My Struggles with Traditional Missions – part 1

This past Sunday I taught on world-wide missions: what is broken and where we are going to begin to focus as a church. You can watch the sermon HERE.

For ten years some things about traditional missions have bothered me
– at least my understanding of tranditional missions. I'm not sure I have the answers, but I struggle with several things. And I'm wide open to being corrected on these issues…

Questions I have about missions…

1) Should we be sending missionaries from the USA to non-English speaking countries if they already have the Gospel, Christians, and local churches?

Can you imagine a church in the US successfully reaching people with the Gospel if the pastors have only learned to speak English a couple of years before? How many of those far from God – who speak English – would they likely reach? It doesn't seem very many. The best people to reach English speaking people are English speaking people. If English is your second language, there will be a language barrier for years, decades, and maybe for life.

So it seems to me – that if a county has Christians and local churches – then they are the best ones to reach their own country. Of course, unreached people groups need missionaries to come in, learn their language, lead people to Christ, start a church, and raise up leaders. But what about the countries that already have believers and churches?

I'm not sure I have heard of raging successes of planting churches by US missionaries. I am sure the stories are out there, but I haven't heard many.

I've been in several countries visiting missionaries who have a higher percentage of believers in their country than we have in Monroe County here in New York.

Is it wrong to go to those countries as missionaries? No, I'm sure it isn't. Is it the best investment of our mission's money? I'm sure it can be. But our focus is going to be toward unreached people groups.

Am I thinking wrongly? What am I missing? 

More coming…

DISCLAIMER: In no way am I discounting ALL missions work or even any missions work. Some of my missionary heroes have been in Brazil for decades and we plan to keep supporting them even though there are many believers there. I love any and all missions work. We are just beginning to think through best strategies for a church attempting to embrace and fulfill the Great Commission.

16 comments
  1. I am curious as to what you think is a good “training experience” for missions. I guess I always kind of viewed short-term missions trips as a way to learn the ropes of how a lot of things “work” and even to potentially find a location/people group to come back to long-term. This also begs the question, “is a training experience necessary?” I guess I have a lot of questions on these topics but that’s a start.

  2. David,

    While I agree with you in principle, I can think of at least three situations which may make things a bit less black and white:

    1. Persecution. Many countries, Jordan for instance, have Christian populations, but persecution is very different for them compared to visiting missionaries (as you well know). Missionaries risk being deported, where native Christians risk much more. While all Christians should be ready to give their lives for the gospel, native Christian populates may need strengthening by missionaries from outside to be able to risk that much.

    2. Populations within countries. Just because a country has Christians doesn’t mean all people within a country have heard the gospel. Therefore I would discourage using a country as a unit to determine whether people within its borders are reached or not.

    3. Presentation of the Gospel. Is the gospel knowledge of a fact, or an encounter with Jesus? If someone was told the message by a “follower” who is judgmental and unapologetically hippocritcal, have they been “reached? I think that probably one of the most difficult “unreached” populations is people sitting in churches (American or otherwise) who are trapped in a works-based theology (climbing ladders) – living as Pharisees – without an encounter with Jesus.

    Therefore, I would encourage Northridge to prayerfully consider each missionary and target population on a case-by-case basis, rather than declining to participate in God’s work among populations which may get defined as “reached” according to an arbitrary set of criteria.

    My two cents. Many of which have counterpoints of course.

    We really miss everyone at Northridge. Multi-site is exciting!

  3. David,

    This series has really made me think about missions. I think you are right in your analysis and wouldn’t be a wise steward if practical wisdom didn’t play a role. Just sharing this makes me appreciate that the overall mission of making more and better disciples is essential on a worldwide basis and locally.

    What you are sharing makes sense and makes it easier to support your vision and our shared goals. I think when we look at the apostle Paul’s work we have a great picture of what it is all about. When I watched the video for small groups this week it moved me to tears at how important it is to get the Word translated. It was moving to see how the tribes in Indonesia saw what a blessing and promise and fulfillment of scripture that was happening right before their eyes. I have seen few things that powerful that gave me more of a sense of purpose for missions.

    I currently support a Word of Life missionary who is helping translate French to the people of Togo and I am extremely blessed to be a small piece of support in this mission.

    Thank you so much for the encouragement. We forget what an impact we can still have when we ask prayerfully for discernment of our role in missions.

