But as with diet, exercise, education, finance, or any other area of life or ministry, success is unattainable if left undefined. Pastors and elders must lead in the area of missions with clear vision—not because God will never sovereignly redirect from time to time, but because biblical stewardship means knowing and executing the Master’s will according to stated aims and measurable goals.
What makes up a healthy, viable missions vision for a church? Broadly speaking, all churches have the same mandate: to disciple all nations, preaching the gospel, ministering the ordinances, teaching the commands of Christ, and training leaders to repeat the process (cf. Matthew 28:19-20). But more narrowly, the answer to this question will vary greatly depending on how God has uniquely equipped and resourced each local congregation. A church’s size, financial resources, members, needs, opportunities, and culture inevitably result in there being no one-size-fits-all strategy for any missions committee, team, department, or program.
That aside, I’d like to humbly offer seven planks our local church has recently built into its missions, shaping decisions from which missionaries to support to how volunteers should spend their time. If your church doesn’t have a well-defined missions vision yet, this resource is humbly offered for you as a starting point.
Preaching the good news of the finished work of Christ to regenerate and save sinners is the sine qua non of missionary activity. It should go without saying that missions can’t exist apart from evangelism, but frankly it cannot, given the preponderance of pressures to make social justice the driver of cross-cultural ministry.
As your church considers which major nonprofit organizations to support—whether it’s child sponsorships or shoebox drives—thoroughly research what role the verbal proclamation of the gospel plays in that ministry. If your church is considering sending or supporting an individual or couple preparing to embark overseas, inquire as to what role intentional evangelism plays in their work. Be clear that by “evangelism” you don’t mean just a cookie-cutter, elevator-pitch sort of presentation, but a full-orbed proclamation drawn from Scripture’s overarching metanarrative entailing Christ’s death, resurrection, and reign to save repentant, believing sinners (cf. Luke 24:46-47). Missions is more than evangelism, but it is never less.
2. Church Planting
In Romans 15:19, Paul describes himself as having “fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” throughout the Roman world, even though scores of populations presumably remained unevangelized. How could he have made this claim? Because he had planted self-sustaining churches as missional beachheads to carry out the evangelism of their own contexts.
The aim of a missionary—at least, in the Pauline sense—is not necessarily to see an entire populous evangelized. Rather, it is to see churches established as salt and light to perpetuate the mission over time. To put it another way, local evangelism is the work of the church; where no churches exist to carry out this work, missionaries export the church so that evangelism can happen.
Hell itself cannot withstand the bride of Christ (cf. Matthew 16:18). The local church is central to the mission of God and thus indispensable to the job description of a missionary. Evangelistic effort is commendable, but apart from a meaningful connection to the covenant people of God, sustainable discipleship is nearly impossible, and the heart of the Great Commission is missed.
Some churches may choose only to support missionaries who fit the bill of “lead church planter”—a male, Pauline-type missionary engaged in round-the-clock, full-time ministry, who meets all the qualifications of elder outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. While this is no bad place to start, a biblical focus on church planting can be maintained without instituting such a rigid policy. A wiser, more nuanced church vision might limit their support to missionaries serving on church multiplication teams. This means a single, female missionary teaching ESL might be as valid a missionary candidate as a lead church planter with his M.Div., provided that either (or both) candidates are serving on a team of individuals whose ultimate goal is to see new converts discipled and assimilated into fledgling, self-replicating congregations. Make it a central plank in your church’s vision that all missionaries are intentional about launching new churches or serving young, still-forming churches.
3. Training of National Leaders
Related to the previous point, no healthy church body can remain dependent forever upon outside missionaries. National leadership must be trained, ordained, and maintained. “[W]hat you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:1, ESV). “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).
Another point which can be drawn from Paul’s shocking missiology in Romans 15 is the concept of exit—that there is indeed a point when the missionary’s job is, in a real sense, actually “done.” Though this will vary from situation to situation, certainly one inextricable component of a “mission accomplished” is the establishment of healthy national leadership.
One missions agency president related to me a story in which an untrained, under-equipped national pastor asked him, “So, when was Jesus saved? Before or after his resurrection?” Laughable though this question may seem to the theologically astute, its lesson is sobering. Nationals left without thorough biblical training often stumble into heretical ditches our own Bible-saturated Sunday schoolers wouldn’t dare approach. Before a missionary can declare his or her job totally “done” or a people group technically “reached,” national leadership must be sufficiently trained.
4. Quality Over Quantity
Our church adopted this plank in an effort to see its missions giving become more strategic, focused, and direct. Despite the temptation to congratulate ourselves based on the sheer number of countries or ministries we support worldwide, the truth is that it is simply better to support five missionaries at $10,000 each than 10,000 missionaries at five dollars each. The larger the gift, the more accountability exists between the missionary and the sending church, and the more the church can genuinely relate to the missionary as a “sent one”—a geographically-separated member of the family—rather than one of an odd handful of forgettable budget lines.
One might point out, humorously, that the mission field is a great place for the oddballs you don’t want anywhere near your church staff or ministry.
