What Does the Future of the Traditional Mission Agency Look Like?

by Eldon Porter

The paradigm shift in missions from a primarily Western to a now-global phenomena is profound and far-reaching, particularly for the leadership of traditional mission agencies.



The paradigm shift in missions from a primarily Western to a now-global phenomena is profound and far-reaching, particularly for the leadership of traditional mission agencies. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE wrote, “When the rate of change inside your organization is less than the rate of change outside your organization, the end is in sight.” The challenge of transitioning a traditional Western mission agency into one capable of thriving in the new global paradigm undoubtedly constitutes one of the most difficult jobs in missions today.  

In a retreat center just outside of San Jose, Costa Rica, Latin American mission leaders gathered to reflect on how missions was being done across the continent. A group of North American agency CEOs sat at the back of the room listening to the reports. One CEO leaned over to the others and said, “We prayed for years that God would raise up a missions movement out of Latin America and he has. But what we never anticipated was how profoundly this would impact us as an agency.”  

In an informal survey forty-five North American CEOs were asked the question: “When you wake up at 2 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep because you are thinking about a concern related to your job, what is it?” The number one concern revolved around the question of the value a mission agency brings to the local church in the current mission reality. One commented, “In the past, the Church couldn’t do missions without us, but today many churches are involved directly and don’t seem to need us like they once did.” The second biggest concern was financial in nature. The traditional economic engine that sustains the administrative structure of the agency has been a percentage charged on the support dollar. With the increasing difficulty of recruiting qualified long-term missionary candidates, many agencies find themselves facing considerable financial challenges.  

There are two significant changes that have driven this paradigm shift in missions. The first is the growth of the Majority World Church and its mission movement. The vast majority of missionaries serving cross-culturally around the world now come from non-Western countries.  The second change is globalization, which is driven in part by new communication tools that increasingly allow individuals, churches, and ministries to be globally interconnected.

The challenge for agency leadership is to understand the value-add their agency can bring to both the local church’s mission program (be that a church in Chicago or Santiago) as well as to the national Church that is near or even part of the context of field ministry.

There is a growing realization that an agency’s primary value-add for the local church is shifting away from the services offered through the sending office, toward the services offered on the field or ministry context. Historically, each agency has managed its own sending functions (mobilization, promotion, screening, selection, training, the financial services of receipting donations and transferring funds to the field, church and donor relations, and member care).

These services consume upwards of ninety percent of an agency’s administrative dollar and large numbers of personnel. Maintaining these structures is the financial challenge many agencies are facing. It isn’t that these services are no longer needed, but rather that many of these services can be done by the local church, outsourced, or done in partnership with other agencies at a significantly lower cost. The day when an agency needed a large sending office building and the related office staff is a thing of the past. The challenge today is not so much in the sending, but rather in the receiving of missionaries into ministry context.

In the globalized, interconnected world of today, the agency is uniquely positioned in the ministry context to receive missionaries and local church involvement from anywhere in the world (receiving the missionary, overseeing his or her language and orientation process, supervising his or her ministry, managing funds on the field, providing member care as needed, etc.). Understanding the challenges of cross-cultural ministry combined with the agency’s relationship with the national Church positions it to be a vital partner in today’s mission environment.  

But change is never easy, especially for a traditional agency. The cost of maintaining a large sending office staff is not sustainable in today’s reality. And, not surprisingly, there are troubling signs that some agencies are not adapting well. This is seen in both the finance and personnel departments. It is not uncommon to hear of offices cutting services for their missionaries while maintaining or increasing the percentage charged on the support dollar for administration. Some agencies have been forced to sell assets or borrow against reserves just to keep their administrative office open.

On the personnel side, many working in mobilization speak of the pressure they are under to “keep the numbers up.” In the past, it was fairly common for an agency to require Bible training and ministry experience before candidates were accepted as members. Many of those in mobilization today admit that their agency would have closed their doors if they had continued with the standards for membership required fifteen or twenty years ago.

While most did not anticipate the impact of the paradigm shift on the traditional agency, we are now beginning to see basic themes emerge that undoubtedly will be foundational in the future. I will begin by sharing about these themes and conclude with some predictions as to what I believe Western agencies will look like in the future.    

