by David Mays
A veteran missions director shares six challenges the North American Church faces concerning world missions—and how to deal with these challenges.
Many experts are in a better position than I to see what is happening in missions around the world. Missionaries, missiologists, church and mission leaders at home and abroad and many others can see the results, good and bad, of North American missionaries, tentmakers, short-termers, finishers and others representing Christ throughout the world. My perspective comes from twenty years of working with local churches in the United States and from reading about missions and the Church. From this position, I see a number of challenges in regard to the ongoing commitment of North American churches to world missions.
Although not exhaustive, these six challenges the Church faces in missions can act as a starting point to making our missionary work more effective for the Kingdom of God. At the end of each challenge are “practices for maximum global impact” we can use to strengthen both short and long-term missionaries and in the process, build our own commitment to Christ-like mission.
THE FIRST CHALLENGE: KEEPING "LOSTNESS" IN VIEW
Both national and international news as well as our own experiences provide illustrations of the consequences of not following Christ. However, we are more likely to see the symptoms than the spiritual roots of the evil that occurs. As churches become more concerned about (1) being less threatening places for non-believers and (2) their image in their own cultures, Christians have become careful in how they use “harsh-sounding” words like lost, sin and repentance. It is awkward for non-Christians and somewhat uncomfortable for many Christians to come to terms with the stark possibility that people could be forever lost. I’m afraid many Christians just don’t believe that those who have not heard or do not know Christ are lost.
Christians and non-Christians, the saved and the lost, look quite similar. When I see my neighbor going to work each morning, I may think he looks a lot like me. I may spontaneously think about the value or condition of his house, his family relationships, his job, his newly-acquired possessions or the make of car he drives. I’m not likely to be reminded that he is lost and in need of a savior. When he sees me, I wonder if my life looks any different to him. It is not easy to remind ourselves that people fall into one of two camps: those who know Christ and are going to heaven and those who do not know Christ and are not going to heaven.
I was talking with a young man recently whose grandparents were pioneer missionaries. His mother just completed a book about their first five years in Africa. The young man himself is working for a mission organization. When I told him I was concerned that we don’t see people as lost, he confessed that he fell into that category.
When we see pictures on television of people in troubled places of the world, we are likely to be reminded of hunger, the repressive effects of totalitarian governments, environmental destruction or the need for education, political stability, freedom, moral restraint, clean water, good food and medical care. We are much more likely to focus on the physical needs of people than the invisible spiritual needs. Young adults seem to be increasingly responsive to such physical needs. Certainly these needs are a large part of the missionary enterprise, but are they taking precedence over the priority of reaching the lost with the gospel?
We must not lose sight of the fact that people are lost. They are not going to spend an eternity with God unless they are introduced to Jesus. This must be a major component of our missions plans and ministries.
Humanitarian ministries, while worthy in their own right, should also be contributing to the evangelization and discipleship of the lost among all nations.
Practices for maximum global impact:
—Preach and teach without flinching concerning ideas such as sin, repentance and the lostness of humanity. Maintain a focus on God’s heart for the human soul.
—Teach your missionaries how to lead people to repentance and faith. Make sure your new missionaries are able to lead people to Christ in their own culture.
—Highlight the news, especially the international news, drawing attention to: (1) the results of sin, (2) a person’s need of a savior and (3) the transformation brought about by the gospel.
—Select, support and undertake outreach and missions ministries and projects that focus on life transformation. Ask your missionaries how their ministries contribute to reaching the lost and give testimonies where possible.
THE SECOND CHALLENGE: REACHING BOTH THE COMMUNITY AND THE WORLD
For a long time many evangelical churches focused on (1) discipling believers within the church and (2) reaching the nations abroad. Reaching the community was not a major focus. In the last two decades, however, there has been a strong movement to reach our communities. Many recent books focus on how a church can reach its community and/or grow in size.
Many of these books begin with the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19) and suggest that the “heart” of the Great Commission is to “make disciples.” However, most books only apply this concept to reaching one’s community. What is missing in these books is discipling “all nations.” Cross-cultural missions is not often mentioned and when it is, it is limited to a passing mention on a page or in a paragraph. Not long ago I proposed “The Great Commission-Driven Church” as a workshop title to be presented at a missions conference. One pastor said to me, “I’ve studied the Great Commission church and taught on it and I was hoping for something more global.” It seems the Great Commission has been domesticated in popular church literature.
