I read with interest the recent articles on missionary support by Eryl Davies and agree that Christians should prayerfully consider their level of giving to the Lord’s work. However, I also think that we should consider an alternative and (I would argue) more biblical approach to mission than that traditionally accepted in Britain today.
I feel that we sometimes sacrifice a biblical perspective to pragmatism. In the Book of Acts, where the early church worked out the gospel command, Paul and Barnabas were called by the Holy Spirit and commissioned by the local church.
They went out preaching the gospel and established self-supporting local churches — returning to report progress (Acts 13:1-3; 14:21-27). Their ability to communicate the gospel freely over such a wide geographic area was facilitated by a common trade tongue.
Churches were established and given common doctrinal standards by personal instruction and letters written by Paul (Acts 18:9-11; Colossians 4:16).
While Paul was happy to receive gifts, he was not averse to supporting himself (Acts 18:1-5).
When we compare this biblical scenario with the current missionary scene we find a number of differences. Seldom are missionaries sent out by local churches, or even groups of like-minded churches.
Often, intending missionaries study theology and then approach societies whose work interests them. If the society accepts them, they must raise financial support from churches before they can go to the mission field. A period of orientation, cross-cultural and language training is needed so that they can truly preach the gospel in a foreign land.
No local church is directly involved in the selection of the candidates and while some churches ‘adopt’ missionaries this is not essential to the process. The missionaries do not report to the local church — the society is their employer. (I do realise that there are still ‘faith missions’ that operate differently.)
Regarding what is preached, many societies have a limited basis of faith, designed to broaden the base for funds and candidates. Contentious matters like spiritual gifts, baptism and church order are considered secondary.
As a result, distinctives that we guard jealously in our home pulpits are often sacrificed on the mission field. For instance, charismatic and reformed missionaries are asked to avoid controversy by not preaching on those issues.
Paul and Barnabas were united in their belief and preached as one, but many modern missionaries must keep their own counsel about what they truly believe if they wish to retain their position.
The financial need is often magnified by such things as administrative costs, periodical flights home to rekindle interest among supporters, and UK National Insurance contributions. This can add up to a figure higher than the income of many of the self-sacrificing Christians who support missions.
I think I am right in saying that William Carey went out as a missionary and ended up supporting himself and tithing his income to send others. What a contrast!
So what is the answer? Should we not return to the simplicity of the biblical pattern, with church-based missionaries? Instead of spending vast sums sending missionary ‘foreigners’ into an alien culture, why don’t we ask local churches in those countries to recommend some of their own tried and tested members for support?
The missionary centre-spread in Evangelical Times so often highlights the need for reformed gospel teaching. A church in the UK could sponsor both the training and support of a local Christian worker overseas. In some areas, churches could support two or three local missionaries for the same cost as one UK missionary. Pastors from the UK could visit to fellowship with the foreign church and see that funds are spent wisely.
In some lands there are too few Christians for this to work, but in such circumstances believers from neighbouring nations who are familiar with the language and culture could evangelise much more effectively than a foreigner.
Some churches in Britain are already practising this approach with great benefit. It restores local church responsibility and oversight, and permits supporters to see that churches of similar faith and order are established and that funds are spent wisely.
While few conversions are being seen in the UK, the reports of large numbers in other lands who are hungry for the gospel is a tonic to the soul. Let us be sure we help to satisfy that hunger effectively.