by Paul Borthwick
I am writing this as someone committed to the local church and the local church’s role in world evangelism.
I am writing this as someone committed to the local church and the local church’s role in world evangelism. I served more than 15 years as the minister of missions at Grace Chapel, a large, nondenominational evangelical church in Lexington, Mass., leading a department which supported dozens of missionaries and projects and national partners through a total mission budget of almost $900,000.
I also had many opportunities to interact with other churches—informally in resource-sharing, and formally as a speaker or seminar leader. Through travel, involvement with Advancing Churches in Missions Commitment, and teaching, I’ve probably interacted with leaders from several hundred “missions-minded” churches. I’m not boasting. I just want to give you some insider information to either reaffirm what you’re doing or help you relate more effectively with your church constituency.
A seminar at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Conn., on “The Impatience of the Local Church With Traditional Sending Agencies” provoked me to start asking (myself and others): What messages do local churches want to send to mission agencies? Rather than stirring up mutual criticism, how can we facilitate conversation?
WHAT I BELIEVE
Knowing something of the modern tensions between mission agencies and local churches (especially large churches with missions pastors and megabudgets), I thought I’d clear the air at the outset and tell you what I believe about some of the hottest issues. I believe that in the current North American mission enterprise:
1. Churches operating autonomously as mission agencies tread on very dangerous ground. They may repeat the same errors or become the very bureaucracies they’re rebelling against.
2. Churches with the highest investments in world missions usually place the highest demands on mission agencies. A professional staff (missions pastor or administrator), multiple missionaries, and involvement in groups like ACMC all contribute to increased expectations. Agencies need to decide on at least two layers of local-church strategies—with the larger, more-demanding churches and with the smaller (attendance fewer than 200) churches.
3. We’re working in an imperfect system. The observations below may make you say, “But it shouldn’t be that way.” Agreed; it shouldn’t, but it is, and if we’re dedicating ourselves to changing churches and missions systems, we must start by acknowledging where we are.
4. The advent of increasingly internationalized mission agencies, with multinational staff and several international offices, certainly intensifies the complexities when it comes to involving the North American church. Managing these complexities requires another article. For our purposes, I’m speaking primarily to North America-based agencies working with North American churches.
WHAT’S THE MESSAGE?
I hear churches with a heart for evangelism and a commitment to the Great Commission sending at least six messages to mission agencies.
1. “Get us involved.” Hands-on involvement leads all other requests. If an agency builds on short-termers, it’s wonderful news. If you’re in pioneer work where short-term visitors often do more harm than good, it can cause tension. Consider one example. Just before I left for Nepal for a nationwide conference for youth leaders, I spoke at a church’s “Missions Weekend.” I asked the director of missions, “Would your church like to pray for or support the Nepal conference somehow?” She said No: “We don’t have any current involvement with Hindus.” The message? “We’re having a tough enough time educating our congregation related to the people and projects we’re already involved in. If there’s no involvement, please don’t introduce something new.”
The mission agency’s function is to get the job done. It has a defined task, a stated mission, and a clear-cut vision. The agency sees local churches as biblically commissioned partners who can help get the job done through giving, praying, supporting, and sending. Agencies are asking, “How can thelocal church help us fulfill the Great Commission?”
The function of local church missions leaders is to educate and mobilize the people in the pew for the Great Commission. With that function in mind, church leaders look for the best avenues possible to get this done. They’re committed to the task of the Great Commission, but their first commitment is to change the lives of their parishioners. Church mission leaders ask, “How can agencies help us transform our people with a broader, more Christlike worldview?”
When it comes to getting involved, the agency might conclude, “Well, we’d love to involve you, but your hands-on involvement really doesn’t help us fulfill our task, mission, and vision.” In contrast, local church leaders, who have already discovered that first-hand involvement is their best tool for education, mobilization, recruitment, and life change, conclude: “Well, I guess that agency doesn’t want to work with our church.”
Cindy Judge, a leader in the International Ministries Department at Willow Creek Community Church, attended the OMSC seminar in December, 1997, and wrote an open-letter response to the participants. She illustrated this “hands-on-involvement” thrust this way: “In my present setting at Willow Creek Community Church, we want to help educate our people and provide synergy between home base and field ministry. We try to do this by making the partnerships mutually beneficial. If there is not a demonstrated desire by the mission agency to help guide this process and facilitate the two parties working together, the church will no doubt find some other group that will work . . . towards a partnership. This includes avenues of service for people to become involved first hand. This can work out very well, though I think if an agency chooses to detour this kind of involvement, (it) will miss the opportunity to envision and educate interested lay people and the future involvement with these people.”
