If your missions program is struggling and young families are sneaking off for brunch on Missions Sunday, here are five suggestions that just might breathe new life into your missions ministry.
Do any of these sound familiar?
- The “Parade of Missionaries” on Sunday morning as the choir sings a spirited rendition of “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.”
- Missionary “speed-dating” as missionaries are given five minutes to introduce themselves as they are quickly rotated from one Sunday School class to the next, hoping someone will like them.
- The missionary luncheon in which a handful of missionaries speak, but the only thing remembered is the food quality.
- The Sunday night service, where selected missionaries pay little attention to their 5-minute speaking slots while showing poorly-edited PowerPoint presentations.
- Missionary-home-group-dinner-meetings, where host families sweat it out hoping the invited missionaries don’t outnumber the home-group attendees.
- The “clothes closet,” where missionaries can try on clothes other people no longer want to wear.
- The “spa day” for the women missionaries and the “golf day” for the men—whether they want one or not.
- The welcome basket with goodies, including a book written by the pastor.
And, of course, the all-important missionary display booths, which some mission committee members are so excited about that they get goosebumps.
There are slight variations, of course, including the men’s missionary prayer breakfast and the women’s brunch, but in my three decades of attending missions conferences, this “formula” pretty well summarizes most of them. Perhaps that is why I’ve witnessed young couples sneaking out the side doors to get brunch after learning it was “Missions Sunday.” Frankly, I’d just as soon join them, even though I’m often the main conference speaker.
Despite declining faith promise budgets and interest, for many churches, next year’s missions conference is going to look amazingly similar to this year’s—which looked eerily similar to the conference last year, which looked almost identical to the one the year before that.
In candid moments, the discouragement of missionaries attending conferences is palpable. Most pack up their display booths with just about every flyer or brochure they brought, feeling successful if they managed a few names on their “email sign-up list.” Missionaries are even facing a new, ironic twist in some churches: NO SOLICITING. Yes, that’s right, some churches are now asking their missionaries to sign “no soliciting” agreements or face their support being dropped. Really.
One of the problems, as I see it, is that most missions committee members and chairpersons believe their missions program and conference is a wonderful exception and point to their conference comment cards as proof. I asked a missionary friend if he was honest when filling out the comment card. He laughed and said, “Are you kidding me? Why on earth would I bite the hand that feeds me?”
So if your missions program is struggling and young families are sneaking off for brunch on Missions Sunday, below are five suggestions that just might breathe new life into your missions ministry. Of course, some of these are sure to hurt the feelings of missions committee members. As every pastor knows, the easiest feelings to hurt are those of well-meaning church volunteers. And with good reason. The church volunteer’s way of doing something is always much better than most people’s way of doing nothing. But there simply has to be a better way.
Five Ways to Revitalize Your Missions Ministry
#1. Cancel your missions conference. Yes, I know, that’s almost blasphemy. Even so, I suggest having a farewell party to celebrate the end of your annual missions conferences. Eat cake, sing songs, tell stories, and celebrate the many years of missions conferences of yesteryear.
Missions conferences used to be the only way we could get information from the field. But that was before the information age gave us instant access to almost anything and everything—including missions. Say goodbye to display tables hardly anyone ever visits. Then, announce you are embarking on a new and exciting path for missions today.
#2. Integrate. Instead of a “one-week-a-year” missions conference, make missions a part of your everyday life. When did this separation of church and missions begin anyway—including a completely separate budget? Isn’t missions and making disciples as much a part of worship as any other aspect of church life?
For some reason, many churches have missions as a separate, outside-the-budget-faith-promise item which is only focused on once a year. We don’t use “faith promise” to pay our pastoral staff or operate the youth and music ministries. So why have we done that with missions? Isn’t it ALL by faith promise? Integrate missions back into your ongoing church plans and budget and two good things will result—the needs of the believers in Jerusalem will be met, and they will joyfully express their thanks to God (2 Cor. 9:12).
#3. Retire your mission committee. Yikes! These are fighting words. But come on, does anyone really want to be on a committee? Try this on: change your thinking from “missions committee” to “missions promoters.” This change alone can make a world of difference. We need to find ways to breathe much-needed life and fun back into our mission plans and thinking.