Theme #1: Never before has the local church been so directly involved in global missions. Both the sending Church and the receiving Church are asserting their rightful place in how missions is being done. One mission pastor said, “Agencies can no longer expect the church to just pay, pray, and stay away.” Another pastor asked, “When will the agencies ask us how they can help us do missions rather than always trying to convince us to support their program?”

Theme #2: Mission agencies no longer all look alike, but rather fall into one of three categories. There are the traditional agencies that provide all the services with administrative structures at both the sending side and on the field. Today, some of these agencies are adapting by using their sending structure to send missionaries to serve with other agencies while at the same time encouraging their field teams to receive missionaries sent by other agencies or churches from around the world.

The second type of agency, found primarily in Europe and Latin America, serves as a cooperative sending structure. These agencies partner with the local church to send missionaries and then loan their missionaries to other agencies or national-led ministries who receive them, providing oversight and member care for them in their ministry context. A significant change for these agencies is that they no longer only loan missionaries to other agencies but now are loaning a growing percentage of their missionaries to national-led ministries. The third kind of agency is relatively new. They have no sending base of their own, but rather focus exclusively on the receiving of missionaries sent by others. These agencies tend to excel at partnering with national churches in the receiving of missionaries.

Theme #3: Networks today are used to connect with other key players either to share information or to form strategic alliances around a common goal. In the past, most networking was done “in house” with others in the same agency. It is not surprising that today local churches, agencies, philanthropists, and other network representatives are attending network meetings to find potential partners. Due to the valuable services they offer, global mission community networks are becoming the primary platform for effective leadership in missions. Linking Global Voices is a website that tracks over four hundred missions-related networks globally with the express purpose of highlighting the role of networks in global missions.

It is always dangerous to make predictions about the future, but I would like to identify key issues that I think will characterize Western agencies in the coming years.

Local churches will assume a more strategic role in global missions. Some agencies will go as far as to grant membership to both churches and missionaries.

Sending structures will be simplified and downsized in most cases. The amount each missionary is charged to cover home office administration is in most cases excessive in light of the alternatives. Many of the services traditionally offered by each individual agency will be outsourced and in many cases done in partnership with the local church. Cooperative sending offices will emerge at both the local church and agency levels. These structures will provide the sending office services for any number of agencies or national-run ministries capable of receiving their missionaries.  

Traditional agencies will move top leadership out of sending offices and into field-based leadership positions in an effort to strengthen their capacity to receive well. The agency’s value-add for the local church has clearly shifted away from the sending and into ministry context. We are moving from a “pushing” to a “pulling” paradigm.

A key standard of excellence in an agency’s capacity to receive missionaries will be its effectiveness of doing that in partnership with what God is doing in and through the local church in the ministry context. This will include both their capacity to receive missionaries for “their own” ministries as well as for other ministries in that context.  

An agency’s ability to tie into relevant networks at individual, ministry, and agency levels will greatly enhance its effectiveness in the global paradigm. And while these networks in the past serviced just their own members, today networks are intentionally networking with other networks in order to better service their clients. An example would be an association of evangelicals in a particular country that works closely with global networks focused on youth, human trafficking, refugees, and theological education. The synergy of these networks coming together focused on the needs of a particular context creates an environment that agencies will increasingly want to be a part of.

I am often asked if I think traditional Western agencies will be able to transition effectively into the new reality. Undoubtedly some will, but many will not for the simple reason that those with the authority to make the hard decisions required for change are those who will be most negatively affected by the change. This is particularly true in those cases where the benefit packages for sending office personnel is subsidized significantly by field missionaries. Being able to transition a traditional agency into one that thrives in the new global paradigm is undoubtedly a very challenging job.  

Eldon Porter serves as a consultant for global engagement within the evangelical mission community. He grew up in a missionary family in Nigeria and served for twenty-one years in Bolivia. After four years as part of SIM International’s leadership team, they moved away from the traditional mission agency environment to support continental mission networks such as Missio Nexus (North America), COMIBAM (Ibero-America), and MANI (Africa). He manages www.LinkingGlobalVoices.com and coaches network leaders around the world.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 234-238. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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