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What in the world is happening to missions? Evaluation, accountability and priorities

June 2019 | by Will Niven

This is the third 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.

In my previous two articles, I highlighted what I perceive to be some of the problems within the current evangelical approach to missions. I have discussed matters relating to volunteerism, finances, training and parachurch organisations. This month, I discuss some more areas of concern: evaluation, accountability and priorities.

Evaluation: the tyranny of the success syndrome and its effects.

A missionary to Morocco from my home church told me, before she died, of her family’s labours in that land. Her grandparents had helped found a mission there but ultimately had only seen a tiny handful of people become Christians after decades of ministry. Her parents saw less than 10 converts in over 35 years of ministry and she herself had seen little fruit. Yet before her passing she had the news from Morocco of scores and scores of people coming to faith. Today it is unlikely that she or her family would ever be supported.

Today the bottom line of missions is success. Mission work has become enslaved to the cult of success and the tyranny of statistics. What matters today is not the condition of hearts but how many people we stuff into churches. Indeed if we took some reports seriously some countries would have been converted several times over already! What is valued is not faithfulness but how many churches we have planted, how many converts we have baptized, how many hours we have spent in various activities and how many projects we have done.

Mission societies and indeed churches who support mission work measure success in terms of what can be counted. Hence the plethora of photos on Facebook of each activity, the obligatory photos at every meeting, the glowing newsletters that never speak of disappointments and heartbreaks but only of our victories and the production of endless reports that tell the tales of our successes.

Evaluation forms sent to missionaries and national workers demand to know how many have been baptized, how many goals have been met and how many bodies have been in our meetings. Workers are stressed out thinking of ways to justify themselves and their ministries. The expectations of donors, supporting churches and sending agencies are pressing missionaries and national workers alike into work that is neither lasting nor of great value.

Underlying all this is the unbiblical notion that workers produce success rather than God’s Holy Spirit. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6, ‘I planted, Apollos watered but God gave the growth’. Surely the great test of success is faithfulness. 1 Corinthians 4:2, ‘Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy’. We need to ask the question, is this missionary or national worker doing the task that the Bible entrusts us with? The question is not how big is your church but to what degree have you been faithful to the work that God has entrusted you with?

Implications: donors and mission societies alike must have a very clear and biblical understanding of what the Bible understands success to be.

We must support not only that which has ‘results’ but that which has long lasting value.

We must not channel our support to the places which seem to yield the most fruit but those who are most faithful to the model of ministry that is given to us in the New Testament.

Is our giving to mission driven by a results based philosophy that comes from business and marketing or by biblical criteria?

We must consider whether we are forcing workers into a wrong mentality by insisting on having photographs of aid being delivered, literature being given out and so on. We must ensure that our expectations of missionaries and national workers do not actually perpetuate a success syndrome.

Accountability: to whom shall we answer?

To whom is the missionary really accountable? Some are accountable to a mission leader or leadership. Others are accountable to their team leader and others to no one at all. It is true that ultimately we are all responsible to God. The true judge of our work is God himself and so we are not to be overly swayed by man’s opinion of us (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).

However, accountability is part of the New Testament model of mission. We see Paul returning twice to Antioch to report to the church as to what had happened amongst the Gentiles in his travels (Acts 14:27, 18:22). It is interesting to note that he spent some considerable time with them. He did not simply meet with the leadership or send an emailed report. We are not told how accountability worked in detail but simply that it rested in the hands of the local church.

Why do I raise this point? There are so many lone rangers, accountable to no one, who are deeply damaging the church of Jesus Christ and the cause of the gospel. Even those who started well have often fallen into sin, into unbiblical practices and wrong theology and have treated believers and national workers in a sinful way.

What happens in this case? National churches are left to suffer the consequences. Their voice is rarely heard, their opinions irrelevant and there are many believers who have sacrificed much in the work of the gospel who are now without a church or fellowship simply because of the behaviour of an individual. Yet they are still funded by well-meaning supporters.

Implications: donors and churches should ensure that workers are genuinely accountable; whether it be to their sending church or to the leadership of the church that they are working in.

Mission organizations should not take the place of the church in holding workers to account. The church must not abdicate its responsibilities.

Where abuses of power occur and sin is reigning in a worker’s life they must be disciplined by their church, whether it be their sending church or the church which they are part of.

Priorities: what is of first importance in mission work?

One of the phenomena which alarms me the most in mission work is that of project-driven ministries. By that I mean that there are churches and mission efforts that do little else other than to go from one project to another and never actually fulfil the mission that God has entrusted to us.

Put it this way, would you rather support a ministry to starving orphans or a tiny mountain church with 8 or 9 believers? What attracts your sympathies more, a work amongst abused women or poor children, or training church leaders? It is right that we be moved by the tremendous needs of the world. It is right in many cases to financially support the efforts of churches to relieve the distress of others. It is still true today that, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction’.

However, are we funding these projects to the detriment of those who are working with local churches? Are we forcing churches to focus on social projects, because that is where the money is, instead of focusing on the tasks that the Bible gives us in mission?

