By Dale Meade
An elder recently wrote asking how to rate or qualify people who presented themselves to the church seeking missionary support. His church was using many commonly held ideas about missions and missionaries in making its decisions. Some were quite good, but others were questionable or misguided concepts about what it takes to make a successful missionary.
To answer the letter I had to stop and think a bit myself. What does it really take to make a missionary? How should we judge those who ask for our support?
What Are the Standards?
How we evaluate demonstrates how we value missions. Too many times a judgment about potential missionaries is made based on simple assumptions that have little to do with what chance the person has to be an effective evangelist on the foreign field. One church leader told me his congregation had supported a certain couple “because they were hard up and really needed our support.” Did that qualify them as missionaries? Certainly by itself it did not. The appraisal on another occasion: “They are a cute young couple with such adorable kids.”
We need to understand what qualifies a person to serve effectively as a missionary. Our fellowship has one of the largest numbers of missionaries on the foreign field, yet the results are often meager compared with other groups whose missionary force is much smaller than our own. Stewardship demands that we ask why.
What Is a Missionary?
The word missionary has been so widely applied that at times it is hard to know what we mean when we use it. I wholeheartedly support Bible colleges and church camps. I appreciate immensely and have used and been blessed by social service ministries such as International Disaster Emergency Services. But when I use the word missionary I will hold closely to the biblical model: a missionary is one who extends the gospel into new areas.
The job of the missionary, then, is to preach the good news, establish churches, train leaders for those churches, and instill in those churches a genuine social conscience and a desire to evangelize. All other work should support this primary ministry in some meaningful manner.
So when we develop a missions program in the church, we should determine our goals and be certain that our efforts have a sharply defined purpose. Complementary ministries are fine, but they should support the spreading of the gospel in a genuine and meaningful manner.
Once we have defined missions, we can begin to rate the candidate. But in order to pick a candidate, we must ask ourselves how important the job is to us. We must rate ourselves before we rate the missionary.
What Importance Do We Place on the Job?
There are two primary ways to determine the importance we place on a job: (1) the amount of money we are willing to pay for the service and (2) the education we demand of the practitioners of that job skill.
Jesus alluded to the first when he stated, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). If our treasure is the spreading of the gospel, then the poverty of a person asking for support is not so much the issue as the job they are doing or planning to do.
One church decided to drop a missionary because he was “spending too much on himself.” Yes he was spending a lot on himself. After all, the missionary’s salary was about half that of the typical local preacher! But if somebody really believes missionaries must be poor, what does that say about the value placed on missionaries and their service?
That church demonstrated its values; where its treasures were. The resultant action said a great deal about the heart of that congregation.
Paul could say he knew what it was to have plenty (Philippians 4:12). Not very many of our missionaries would dare write such an audacious statement to a supporting church. Very few would know what it means to have plenty; and if they did, admitting it would probably mean losing support!
In the parable of the talents, the one who had the most was given more because he had demonstrated a capacity to administer what he had (Matthew 25:14-30). Perhaps that parable and the values it taught should be taken into account when we determine if a missionary deserves our support.
The education we demand of a missionary also demonstrates the value we place on his or her work. In biblical times, the exemplary missionary was the apostle Paul, who was highly educated. I once heard a discussion of a pitiful young man whose talents and capacities were obviously limited. Some suggested he never should have been encouraged to go to Bible college. But then one person piped up and gleefully added, “He’ll never make a preacher but he could be a missionary.” I did not know whether to pity the young man or the person making that preposterous observation!
Are we sending our best and our brightest, or those for whom we can find no other use? If we are to send our brightest, then we also need to demand and provide quality education.
Continuing education is necessary for all professions. Wise elders will require continuing education of their preacher. The same is true of the wise mission board of the missionaries they support.
But not everyone sees it that way. When I took my first sabbatical after 15 years on the mission field, one church wrote to ask why I was wasting my time studying, since I was preaching to illiterate natives. Another threatened to drop support if I took more classes. I was so shocked by that myopic vision that I did not know how to answer.
We insist on proper training for school teachers because we value the education of our children so much. We seek out highly trained medical professionals because we value our health. How much do we value the work we ask missionaries to do?
I asked one poorly performing missionary about his training. “Oh yes, I had a couple of classes in missions while in Bible college,” he beamed, as if a couple of classes were more than enough. No one would question his dedication or hard work, but no one could deny the results were pathetic. But was that his fault, or that of churches that sent him out unprepared for the job they expected of him?
Maybe his experience illustrates an attitude that causes many problems. Maybe this is why we send out so many, only to have them return in failure and humiliation after a short and fruitless time on the field. Maybe this is why so many dedicated and zealous missionaries produce such meager results. Are they at fault, or are we? Before supporting someone, we need to ask ourselves, “What makes a missionary?” Missions education and training must become the requirements for supporting a missionary candidate.
How Will We Decide to Support?
When a person asks the church for support, how are we to evaluate that request? We should have clear goals for our church and our missions program. We should question whether we can build a personal relationship with this person. We should question our commitment to that person and to the goals we have stated. We should question the preparation.
With such questions in mind, maybe we can see the kind of response to the gospel attained by the early church, because our value system will match theirs.
Dale Meade is a 32-year veteran of missionary work in Colombia, South America, and holds a PhD in missions/intercultural studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.