by Gary Brumbelow
Missionaries need to know what pastors believe about missions, what their churches are doing about missions, and what needs their churches have in regards to missions.
"I’m returning your prayer card. Do your own praying."
Valerie and I found that cheerful message scribbled on one of our prayer cards when we slipped into our car after a church meeting.
The writer went on to object to some of the things I had said about our missionary call, as well as the length of my hair (too long), the length of my wife’s hair (too short), and some other similar matters I’ve forgotten about.
In one sense, such feedback is valuable. One could wish for a larger dose of charity, but at least I knew where I stood with one brother. Happily, the pastor and other church members didn’t share his feelings.
However, most of the time missionaries lack any sound basis for evaluating the beliefs and attitudes of people in the churches they visit. A slap on the back, an offering (sometimes), and an occasional discussion about missions: that’s about the most significant feedback missionaries get for planning their church ministries.
I’d like to offer some helpful guidelines to remedy that lack of solid data. Missionaries need to know what pastors believe about missions, what their churches are doing about missions, and what needs their churches have in regards to missions.
By getting answers to these questions, missionaries can better plan their deputation, their furloughs, and their communications with supporting churches. Knowing things like these enables missionaries to compare churches and then target their ministries accordingly. Overall, our ministry to churches will be more effective because we have a better idea about the individual context.
I took an extensive survey of Canadian pastors to get my answers. My research showed that there would be few differences, if any, between U.S. and Canadian pastors. (I sent out 1,155 questionnaires and 435 were returned, a 38% response.)
THE VIEW FROM BEHIND THE PULPIT
Pastors have some clear convictions about missions. For example, almost 90 percent agree with the homogeneous unit concept of church planting. Although the idea has been thoroughly debated, it’s good to know-if you are a church planter-that by and large pastors buy into it.
Here’s how they feel about nine of the most common missionary ministries:
Very important: Bible translation, working with unreached people, planting churches, training national leaders.
Important: theological education by extension, meeting physical needs, literature distribution, radio broadcasts.
Less important: camping programs.
There are some obvious questions here. Why the gap between training national leaders and theological education by extension? Also, a sort of "halo effect" apparently kept any ministry from getting a "not important" rating. Most pastors can’t bring themselves to call any missionary work unimportant.
Another fundamental conviction surfaced about home and foreign missions. Two-thirds of the pastors surveyed feel that home missions is just as important as foreign missions.
Yet, we can’t deny that in terms of resources North-America gets the lion’s share. One estimate says that 90 percent of Christian workers minister to 10 percent of the world’s population in North America. Churches and pastors need to know that, but missionaries can’t say that local needs don’t matter. They matter very much to pastors, so we can’t threaten the legitimacy of their ministry by making light of their concerns.
Pastors are also concerned about missions agencies, their finances, their doctrines, and how they relate to the churches. Seventy-five percent of pastors surveyed believe that raising money for missions is primarily the job of the church. Missionaries may find this hard to believe, and, in fact, many churches aren’t doing the job. The missionary must recognize the pastor’s conviction on this point, while at the same time gently pointing to some obvious shortfalls. "Gently" is the key here. A pious, defensive attitude will be self-defeating.
On the mission’s relation to the church, pastors say to the mission: "Respect the local church." In my survey, this response was more than twice as likely to occur as the second-place answer.
Typical comments were:
• Seek to find ways to get the local church more involved in what you are doing.
• Attempt to work alongside the local church, rather than replace it.
• Work to establish churches and work with the existing churches.
• Please stop trying to be an authority on everything and stop trying to redirect the church from outside.
Furlough missionaries should heed these signals and avoid head-on collisions.
CHURCHES HAVE NORMS, TOO
If churches and their leaders can evaluate mission agencies and their programs, is turnabout fair play? Perhaps, but missionaries must remember the church’s authority. The local church is not above criticism. Provided the missionary is a member, he or she should feel free to make suggestions about the church’s level of commitment to and involvement in missions.
Here’s what my survey revealed about the "normal" church. This is a typical-case scenario, built on mean values, i.e., the value at which 50 percent of the answers fall. The mean is generally accepted as the fairest indication of an average for survey research.
Budget. Between 10 percent and 19 percent of the budget goes to missions. If the church belongs to a denomination that operates its own missions program, less than 10 percent of the missions budget goes to agencies outside the denomination.
Outreach. The church has unreached ethnic people in the area, but is not involved in any outreach to them.
Sending. From the ranks of its own members, the church sent one missionary to the field in the last five years, either short-term or career, either domestic or overseas. Forty-one percent of the churches sent no missionary.
Recruiting. Church leaders say they have approached members of the church to challenge them to consider serving as a missionary.
Structure. The church has a missions committee that schedules missionary speakers, writes to missionaries, and organizes a yearly conference. It does not have a written missions policy.
Pastor’s involvement. The pastor reads at least one book on missions and speaks on missions at least three times in one year. He does not attend missions seminars, nor visits missionaries on the field.
Of course, mean values leave out a lot of data, but they give you a fair reading on the church. The profile above is the scaffolding, not the complete building.
WINNING FRIENDS AND INFLUENCING PASTORS
Assuming you have armed yourself with a proposal for more missions activity in the church, consider one last bit of data that will help you. Like unreached people, churches and their pastors are more likely to take you seriously if you take their views into account.
First, generally the pastor wants to call the shots. In larger churches, it may be an associate pastor, missions pastor, or other staff person. Don’t run behind the pastor’s back. He may want to delegate, but allow him that privilege after he has seen your ideas.
Now, here are some felt needs typical of most churches:
• The church people are not capable of effective cross-cultural ministry, and the pastor knows it. The missionary may be able to train people in this skill.
The pastor wants missionary speakers to address missions like this:
• Tell the people about needs and opportunities.
• Challenge young people to serve in missions.
• Tell missionary stories about people and their work, not about the snakes.
• Teach the biblical imperative of missions.
Further down the list (under half), the pastor also wants the missionary to:
• Equip church members to reach immigrants.
• Teach church leaders how to start a missions program.
What’s your best platform? It’s still the regular church services and missions conferences. Newer ideas, such as week-end seminars and meetings with the missions committee, are much less popular. About one-third of pastors welcome seminars, and one-fourth the meetings with committees. This probably reflects a lack of familiarity with these formats. The right combination of diplomacy and tenacity could open some doors.
WATCH OUT FOR THOSE RETURNED PRAYER CARDS
Of course, our data is just the beginning. Your church may not be typical at all. The "mean" church is just a convenient standard by which to compare.
Use the research not as a benchmark but as a springboard. Using some simple methods of research (like asking questions), you can find out a lot about what your sending church believes about missions. If you’re wondering how best to minister to the church’s needs, you must first discover what those needs are.
Listen carefully and you’ll find out what’s going on. Who knows? If you do your own careful research, perhaps no one will ever tell you to do your own praying.
(If you’d like to do your own research, but aren’t sure how to start, write for a copy of my questionnaire. It was carefully designed by the survey team to solicit the maximum information without demanding a lot of time from busy pastors. It has 29 questions and is not copyrighted, so you may make copies. Please send $1 (no stamps) with your request to Arctic Missions, Box 250, Station G, Calgary, Alberta T3A 2G2, Canada.)
Copyright © 1989 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.