K.P Yohannan makes the point in his book, Revolution in World Missions, that after all the time and money that has been spent in India on schools, hospitals and so on there have been very few people saved by these works. Are we feeding the poor, educating the illiterate, protecting the weak and helping the helpless at the expense of preaching the gospel, establishing believers, planting churches and raising up leaders? How can the Great Commission be fulfilled while we are so focused on projects that we have no time for much else?

The root of the problem is a loss of understanding in the church as to what the greatest need of our day actually is. Of course the church should abound in good works and be involved in the society to which it belongs but have we lost sight of the fact that man’s greatest problem is his sin and therefore the only solution is the gospel. Wherever the apostles went they planted churches; not schools, not hospitals, nor farms but local churches.

Without gospel ministry how will nations be transformed, injustices righted and issues like poverty addressed? If man’s primary problem is spiritual, we will never be able to address other problems like social injustice or poverty. Gospel ministry must take precedence over every other activity and that task is inseparable with the planting of churches.

Many commentators affirm the fact that the gospel spreads fastest and most effectively through the planting of churches. The Bible knows no other means of undertaking gospel ministry. The Great Commission given at the end of the gospels was fulfilled by the planting of churches in the book of Acts.

Our problem therefore is a lack of understanding of what the work of missions actually is. The Bible not only describes what mission work was like in the early church it prescribes what we must do today. Our problem is that we essentially believe that we are free to pursue the ministries that we want and in the way that we want to do them. Each one seems to have their own particular way of fulfilling the Great Commission.

Is that really right? Until we see that the book of Acts is normative in how we are to undertake our mission and until we see that the patterns found in the epistle are not some out-of-date manual, we will never be effective in the work that we are doing.

Paul and Barnabas did not make things up as they went along. They understood clearly ‘the work that I have called them to do’ (Acts 13:2). Acts tells us how they fulfilled that work and by implication what our work is today. The pattern that we have in Acts 14:1-28 is clear. The gospel was preached (1, 3, 6-7). Disciples were established and strengthened (21-22). Elders were appointed (23) and the cycle was repeated elsewhere.

Paul writing an epistle, by Valentin de Boulogne 1619
see image info

When we look at the epistles, we see people like Timothy and Titus engaged in establishing churches. What did they do? They taught sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:1-2). They taught people how to live as families (Colossians 3:18-4:1 etc.). They made sure that every believer fulfilled their role in the family of faith (Titus 2:1-10). They gave biblical priorities to the churches, such as prayer (1 Timothy 2:1-8). They taught the roles of men and women in church (1 Timothy 2:9-15). They appointed elders (Titus 1:5). The apostles and their helpers planted churches not centres, hospitals, schools or ministries. While the latter are not bad things, they are not the first things and our focus must be on the first things first!

My question is simply this, what is of first importance in missionary work? I am not asking us to abandon social projects; they are the fruit of our faith and can be a powerful witness if used well. I am asking us to turn back to the New Testament for our model of mission. I am asking us to assess all that we do by this model and pursue it relentlessly! I am asking us to free churches from the shackles of projects to concentrate on this great work!

A key issue in this regard is what a missionary actually is and is not. Our definition of what a missionary is has been blurred over time to include anyone who leaves their home country for another regardless of what activity they are engaged in. A missionary is someone sent from an established church with a view either to planting a church or to assist in doing so.

Their work might be finishing the process of establishing a church, like Titus or Timothy (Titus 1:5, 1 Timothy 3:14-15), or be starting from scratch.

They may be using professional skills to gain an entry into those countries which would forbid missionary activity. Their primary focus may be enabling church planting without actually being in local church leadership.

However, for someone to be a missionary they should be involved in the planting of a church where one does not exist or establishing a church which has not grown to maturity. This principle may need to be broken where either sending churches or national churches are not fulfilling their biblical responsibilities, but this should not be undertaken lightly and should only be for such time as churches cannot or will not fulfil their roles.

If this definition of a missionary was to be accepted, mission work would be impacted in two ways. First it should put an end to lone rangers on the mission field. A great sadness in missionary work is to see people coming as ‘missionaries’ but who are under the authority of no local church; whether that be in their country of origin or on the field. They may attend a church but never come under the authority of its leadership.

At times missionaries go from church to church or are simply frequenters of a church whilst actually being spiritual freelancers. The problems that this can cause are great!

It should also cause a radical redeployment of resources. Instead of workers being involved in ministries that have no link to a church planting effort they would be forced either to redirect their efforts to church planting or leave the field altogether. The European Christian Mission had the courage some years ago to make church planting their sole aim and to ensure that all their personnel were engaged in this activity. If someone was not, alternative arrangements were found. However, they defined a missionary as one engaged in church planting.

Implications: donors should be moved not only by the faces of needy children but the need of the lost, the needs of local churches and national leaders and give accordingly.

Churches should send missionaries out to do ‘the work’ that God has entrusted to us of planting churches and not simply to be engaged in piecemeal work that focuses on just one element of the task.

Those who are engaged in projects or in areas of work such as leadership training should be expected to show how their work actually relates to ‘the work’ of planting churches.

Churches should not finance lone rangers who are accountable to no one. Organizations should consider radical change to ensure that all their workers and all their resources are directed to church planting as the New Testament defines it.

Will Niven is a cross-cultural missionary engaged in church planting in Albania

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