The reason for this is the magnetic—and repelling—power of cross-cultural experience. Missionaries, while often some of the most ordinary individuals, give on an ineffable glow. Oftentimes, church leaders caught in this aura find themselves unwilling to question or scrutinize the field reports they hear. There is an unstated sense that our church’s or denomination’s theology ends where international waters begin. And as a result, missionaries raising support are often asked rather superficial interview questions that fail to capture the heart of their assumptions about the gospel, the most biblical methods of ministry, the nature of the local church, and so forth.
Whether you’re a lay leader in your church or a full-time pastor, don’t be caught in a situation in which you feel unqualified to evaluate the work of mission happening in your church. When you interview (or re-interview) your church’s ministry partners, remember that the Word of God has made you sufficient for exercising the task of oversight (2 Timothy 3:17). While you will want to humbly encourage cross-cultural workers, you must also aim to prayerfully ask difficult questions.
Here are a few.
Questions for First-Time Missionaries
1. When was the last time you shared the gospel with someone face-to-face?
This question is not meant to insult faithful missionary candidates, nor is it to be asked with an assumption that every spiritual conversation will include a full-blown gospel presentation complete with a “closer.”
But we do live in an age in which the definition of evangelism has been watered down to the point of including everything from mentioning one’s personal testimony of salvation to performing physical deeds of service. It is critical that missionaries sent and sustained by local churches be engaged in verbal proclamation of the gospel message as often and as intentionally as possible.
2. Can you name someone you have personally discipled?
God is sovereign over the fruit of our evangelistic labors, and we cannot accomplish anyone’s conversion. So, it may seem unfair or inappropriate to hold a missionary accountable to have fully and personally discipled someone. But it stands to reason that if God is directing someone to make disciples in a foreign cultural context, he will set his sights upon those whom he has previously used in this same ministry.
If someone has a zeal for evangelism but does not have any discernible track record for making disciples in their home, church, or community, they may need encouragement to slow down and patiently gain ministry experience.
3. If you are serving in a limited-access country, have you given thought to the platform of ministry you would build?
I recall in at least one sermon that David Platt stated: the reason the unreached people groups of the world are unreached is because they don’t want to be reached. While I’m probably butchering the phrasing, and I’m sure the observation wasn’t original with Platt, the underlying logic stands that people groups are unreached for a reason—and it’s a reason that usually involves some sort of hostility to Christianity at a governmental level.
A missionary candidate may have high hopes of serving Christ in a hostile, least-reached environment, but if he or she is not willing to creatively and entrepreneurially build a platform through which to gain access from a visa standpoint, it is possible that that individual has not counted the cost. The Apostle Paul aspired to be “all things to all people” (see 1 Corinthians 9:22-23). In like fashion, modern missionaries should be willing to undergo whatever inconveniences will be necessary to put boot leather to the gospel.
4. How much time and energy are you prepared to devote to culture and language acquisition?
We North Americans are notorious for our pursuit of the immediate, measurable, and convenient. Practicality runs in our Puritan, colonist, Westward-expanding veins. This is not altogether a bad thing; “the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Proverbs 10:4). But when practicality becomes pragmatism in gospel ministry, it becomes a curse as much as—or more than—a blessing.
The toll of pragmatism in missions has been a pattern of neglect of the two most difficult—and foundational—elements of missionary preparation: culture and language acquisition. While short-term strategies, leadership training, and national partnerships are important strategies that allow us to maximize our effectiveness in mission, there is really no replacement for the hard work of learning a language and acclimating to a foreign way of life. But if a missionary candidate hasn’t been pushed in training to the point of embracing this necessity, he or she is less likely to succeed when life overseas gets hard.
Questions for Veteran Missionaries
In addition to the sorts of questions listed above, if you are evaluating an existing missionary as a candidate for support, you might consider probing deeper with questions about their current ministry.
5. What is the progress of church planting efforts in your field?
It is true that not every missionary is a lead church planter. But every missionary should serve as part of an overall strategy, and preferably a team, whose priority is to plant, strengthen, and multiply churches. If evangelism is happening and disciples are embracing Christ, the inevitable result is the formation of a community for worship and instruction.
When Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, Jesus replied, “[U]pon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). Saving faith does not exist in a vacuum apart from the growth and multiplication of local church bodies. If a missionary does not have as his or her primary ministry direct church planting efforts, at least inquire as to how his or her ministry is feeding and supporting existing local church ministries in their field of service.
6. Define what constitutes a local church.
This question relates clearly to the previous one. Church planting cannot happen without a robust definition of a church.
As pragmatists at heart, many of us tend to grasp immediately at a minimalist definition of a local church—typically one involving Jesus’ words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). This particular passage has been used out of context, and relates primarily to the authority of church leaders in exercising church discipline and, when necessary, excommunication. But where Scripture actually does address the development of the church, we see several consistent, defining elements including preaching and teaching (Acts 2:42), administration of the ordinances (v. 46), and the ordination of qualified elders (14:23).
Many missionaries acutely feel the pressure to count things as churches that are not—small groups, Bible studies, or evangelistic gatherings of unbelievers and seekers. The source of this pressure is often churches, agencies, and missions committees that care more about results than faithfulness. Find out how your missionary candidate defines a church, and encourage him or her to pursue quality over mere quantity.
7. Define what constitutes disciple-making.
“Disciple-making” is one of those catch-all terms used in ministry that can simultaneously signify everything and very little. But microenterprise training and instruction among widows in Sudan is not synonymous with teaching disciples to “observe all that” Jesus commanded them (Matthew 28:20), though the former may in fact produce the latter. It is wise to seek definition and find out what veteran missionaries mean by disciple-making.
One error becoming more prevalent in modern missiology is a loose definition of “disciple” that includes unconverted unbelievers. This problem arises through a confusion of law and gospel which tends to flatten the distinction between applying Jesus’ moral teachings with a saving recognition of Jesus’ identity and redemptive work. But biblically, a disciple is one who has been converted to faith in Christ and, having repented, is striving to live in conformity to Jesus’ commands. If a missionary does not recognize this critical truth, there is danger that he or she will replace the gospel of forgiveness and grace with a message of “try living Jesus’ way.”
Interviews with missionaries seeking financial support can weigh upon church leaders. No one wants to feel like the bad guy interrogating faithful overseas workers with seemingly simplistic lines of questioning. At the same time, while we would all like to always impute the purest motives to everyone on the mission field, we must recognize that we do not have the luxury of doing so. The devil is in the details, as it were, and even the Apostle Paul felt it necessary to report back to his sending church (Acts 14:27). If Paul’s ministry team needed accountability—as we all do—how much more do today’s missionaries?
Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Establishing a firm foundation of shared theology, methodology, and commitment to the gospel will lay a foundation for years of fruit in ministry through your missions partners.
Editor’s Note: For more interview questions and helpful information, download the free SendOne Pocket Missions Reference Guide PDF.