Pastors and church leaders seem to be looking primarily to megachurch models for how to do church. These model churches usually have a missions program, but it is not a major topic in their books or at their conferences. Most new churches are focused on reaching the unchurched community; global missions is not a major focus. Several years ago I asked the receptionist of a young church plant, “What are you doing in missions?” His response was, “We are a mission.”
In 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, the authors report putting their teenagers to work Sunday morning “on the mission field” (2004, 159). They were referring to having them work in the church programs. Recently, one young church planter was asked what his church was doing in missions. His surprising response was, “We have a miscellaneous budget line item for that kind of stuff.” Another young seeker-sensitive church of more than 1,200 people reported a missions budget of one percent in 2004.
Doing church in a culturally relevant manner is increasingly expensive. It is difficult for churches to maintain the percentage they have previously given for missions. Megachurches that have large budgets also have large internal expenses. Churches which have more than one thousand congregants rarely give as much as twenty-five percent of their regular income to missions. Traditional churches with large missions budgets are spending more on staff and facilities. Many are becoming more seeker-oriented. Seeker churches spend increasing dollars on facilities and accoutrements that will result in a more inviting atmosphere for secular people.
The non-negotiables are changing. At one time the missions budget was sacrosanct in many churches. Now, as one worship pastor told me, “We have two PowerPoint projectors in the worship service. Each projector has two bulbs. Each bulb costs $1,700. And if one blows, you have to replace it.” A volunteer technical assistant in a church with six hundred members told me, “In five minutes I could write down two million dollars worth of sound equipment we need.” Many younger churches desire to do more missions, but missions must wait on higher priorities.
Fifteen years ago, church purpose statements frequently specified reaching “the world.” Current purpose statements are shorter and less specific. Missions is treated as a program rather than part of the church’s purpose. One missions pastor told me, “In our church, missions is one of 125 ministries and it must compete with all the others for pulpit time, resources and volunteers.” In highly professional, time-delineated worship services, time is not available for missionaries to tell their stories. Brief interviews or video clips must suffice to let church people know they are involved in missions. Many churches are reducing the number of missionaries they support so they won’t be overloaded with trying to keep themselves and their people informed.
The effort to reach our communities deserves to be supported and applauded. How to balance that with reaching the rest of the nations for Christ is the challenge.
Practices for maximum global impact:
—Support your church’s local outreach efforts. The goal is not a great missions church, but a Great Commission church. The Great Commission includes people who live both near and far.
—Recognize and build on the fact that a renewed emphasis on local outreach can be a springboard to cross-cultural outreach.
—Invest in local outreach largely through recruiting and deploying volunteers. Reserve a large percentage of your dollars for cross-cultural and overseas ministry.
—As you train for local outreach projects, take the opportunity to stretch people’s minds to consider the internationals in the community. Help your people progress from low-risk community projects to building relationships to reaching across cultural barriers to befriending internationals.
—Research the demographics of your community and take steps to reach people of other cultures and nationalities.
—As you connect with local people from other countries, consider whether you can leverage those relationships to begin ministry in their home countries.
—Develop and integrate basic missions education as part of your ongoing education and discipleship ministries. Cooperate with ministry leaders to assist them in including missions education and awareness in their ministries.
—Communicate widely and broadly the opportunity and responsibility we have as a Church and as global Christians to expand the kingdom and influence the course of world history.
—Make sure the church is truly involved in reaching other cultures, regardless of the emphases of popular church models and books.
—Make global missions an ongoing priority in the budget, schedule and activities of the church.
—Cooperate with other key church leaders and influencers to help keep missions on the church radar screen.
—Revise your church’s purpose statement so that “all nations” or the “whole world” is an unambiguous part of your purpose.
—Consider what it means to your church operation for the Great Commission to be part of your purpose rather than one of your programs.
—Persuade people to take “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” (http://psp.godsperspective.org), a dynamic, college-level course where participants discover what God is doing around the world and consider what part they are to play in God’s purposes. It is offered throughout the year at extension sites around the world.
THE THIRD CHALLENGE: MAINTIANING FOCUS
At one time missions was “foreign missions.” As people from every language and nation came to live among us, missions became “cross-cultural missions.” But culture isn’t limited to nationality. We are increasingly a country with multiple cultures, many of them less affected by the gospel or with greater social needs than others. Even the unchurched people who grew up on your street have a different cultural worldview. There is no longer a clear distinction between missions and other church ministry. For most people missions has come to mean any ministry outside the church.