(You may laugh, but you’ve got to admit it’s true sometimes!) Nevertheless, a good rule of thumb is: don’t support a missionary whom you wouldn’t be willing to hire on staff at your church in some capacity. Though this guideline may seem extreme, the point is simply that a church’s missions budget should reflect a priority of quality of ministry over quantity of workers.
5. Continued Care
A byproduct of our North American focus on dollar, cents, goals, and bottom lines is that we forget what matters most in our relationships with cross-cultural workers. Accountability must be guarded, but your missionary’s number of reported conversions, baptisms, or churches planted isn’t the most important thing about him or her (not to mention that an overemphasis on metrics can fuel the missionary’s anxiety and tempt him or her to fudge the numbers). Rather, the most important thing is the missionary himself or herself.
Pastor and theologian Andrew Fuller once commented, “There is a gold mine in India; but it seems as deep as the center of the earth; who will venture to explore it?” William Carey, the to-be father of the modern missionary movement, famously responded, “I will go down, but remember that you must hold the rope.”
Make effective rope-holding part of your church’s vision. Every church missions team needs an established plan on how it is to go about ongoing missionary care. This could include writing birthday cards to the children of missionaries, monthly prayer sessions over Skype, or mailing along nonperishable American junk foods within care packages designed to give missionaries a taste of home—even the smallest actions carry significance when marked with love. Know your missionaries and their needs well, and labor to constantly present your missionary before your congregation for continued prayer, correspondence, and financial support. Keep your missionaries on your membership role. Select volunteers within the church to host missionaries during their furloughs and help meet transportation needs. Above all, assure the missionary that he or she is still part of your church family.
6. Connection to the Unreached
Since missiologist Ralph Winter’s historic address at the 1974 Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization, the concept of unreached people groups has been stamped upon the minds of many—and for good reason. Today, and unreached people group is defined as a distinct, ethno-linguistic people group (one with distinct identity, language, and ethnicity) with less than 2 percent professing evangelical and less than 5 percent nominal Christian. These percentages, though arbitrary, are meant to express the bare minimum number of believers needed to sustain near-neighbor evangelism in a given culture.
By this definition, approximately 7,084 ethno-linguistic people groups—constituting over 4 billion individuals—are considered unreached, having little to no gospel access within their own language and culture. The stark reality is that an obscenely, disgustingly large population of planet earth has never heard the only name under heaven given among men by which they must be saved (cf. Acts 4:12).
Under the third point, we considered how essential it is that churches not withdraw all training and resources from “reached” contexts. It is a dangerous trend in missions that many fields and people groups are being overlooked by various organizations simply because their number of professing indigenous believers exceeds the arbitrary 2 percent mark, even while they may have a critical need for discipleship, leadership training, evangelism, or all of the above. A balanced church missions vision is aware of this unhealthy trend and views metrics on gospel penetration with healthy skepticism.
Nevertheless, a sound church missions vision should consider whether a potential ministry partner has any sort of connection to the unreached, or at least the minimally-reached. All things being equal, given the choice between supporting a new work in Grand Rapids, Michigan or Lynchburg, Virginia over and against evangelism in Kolkata, India or Tripoli, Libya, there must be a recognized, natural priority given to those missionary efforts which focus on places of lesser gospel penetration. Although the technical definition of an “unreached” people is of limited sociological or theological utility, it’s a great starting point for focusing on what work most needs to be done.
At the least, seek to balance missions to “reached” contexts with missions to “unreached” groups. A good farmer who understands crop rotation will not perpetually remain in all-harvest mode, nor in all-planting mode; in a given year, he will focus both on planting and harvesting in various fields. In like fashion, the Great Commission requires we both plant the gospel in the rocky, hard soils of the 10/40 Window and continue to harvest the ripe, low-hanging fruit in certain Latin American countries, among the Han Chinese people, or in other settings where the Spirit of God seems to be more readily converting hearts.
7. Send Our Own
Finally, our church adopted the ambitious prayer that one day a missionary would be sent from our own congregation—no small feat for a church of about 50 members. Is this too audacious? Maybe. But with this as our long-term goal, our prayers will begin from now to assume a different tone. From time to time, we’ll ask ourselves, “Is God calling so-and-so?” or better yet, “Is it me?” Our mentoring of the church’s children and youth will take on a new flavor as we add “missionary” to the list of inspiring possible vocations and recount to them stories of stalwarts like William Carey, Adoniram Judson, or Jim and Elisabeth Elliott. And when someone in our church expresses an interest in serving cross-culturally (as a few have), we’ll take them much more seriously and place them into a discipleship pipeline.
As David Platt has commented, sending cents and dollars is one thing; sending sons and daughters is quite another.
In sum, these seven planks provided our 110-year-old congregation with a rudimentary platform on which to continue erecting our prayer strategy, budget, calendar, and volunteer opportunities. It isn’t a full-orbed strategy, but it’s a philosophical framework. It’s not perfect for every church, but it works for ours—and it might be a great place for yours to start too.