For example, what would Steven Spielberg do if he were promoting your missions ministry? Or, think how your congregation would learn about your mission plans and opportunities if a talented marketing agency were put in charge. Sure, you don’t have big budgets, but you do have talented and creative people in your church. The goal is to build enthusiasm as you inform and challenge your members about being a part of making disciples of all nations. Challenge (beg if you must) some young creative members to be on your “missions promoters” team. Assign each promoter one or two existing missionaries and ask them to help “tell the story” of your missionaries to your congregation in engaging, creative ways. And with all the money you’ve saved from not having a mission conference, they already have a budget!
#4. Throw away your missions policy manual. Did you just hear the cheering from your missionaries and committee members? So, how do you determine who and what to support without a policy manual? Maybe we can try asking ourselves these questions:
• Do you want to tell your friends about this missionary, project, or agency?
• Is it something or someone you want to put your own money behind?
• Does it make sense? Is it easy to explain and communicate to others?
• And most importantly, do you sense God’s blessing and joy in it?
There is something very wrong with manuals that say a missionary is done when he or she reaches a certain age, or is not in the right geographical area, or doesn’t have the right initials behind his or her name.
Be wise but flexible. Your missionaries and missions projects should excite and encourage you. There should be a clear sense of God’s leading and blessing. And did I mention sensing God’s joy? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be surrounded by missionaries and projects that ooze God’s joy? Wouldn’t that be a lot more fun to talk about, promote, and fund?
#5. Create “missions moments.” Accept the responsibility that it is your job to effectively communicate your missions ministry and build excitement and enthusiasm in your congregation.
Using today’s technology, “missions moments” have never been easier. A well done 3-minute video, a live Skype chat on Sunday morning with a missionary on the field, or even an enthusiastic report from one of your missionary promoters will make a far more lasting impression than a missionary display table ever will.
Yes, it might mean singing one less song during the service, but having regular missions moments should be as much a part of your worship as anything else. When a missionary is in town, let your “missions promoters” find ways to plug him or her in to whatever is going on in your church. Don’t create something new, just plug them in and let your missions promoters help create a “missions moment” where they can tell a story or provide an update.
“Missions moments” help the missionary and your congregation feel like they really are on the same team working together. If done well, your “missions moments” will be the highlights of your service, Bible study, youth meeting, or Wednesday night supper.
Are these five steps guaranteed to work? Of course not. Breathing new life into a struggling missions ministry is not easy. But if your parade of missionaries, display tables, and missionary luncheons are your primary tools for promoting your missions program, serious changes are needed. If funds are declining, young people are sneaking out the side doors, and missionary-home-group-hosts are sweating it out, serious questions need to be asked. If you’re asking your missionaries to sign “no soliciting” forms, well, rereading Hebrews 11 is probably a good start.
Change, as we all know, is not easy. So I suspect I will still have to walk in a missionary parade, set up my “non-soliciting” display table, and hope someone will like me in my “speed-dating” Sunday School class time. But I won’t be happy about it. Nor should I have to be when there are better options available.
Ed Thompson is a joyful third-generation missionary and director of LOGOI Ministries. LOGOI is a leading Bible resource ministry specializing in on-the-job Bible training for the Spanish World. Ed and his wife, Jennifer, are Wheaton College graduates.
Acknowledging the Unique Qualities of Congregations and Individuals
J. Nelson Jennings
ED THOMSON HAS OFFERED several engaging suggestions about church missions programs. As his negative sounding title implies, Ed is criticizing a missions conference model that many churches faithfully follow. But instead of simply being critical in a negative sense, Ed is encouraging congregations to update to contemporary ways of communicating: “Communicate Missions in a Twenty-First-Century Style!” might just as well serve as a title to what Thompson is positively conveying in his insightful piece.
Like Ed, I have been involved in many conferences over several decades, both as an itinerating missionary and conference speaker. I can relate to all of the disheartening aspects of conferences that he has aptly (often with great wit) described. I also resonate with the more integrated sense of missions that Ed’s piece advocates with respect to overall church life. Furthermore, I have made similar suggestions that the article makes with respect to missions moments and the like, and I have personally seen some of those ideas successfully implemented in local churches.
