Six Tasks for the Local Church
Course: Essentials of World Missions
Lecture: Six Tasks for the Local Church
Now that actually brings us to the next section of this last portion of the course, and this next section has to do with the local church. If you had listened to the extended lectures you’d have heard six difficult questions that we need to ask our mission boards or our church missions committees, and so forth, in order to be more effective in using our short-term workers for long-term benefit that does not create dependency or even undermine the gospel.
1. Equip and educate people in the church about missions
Well, in the same way, there are a number of things that we need to do in order to equip and educate people in the church about missions. I go through a number of these in the extended lectures, but certainly we need to educate our people about the rise of non-Western missions, the importance of church-planting—all of these things are really, really important. The role of discipleship—some churches believe that discipleship is not as important as evangelism, but discipleship is actually the seed for future evangelism, so you have to always keep in mind the importance of training and equipping new believers. So we have to educate our people on the new context of missions today.
2. Develop a comprehensive strategy regarding missions
I challenge churches, secondly, to develop a comprehensive strategy regarding missions. We have to look at our mission budgets very carefully, and evaluate and prioritize our mission commitments. Many times we find ourselves doing harm even while doing good. That is to say, we’ll do good things—there’s nothing wrong on the face of things that we’re doing—but in the long run it may create problems for the national church. So we have to learn to really think carefully about our missionary commitments, what are the priorities, what are we doing, every church has to have some policy that guides their missionary spending, otherwise your church mission budgets will become very unruly and lacking coherence and vision.
We have to ask questions about the kind of support structures that we will embrace. Many churches will support any young person who grows up in that church and is called to missions. Because they’re born in the church, they should be supported. That’s called a home-grown missionary. Others will give their money through faith-based agencies, or will only support people in their denomination who work, or others who will give money so that nationals can be freed up from secular occupations so they can do the work of ministry. So those are all different kinds of support structures which we need to embrace and think about if we’re going to have an effective missions program in our churches.
How missions will be funded
Another issue is when you work with a budget you have to be able to set aside, how is the mission of our church going to be funded? Are we funding missions through what is often called a “unified budget,” where we budget for our missionaries the same way as we budget for our electricity or our insurance payments, or whatever else is a part of our church budget, like the pastor’s salary or whatever? If you put it in as a part of the ordinary budget it has certain advantages because it means all of your fundraising is done in a unified way and you raise equally for sending missionaries to Zimbabwe as you are in paying for the gas bill.
Some churches find that that is not as strategic as it could be in terms of raising funds, because there are people who would never give money—at least not joyfully—for the gas bill, or the electric bill, or any other kinds of the normal day-to-day expenses that a church as an institution has to fulfill. But they will give generously to missionary activity and things of this larger outreach of the church.
Well, churches can take advantage of that reality and can develop a missions pledge that is separate from the regular budget and call people to give themselves to that kind of endeavor as a special thing. They could have their missionaries come back for a missions conference once a year; they can present their missionaries who tell their stories and explain to them why they are doing what they’re doing, thank them for their support, and then people can pledge towards those missionaries, and many churches very effectively use that process.
Others have tried to find a middle way. They don’t want missions to get lost into the regular, general budget bag, so that it’s not lifted up as an important part of our mission, which is more important than some other facets of the church’s life. On the other hand, they don’t want to put it all into special offerings, because that way you never know year-to-year whether you can continue supporting your missionaries or not.
So what some churches have done is to link their regular missions from their regular budget with their missionary budget. So what they say is—this is just an example—they’ll say, “Whatever our regular budget is, we will spend 20% of that on missions.” So, as the regular budget grows, if they increase the pastor’s salary, if they increase the amount of money required for the Sunday school curriculum, if they increase the amount of money required for the light or heating bills, in turn they have to also increase their missionary budget, the two are linked. So if the church grows and there are more issues and needs in the larger church building structure—staff issues, whatever—that’s tied to a commitment of a certain percentage of that to the Lord’s work around the world. That is actually very effective.
The biggest problem with this approach is that churches are tempted—oh, they’re so much tempted—to resolve this linkage by simply re-defining more and more things as missions. I’ve seen churches where every single thing except the pastor’s salary is called missions. And so the whole youth budget becomes missions, the whole choir budget becomes missions, and this is a terrible misuse of this concept. So, every church has to work this out and decide what they believe is best. And you have to realize it’s not that one plan is necessarily better than others, it’s just a matter of which fits best for your particular context.
How to handle previous commitments that don't match the new vision
Another problem that some churches face is what to do when they have a vision for missions and what their church should be doing, they look down at their budget and the commitments they’ve already made in past years, and, oh, they get so discouraged, because they say: Here we are, we’ve inherited a situation where we’re primarily supporting things with our missions budget which are not really missions.
