If your church wants to plant God-glorifying, effective churches in foreign lands, then it must first understand and model a biblical understanding of the church. Flawed, dysfunctional churches at home send out missionaries who plant flawed, dysfunctional churches abroad.
In my experience, most American evangelical churches rarely consider how their ecclesiology shapes their missiology. That’s because we’ve separated two things that should never be separated: a biblical understanding of what an elder is, and our commitment to the Great Commission.
Let me illustrate what I mean with two examples: one from abroad and one from North America.
ECCLESIOLOGY AND MISSIOLOGY: TWO CASE STUDIES
From 2006–2016, I served as a missionary in a closed country in Asia. During that decade, I encountered a disturbing number of unqualified missionaries. Some didn’t know their Bible; some thought they knew their Bibles, yet taught doctrines contrary to Scripture. Believe it or not, some were even openly hostile to historic Christian teachings (Titus 1:9). Some had little or no ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). Many of them had never been tested for faithful life and doctrine (1 Tim. 3:10). Many were recent converts (1 Tim. 3:6). Some had significant character flaws (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7). Others didn’t know the local language; many had poor cross-cultural skills. After a few years, many returned home permanently and took up secular work.
I witnessed this same heartbreaking phenomenon across Asia. Sadly, few sending churches had any notion that their missionary outreach might be amiss and in need of deep structural change. If anything, they were driven by unfettered zeal and excitement. This disconnection from reality frustrated me. For many years, I wanted to charter an airplane and invite representatives of these sending churches to witness the impact of their decisions and their dollars. They didn’t realize that they had squandered it on ineffective and unqualified missionaries.
Problems overseas can often be traced to weak, unbiblical ecclesiology in sending churches. These churches don’t apply the same criteria when ordaining missionaries as they do when calling a pastor. They expect pastors to know the Bible, to be able to teach and preach, and to have a proven track record of godliness. Regrettably, they rarely apply these same qualifications to missionaries. Instead of sending mature, theologically trained men with proven godliness, many churches send young, fresh-out-of-college men and women who love to travel and experience new cultures. They may be filled with zeal and enthusiasm, but they generally lack the qualifications of spiritual leadership described in the Bible.
Put simply, not everyone who wants to be sent as a missionary should be sent out as a missionary. Sending churches are no doubt motivated by a desire to obey the Great Commission. But whatever good intentions spur them on, this kind of carelessness sends and supports ineffective and perhaps even harmful missionaries.
We find perhaps the most stirring example of this in the history of Christian missions to China—particularly from 1807 to 1949. During the early years, sending churches tended to screen missionary candidates with care. They subsequently sent out a number of exceptional missionaries such as Robert Morrison, William Chalmers Burns, and Hudson Taylor.
But as time went on, the emphasis shifted from sound doctrine and faithfulness to Scripture to zeal and passion. In 1922, for example, one missionary observed, “Missionaries have generally been chosen by the large [mission] boards because of their spirit rather than their doctrine.” With meaningful qualifications set aside, anyone could go. By 1925, China had 8,325 foreign missionaries—one of the largest concentrations of missionaries in the world. In due course, the missionary community established 180 colleges, 262 hospitals, 19,500 churches, and 69 seminaries and Bible Schools.
Despite all this investment of money and personnel over their 142 years in China, what was the result? The number of Christian converts never exceeded 1% of the Chinese population. Samuel Ling observed:
It was widely conceded by Christians and non-Christians alike that the missionary movement had failed to achieve its goals in the largest mission field of the church. . . . In retrospect, the Chinese communist movement alone could claim success; all other systems of ideas and social movements failed to make a comparable impact on China.
TOO MANY SUPPORTERS, TOO LITTLE SUPPORT
Let’s think more about churches who unwisely finance such missionaries.
Many churches support so many missionaries that they can only provide each with a miniscule amount of what they actually need. It’s almost unheard of for churches to support missionaries the way Paul encouraged Titus: “Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need” (Titus 3:13). Instead, churches commonly provide only between $25 and $250 per month which forces missionaries to seek financial support from dozens of various supporters—typically between 25 and 50.
This sets off a chain reaction of additional problems.
First, sending churches don’t have a meaningful relationship with their missionaries. How could a church have a meaningful relationship with 25 to 50 missionaries? I know of one missionary who is supported by a church that has about 30 missionaries on their monthly payroll. Recently, he told me that this church contacted him for the first time in 20 years and asked him how he was doing.
Second, missionaries don’t have a meaningful relationship with their sending churches. If sending churches provide meager support, then when a missionary returns on furlough he must spend several months tirelessly visiting a large number of supporting churches. The end result is that most missionaries only see a small fraction of their supporting churches. Over time, that missionary becomes little more than a tack on a church’s missionary map.
Third, churches set up an alternate set of qualifications to screen missionary candidates. When there isn’t a clear relationship between ecclesiology and missiology, churches often create an alternate set of extra-biblical qualifications as a way to screen missionary candidates. For example, they may require their missionaries to:
- Be a member of their particular church
- Attend the sending church’s annual missions conference once every two to three years
- Produce a video describing their ministry on a periodic basis
- Find ways for members from the sending church to actively participate alongside them on the field—regardless of whether they are qualified or not
- Submit a quarterly report to the supporting church—this report is in addition to the quarterly or bi-monthly “prayer letter”
- Provide monthly prayer requests to supporting churches—again, in addition to the standard prayer letter
On their own, these additional requirements may seem wise. But here’s the problem: multiply the above requests by the number of churches who support a particular missionary. If a missionary has 25 to 50 supporting churches, these additional requirements quickly add up!
Typically, most churches only see their own small requests and think they’re insignificant. In reality, missionaries are inundated with a range of additional requirements as a condition of ongoing support. As these requirements increase, they divert the missionary’s primary focus from the foreign field to maintaining a relationship with its multitude of supporters.
Put simply, Christians need to trust the sufficiency of Scripture. Don’t burden your missionaries with extra-biblical qualifications.
A WATERSHED MOMENT
Divorcing ecclesiology from missiology has produced bad fruit. But there is hope. Scripture provides clear directions on how to move forward. This begins by viewing the missionary task through the lens of biblical ecclesiology.
So pastors, make your first objective to raise up elders where you are—and from that pool you’ll find effective, qualified missionaries. To be sure, this may be the more difficult and time-consuming path, but in the end your church will reap rich rewards—both locally and abroad.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on 9Marks November 24, 2020. Used with permission.