I am thus on board with the central thrust of his piece. However, I think it helpful to add some qualifiers with which I believe Ed would, for the most part, agree. These qualifiers relate to seeing churches and their individual members in process along ongoing trajectories of growth and understanding about Christian mission. Various congregations and individual Christians have their own unique characteristics and growth points. Those unique qualities need to be acknowledged, embraced, and carefully nurtured.
For example, many churches that run missions conferences have a missions champion who will have been the main motivator of missions engagement for years. One must be careful not to dishonor that stalwart (usually the missions committee chair) by advocating a sudden and sweeping change. Involving more young leadership into the program could bring about desired change without dousing already brightly-burning flames.
On a different point of the experience spectrum, some churches have had no missions programs at all, and their denominational leadership advocates a missions conference approach. While avoiding getting into that model in the first place might be preferred, at least some kind of program (even an outdated missions conference approach) surely is to be preferred over no program at all.
Thank you, Ed, for an effective presentation!
J. Nelson Jennings served in Japan from 1986 to 1999 in church planting and theological education. He taught world mission at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis from 1999 to 2011, then was the Overseas Ministries Study Center executive director and International Bulletin of Missionary Research editor.
Carefully Work through Each Issue
Blow it up, make hamburger from the sacred cow, move my cheese…whatever change metaphor you may want to use reflects what Ed is saying. I found myself laughing out loud as I relived virtually everything he was saying. I also love to challenge the status quo and be an agent of change. Of course I love leading it, but I find it much more difficult when others are forcing change upon me.
So while I agree that we in local churches must do some serious reflection and evaluation on our missions programs and how we present them to our congregations, we must also be careful that we not inflicting a lot of collateral damage when blowing something up. If I read this from a small church point of view, or from a church that is not already committed to missions, I could get really discouraged. After all, where are the models to help? David Mays is with the Lord. ACMC is defunct, and most megachurches deal in budget and strategic nirvana.
So do we really need to cancel our missions conference? Maybe. But maybe we just need to rethink what we are doing. If missionaries are discouraged by conferences, let them develop the conference and put some skin in the game. Why not make it about kids? I have been at plenty of children’s programs that are really bad, but the parents and grandparents are proud as can be. At least the young couples won’t leave and perhaps children could teach us important lessons on culture, prayer, acceptance, love, faith, and so on. What could that do to the TCKs dragged to every conference? Can you see a missionary parent excited about that?
Do you need to integrate? Most definitely! Ed says, “Isn’t missions and making disciples as much a part of worship as any other aspect of church life?” Amen, brother, now convince most pastors to live by that statement. Unfortunately, I find that it doesn’t reflect many church leaders’ priorities.
Should you retire your missions committee? Only if your pastor or church board is going to take on the responsibility to respond to every request for support, interview potential supported workers, care for workers on the field, provide crisis intervention between church and agency, and think strategically how to help the church reach the nations. I think you get the point.
Can you throw away your policy manual? Probably. I find most churches do not have one anyway. Those who do should at least update it to reflect current missions realities. Of course, I will probably keep many things in ours, like how we treat someone if we are going to end support. I suppose I could just call and say, “God is leading us a new direction so we are done. Support ends tomorrow.” Or I could say, “God is leading us a new direction and as a result your support will end in six months according the policy we have established.” Missions is an emotional venture. Often, without policies, emotions conquer the best of intentions. I have seen many train wrecks because of a lack of policies.
I appreciate what Ed is trying to say. Let’s take a serious look at why we are doing what we are doing. And as you get ready to impart major change, make sure it is God leading with the support of your church leadership. Prayer and fasting is the best place to see how God can bring about change. Just be ready, because what he may tell you to do are some of the things Ed is recommending.
Rev. Bruce Huseby serves as pastor of global ministries at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He had previously served in student ministries for twenty-four years. For the past fifteen years his ministry focus has been on global ministries. In addition to serving as chair of a consultation among unreached peoples, Bruce also serves on the Global Leadership Council of the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.
The Blessing of International Students
I APPRECIATE ED THOMPSON STATING painful observations. The stigma of our missions emphasis being dated and irrelevant is unfortunately true for many churches. But there is a way out.
If we are hoping to engage our church members in thinking and responding, we need to create different avenues that challenge thinking and preconceptions. Helping church members cross the line of known and comfortable to diversity and different is critical for long-entrenched assumptions to be broken down. Creative and well-done media is probably the best way to get and keep attention. But providing information alone is not adequate. You want to move your members beyond interest to engagement.