  4. The ‘raging successes’ I know of are from missionaries who went in with the goal of working themselves out of a job. They called it ‘Indigenous Churches’ when I first heard about it. Those that come to mind have grown to many churches by now and have sent out many missionaries to neighboring areas, over the waters. Some have actually sent missionaries to areas in the US.

  5. Alexi –

    All fair points! I especially love the first one. I totally get the
    second one and agree with it. The third one I agree with although I
    think they need to be held accountable for their countrys spiritual
    development.

    But I think you present a balance to my frustrations.  We still miss you guys and would love to have you back here one day!!

  6. i enjoyed the sermons… agree on the whole… you articulated what i have been mulling over for years. was never sure why i didn’t feel called to do missions abroad. after listening to you, i think you hit the nail right on the head for me.

    Years of work in one place. Like the point about teen mission trips as long as you remember it is to build the teens faith. who knew we would come to North to hear a sermon about how we are turning mission work into a welfare state!

  7. Trevor –

    That is a good question. Im not sure I know the answer. That may be beyond my pay-grade. But I would suggest for someone truly contemplating long-term missions – the best training ground is a short-term trip and ultra-involvement in their local church and evangelism.

    But Im not sure. I dont have solutions!! 🙂

  8. I don’t know the population demographics of Rochester, but one of the advantages of living in a place like NYC is that all (or at least most) of the nations live right here.
    We’re still in the early stages of planting, but our long-term plan for global ministry (I don’t even like the term “overseas missions” anymore) is to form strategic parternships in countries where we have internationals from that country in our congregation, which will hopefully (prayerfully) allow us to partner with gospel-centered churches and ministries in other countries without the usual cultural and communication barriers that tend to hinder global ministry (since the ministry partnerships would be guided from our end by people who are from those countries and therefore speak the language and understand the culture).
    I wholeheartedly agree that the “traditional” approach to global ministry probably needs to be re-thought, and I also believe firmly that we should be wise stewards of the “cultural resources” (for lack of a better term) that God gives to our congregations.
    Glad to see that things are going well with the second site! Continuing blessings…

  9. I think that we need to re-think what kinds of people and what kinds of gifts are needed in different parts of the world and then deploy (and, if necessary, re-deploy) the right people as needed.

    For example, Brazil probably doesn’t need American church-planters to move there and plant churches. But they probably DO need veteran church-planters who can help them motivate, discover, and train a generation of Brazilian church planters, and then be there to help them figure out how to plant churches in Brazil as Brazilians. (One possible exception could be MKs who grew up in Brazil, who wouldn’t struggle with many of the cultural and language barriers that you mentioned in your article.)

    Could an American with those experiences and gifts be useful to have on-site in Brazil all year long? Probably, but maybe not. Maybe that person just needs to make 4-6 trips a year for a week or two at a time to meet with key people and help them take leaps forward with their planning and strategy.

    Another part of the world, though, as you mentioned, might have no church at all. Then, you might need to send in an American church-planter to do it cross-culturally around the clock, at least for a while.

    It is tempting as an American to develop a plan/strategy that we think will “work” in accomplishing the mission and feel it’s our responsibility to take it to the church in various countries and then be the driving force in seeing that plan/strategy/vision accomplished. We don’t do a great job of seeing ourselves as the servants of the church in other countries, there to help THEM be successful and carry out their God-birthed plans/strategies/dreams.

    Somehow in our evaluation processes we need to figure out what a particular region of the world would need from an outside source as a consultant or expert and do our best to provide THAT, even if that narrows significantly the amount of people that we end up sending out.

    Sending Americans to give them what we’ve got (the Gospel and/or our version of church culture), without considering the needs of the church in the region they’re going to smacks a bit too much of colonialism, and provokes more distrust and suspicion than I think we realize.

  10. Do YOU decide who is sent or does God call them? If they are called by God, God will also provide. If you say “we get more bang for my buck with a national”, it sends the clear messege that you don’t think they are worth it. Or, they are worth it but,[insert rationale]. How many called people are marginalized by our frugality. Give freely! …(it aint ours)

  11. Jesse –

    Every church has to make choices with where their missions money – right? No church has unlimited missions money. So every church has to make parameters on how to choose where their money goes – no matter how many missionaries God calls.

    And I do think that we want to be good stewards with our missions money and get the most Great Commission reach out of a limited budget. It doesnt mean you always do what is least expensive, but when you put some of the issues together that I am mentioning in this blog string – then we do want the most effective way to reach the ends of the earth with the most people doing it. I think – when it comes to missions – and working through nationals – most effective and most cost-effective often may go together (often, certainly not always).

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