressive listening to what church leaders wish to accomplish and, wherever possible, offering assistance to help them achieve their goals. This one is tricky, however, because to be helpful here you must really understand who you are as an organization, and know clearly the difference between that which is essential to who you are, and that which is negotiable. It is vitally important that this be clearly understood and agreed upon by all the agency leadership before entering into discussions with church leaders.
Finally, be willing to go down in flames if necessary for that which truly is essential to who you are as the Lord’s servants. In the final analysis it is his responsibility to keep you afloat if that is what he desires for his own glory and purposes. It is right and proper to compromise on that which is not essential, but it is equally important to stand one’s ground where essentials are at stake. Remember that churches, too, can be wrong in their emphases and passions.
And don’t fret. God both knows and cares (1 Peter 5:7). What looks inevitable at one point in time may look very different as the years pass. Sometimes things get turned on their head as the Spirit and common sense eventually alter a situation.
Sometimes, probably often, it will be we agencies who will need to change. But sometimes it will be the churches, and we should work just as diligently and lovingly for that.
May God grant all concerned the wisdom to know the difference, and the perseverance to do the right thing.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly and a special representative with SIM in Charlotte, N.C.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 6-7. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.