George Miley in his book Loving the Church, Blessing the Nations writes,
“Our God-designed finiteness limits what any one of us can effectively undertake. Therefore, our mission initiatives need to be strategically focused in order to bring maximum glory to Christ. Traditionally many churches have developed mission commitments without strategic integration. Predominately, churches have left the formation of strategy to agencies and have just sent people apart from understanding the strategic need and opportunities in the world.
Responding to opportunities as they come up might seem right at first, but the end result will be a shotgun-like effect to which our people will be less and less able to meaningfully engage.
The central questions become ‘What does it mean to complete God’s purpose among all nations?’ ‘What strategic opportunities remain?’ ‘In which ones is God calling our church to be his channel of blessing?’ That is where we focus.”
Traditionally, churches have used this “shotgun” approach when it comes to oversees mission work. The missions committee responds to multiple funding requests and the church financially supports a number of different projects all around the world. Some are going well. Some are not. And with some, they simply don’t know. But there is a line item in the budget for missions and that money should be spent.
Could there be a better way?
A MORE UNIFIED VISION: In the age of information, there is constant competition for our attention. This challenge is also true in the church. Most people who have spent any amount of time involved in a local church larger than 50 people knows how hard it is to keep the whole ecclesial organism focused, aligned, and moving in the same direction. Without consistent and focused energy keeping the lines of communication flung wide open, our churches always drift into whatever is next up on the announcement sheet or email blast. It’s hard enough to get everyone to simply show up to a membership meeting.
Now consider the traditional approach to the local church and missions sending. Let’s say a church of 400 is supporting six different missionaries (or as is often the case, many more). Is it really feasible to keep the whole church consistently updated on what is going on with these six different teams on a consistent basis and in such a way as to garner enthusiasm about the vision for each different project?
Would it not be better to be narrowly focused so that this challenged is diminished? The smaller the focus the easier it is to maintain unity and alignment around a common goal.
A CALLING MADE SURE: Too often, missionaries “lay hands on themselves” and simply head out to the mission field without pursuing a sense of deep affirmation from their pastors and peers. But who wants to squash their sense of calling? This is very similar to the man or woman who goes off to seminary right after finishing undergraduate studies without spending anytime serving at the local church, learning about leadership, and having years with older pastors to affirm their sense of calling. The seminaries are dying for the money. They will take all the warm bodies they can get. But is that what is best for the Church? Have we not seen train wrecks from churches being led by people who never got asked hard questions?
Same with missions agencies. They need people. Truly, as Jesus said, the workers are few, especially in the unreached parts of the world. But shouldn’t we be asking if they are the right people with the right gifts and the right training and at the right time? Unfortunately, too often a sense of calling is never affirmed by a local church and as a result, many missionaries don’t finish well.
But when the local church has sought to faithfully affirm the call of those desiring to go to the nations, there is a much greater likelihood that the right people will be released for the long haul. For example, the local church should make sure there has been adequate theological training. The local church should make sure that those being sent have proven character. The local church should make sure there is a clear philosophy of ministry that is mutually agreed upon. With a narrow focus there is space to take the necessary time to make sure these questions have adequate answers. It may take longer than the traditional model because a period of preparation is taken very seriously, but in the end, this should provide longevity for those being sent because they have been tested and their called has been made sure.
If you are a missionary reading this please read what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that you have to be officially sent by a local church after a period of rigorous testing and training to legitimize your calling. But what I am saying is that I believe it would be wise for those desiring to give their lives to the nations to submit themselves to local leadership and allow them to ask you hard questions about your calling, competency, and character.
LOVING, KNOWING, AND CARING: Can the local church give adequate “face time” to numerous different projects such that true love and care can be fostered? Can the church passionately shepherd, lead, and hold several different teams accountable in a vibrant way? Who really knows these people? How can we encourage them deeply? How is their marriage? What are their kids struggling with? What are their sin issues? What are their hopes and fears? Is anyone really pastoring them?
When a church mainly fields funding requests the relationship is simply transactional. And this is usually not healthy. Missions strategist, Matthew Ellison has written, “There are a generation of missionaries out there that don’t truly have a church home and are not adequately connected to a local church. Sadly, they are caught in a system that has unwittingly removed missionaries from the church.”