Or secondly, it is missions, it is cross-cultural, it is crossing cultural, linguistic, social barriers, but the places or the people with whom we’re working are already vibrant Christians, they have plenty of access to the gospel, and there is not a problem with either access or church viability. Well, then you have a situation where you are not happy with the priorities as they should be in a missions budget.
So what I encourage churches in this situation—and there are many, many churches that find themselves in this precise situation, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that this is experienced by many, many evangelical churches that I have consulted with over the years—but I would say first of all that you should change your policies quite slowly, or at least implement it slowly. It’s good to cast a vision for the ideal context of missions, but also be aware that you’ve made commitments and your missions budget did not arise out of a vacuum. So, you can begin to set targets for when certain policies will come into effect and be changed. This makes the process much more feasible and more peaceful and less stressful.
I think it’s also important to keep faith with those on the field. If you’re supporting a missionary who’s working in a part of the world or among a people who perhaps would really not need a missionary—if this person was coming to the committee today, they would be turned down, and yet a past generation, a past board had accepted them and they’re faithfully serving the Lord in this particular context, I think you should keep faith with them, and as much as possible, even if it doesn’t fit into your current policy, say we do not want to neglect those who have served faithfully in the presence of the Lord.
3. Missions Budget Policy
A third idea I’ve found to be helpful for churches is to gradually begin to establish, step-by-step, a policy which clearly transfers non-missionary spending to other parts of the budget that are not connected to missions. You can call it, our Servant Ministry budget, or our Evangelistic budget, or any number of things, or Servant Teams, or some other term—you can find no end of terminology you can use to make it clear that these are important ministries, but we’re not going to call them missions if they’re not involved in cross-cultural communication of the gospel, preferably in places where the gospel church is not viable, or there is not sufficient access to the gospel. So, that takes time. It takes time. You have to go through this process slowly.
4. Care for Missionaries
A fourth suggestion is that you really need to give not only finances to the mission field, but also care. Churches need to assume more carefully the whole idea of the pastoral care of their missionaries. Many missionaries are working in isolated places. If they’re working in a place where the church is viable, then of course you can fully expect that they’ll be nurtured and cared for by that particular community. But what about the thousands of missionaries who are out working alone? They have children in boarding school. They have to come back home on furlough and be cast back into the American culture every three or four years. There are so many challenges they’re facing and they need help, they need encouragement, they need strengthening, and as a church we need to do this.
I think it’s helpful if each member of the missions committee will take the responsibility to follow and track after one of the missionaries. Or, if it’s a church with a lot of missionaries, one or two. And that way you can begin to track your missionaries, read their prayer letters, and report in a timely fashion to the broader church issues that can be prayed for in supporting this missionary and they will not feel like a lone ranger.
I know of a number of missionaries who come back from the mission field to a church where they grew up or had a whole life of early ministry before they went out and they come back and no one knows who they are. Churches have changed. They don’t even remember that they’re on the mission field, and they ask them, what have you been doing the last three years? And it’s very discouraging for the missionary to realize that the local church has not been praying for him or her, that the church has not been engaged at all in their missionary enterprise.
Now, as an aside, in our Overseas Missions Practicum course, we teach students how to write prayer letters and how to write about your ministries in a way that people will read it, because just pages and pages of information on blank pieces of paper become very, very difficult for people to read today. So, you need to find creative ways to connect with your missionary, and to strengthen them and support them in the work that they’re doing.
5. Achieve the right balance between local activity and global missions
I also encourage churches, fifthly, to achieve the right balance between local missions or local activity, and global missions. I think it’s important for churches that before they send a youth group into missions that they will insist, for example, that they be involved in some local service project as a prerequisite to missions. Why would we think that someone who boards a plane and flies down to Belize will suddenly be transformed into a servant of the gospel if they have not been able to serve among the people of whom they have been placed right here in their home? So it’s important to test the waters and make sure that we have sufficiently servant-hearted people who will therefore represent the gospel well.
It’s also really important to have long-term commitments to long-term workers. Another real scary trend I’ve seen is that many churches have claimed that their mission budget is growing, and I guess there’s a certain point that you might say that it is. But where it’s growing is that it’s growing by virtue of the short-term missionary. And the actual commitment to long-term missionaries is in decline. This is a gross violation of the spirit of the whole short-term missions program, which is meant to provoke and to initiate and to stimulate the long-term missionary enterprise.
6. Commit to pray for our missionaries
Finally we need to be committed to pray for our missionaries. I mentioned this in passing, I guess, with the need to care for our missionaries, but I think this is obviously probably one of the most important and yet neglected aspects of missionary service is developing good prayer partners that will agree to pray for missions and work with them in that way.