“Local missions” is part of most missions budgets. It is not uncommon to find more than half of a church’s missions budget designated for ministry within the United States or within the church’s own community. Since churches have a missions budget, parachurch organizations present their ministries as missions. Many people who work for Christian ministries consider themselves missionaries. A good friend who was principal of a local Christian school was indignant that the host church wouldn’t use the missions budget to support the needs of the school. The school primarily serves the children of Christians, however, this did not change the principal’s nor the congregants’ perspectives. Recently a young man wrote this to one of my colleagues: “I am presently leaving a fifteen-year career in corporate finance to become a missionary with ______ Financial Ministries.” One organization that provides legal support for Christian organizations refers to its agents as missionaries. Church leaders often have pet projects and organizations they would like to have funded from the missions budget. One missions pastor smiled when he described his church’s missions budget as “the wastebasket,” named for the fact that it receives all the requests no one else wants to fund.
Increasingly missions money is used for ourselves. A dozen years ago I observed missions budgets listing a maximum of five or ten percent to be used internally for missions promotion and education. Missions committees sometimes declined Advancing Churches in Missions Commitment (ACMC) membership because, “that money could go to the missionaries.” It was very common to see rudimentary, even shoddy, missions promotion in very nice churches. For years I advised missions committees to do higher quality promotion because people judge things as important if they look important.
But missions leadership in many churches has been handed off to a generation that is comfortable spending more money. Missions promotion and education have escalated in quality and cost. The missions budget is also called upon to provide funding for outreach activities undertaken by other departments and ministries. In one church, a Sunday School class hosted an outreach barbecue. When no one showed up, the class asked the missions team to cover their five hundred dollar loss.
Without clear and understood boundaries for missions, a healthy missions budget is a temptation for any church leader with ideas. If a project or program can somehow be tied to outreach, the missions budget becomes a potential source of funding. Youth excursions have been converted to mission trips and are supported by missions budgets. In one church the missions committee budgeted funds for a youth missions trip. When the youth raised all the money they needed for the trip, they asked for (and received) the same funds for a retreat. When church leaders planned a community service project for cell groups, the missions team was asked to cover the cost of the lunches. In one church, children were asked to give money to missions “for children who don’t know Jesus.” The funds were used to purchase playground equipment for the church, presumably to attract those children.
The missions budget is increasingly becoming a “miscellaneous budget.“ One must ask what priority “miscellaneous” will continue to enjoy in the church. Purpose-driven institutions try to focus their resources on their primary purposes and it’s easy to see that “miscellaneous” spending should be small. According to one missions committee chair, “The leadership at our church has been arguing that all the church does is missional. Therefore, it is inappropriate to expect that a given percentage defines a healthy, vibrant church.”
Even while the prosperity of the North American Church grows, the challenge also grows to increase, or at least maintain, outreach ministry focused on the peoples and nations with the greatest needs and least access to the gospel.
Practices for maximum global impact:
—Develop and widely communicate the priority of cross-cultural missions from both a biblical and a “state of the world” position. Demonstrate the clear disparity of gospel “access” and Christian resources between our own culture and other cultures.
—Develop a definition and boundaries for the missions budget, describing what is considered missions and what is not. Negotiate to remove non-missions items from the missions budget.
—Develop and communicate a missions strategy that clearly shows the church’s highest priorities for missions involvement.
—Set up a separate budget for local or same-culture ministries.
—Establish categories and priorities or goals within the missions budget that support the strategy.
—Encourage other ministries and departments to undertake missions education and involvement funded by their own budgets in order to maximize the use of the missions budget for cross-cultural ministry.
THE FOURTH CHALLENGE: BALANCING NEW STRATEGIES WITH COMMITMENT TO LONG-TERM MISSIONARIES
Church leaders always have to decide how to best use limited resources for kingdom benefit. Which takes priority: investing in promising or productive strategies or supporting and caring for current long-term missionaries?
Historically, congregations have been connected to missions through their missionaries and their primary concern has been to the missionaries. Some churches idolize missionaries, the people who gave up everything to live for Jesus in distant lands. The support and welfare of their missionaries is their number one priority. One pastor told me, “We have never missed a check for our missionaries, and as long as I’m the pastor, we never will.” Those in the church may have little idea what the missionaries are trying to accomplish and their prayers will usually be for the missionary instead of the people the missionary is trying to reach. They would not think to ask if the missionary is effective or if their ministry is strategic.
Many churches do not have specific missions goals and strategies. Local church leaders are largely unaware of various parts of the world and know little about cultures and mission strategies. They want to spread the gospel and they support and trust missionaries and mission organizations that have their own goals. The church missions strategy is a collection of the strategies of supported missionaries and organizations.
