Sure, It Sounds Good…

West African pastor Josias Silas Sanogo

West African pastor Josias Silas Sanogo

There are two sorts of people who push for the support of national church planters among unreached peoples: field church-based missionaries and well-intentioned stateside leaders.

It sounds really good to say, “We believe in supporting national church planters.” “Nationals,” of course, are believers from a given people group. Time and again, I hear idealistic church leaders cite this as their strategy for missional engagement of unreached peoples. Usually, this is their passive-aggressive response to the question “what does your church do in the way of taking the gospel across cultures?”  As if to say, “We aren’t doing anything, but that’s on purpose, because nationals can do a way better job of it than we ever could.” Oh, and “Our missiology is more highly evolved than yours, so leave us alone about missions.”

The other crowd beating the “nationals are the best missionaries” drum is made up of those missionaries who work closely with national churches. These are the ones who serve on local church staffs, preach in churches on Sunday mornings, and submit to the field strategies of the local church leadership. Out of their affinity for national believers, these missionaries are constantly encouraging others not to forget the importance of working with national believers.

On the surface, it sounds right to say that we should support nationals in church planting. Even noble. Unfortunately, it’s not always a good idea. As it turns out, nationals aren’t always the best missionaries.

Firstly, the obvious. Nationals aren’t doing the work. If they were, their churches wouldn’t look like America in the 1960s.

Stuck inside their own culture, they are unable to see key strategies for cultural translation of the gospel. Like Michael Carpenter always says, it’s like asking a fish to describe the water he’s swimming in– it’s the lens he sees the world through, but he’s got nothing to compare it to.

Nationals may be cheaper to maintain, but external sponsorship only breeds dependence and professionalism, and stunts creativity and reproducibility.

As an outsider, you lack the cultural insight to be a good judge of character, motive, and approach. You don’t know whether this national church planter is God-called and capable or if he’s just looking for a free ride from (and eventually to) America. How do you decide which nationals to partner with?

Week-long training for national pastors doesn’t provide the context for paradigmatic missiological change. Sure, you walk away feeling good about yourself, but in the end, what practical steps do the pastors take away from it?

As not to discourage you completely from supporting national church planters, I propose these solutions:

Missionaries should leverage some of their credibility with supporters and roll national support in to their own pay packages. Put your money where your mouth is. Support a national that you know, trust, and can partner with.

Missionaries should work to disciple unbelievers into non-professional pastor/planter roles. The best national missionary is one who has a day job. If the only national Christian is paid to tell people about Jesus, what are people to infer about the gospel?

If you’re really sure about supporting nationals, be intentional about entering a relationship with them. Visit them. Get to know their families. See with your own eyes what they’re doing. Pray over them, and ask God to give your church the same sense of affirmation of calling that you would want for anyone you were sending out.

Ask the hard questions. You may not be a cultural insider, but you’re a Kingdom insider. A national who says that the preaching of the gospel or ongoing discipleship “don’t work” in his culture is not one you should support.

If you are going to support a national, be sure he has everything he needs. Pastoral care, ample accountability, peer networks, ongoing encouragement, strategic advice, and enough money to feed his family.

While it always sounds cultural sensitive and missiologically progressive to claim that “nationals make better missionaries than we do,” it’s not always true. Just because it “makes sense,” doesn’t mean it’s God’s thing. The best strategy is radical, step-by-step obedience to the Holy Spirit. If He connects you with a national, support him with all you’ve got. But you can’t outsource the great commission- not to mission sending organizations, and not to nationals. The commission is yours.

10 thoughts on “Sure, It Sounds Good…

  1. That last sentence is so important. The commission is mine…what am I doing with it?

    The only thing I would “counter” with, if I may call it that, is this: At some point the national church has to succeed or fail on its own. And then they need to become a sending body. That’s what I understand of the Bible at least. So while I would submit that your post is applicable early on, someday it shouldn’t be true, right?

  2. I see what you are saying here and I agree overall. But, we tend to talk out of both sides of our mouth on this issue. On the one hand, we talk about dependency issues and how nationals should get day jobs. On the other hand, we support full-time missionaries from America (who are completely dependent upon the churches back home) and who do not have real day jobs. We do exactly what we tell them that they are not to do or are not capable of doing. As for their churches looking like churches in America in the 1960′s, that is a fairly sweeping generalization, but even if it is true, we don’t have much problem taking money from churches in America stuck in the 1960′s to support full time missionaries, it seems.

    One other thing: If we are going to say this about the work of nationals, should we count their baptisms? How many of the baptisms that IMB missionaries claim each year are actually performed by nationals and national churches? 90%? 95%? More? If we are going to claim their baptism numbers, maybe we should look at them a bit differently. We feel as though we have the right to be full-time, but they don’t. Why is that? We have Christian institutions, but they can’t. Why is that?

