This is the second in a series of four articles in which experienced missionary Will Niven asks some searching and important questions about the current evangelical approach to missions.
Last time, in my first article, I highlighted what I perceive to be some of the problems with volunteerism and finances within the current evangelical approach to missions. This month, I discuss two more areas of concern: training and parachurch organisations.
What are we preparing people to do? One of the most enlightening and at the same time crushing moments in my life was when I realised that I was largely unequipped for the job that I was doing. I had Bible college training, some experience of ministry in the local church, but essentially had no idea either what I was called to do as a missionary or how I should do it.
When I realised this, my immediate reaction was desperation and then a cry for help. I visited a long serving missionary at a local Bible college. I shared my desperation and then asked him, ‘Am I the only one out there feeling this way?’ A knowing look passed over his face as he said, ‘Brother, I cannot even count the number of missionaries who have told me the same thing.’
Some missionaries are evangelists but have little idea what the church is or how to establish it. Most have come from churches in the West which are simply trying to maintain ministries and have no clue where to begin when it comes to missionary work. The problem lies in how we are being prepared.
At Bible college we were told repeatedly that what mattered if we were to become missionaries was having a seminary education and having the support of our home church. If a candidate had those two qualifications a missionary society somewhere would accept them.
Let me be clear, no amount of seminary education can prepare a person for missionary work. Whilst seminaries often have some value, they are not equipping people to actually do the work that God has called the church to. Instead we are producing a theoretical knowledge which has little value in the light of practical needs.
Howard Hendricks said, ‘The greatest crisis in the world today is a crisis of leadership and the greatest crisis in leadership is a crisis of character.’ Whilst we as churches and missions value academic achievement more than experience, faithfulness and character, mission work will be fatally flawed.
Our ability to pass exams or write assignments will not equip us for ministry and has no link whatsoever to the biblical qualifications of God’s servants. When we examine passages like 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 we see that almost all the qualifications for leadership in the church have to do with character. The only other area of qualification is the ability to teach.
People with deep issues with sin, with ungodly characters and little experience are being sent to the mission field simply because they tick our boxes. The result is that often missionaries are utterly unable to preach, teach or pastor. We are sending out people who have character flaws which are leading to deep problems in the churches in which they serve.
Often the opinions of the ‘home church’ are utterly ignored by mission organisations. The pastor, elders or congregation may have deep reservations about a candidate and may even be utterly opposed to them going out but are ignored by the relevant mission society.
As a result, clearly unqualified people are taking on roles of leadership on the field and the results are depressing. Not only so, but vast amounts of resources are being directed towards the support of people who should never be on the field.
This stands in great contrast to the apostolic model that we have in the book of Acts and the epistles. In Acts 13 we see the calling of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles. They had established the church. They were in leadership of the church in Antioch and had first-hand experience of what it meant to do the work of mission.
The point is this, they were not only called of the Spirit but were the very best that the Antioch church had. Who are we sending out, the willing or our best? Are we prepared to send out our most experienced, most gifted and most fruitful workers, or is our interest only to hold on to them and send out whoever ‘feels called’ to go?
Timothy had a good name not only in his church but in his locality; suggesting not only that he was experienced but that he had a gifting that was not only for one local church. Before he ever left home, Timothy already knew something of what the work of mission entails.
Notice a vital element of Timothy’s preparation for the work; it was in the local church. Timothy learned the job in Lystra and Iconium, in Thessalonica as he established the church in Paul’s absence, in Corinth as he delivered Paul’s decrees, and in all the places where Paul established churches (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2; 1 Corinthians 16:10).
His training, like that of Titus and other workers in the Pauline team, was on the job and church based. Look at the list of names of those accompanying Paul in Acts 20:4; are they not all from churches that Paul himself had helped to plant?
These men knew Paul as a person. They knew his doctrine and work. Paul could say to Timothy, ‘You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings’ (2 Timothy 3:10).
Timothy not only knew of all these things, he had followed Paul’s example in living them out in practice! The apostolic practice was not to send those who had knowledge alone but those who had the experience, the character and good name to fulfil the task before them.
In Philippians 2:22 Paul says, ‘You know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.’ Are we sending out this kind of worker? Seminaries cannot possibly be regarded as being sufficient for the task of preparing missionaries. Degrees and certificates cannot replace preparation in the local church.
Notice also that workers were not sent out alone but worked in teams. They were not left to figure out what to do as they went along but had one who was a master in missionary work to mentor, teach and guide them on the way. Paul describes himself in 1 Corinthians 3:10 as a skilled master builder or architect.
Where are people like the apostle Paul today who know what it means to do the work of missions not only theoretically but practically? Why are we allowing missionaries to plough a lonely furrow all by themselves with no support, counsel or mentoring on the ground?
Implications: Local churches should never send out missionaries on the basis of seminary training or knowledge alone but upon their gifts, experience and character.
Local churches should not abandon their responsibility to train workers for the harvest fields by sending candidates to Bible college but then having no role in their preparation.
Local churches should be selective as to where they send their workers for seminary education. Churches need to ask what theology and experience teachers in these institutions have before agreeing to finance a student there. Churches must examine whether courses are actually applied to the work of ministry or simply theoretical and abstract.
