My subject today is missions. Please don’t yawn.
Sometimes preachers are made to feel a little defensive when promoting this essential part of a church’s life. Announce a “missions emphasis weekend” and watch the attendance plummet. Announce that giving has been falling behind and expenses have to be cut and you can count on a chorus of calls to slash missions giving.
It’s a hard sell—this missions enterprise. That’s why I bring the subject up.
Please don’t be cynical, either. You might object that I think this matter is so important only because I work for a mission agency. The opposite is the case: I work for a mission agency because I think this matter is so important.
This isn’t a new obsession of mine, either. I volunteered to become a missionary more than half a century ago. My health kept my body home, but not my heart, so when I had the privilege of planting a church in 1959, those visionary first members agreed from day one to tithe our offerings to missions—and to increase our giving 2 percent a year. When I left six years later, our outreach giving was 22 percent—and that didn’t include money for camps, colleges, and our church planting organization, which came from our general fund.
I’m not telling you this to boast—well, not just to boast—but to assure you this has been a lifelong obsession. And over a lifetime, I’ve developed some opinions. Thanks to the editor, I’m taking the liberty to tell you about them.
Let’s make the worldwide mission of the church top priority.
A huge challenge for ministers in affluent America is to rescue our churches from the snares of selfishness. As you would expect of the me generation—which is every generation—the typical church’s agenda is all about me and mine. We take care of ourselves and our church and our country first. If there’s anything left over, we can dribble it out to them.
Such self-centeredness shrivels a church’s spirit and grows crippled Christians. They harden themselves against the big, hurting world out there, even though they admit “God so loved that he gave . . . ” for that world. The antidote for this sickness is strong, ongoing doses of missions involvement. Some might object, “But there are so many needs here in America. We should take care of those first.” Listen to the selfishness in the protest. That might even be a reasonable protest, if we did it. More often, though, it’s an excuse for doing little, either at home or abroad.
You expect me to say this, so I will: “If we take Jesus seriously, we have to take his Great Commission seriously.” “Into all the world,” “to all peoples.” As in Acts 1:8 we start at home (Jerusalem), but we end up ministering “to the ends of the earth.”
Not too long ago a friend lamented of his large congregation, “I’m afraid our church has become just a large production company.” By all the usual measures for judging these things, his church is a booming success. It even has a strong missions program. But when the investments abroad are compared with what’s spent on the home folks, it’s hard to argue that “to the ends of the earth” is top priority. It’s a whole lot more about us than about them.
Let’s pursue that priority strategically.
Mission management demands our best thinking. If we were talking business, we’d ask what results our investment in missions is producing. What do we—should we—expect? So many baptisms per year? Not good enough, though conversions are, of course, vital. In many countries, though, baptisms are easy to come by. You can even buy them, if you are so inclined. Is that the goal? Hardly. What about the rest of the Great Commission (“making disciples,” “teaching them to observe . . .”)?
“Return on investment” is language we didn’t use in those early days in my first church. We naïvely thought if we put our money behind dedicated men and women and prayed and turned them loose, they’d do good things and the kingdom would come and God’s will would be done.
As I said, we were naïve. We didn’t have a strategy that gave us a means of measuring success scripturally. We just hoped for the best. We didn’t always get it.
Since then, thoughtful church leaders have come to realize there are many good things we could and should do in the name of Christ: establish medical clinics and provide medical care; set up schools at every level; send and train social workers who can teach nutrition, family relations, sexual safety; take care of abandoned children and women at risk; provide low-interest loans and encourage microenterprise, work for justice and equality, and more.
All these things are good. But hard experience has taught us to do them all in relation to planting and nurturing vigorous, serving, reproducing churches. Otherwise, who will carry on these good works when our American dollars go home, as in time they must?
