In a series of four articles starting this month, experienced missionary Will Niven asks some searching and important questions about the current evangelical approach to missions.
Countless millions are passing into eternity without Christ. Over four billion people on this planet do not know Christ. They are standing under the wrath of God and one day, if they do not turn to him, will face the terror of the fullness of that wrath. The most urgent matter facing the church today therefore is fulfilling the Great Commission.
The question is however, how is the church responding to this task? Is the modern missionary movement among the nations really effective? Is it fruitful? Is its work lasting? Is it truly being undertaken on the lines of the apostles and early church? Or is the missionary community causing as many problems as it is solving?
The aim of this article, and the three that will follow in coming months, is to examine the methods, the practices, and the philosophies of the modern missionary movement to see whether they are truly fulfilling the Great Commission. Whilst it is based on first-hand experience on one mission field, the issues that it raises are true for the majority if not all fields.
It is not an exhaustive study on what the Bible teaches about missions. That task has been adequately fulfilled by others. It is not an exhaustive account of the problems in mission but is deliberately selective in highlighting some of the most urgent of them. Neither is it particularly balanced. It deliberately focuses on some of the problems that we face in missions rather than highlighting the successes. This is not to be negative but to seek genuine change so that more may come to know Christ.
My intention is neither to stand in judgment over, nor to condemn or offend others; many of whom have the sincerest of intentions and who are far better Christians and servants of God than I will ever be. Indeed, many of the criticisms that are raised here have been true of me and many more sins and defects still remain! Neither is it my intention to claim originality. Many others have influenced my thinking. I have also been greatly helped by the suggestions and comments of colleagues which have been incorporated here.
It is my hope that missionaries, mission agencies, sending churches, pastors, national believers and workers and those believers who support the work of missions will be spurred on to think critically about the situation today and to have the courage to pursue change. What is at stake is truly awesome; the fate of the lost, the ability of the church to fulfil the Great Commission and the future of churches all over the world.
My appeal to you as you read this article, and the three that are to follow, is to weigh all that is written in the light of the Word of God. Change will be incredibly hard, there are many vested interests which will resist change in order to protect the status quo, but the question is can we afford not to change?
In this article, I will look at two big issues: volunteerism and finances. Other topics in future articles will be: training, parachurch organisations, evaluation, accountability, priorities, cultural imperialism, tribalism, pragmatism, and resources for churches.
1. Volunteerism: The basis of missions.
From the days of Hudson Taylor and the faith missions until now, the basis of missionary work has been volunteerism. By that I mean that missionary work has been undertaken either by those who claim to be called or willing. Some claim to feel a call to a particular country or to missionary work in general. Others are simply willing to go and desire to give some part of their lives to missionary service.
In one sense missionary work must be voluntary but this should not be the only basis upon which people are sent. Charles Spurgeon in his Lectures to my Students gives us three vital elements in the acceptance of any Christian worker that might be summarised as follows.
First, he must have a sense of call or a willingness to do the work. If a worker does not have a sense of compulsion, if he does not feel ‘woe is me if I do not preach the gospel’, it is unlikely that he will serve willingly. If someone has no sense of being called of God they will hardly serve in the midst of trials and opposition. The apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1 that if someone desires the work of an overseer that is a good thing. Peter warns elders in 1 Peter that they must exercise oversight ‘not under compulsion but willingly as God would have you’.
Second, they must have that call witnessed to by the Spirit. Certain gifts must be seen in someone if they are to be sent out as a missionary. If someone cannot share the gospel, if they are not able to teach or to preach the Word of God, if they cannot train new leaders, if they are not doing those things that a missionary is expected to do why would we send them? The local church, in particular its leaders, should be able to discern these gifts in a person who is sent out.
Third, that call must be verified by the local church. The great danger for any individual is to mix up the call of God with something else. The sense of being called can simply be a dream, a whim, or even something mistaken in an individual. A person may believe themselves to be called to a particular ministry but does a church affirm that indeed this is their gifting? Unless the local church tests the calling of a missionary the wrong people can be sent out.
Consider for a moment the kind of workers we are sending. Many of them would never be accepted as pastors or leaders in our churches. Many missionaries would not last long at all if called upon to face the demands and rigours of ministry in their home country. Some of them are missionaries for one simple reason; they cannot make it anywhere else. Others we are rather relieved to be rid of because, although they are enthusiastic, they don’t really fit into a role in our churches.
My question is this, if a person is not evangelising, making disciples, and raising new leaders in his country what makes us think that he will do so in another country with all the challenges of a new language and culture to deal with? If a person is not a fruitful leader where they are, what makes us think that they will be in a different country? If a person has no experience of church planting before they become a missionary, how can we expect them to do so overseas?
The major problem with volunteerism is that it is so individualistic. Much of missions work is about me, my call, my experience and growth in God rather than being about the equipped being sent to do the work of the gospel. We are simply so delighted that one of our members wants to go somewhere to serve God that we fall over backwards to send them.
We are not testing their call or asking deep questions about what they intend to do when out on the mission field. If we do challenge that call, the spirit of individualism is so strong that they often ignore it or take great offence at the counsel of church leaders.