    I agree with all that you have said here about the dangers of working with nationals, but there are also many good believers that our money WOULD do better to support. I guess that the real necessity is to be led by the Holy Spirit and walk through the doors that God opens for you as you try to impact lostness around the world.

  3. Great post. I am reminded of some of the criticism of K.P. Yohanan’s Gospel for Asia and other such “national missionaries” organizations that the USCWM rightly took to task a few years back. The whole “send your money, not your people” approach is a bit too simplistic.

    I am also reminded of John Nevius’ seminal work on “The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches”. It is back in print again, and it is amazing how Nevius nails on the head the pitfalls of supporting national workers (especially early on).

    I’ve done a couple of posts related to this topic that you may find of interest. “Are Long Term Missionaries Obsolete?” (http://bit.ly/30G3ml), and “Should All Missionaries be Tentmakers?” (http://twit.ac/pmXM)

  4. @Alan. There is nothing wrong with national full-time pastors who are supported by their own people. The problem is when the funds/training/resources come from overseas. This is when issues of dependency arise.

    That is why we do not see supporting foreign missionaries as a problem – they are being supported by their home churches who have sent them out.

    So it is not so much an issue of “full-time” pastors vs tentmaking, but rather a question of who funds and sustains the national church. There is good evidence to suggest that significant, ongoing reliance on funds from “outside” has undesirable effects stunting and in some cases corrupting national churches.

  5. Good post, Ernest. I like this quote:

    “Stuck inside their own culture, they are unable to see key strategies for cultural translation of the gospel. Like Michael Carpenter always says, it’s like asking a fish to describe the water he’s swimming in…”

    This is true from within the US as well, I think. We’ve just moved to South Jersey from Arizona (after being in the latter for six years) and have seen the benefit of being an “outsider” in a very established “traditional” religious culture.

    We see things others don’t.

    But at the same time, as I am sure you realize, there are tons of things we simply don’t see, and don’t “get” as newcomers. It has been important that we form partnerships and a team of people who can help us with our blind sides.

    Perhaps the key is no matter where God calls you as a missionary, you recognize it is His church He is building, and we are His servants.

    I love Newbigin’s analysis along these lines.

    Thanks again for writing.

  6. Phil N.,

    I am sensitive to issues of dependency. I understand that and I agree that it is a concern. But, my point is that we send a missionary family overseas and they often live in a nice house with servants and drive a nice Range Rover and have a motorcycle and spend a lot of time in villages with some people that they are training and they leave every 6 weeks to 3 months for a meeting somewhere else, all the while claiming to be “consultants” for some pretend business while churches in the States pay their full salary and expenses. The people that the missionaries are training see all of this and think that all of this is necessary to do the ministry and then hear that THEY should not be supported because it could create “dependency” issues in their lives. If they are going to be supported, it should be by their own people. So, the indigenous workers, who have no money, walk 14 kilometers a day through the mountains to visit people and do their work, all the while, the Americans speed past them in the Range Rovers on the way to a meeting or to pick up a team visiting from the States who have paid thousands of dollars for a 2 week sight-seeing tour/prayerwalk.

    The IMB missionaries are often culturally and socioeconomically as far away from the people as they can possibly be. I’ve been overseas. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen all of this. They are completely dependent upon Stateside support, resources, and logistics. It just rings hollow to hear about creating dependency issues among national workers when IMB missionaries are often very dependent and also very much “other” from not only the lost in their country, but also the believers there because of how many of them live on the field.

    I’m not begruding the missionaries of anything, by the way. I’m not against them having what they need to do the ministry and I don’t think that they should live in abject poverty. My point is just that Americans going to countries like India and living the way that they do while supported by churches in the States can create a massive problem for the indigenous believers as well. We brush that aside and only focus on the problems related to dependency, while at the same time, constantly asking for more money to put more full-time missionaries on the field that are supported by churches back in the States.

    Does anyone else see what I’m talking about here? I’m not anti-IMB at all. This isn’t even a complaint. I am just saying that the problem goes both ways and saying that we should not support indigenous workers for $150 a month while we SHOULD support IMB missionaries for $3000 per month comes across a little strange to me. Unless we are saying that Americans are inherently superior and more capable than indigenous workers and proper relationships are impossible between American believers and indigenous workers, I don’t understand why it is wrong for one and proper for the other.

  7. Alan,
    You bring up a great point. If we’re really concerned about “reproducibility,” we wouldn’t pay Americans a U.S.-level salary to do missions. I guess I was aiming for the other side of that same point- if you’re going to support them, why not give them the same kind of support you would/should give to someone sent out of your church?