This is one reason we want to rethink the recent appeal to focus almost exclusively on the 10-40 window. While we do not want to neglect the closed or resistant countries in it, we also do not want to forget the receptivity principle. When resources are limited, we must strategize with the whole world in mind—and, if you’ll pardon me—where it is possible to realize a return on our investment measured in terms of people reached and taught, social problems alleviated, and serving congregations established.
Let’s insist on high ethical standards.
Here is another lesson learned the hard way: not all missionaries are ethical. Not all supporting churches are, either.
The potential sins of missionaries are many: subtle contempt for the culture and people they work among; fragile egos bolstered by insisting everybody conform to them; poor stewardship of the money their supporters send them; inability to get along with fellow workers; stretching the truth in reports about their work (telling it better than it is) or about fellow missionaries (painting them worse than they are). Are all missionaries guilty as charged? Far from it. Most function with high standards. But there are others.
The sins of the supporting churches? Here, also, there are many, but I want to focus on two. Failure to prayerfully and financially lift up their missionaries and hold them accountable through regular audited reports and inspection visits is the first. Fickleness in support of their missionaries is the second: a new minister comes to the church and he pushes to drop support for those the church has long underwritten in order to use the money for his own favorites. The same thing can happen when a new missions committee or chairman abandons supported missions without cause. The missionaries are left to scramble for new support or give up their work, and a longstanding relationship of trust is broken.
This section deserves far more attention than I have space to give it. But you get the idea. Only reliably ethical conduct can protect churches and their missionaries.
Let’s also expect competence.
Here are a couple of reasons some well-intentioned missionaries crash and burn. First, they set out too soon, without enough education or practical experience (including learning to deal with their own failures) or language skills or cultural insight. They become and remain strangers in a strange land, disconnected and ineffective.
Second, the Word hasn’t penetrated heart and soul. They can talk but don’t yet think Christianly; they haven’t grasped that “Christ died for you” implies his “go thou and do likewise.” They want success in American terms rather than scriptural terms. So they come home too soon or trudge unhappily on.
Churches are also sometimes guilty of assuming a competence they don’t have. They believe they can give adequate spiritual support and administrative oversight to their missionaries from afar but fail to deal with such essentials as health needs, retirement benefits, repatriation plans for emergencies, stress counseling, ongoing encouragement, and other duties of a sending church.
Let’s handle our dangerous dollars carefully.
I hope I’ve convinced you by now that missions isn’t just about sending money and hoping for the best. Sometimes money doesn’t help at all, but hurts. There is evidence, for example, that American relief dollars have hurt more than helped Africa and Haiti over the long haul.
Money can stifle initiative. It can create dependency. Do you remember that old term “rice Christians”? It stands for people whose conversion is more about money than Christ. It’s not a compliment.
Dollars that indefinitely subsidize a young church’s preacher or are rushed in to solve every emergency take away the people’s initiative and dignity. Every appeal requires careful analysis. We want our giving to do good and not harm.
I started the article by pushing for more dollars for missions. I don’t retract a word. Here, though, I am appealing for deploying that money wisely, in a way that will forge dynamic partnerships for building independence, not dependence.
Let’s not grow weary in well-doing.
I hope by now you’ve caught on that I am passionate about missions. Positively passionate, and for good reasons. Let me name four of them.
• There are giants among us. Above I called for competence and high ethical standards. You’ll find them all over the world, men and women and churches that make us proud.
• There are strategists among us. Who would have thought that we would now be doing business as mission in China and community health evangelism in Kenya, providing education and well-being for impoverished children all over the world, rescuing sex workers in Thailand and doing campus ministries and community development everywhere we can in the name and spirit of Christ?
• We are planting self-sustaining, reproducing, life-saving churches in partnership with these good ministries.
• This is our movement’s finest hour in missions.
Then why have I sounded off on these pages? To warn against smugness. The Great Commission still governs and we have not yet been released. The task before us requires, in the words of a song we sang in my youth, to “give of [our] best to the Master.” We’ve been giving better than ever before, but the call is for our best.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.