Given a narrowly focused model, when missionaries come home for rest and reconnection they know they are coming home to a people who truly know them. When they need prayer they can know that the whole church is praying for them. When sin issues are at the forefront they have a church that can call them to repentance and hold them accountable with true church discipline. When they are low on money, they know that they are going to be taken care of. With a more narrow focus, there is a much greater likelihood that missionaries will be well cared for relationally and spiritually.
FULLY FUNDED: For so many missionaries fund-raising is exhausting, time consuming, and stressful. What if we could take that challenge completely out of the equation? Would that not be life giving to those going to the hard places of the world? A local church wouldn't want to do this with multiple different projects. All churches have finite resources. But how much of a blessing would this be for those being sent if they knew they didn’t have to worry about finances?
When a local church knows the missionary deeply and has affirmed their sense of calling through testing, training, and time spent over the course of years, they could have full confidence to fully fund the missionary if possible. Relationships and resources should always go intimately together.
VARIOUS LEVELS OF SUPPORT: But isn’t this philosophy going to leave a lot of people out? By the power of the Spirit, churches have many different people with many different callings. Should we not seek to resource and support all the different ways that God has gifted people to serve around the world?
It probably depends on what we mean by “support”. I believe that for the reasons outlined above, having one main focus of emphasis is best in terms of:
- Financial support
- Pastoral accountability
- Consistent church-wide communication
- Sending short-term local church terms to the field
- Raising up long-term workers from the local body to serve in the unreached area
At The Vine, the elders have decided that we have an official calling to participate in initiating a movement of church planting in North Africa. Acts 1:8 implies that we’ll plant churches in the unreached parts of the world and this doesn’t seem optional. This doesn’t mean that other areas are unimportant, it just means that, at this time, those areas are not our calling and would not receive primary support in the ways outlined above. That is not to say that in the future this won’t ever expand in some shape or form but for right now, this is our chosen focus.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be other areas of secondary or tertiary support for people in their different individual callings that would simply not be as exhaustive. For example, say a college student wants to go on a summer missions project with Campus Crusade for Christ. Will we pray for them at our regular prayer meetings. Absolutely. Will a pastor be available to them to “equip” them (Eph. 4). Absolutely. Will we fund them? Probably not. Will we allow them to attend all of our small groups to raise money? Again, probably not. Can they seek to garner support within their sphere of relationships at the local church? Absolutely.
There are many creative ways to “support” someone from a local body who wants to do any number of great things. But just because something is worthy for an individual to pursue doesn’t mean that it should be completely embraced by the whole of the church in terms of emphasis and resource.
But we also may say that to that person, “Have you considered North Africa? Since this is our unique corporate vision, have you considering leveraging your gifts, passions, and efforts in that direction? Think of what we could accomplish in that one area with more laborers?”
AN ENORMOUS TASK: Simply put, more local churches need to be narrowly focused on reaching the unreached. By and large, in our current church culture, it’s simply not happening. Why? Because it’s really, really hard and the size of the task is quite daunting. Yet, at The Vine, we are seeking to see a movement of church planting happen in the hardest parts of North Africa. We are truly believing God for the impossible. In light of the enormity, we have to be united. Think of all that we could accomplish if we all were praying together, giving together, and going on short and long term teams together. The impact would surely be profoundly deeper than seeking to be a “mile wide but an inch deep” with the shotgun approach. There is a power in unity and power is what we need in light of the task.
A BETTER WAY: Imagine if church after church across the Christian world rejected the shotgun approach and embraced this vision. Would it not change the landscape of our current missions culture by creating longer term missionaries who are better cared for and last longer on the field? Matthew Ellison writes “But what if the majority (not all, but the majority) of a church's mission efforts were aimed at the winning of a particular people, and the majority of projects and programs you invest in were related to bringing that vision to fruition? How much easier would it be to communicate vision to the congregation, acquaint them with the target people, and involve them more in the lives of those you've sent out to reach them?”
In sum, we love our overseas missionaries too much to submit them to the shotgun approach. It’s not good for them, it’s not good for the local church, and ultimately, it’s not good for the people they are trying to win. We have to make sure our missionaries receive the best care possible and that the church is operating at maximum effectiveness. A more narrow focus can provide this. It may be the better way.
**For help in beginning this type of strategy at your church, I recommend an organization called 1615.org.**