This last weekend my mother in law had an open house for her art and for our ministry. When asked about the demographics of our sending team many had a common question: Why do only two churches support you? We have over 75 households supporting us--and two churches. The question came not as one of suspicion (if there are only two churches, you must be doing something wrong) but one of disbelief (how could they not want to support you?) While that was flattering, with all modesty it was a good question. We know many missionary candidates and field workers who have similar church statistics. Not only that, but we were advised numerous times to not try and connect with churches because of the low result ratio and the bureaucracy behind the long time spent waiting for churches to make a decision.
I saw my parents finish their support in '93 with 15 or more churches on their team. So I ignored the advice. In fact, I've easily contacted about 100 researched churches in the last year and a half. Why so few joined?
I tried to do some research on the subject and statistics (using the academic database we still have access to from a prior employer) but only found information on a) the philosophy of missions and b) short term missions.
Some of it helped, as these two factor are why churches aren't involved in sending foreign missionaries on such a large scale anymore. But in simple brainstorming I found several other factors.
Money. Money is getting allotted in other places, like...
Technology. Churches feel the pressure to keep up with technology and to stay culturally relevant. 10 years ago very few churches had a lighting display for worship, or used ipads in place of paper music sheets.
Buildings. Some might say that this is not a new problem, and they might be right. We have visited and have friends at many churches who are in over their head with building debt. But many churches are faced with a real spacial problem. Something has to give...
Advertising/Attracting. Websites cost to maintain, decorations in the building become more elaborate, etc.
All of these things (and more) cost money--and there is less to go into the missions budget
Missions now means anything from raking someone's yard, to painting, to running a VBS, to a building project to... anything we want it to mean. Anglican Theologian Stephen Neil notes, "If everything is mission, nothing is mission" (1). Missions has ceased to refer to Evangelism and Discipleship and now can mean almost anything we want it to mean. Miguel Ángel Palomino notes that "Ever since churches borrowed the term 'mission statement' from the business world, the word 'mission' no longer has much to do with the biblical concept of missions but instead has to do with the purposes and objectives of an institution" (2). Today it seems that all it takes to be a missionary is to be a part of a religious 501c3 or simply to serve others.
Short Term Missions.
STM, for short, have been a cause for much debate. All and all it has put an international ministry experience in the hands of, well, everyone. There is a philosophy that says: to be involved with missions we must send our members... short term. But in reality, in financially supporting a long term missionary the church is involved in missions in one of the deepest, oldest, and certainly most effective ways possible. But this biblical philosophy (Phil 4) that long term foreign missionary is a direct extension of the church is hard to find in churches today. Furthermore the church has spent billions on STM-- for what studies are showing have been vastly ineffective in the big picture (3).
This directly relates to the last point. We have found many philosophies behind how a church is involved in missions, and each has a weak point:
- some only support organizations (like some Southern Baptist churches, etc). After all, people are messy, and it's so much easier to just write checks--so where is the connection with and care for the missionary?
- some only support national pastors--but this causes dependency and often ostracizes them within their own people (4)
- some only come alongside national churches (5)--but where is the person who goes to live among them and learn their culture and language? So much cultural misunderstanding happens here between the churches
- some only work with temporary immigrants so when the immigrants return they'll bring the gospel back to their countries--but this is negating the great commission, saying that it is not for us anymore, but for them! (and that is the biggest objection the the last few)
- some only support a handful of key areas, but then a missionary raising support might search far and wide just for one church to support him... and what portion of the budget? Certainly not all, probably not even 50% or 25%--how is this effective in support raising?
- some do the 'old fashioned' way of supporting missionaries--keep taking them on until you have too many to keep up with and the finances are spread way too thin;
- some, the one I criticize openly--we only do STM... 'nough said.
- Oh yes, I can't forget the "Our church isn't called to missions" philosophy. Hmmm...
So few churches are on the same page with supporting missions that it makes it incredibly difficult to approach a church and be talking about the same thing, even though we share a common vocabulary.
Frankly, churches are flooded with requests for money. STM, local charities, various para-church organizations, etc. In talking to a lawyer, I found out it was only a one time $5,000 comprehensive fee to file and start a non-profit 501c3. So many people and ministries have started their own nonprofit that they have, for lack of better terms, flooded the market. Under-appreciated church leaders and secretaries field phone calls and emails from so many people asking for money, that the unfortunate often happens: legitimate long term foreign missionaries often get grouped in with masses, and promptly written off--or as frequently happens to me, hung up on or ignored.
What I want to make clear is that this is not a shot at criticizing the church. This is not a low blow, or an upset missionary writing to get rid of my frustrations. I love the church--Christ loves the church. The leaders in our congregations are there because God has them there. I write to unveil issues common to the churches I've come across.
The lack of importance of missions in the church is staggering and tragic. Missiologist and veteran missionary Zane Pratt says, "The most common misconception about the place of missions in Scripture is the idea that mission is somehow optional, or simply one among many items on the church's agenda. But mission is actually one of the glues holding together the grand narrative of Scripture, and it's central to the agenda of the church"(6). There is something tragically wrong with missionaries being advised not to spend time contacting churches. It is a tragedy that, as a generalization, the church in the US has dropped the ball with foreign missions.
But hope is not lost. Never has the failing of a human element ceased the purposes of a living God. Missionaries are still being sent. We're already at 74% of our monthly support. The people of God, with the heart of God, take the word of God seriously and are readily giving the money God entrusts to them to the advancement of evangelism and discipleship across borders and barriers, even to "the ends of the Earth"
1. Neil, Stephen. 1959. Creative Tension. Edinburgh: House Press, p89
2. Journal of Latin American Theology 2(2): 2007. p 208-226.
3. Are Short-Term Missions Good Stewardship? A conversation between Robert Priest and Kurt Ver Beek, Christianity Today, Posted 7/5/2005
4. Craig Ott, Let the Buyer Beware
5. See above article
6. The Non-Negotiable Center of Missions by Matt Smethurst, interview with Zane Pratt