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We’ve Changed Our Mind About Missions

Pastor, I’d like take a few moments and ask you a question.  It’s a question that I asked myself several years ago while pastoring Shenandoah Baptist Church.  It’s a question that ended up taking me in a different path in my ministry in ways I could not have imagined.

A Real Ministry Scenario

Let me paint a scenario for you in which to frame the question. Consider two young people who grow up in the same local church.  Both are taught missions and both are aware of the significance of being a part of a mission-minded church.  Both prosper in Christian nurture, growth, and service.  Both attend the same highly-approved Bible college and seminary.  During the time of their education, one senses the call to go into cross-cultural ministry and prepares for that type of ministry.  The other senses the call to prepare for a hometown pastoral ministry and does so.

They both graduate at the same time and call their church pastor for advice and counsel as to the next steps.  Here is where the story changes:

  • To the person preparing for hometown ministry, the pastor says “We are so glad to hear that you have been called to this ministry.  We’re sending you a check to cover your moving expenses.  We have an office for you.  Your salary will be as we have discussed plus you will have the same benefits package as the rest of the staff. Welcome to the ministry.”
  • To the person preparing for a cross-cultural ministry, the pastor says “We are so glad to hear that you have been called to this ministry.  You will need to select a mission board who will help you raise prayer and financial support.  When you have selected a field, please contact us and we will do our best to have you speak to our congregation about the work God has called you.  We wish you every success and will be praying for you.”

While I may have taken some liberty with the specific details of the above scenario, I believe it happens all too frequently in hundreds of local churches today.  Here is my question:

Why do we preach missions as a priority and respond to missions’ needs and opportunities as options?  Why is the work at home “ours” and the work abroad “theirs”?

When I became pastor at Shenandoah Baptist Church, we followed the approach outlined above.  So entrenched were we that it did not occur to me that it should be challenged.  Yet, the deeper I got into the process, the more questions it raised in my mind and heart.  Is this process Biblical?  How did it develop?  Is there a better, and Biblical, way? 

After significant study, it became clear to me that the evangelical church, even since the Reformation, has not been willing to examine its responsibility to world missions.  For the last four hundred years it has been blinded with a problem.  While some local churches have accepted their opportunity and responsibility for world missions as primary to their purpose, the vast majority of our local Bible-believing congregations still treat missions as an option and missionaries as orphans.  As a local church pastor, I became convinced this needed to change and determined to do so.

The Contemporary Norm

The first step I took was to change my attitude.  Then, I needed to lead the church and our missionary friends to change theirs.  The problem that I saw was that our view of missions had been shaped by our evangelical heritage where we assumed the way missions has been done in the past is the way it should be done today. Missions was the work of boards, agencies, and individuals. The local church was not expected to do anything but respond to requests for prayer and funds.  Missionaries and boards would do everything else.  The local church had no other responsibility but to support them in their work.  Its praying and giving would be incidental…and insufficient.

I realize that the above is an over-simplification, but I hope the point is clear.  As I began to ponder this approach to missions that I had been taught and, up to this point, had believed was the only biblical approach, I began to see a much different role for the local church to play, and my attitude about missions began to change.  I’m delighted to report that, over the years I was pastor at Shenandoah, the attitude of the church also changed.  The results that God has given us have been more than we could have ever dreamed.

Our Missionaries are Our Staff

Our traditional approach to missions was to invite a few “missionary candidates” to our Annual World Conference.  Most of these candidates were unknown to us except by letter, phone, and referrals.  Through such information gathering, we learned where these missionaries were going and what they planned to do.  We knew they were in the process of raising support for their work.  They would come to our church at their instigation or our invitation. We had a heart for missions and we wanted involvement.  But the problem was still with us:  the work of missions was still their work and not that of the local church.  This is where we changed our attitude.

If the work of world missions belonged to us as a local church, and as taught in the Scriptures, then we could no longer treat missions as an appendage, option, or burden.  It was to be our central business and deserved center stage in all that we did.  “Foreign” missions must be taught, administered, and funded right along with the rest of everything else we refer to as the church’s work.  Today, missions are the heartbeat of Shenandoah Baptist Church, not an annual point of emphasis.  It took several years to reach this place in our ministry. How did we accomplish this and what does it look like?  In the rest of this article, I’ll outline six steps that we have taken, in faith, and which the Lord has blessed in changing out entire ministry.

Step 1:  We began to refer to our missionaries as “staff”.  This terminology helped us focus our responsibility for them.  They could see their relationship with us was more than that of a “supporting church”. Instead, the missionary became a supporter of the ministry of the local church and its strategy for ministry.  A question then came up: if the church hires other staff as full-time, then why not do the same for missionaries?  We decided we need to treat our missionaries the same, with profound implications outlined next.

Step 2:   Choosing the missionary staff.  We look for God to raise up missionaries within our congregation.  We have a process that starts with identifying potential missionaries at an early age and provide multiple training opportunities.  Should they hear God’s call for missions, after they have received formal seminary training, they are invited to live and work with the local church for an extended internship.  During this time, the candidates minister in the local church and are observed and nurtured in personal growth patterns and personal relationships.  Gifts, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses are evaluated.

Step 3:  Matching the missionary staff to a field targeted by the local church.  We work with boards, agencies, and missiologists to keep us informed of desired targets for missionary work.  These specialists certainly know more about those needs than does the local church, so we depend on them for information.  At the same time, the church knows more about its staff.  By matching the knowledge of a missions agency with the staff knowledge of the local church, a more effective and strategic placement can be made.

Step 4:  We choose the agency to which our staff will be assigned.  This is a three-way decision that includes the church, agency, and staff.  Using this approach, a three-way bond of interdependence and responsibility is established.

Step 5:  Delegate authority to the agency and instruct the staff to be accountable to the agency.  There are some limits to this delegation.  By not delegating all authority, the church maintains its responsibility which it must have in order to remind us that the work of world missions belongs to the church.

Step 6:  Fully fund the work.  We fund our missionary staff at 100% just as we do all of our staff.  This is a matter of faith.  Some have raised the question about the inability of some churches to fully support a missionary.  There are many ways I respond to this concern, but let me raise one question:  Is it proper for fifty or one-hundred people to say ‘We can’t support YOU’ while saying to one ‘YOU must raise your support’?  Whose work is this, anyway?

Conclusion

You may well be asking “Pastor, does this really work? If so, how did you do it?”

The results we have seen from this approach to missions has been most gratifying.  We have several missionaries that we fully fund and are serving in fields we believe the Lord would have us serve. There is close and personal relationship between them and the church family.  These missionaries know that the congregation does more than send a check: they are involved in missions’ work around the world.

This brief article can neither address all problems we encountered, how we solved them, nor answer your questions. Perhaps it will stimulate your thinking to seriously address the question brought to my heart over ?? years ago:  Missions:  Whose work is this, anyway?

This article is a condensed version of a speech given by Robert L. Alderman, Pastor at Large, Shenandoah Baptist Church to a group of pastors at a BMW Pastors Summit.  Editor:  Clark Macaulay