Some churches have long ignored the missionaries they support. They don’t know them and have little idea of what or how they are doing. A few church leaders want to evaluate their missionaries but have unreasonable expectations. They would not think of evaluating their own church by the same standards they wish to apply to their missionaries. Others are highly critical of missionaries who seem to show little results. Many church leaders assume church growth in a difficult environment should be rapid and dramatic (thus mirroring their own church growth). One young missions pastor in a suburban multi-campus church told me their leaders were considering disengaging with their missionaries in the 10/40 Window. They wanted to take a “high impact” approach like their ministry in the US. He didn’t seem to understand that “high impact” might look different in the 10/40 Window.
Occasionally a new missions committee feels compelled to become better stewards of missions resources. They develop a strategy, perhaps without considering the consequences to their missionaries who are far away and dependent upon their support. Missionaries who may have pioneered the missions ministry in the church or been long-time workers from the church may be unceremoniously dumped because they don’t fit into the new strategy.
Increasingly church leaders recognize that the congregation is disconnected from missions and they work to get congregants involved. The most natural forms of involvement are mission trips and projects in the community. These require a great deal of planning and management. Many missions leaders are so busy with organizing these complex involvements (along with other responsibilities in the church) that they have little time to think about how or whether these projects contribute to the larger goal of world evangelization.
There are an increasing number of administrative and missions pastors who have recently come from the business world. Although they have a good handle on goals and strategy, they may lack an appreciation for the church’s long-time missionaries, be unaware of what it means to work cross-culturally or understand how progress might look in other cultures.
Becoming more strategic while taking care of our missionaries is a major challenge.
Practices for maximum global impact:
—Take good care of your missionaries. Get to know them. Concern yourself with their goals, progress and dreams. Pray for them. Help them communicate with the congregation and develop personal friendships among your members.
—Help your missionaries with accountability from a developmental perspective. Work with their sending agencies to help them realistically evaluate their ministries. Do what you can do as a church to help them become as effective as possible.
—Read and learn everything you can about the world, the situations of peoples and nations, missions trends and the methods and strategies God is using effectively today.
—Develop strategies and pursue them as your missions budget expands, as new missionary candidates surface and as current missionaries leave the field.
—Watch for good partners, both US and international, who are pursuing the same goals.
—Undertake partnerships which will be beneficial to your missions goal.
THE FIFTH CHALLENGE: MAXIMIZING MISSION TRIPS
The last twenty years have seen an explosion of mission trips. Some estimate that a minimum of one million Americans go on mission trips annually at a cost of one billion dollars. Mission trips were initially undertaken primarily to stimulate missions commitment, giving and prayer of home congregations and to produce more long-term missionaries. For years I have encouraged congregations to send their pastors and leaders to the mission field to give them first-hand experience and build their missions commitment.
People are traveling all over the world for all kinds of reasons and missions trips are part of this trend. Many Christians have seen needs elsewhere in the world and discovered ways they can contribute. Almost all new long-term missionaries have been on one or more mission trips. Others have maintained contact with people in remote parts of the world.
People who have little or no interest in missions will sometimes take a missions trip. Mission trips are an effective discipleship tool for youth leaders. Mission trips are so common that when I was in a major department store recently, a clerk saw my “Go-Team” shirt and asked if I had been on a mission trip. I asked if she had been on a trip and she said that although she hadn’t, her husband had been on several.
Mission trips are changing the way we view missions and do missions. Mission trips are a means to accomplish mission work on the field, to enlighten and disciple the ones who go and to influence the congregation back home. However, trips consume a great deal of missions energy. When the missionaries return exhilarated, worn out and two weeks behind in their daily lives, the hoped-for, long-term results tend to fade.
While much good work is accomplished on some trips, there are all-too-common reports that trips were more costly, if not downright detrimental, than beneficial. The permanent life change we hope to see in the one who goes gradually fades back into normal, everyday life. The congregation may not get the full impact because there is little opportunity to communicate what has happened to the returned missionary. Recently I heard a mission trip report that included no mention of giving, one appeal for prayer and several enthusiastic appeals for people to go on trips. The primary result of most trips is more trips.
I have never heard anyone say that their church’s regular missions budget (outside of giving for mission trips) has grown because of their mission trips. It is clear, however, that an increasing proportion of many missions budgets is going to help support the trips. One of my friends told me that their church had notified a long-supported missionary couple that they wouldn’t be able to support them any longer because they needed the funds for more missions trips.