2. “Tell us where our money is going.” Today’s system assumes that local churches and individuals will give monthly support with few questions other than, “How can we pray for you?”
But today’s churches ask a lot more questions. Church leaders simultaneously demand that agencies factor in retirement programs, children’s education, and health care, and then complain, “How come the missionary’s monthly support requirement is so high?”
The advent of big-churches-sending-their-own-missionaries arose partly as a response to escalating costs. But some of these cost-cutting measures are illusory, because the administrative costs, home office costs, and support staff costs get absorbed into the overall church budget.
Mission agencies must be prepared to deal with a church’s money questions directly. They usually relate to:
- Administrative fees. “Where does the 15 percent go? Why is it so high? Wouldn’t your small agency be better off if you merged with another so that these administrative costs could be spread out over a larger pool?” Wise mission agencies explain their administrative fees to donors at least once per year.
- Targets. “How much of the money we send really gets to the desired destination? Why should we support the national church through your mission if you take 10 percent “service fee” off the top when we can wire the money directly to our overseas partners for a bank charge of $25?”
- Integrity. “Do some independent auditors endorse your financial practices? Can we be sure of truthfulness in your reports?”
- Timing. “Why does it take us so long to get answers to basic financial questions?” One mission agency took so long to respond to a financial proposal from a church that the church moved on to another agency.
- New ideas. “If we (local church leaders) have some new ideas about raising support or managing the home office, will you listen with an open mind?” Church leaders who want to support their own missionaries 100 percent, for example, often get their strongest opposition from agencies; the church leaders interpret the resistance as anunwillingness to change.
Church mission leaders ask, “Is the agency at least willing to talk to us about our changing times and the changes in the financial picture?” Here are two examples—the first of an agency stuck in an old paradigm, the second of an agency willing to reevaluate.
a) A missionary came to our church seeking support. Her total need was about $36,000 per year. She worked in the home office writing grant proposals to foundations. I asked her how much money her proposals raised in the previous year. She mentioned an amount over $400,000. I replied with what our church thought was a “no-brainer” question: “Why doesn’t your mission set aside 10 percent of the foundation money you raise for your support? I think this is an acceptable practice today.”
“Oh, no,” she replied. “Everybody in our mission has to live by the same standard of fund raising—whether on the field or in the office.” While I appreciated the spirit of the answer, I told her and her mission that I thought today’s donor would think her answer crazy—especially given the amount of time and effort required of the home staff to raise support.
Neither the mission nor the missionary wanted to consider reevaluating a support policy that the founder had set over 100 years ago (when none of the money came from foundations).
b) In a discussion with another agency’s financial team, we talked about the short attention span of today’s givers and how the old $10 a month, every month, for a four-year term approach didn’t work so well with the impulse-driven, credit-card, bank-by-computer generation. I suggested a new model, where a missionary raises all of the support needed for four years right up front. Rather than the full four-year amount (say, $200,000), however, the missionary says to supporters, “If you’ll help me raise $160,000 up front, we’ll put this money in mutual funds and the interest earned will round out our support—saving the church $40,000 total, or $10,000 per year.”
The agency financial team agreed to investigate the idea and its implications—financially and spiritually. Now the idea is probably bogus for a dozen reasons, but at least the agency was willing to think outside of the paradigms designed to recruit donors living the economic lifestyle of the 1950s or 1960s.
3. “Involve us in the screening and training of candidates.” Almost every agency I’ve ever interacted with agrees heartily with this concept. The agency knows that the local church leadership knows candidates personally, even if the agency knows how to train candidates cross-culturally. The message here from local churches to agencies is simply, “Let’s intensify this process.”
Local church leaders must be recruited early in the sending process, not after a candidate is screened and oriented and started in support raising. I realize that much of the fault here lies with the local church. Personnel directors try to contact pastors without getting responses. Missions committees see themselves as distributors of money, not counselors of potential missionaries.
Nevertheless, the local church usually desires greater input in screening and sending candidates. We need agencies to help us think through what this means. We need agencies to say to us, “If you folks won’t rise up and help in this process, then we cannot send this candidate.” Churches need agencies to force them to take greater responsibility in sending.
One church addresses this issue through negotiating three-way covenants between missionary, agency, and home church. Each signer outlines what is expected in training and sending. The candidate knows what he or she must do, the agency outlines what it will do, and the church leaders understand what they must do. Sending becomes a true partnership.
4. “Let us participate in strategic thinking.” Involving churches in strategic thinking might frustrate or terrify a mission agency. The North American church’s approach to strategy is too often, “Hey, it worked in our neighborhood; we think it should work around the world.”