In this regard I shall ever be in the debt of the leaders of my own church. Having felt the call of God to missionary service, having tested it during short term trips, I approached the leaders for support to go to Bible College to train for missionary work.
The experience I had was uncomfortable to say the least. I was grilled for what seemed an endless amount of time as to my motivations, my intentions, my gifting and so on. I was asked outright, ‘Why should we send you rather than see you find a job and serve as a volunteer here?’ I left the room shaken!
After a time I was called back and the leaders both affirmed their belief that I was called but they wisely counselled me as to what areas of my life needed looking at to be a missionary. Very few are given such an examination.
We do not see volunteerism as the only basis of sending workers in the New Testament. Churches sent not only the willing but the experienced and the qualified. In Acts 16 we see Paul headhunting Timothy for his team. Timothy did not volunteer for the task; Paul actively sought him out and the elders of his church also recognized his gift and set him apart for the work of the gospel.
Think of William Burns who served in China. Burns had been mightily used in times of revival in his own home town of Kilsyth and in other parts of Scotland and even in Canada before he ever went to China. He was used in revival, for example, in the church led by Robert Murray M’Cheyne in Dundee while the latter was in Israel. Burns had 12 years of experience before ever reaching China.
Think of John Paton the famous missionary to the New Hebrides. He was used mightily in Glasgow in the establishment of a large church and four or five other sister churches before ever heading out to the field.
Implications: willingness or a sense of call should not be the sole factor in selecting candidates for the mission field. We should insist that candidates for missionary work be practitioners and not simply theoreticians who have no experience to fall back upon.
We must examine candidates closely and not be willing to send people who are not ready or qualified for the work. We should headhunt the best workers that we have rather than just wait for volunteers!
2. Finances: He who holds the purse strings, holds the power.
One of the most distressing phenomena in missions is to see the servility of national workers to those who hold the purse strings. In places where financial support for national workers comes almost fully from overseas there are great dangers. National workers become servile to the masters that they are supported by from overseas.
If a missionary is the one who raises money for a national worker he stands untouchable. National workers dare not criticize the missionary concerned, nor call him to account or even deal with his mistakes or sins out of fear that they will lose their jobs. For workers with wives, children, rent to pay or a mortgage to pay off this is an indescribable pressure.
If a church in the West pays a national worker, the worker often feels duty bound to subscribe to doctrines that he does not believe, to undertake projects he knows are unnecessary, and to work according to models that have little or no effectiveness in his locality. If a church in the West thinks that a particular doctrine or area of ministry is important, the national worker is obliged to go along with them simply out of fear that he will lose their support.
Servility is not the only problem with respect to the support of national workers, but poverty. It is shocking to see national workers having to live in poverty whilst missionaries live in plenty. What message are we sending out to our co-workers when we lack nothing and they lack the means to pay for the simplest things?
How can we expect national workers to live on a wage that hardly pays the rent while we insist on foreign holidays? How can we ask a worker to live below the average income of the believers that he is serving? How can we ignore the needs for medical care and other things that his family has? How dare we pay him a pittance and then tell him that he should feel honoured to get even this?
What right do we have to ask for sacrifices from national workers when we insist on western lifestyles ourselves? What sort of witness is it to the wife, to the children and to the family members of a national worker when they cannot make ends meet whilst a missionary is eating out every week at expensive restaurants and boasts of his latest electronic gadget?
Missionaries can be so wrapped up in themselves and their work that they do not spend time in the houses of their co-workers simply observing their most basic needs. We must be careful also to pay workers according to their needs. One example is in the payment of translation work. Often translators are paid well below the minimum level that is established by a government and that is often very low itself. Often people are offered support which might have kept someone 10 or 15 years ago but not in the present situation.
Implications: we must encourage the sacrificial giving of the churches that are planted on the field. Whilst they may not be able to support a national worker fully, they must be the ones who shoulder the majority of this responsibility. The West should insist that indigenous churches contribute to their worker’s support before committing their resources. Missionaries and foreign churches must be careful that they are not holding national workers or churches to ransom because of their support.
We must be clear what we are supporting national workers to do. As long as they are doing the work of mission, as it is presented to us in Acts and the letters, we must give them freedom to minister according to their culture and its needs.
We must be sensitive to the actual needs of national workers and pay appropriate levels of support and do proper research into how much people are paid for services and on how much they can live without ‘taking their hand off the plough’.
We should consider the level of support that a national worker gets not only according to living standards in that country but according to their experience and faithfulness in ministry. 1 Timothy 5:17 talks about giving double honour to elders who serve well; particularly in the Word. Should that not be reflected in some way in the way that they are supported?
Missionaries must be careful in their choice of national leaders. Do we appoint those who agree with us or those who fulfil biblical standards? Are we appointing men of integrity who will stand on biblical principles rather than going with the flow out of self-interest? Are we encouraging a culture of servility or do we encourage discussion, debate and the testing of our ideas and teaching?
Will Niven is a cross cultural missionary engaged in church planting in Albania.