Theological education should not be divorced from the local church or from the work of mission. Boards of theological institutions should be filled with pastors and missionaries with the greatest wisdom and experience.
We should not so readily accept those who are ready to go but send our best. We should have the courage to say ‘no’ to candidates who are not yet fit for the work. We should send our best and not the rest. We should seek to send workers in teams led by ‘master craftsmen’.
Are parachurch organisations a help or a hindrance to the spread of the gospel? Such organisations have played an enormously important role in mission in the recent past. The creation of organisations like the China Inland Mission and the Baptist Missionary Society was absolutely fundamental in the modern missionary movement.
The church at that time was simply not fulfilling its responsibility to obey the Great Commission. The famous example springs to mind of the chairman of a meeting who said to William Carey, ‘Sit down, young man! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you and me!’ If God was pleased to use such efforts and such organisations in the past, is it right that we continue to undertake missionary endeavour through these means?
In some cases parachurch organisations are helpful. They can provide information to churches sending workers. They have experience in various legal and financial matters and can provide a framework for local churches to work together in the sending of workers. They can also be a help in obtaining visas in countries and so on. Parachurch organisations may also be necessary on the field and in sending countries where local churches are not fulfilling their biblical roles.
However, the real problem underlying much missionary effort is that the mission society or parachurch organisation has taken over the role of the local church. It is the church who sent out Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13. Paul did not lay hands on Timothy alone. The elders of the church set him aside for ministry and recognised his Spirit-given gifts.
We see no other agency in the New Testament than the local church or networks of churches working together in a common mission. The sending, supporting and oversight of workers was done by local churches and must be done again today. No other organisation can possibly claim its mandate from the Great Commission.
Christ gave this commission initially to the apostles who were the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20) and this commission throughout the book of Acts and the epistles was undertaken by the church. It is interesting to note that the churches that often are most stable, who are led by national leaders rather than missionaries and that are able to reproduce themselves are from a Brethren or Presbyterian background.
In these cases the local church has a high level of involvement in not only the sending of missionaries but their oversight and support. Is it coincidental that when local churches drive mission efforts, the results are often more long lasting?
Another issue to consider is that parachurch organisations inevitably get caught up in an effort to perpetuate themselves. Without money, prayer and workers no organisation can possibly survive. Therefore, the focus of an organisation often becomes the generation of these things instead of the work of mission.
The irony is that groups that are set up for a specific purpose and to meet a specific need have to spend so much time and resources in surviving as organisations that their original goals are often forgotten!
Parachurch organisations also have a tendency to create problems in a given field and can even hinder the spread of the gospel. Well-meaning international organisations recruit large numbers of national believers and leaders into their ranks for a specific area of ministry. The problem is that these vital workers are taken out of the local church and therefore weaken the very churches that they purport to serve.
It is the experience of many churches that good workers and leaders are so busy in their ministries with a parachurch organisation that they have no time for the local church. Workers miss Sunday worship, midweek meetings and have no time to serve in the local church. Churches that are crying out for workers are therefore deprived of the few resources that they have.
In addition, international interdenominational missions have often sown the seeds of doctrinal confusion in the churches that they plant. Believers can become confused as to what to believe when missionaries from different theological backgrounds come and repeatedly change what a church does and believes.
The fact that God in his sovereignty and grace often uses imperfect means and methods is no reason for us to continue using them. The history of missionary work is replete with examples of people who were unprepared and unequipped for missionary work but who have been used of God. We have seen God use mission agencies to stir up churches to fulfil their responsibilities and to reach fields that had never been touched. We are indebted to parachurch organisations for doing what the church should have been doing all along.
Our love, gratitude and respect for such organisations should not cloud our judgement when it comes to missionary work. Whilst God uses imperfect vessels to accomplish his purposes, we should have the courage to ask big questions about who should undertake missionary work.
Just because a person who we hold in high esteem serves with an organisation does not mean that we should support it. Just because an organisation has had a glorious past should not mean that it should perpetuate its work today.
We must remember that when people like Hudson Taylor were recruiting missionaries the revival in Ireland was occurring and churches were being stirred by movements like the Keswick Convention and the ministries of men like D. L. Moody.
We are not living in revival, nor do we see such spiritual movements touching the church in a significant way in the West. Churches are at a low spiritual ebb on the whole and our imperfect methods can no longer be overcome by personal godliness. We can, in other words, not afford to keep unbiblical methods.
Implications: Churches should only support workers who are sent through agencies which genuinely respect the role and responsibilities of the local church.
Parachurch organisations must have the courage to close down their ministries when their task is complete or the need for them no longer exists.
Churches that send or support missionaries should be ‘hands on’ in terms of oversight, support and care of the people that they send. Visits to the field, regular communication and things like teams can be an invaluable help in mission work.
Workers engaged in parachurch ministries should be redeployed into church-based work and in particular in the work of church planting. We should not be financially supporting workers of parachurch ministries if they are not thoroughly involved in and accountable to their local church.
Will Niven is a cross-cultural missionary engaged in church planting in Albania.