The best way for this to happen is outside of the worship service. This is where I would add to Ed’s suggestions.
We have had the most success in getting people across that barrier when we have invited the congregation to meet and talk with international students. Some of this is highly structured. For example, we live near a university and are part of a multi-church approach of connecting American families with incoming international students. Activities are both planned large group events (i.e., a square dance) and casual once-a-month activities (i.e., playing Rook, apple picking).
Dinner and Dialogue is an evening where we have invited our international student friends to join us for a meal (catered by a local halal restaurant) and conversation. Some have worked better than others—we’ve learned some things we won’t do again. For example, the actual presentation is much less important than the conversation around the tables. It frequently doesn’t stop there. Often, the connections made are followed up with dinners planned in homes. I have received some of the most encouraging emails from families who have gone that extra step and continued the relationships started that evening at church.
Ultimate Frisbee on Friday nights similarly connects families with internationals. Little planning, no budget, and a willingness to show up and play (on our part) creates a great environment. It is easier then to gather later, or on other evenings, in your home.
These students are eager to meet Americans, learn culture, improve their English-speaking ability, and try your home cooking. Your congregation will have their narrow worldviews broadened and will be challenged to think differently. You will most likely end up with invitations to visit them in some of the great cities of the world. This will turn hearts to the nations.
Greg Carter is pastor of global engagement at Liberty Bible Church (EFCA) in Chesterton, Indiana. He is the founder of Future Missionaries, which assists local church leadership in mentoring skills to equip the next generation of missionaries.
More than Conferences, It’s about Captivating People with the Will of the King
MISSIONS IS NOT THE GOAL. It’s only the vehicle. We can get addicted to the work of missions. It’s exciting, challenging work. It can have an air of the exotic, involving places we’ve never been. The scope of the work is captivating.
The danger is getting people interested in the cause, without any interest in the King. Maybe that’s a little strong. Perhaps, people get distracted away from the King. Skye Jethani has written, “Many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God” (2011). When missions alone is the goal, we are working for God from a dwindling resource. Eventually, that vehicle will stop running.
The will of the King on earth, as it is in heaven, is the goal. Missions is a vehicle to move toward that goal.
If we can captivate people with the will of the King, the work of the kingdom will be accomplished. Rallying people to the work of the kingdom (missions) apart from a vital, intimate relationship with the King, is what devolves missions into nothing more than brochures, booths, and board meetings.
When it comes down to it, missions conferences are flailing because of the distance between the person in the pew and the King. Get people closer to the King and you’ll witness rising passion for the work of the kingdom.
Scrapping (i.e., getting rid of or doing away with) missionary parades, dinners, and conferences does not solve the core issue of waning relationship with King Jesus. Any discussion about why missions is waning needs to start with taking the pulse on people’s life with God.
Leaders who get people excited about missions without making sure they are excited about their relationship with Jesus is like loading people on a bus without an engine.
The history of the missions conference in our tribe (The C&MA) actually had little to do with missions. They weren’t even called missions conferences. They were called deeper-life conferences and would last an entire week. Message after message would be given on the work of Jesus rescuing people from sin, how he changes people from the inside out, his restoration of all things, and that he will return as King to make everything right. Only after sitting under a downpour of everything Jesus has done would a message be given about missions. After a week of messages about Jesus’ work, an invitation to join in the work was presented. Missions was an overflow of the life of Jesus.
If you are not confident your church or missions team’s strategy and plan for missions is a result of the overflow of life with Jesus, please don’t propose to bring the demolition crew for an overhaul. Be overwhelmed by the work of Jesus and let the work be an overflow of his.
Here are a couple of questions to spark a conversation among your team:
• In what ways are we putting as much energy into fostering people’s intimacy with the King as we are their work for the King?
• How are we making it clear to people that the goal is the reign of King Jesus in hearts and throughout the world?
Jethani, Skye. 2011. “Has Mission Become Our Idol?” Christianity Today. Accessed September 18, 2015, from www.christianitytoday.com/le/2011/july-online-only/has-mission-become-our-idol.html.
Chad Smith is director of leadership development for The Alliance (C&MA) in Indiana and Illinois. He connects international workers and local churches for the purpose of completing the Great Commission.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 1 pp. 74-83. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.