I receive about 100 missionary letters every month, and every once in a while one of my friends throws a helpful punch about what missions is really like. This is an important reminder for those considering going to the field or holding the rope for those who have gone. The author of the post below and his family serve in a creative access scenario so have agreed to share this anonymously.
There’s been something on my mind for a while and I need to talk about it. It’s equal parts an explanation of church-planting realities as well as a plea for your consideration. It’s not short, but at least read this following statement and trust me that it’s a good idea.
Please stop sending people to the mission field unless they have been exceedingly faithful to their local church.
My first church committee meeting was back in 2005 in a dusty, double-wide trailer-home of one of our more elderly members. The living room had shag carpeting, a large mini-spoon collection, and pink floral wallpaper. I sat down in an overstuffed chair, the youngest of the other members by maybe 25 years, and nibbled on some crackers. The meeting started with one of the older ladies giving a devotional that described God using the first letter of each letter of the alphabet (A is for Awesome – God is awesome in his power and glory when he…). This devotional lasted nearly a half-hour as everyone in the room was politely trying their best to feign interest in the obviously pre-packaged Sunday school lesson.
After this, the committee began going over the agenda, I realized the discussion points were painfully boring. We spent most of the time discussing the health expenses and retirement plans of a few of our older missionaries. Two people did 90% of the talking, a few people never said a word. Robert’s Rules of Order was strictly enforced in our small group of seven. At one point, one of the men got offended because he felt the other was speaking too condescendingly, and then another older woman chimed in with her own unhelpful opinion on the man. There were awkward pauses, unhelpful rabbit trails, a lot of patiently listening to vaguely relevant anecdotes, and all the while sipping on watery, homemade cranapple juice in the small living room that was just a little too warm. We each prayed for a missionary and then we “socialized” for exactly 15 minutes, nibbling on stale oatmeal cookies made by one of the ladies before we each went home.
I realized at that moment that this committee – discussing the lives and challenges of the supported missionaries in difficult, unreached locations around the world – was going to be long, dull, inconvenient and only marginally effective in accomplishing any sort of actionable items. It wasn’t my favorite use of a Thursday night as a 22-year-old.
I kept going back, though. Each and every month, for seven years. The meetings were quite similar, but over the years we prayed together, ate oatmeal cookies together, patiently and politely waited through our boring stories together, and prayed some more. Over the years, each of us contributed in unique ways, made small incremental changes, tried bold new ideas, frustrated one another, prayed for one another, and we all just kept showing up. It turned out to be the absolute best missionary training I could have possibly received.
The local church is built on nothing more than our common-bond in Jesus Christ and his gospel – which means the church is always going to be full of weird people who are nothing like me (or you.) They don’t look like me, think like me, sin like me, express themselves like me. Especially in a cross-generational church, you will always find yourself in some sort of minority.
In Ephesians, Paul says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing up with one another in love.” (4:2). This may be one of the most important verses for sending out missionaries to do church-planting. And for anyone who has spent any time serving in a local church, “bearing up” is easier said than done.
Each year the American church sends out thousands of missionaries who have never had substantive experience serving faithfully in a local church beyond a youth group or college group ministry. Some missionaries are sent overseas by some college ministries with ZERO local church experience. They come to Christ on campus, discipled on campus, then sent out by a campus ministry without ever working through the universal frustration of feeling “stuck” in a (insert unpleasant adjective here) church.
There are huge conferences that preach to 18-21 year olds about being faithful to go, go, go. So armed with some Bible education, they graduate, raise support and move overseas to play their part in planting churches. The problem is that churches around the world are all the same – messy. And you can be trained to handle the Word of God, but it’s much more difficult to be trained to handle a messy church. Learning to “be patient” and to “bear up with one another” is something that almost always requires a level of experience.
Today, and especially where I serve, we have a huge chasm between the missionaries that are serving and the few, small local churches that have been planted. Missionaries struggle to invest in the local church, missionaries struggle to “be patient” with weird people who are different than themselves, missionaries struggle to see the church as their family rather than as an obstacle to their personal ministry agendas.
So many missionaries disengage from local church and blame it on local church dysfunction – and they’re not wrong about it – but it’s the exact same challenges that they would see in any church in the States. And it’s the exact same challenges they would see in any future church that God gives them the grace to plant!
Are we preparing our young missionaries to “bear up with one another” in an imperfect church? I’ve said before that “missiology” is just a fancy word for “ecclesiology”, yet the priority, theology and even the experience of local church is sadly deficient among most missions organizations and their missionaries.
At our church, if you aren’t happy with something or someone in the church, there are no other options, you just stop going. Unfortunately, not only are the local missionaries ill-equipped to disciple young believers through this all-too-familiar scenario of feeling “uncomfortable” in church, but many missionaries themselves stop engaging or serving in the local body. It is not a small problem.
So, please, for the sake of the health of our tiny churches among unreached people groups, make sure you send missionaries who know how to “bear up” and serve faithfully in church. Rant over.
Thank you for your continued prayers.