Involving churches at this level means more work for the mission agency. It means taking the time to train church leaders in missiology. It means helping church mission leaders brainstorm realistically on adopting a people group. It means getting informed enough about churches to take advantage of their areas of expertise, such as church planting or small group ministry.
Danny Harrell of the historic Park Street Church in Boston pastors the Sunday evening congregation of 600 or more people, mostly from Generation X. The congregation sent out a Chinese, Spanish-speaking medical student to Bolivia. Danny and his leadership team met with SIM-Bolivia to brainstorm over strategy. The GenX congregation forced the SIM leadership to “think outside the box.” The resulting strategy would involve more than 30 other Park Street members joining this medical student for short trips to work with street children in La Paz in the course of a year. Their partnership involved live-link video or computer reports to the church service every Sunday night, and a lot of new thinking.
Danny said the project had a huge impact on the congregation’s members—informing them, calling them to pray, and recruiting them to give. And he praised the folks at SIM because “they allowed us to think strategically with them about ways we could join together to fulfill the mission to the kids in La Paz, and to enlarge the vision of our people back home.”
One other reality related to strategic thinking: For the local church, thinking strategically means working with national leadership, at least in areas where the church is established. Cindy Judge of Willow Creek Community Church admits that the church’s strategy has focused on Latin America, “where churches seem farther along with indigenous leadership.” She writes about the strategic mindset of the lay people: “The mission-minded layperson has been hearing for years that missionaries are working themselves out of a job and empowering national leadership. We found that our laypeople expected it to be obvious to be working with nationals rather than missionaries from the U.S.”
5. “Speak to us in terms we understand.” Several times here I’ve referred to the “Great Commission” without any explanation, because I assume that missiological readers know the term well. We cannot assume the same with those in local churches. I once gave an entire Sunday school class on missions, referring frequently to the Great Commission. After class, I asked a man what he thought the Great Commission was. He was a new believer without any church background or Christian upbringing. He replied, “I don’t know—about 30 percent?” I had spent an entire class speaking in terms he did not understand.
Therefore, talking about “strategic initiatives with indigenous church leadership doing E-3 evangelism through power encounters and ethnomusicology with the XYZ unreached people group” might communicate with a professional missions pastor, but what about a lay committee that administers missions?
The senior pastor of one church told me that he said “No” to an agency’s presentation simply because he was too embarrassed to admit that he didn’t understand what the presenters were talking about.
But it is not just the complicated missiological words. This linguistic problem hits us most strongly with the current use of the terms “mission” and “missions” in the local church. Every church is asking, “What is our mission?” In one church, every pastor is a “mission director” and heads a leadership group called a “mission committee.” The word “mission” in the minds of most pertains to task, vision, or function. “Cross-cultural” or “international” must be inserted to communicate the ideas we’re after.
We can ring our hands all we want about the “dumbing down” of missions, but the fact remains: If the average local church does not understand the international world and the language of cross-cultural ministry, its gifts and prayers will dry up. We must make sure that we’re mobilizing the local church in terms thatlocal church people understand.
6. “Speak to us honestly.” Those who give away the missions money of the local church can easily become jaded by the exaggerations, hype, and smooth talking sometimes associated with fund raising. The church leaders who will make the greatest long-term contributions to partnerships with mission agencies are saying, “Speak to us honestly.”
Speak to us honestly about results. I’m fully aware that every church leader needs to be reminded of this as well. We need to maintain the highest standards of integrity in reporting the impact of ministry. Don’t inflate the statistics on church attendance using Easter figures. Don’t identify a church as being planted by “your” mission if three other agencies are also taking credit for the same church.
Speak to us honestly about transitions. Don’t call it a “strategic merger” if it’s a “bail-out” plan where a larger ministry is absorbing a smaller one because the smaller one is drowning financially. If a leader is fired, tell supporting churches graciously so as not to hurt the individual or organization, but don’t cloak it in pious language: “Our former president sensed God calling him elsewhere.” Right. After the board gave him the boot!
Church leaders committed to world evangelism can deal with honesty. When organizations try to sugarcoat some of the harsh realities of survival in the organizational world, savvy business people in the lay leadership of the church wonder if the organization can be trusted.
I look forward to an article in which an agency leader will respond to these remarks with a list of “What agencies are saying to local churches.” For now, I submit these thoughts with the hope that they will provoke greater discussion, growth together, and strategic partnerships for the advance of the kingdom of Christ.
Paul Borthwick, director of the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Youth Commission, is on staff with Development Associates International. He was formerly minister of missions at Grace Chapel, Lexington, Mass.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 324-333. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.