While most new missionaries have taken short-term mission trips, there is little evidence of a surge of new long-term missionaries. Every three years the Mission Handbook reports the number of missionaries serving overseas for four years or more. The latest figures from 2001 show that the number has changed little over the past dozen years.
In May 2005, representatives of twelve churches in Indianapolis, Indiana estimated that more than 1,300 individuals from their churches
would go on mission trips in 2005. One new missions committee member told my colleague, “I thought serving on the missions committee was just deciding where to go on trips.”
An increasing number of churches are making trips a major part, sometimes the primary part, of their missions ministry. Others are using trips not for doing ministry but primarily as a discipleship tool. Subtly mission trips are becoming something we do for us, rather than as a means of stimulating greater missions involvement and effectiveness in the world. When we find ourselves “using” missions as a tool for our own benefit, or doing missions in a certain way because it provides a means for personal involvement, rather than to accomplish something for Jesus in the world, we have gotten off-course.
The challenge is to do mission trips in such a way that they are (1) productive on the field, (2) include discipleship for the people who go and (3) stimulate the congregation to greater awareness, prayer and giving for strategic missions efforts.
Practices for maximum global impact:
—Clearly establish your purposes for mission trips.
—Design and conduct trips that will contribute to your long-term missions goals and strategy.
—Establish goals for each trip. In most cases these goals should include what the receiving group wants to happen on the field, what you want to happen in the life of the person who goes and what you want to happen in your congregation.
—Plan the trip follow-through as carefully as the rest of the trip. Make sure everyone knows in advance what is expected in the follow-through. And follow through.
—As part of the trip preparation, clarify that goers should expect God to bring significant change to their lives. Challenge them to be ready to accept it. One goal for every person who goes is a lifetime involvement in missions in some productive way.
—For everyone who goes on a missions trip, provide a mentor who will meet with him or her at least monthly for six months after the trip. During the meetings the mentor will help the individual meditate on and begin to implement what God has been teaching him or her as a result of the trip.
—Arrange in advance all the avenues necessary to ensure the trip has the appropriate impact on the congregation.
—Evaluate every trip in relation to its goals. Make corrections for future trips.
—Leverage your trips to increase missions prayer in your congregation and to increase your missions budget. Use your reporting time to emphasize spiritual need, spiritual results and to appeal for prayer and long-term funding.
—Fund the trips primarily outside the missions budget.
—Implement the Short-Term Missions Standards (www.stmstandards.org).
THE SIXTH CHALLENGE: PRODUCING AND SUSTAINING HIGH-QUALITY, LONG-TERM MISSIONARIES
Our missionaries should represent the best our churches have to offer. Today’s missionary recruits have many advantages over previous generations. Younger candidates have much awareness of the world and experience crossing cultures. Second-career candidates have rich life experiences, skills and expertise, but many have major obstacles to overcome. Potential missionaries struggle with issues related to their family backgrounds, life experiences, relational issues, spiritual development and expectations. Our culture affects our churches and congregations. This, in turn, makes it harder to have the godly qualities described in the New Testament.
From the beginning the Church in the United States has been closely connected to the culture and we still cling to it as the culture deteriorates. We live nearly at the level of our culture. This includes physical comforts, but it also includes accommodation to habits and practices, sins and weaknesses, that compete with spiritual development. In many contemporary churches people can come to Christ with little expectation of life transformation. People in the church look and act much like people outside. The moral looseness of our “Christian” society is an embarrassment to Christians around the world. Church leaders sometimes set the pace by identifying with the culture through edgy language, film clips and dramatic sketches. Christians spend much time with the media and little time in the Bible, and consequently few are able to think and act consistently from a Christian worldview. Our American arrogance and independence are not good models. Our freedom to eat, drink, wear, say and do whatever we want are a hindrance and shame to many of the churches we want to help elsewhere in the world.
We are accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle, a stark contrast to most people in the world. Habits and desires do not disappear when one decides to become a missionary. Those who have never lacked anything may struggle in living situations that are still upscale compared to the people to whom they minister. Such Western missionaries are in an awkward position to teach others scriptural attitudes toward money and sacrifice. As one missions pastor told me, “Our church has a good missionary candidate training program, but we can’t teach them how to live a simple lifestyle.” Christians and potential missionaries from our culture may sometimes appear to have little to offer unbelievers.
Dysfunctional backgrounds must be overcome. Those who have struggled with abuse, addi