    I also wanted to point out another area in which the church tends to outsource the great commission. It isn’t healthy to blindly send money to a professional missionary any more than it is to blindly send money to a national.

    I’m of the opinion that fully-funded workers aren’t a bad thing if God has led a church to prayerfully and strategically make that decision. Same goes for national believers, international business, or social/humanitarian work.

    Great discussion.

  8. Ernest,

    I agree completely. Having talked with you about this type of thing before, I know that we see eye to eye here. I have just recently been in discussions with IMB missionaries where their concerns over partnering with nationals were expressed very vocally, but they never considered what they themselves were doing or if it was hindering the spread of the gospel in any way. If we look at both sides of this, the only way that we can blindly accept what Americans (who are fully funded by American churches) do while simultaneosly reject supporting indigenous workers is to believe that the indigenous workers are somehow inherently inferior to the American workers, or that they simply cannot be trusted. Your ability to see both sides of this is fully expected by me, yet refreshing considering the implications of this discussion.

    By the way, I’m not saying that it is wrong to fully fund American missionaries through the IMB. I want that to be clear. But, this argument cuts both ways if we are not careful.

  9. Great post and important issue to bring up. Seems like most commentors here are affiliated with the IMB. I am a missionary to Asia with another organization that requires us to raise our own support, though I grew up S. Baptist.

    Phil N. You bring up some good points but it seems that you miss the point of what missionaries are/do. The question we should be asking is: should cross-cultural ministers (missionaries) be views as different in function/role than pastors. Nationals are not cross-cultural ministers, they are pastors, teachers, etc.

    When a US church or denomination decides to financially support a national minister out of their “missions” budget, what does that say about their view of missions? The assumption is that “missions” relates more to the work than the person. Christians cross-boarders to spread the Gospel is not important, it is only important that some type of “work” is being done there. Church planting networks, theological education and pastor training programs and others have managed, in recent years, to by-pass the concept of a cross-cultural worker altogether. People like Rick Warrens suddenly think they are experts at spreading Christ in Africa through nationals because they can build a huge church and sell millions of books int he US.

    Building up people who will leave their home country in the name of spreading the Gospel is devalued because accomplishing, or more like taking credit for, the “work” is more important. Because the “work” is more important than the people doing it, pragmatism wins out. The question I have for all us ministers: are you more concerned that your church is simply “doing” something mission like in another country or that your church is actually discipleling and training people who are willing to go? If your answer is not the latter I am afraid that we will soon run out of American Christians that are willingly to do anything.

  10. I would also agree that this is quite an important issue to discuss. I am currently appointed as a missionary with another baptist organization to Mali, Africa. There is a great misunderstanding that is based on some truth. The “some truth” part is that there are some missionaries that could move on to other areas of need and allow indigenous leadership to take over. In fact, foreign missionaries should, in general, simply be training and discipling national leaders to begin a church (Paul seemed to have this role, and it seems prudent, though not commanded). However, the misunderstanding comes in concerning the amount of work to move to.

    As of now, there are still 2251 languages with nothing of the Bible translated. America has been blessed with many resources, a high amount of education opportunities, and a ton of wealth (we are still rich whether we are in a recession or not). America could singlehandedly provide every remaining language on earth with a Bible without even noticing a loss to our congregations or wealth. One website noted that we have more missionaries working with the 400,000 Alaskans than the 1 billion Muslims in the world (80% have not heard the Gospel), 1 missionary for every 1,000,000 Muslims. Worldwide, an estimated 2,000,000,000 will never hear the Gospel, God’s power to salvation. More than just evangelism, in China an estimated 20,000 new believers are converted every DAY! There is a need for Christians to come who have been trained in sound doctrine lest they are led astray by a false Gospel and false teaching as Paul warned.

    At this point we are quite honestly pitiful at sending missionaries. People think they have too much to lose here, and we continue to build a comfortable life, like a foolish soldier who builds a house on the battlefield, thinking he is already home. Right now the SBC is sending out 1 missionary a year from every 300,000 members. I have personaly seen the missions budget of only 2-5% in some of the largest SBC churches. Some spend more on sermon illustrations than sending missionaries to meet these needs. I challenge you for the sake of the Gospel to step it up. Get people personally involved. Set up two budgets, general offering and missions, so that people can see how little they give to missions. People are typically very ignorant of missions, and it would be a beneficial thing to teach them. If you think “we can’t all go”, I assure you will will never reach the problem of too many going. Quite making excuses and waiting for a call that went out 2,000 years ago. We have been given all authority and the power of God in the Gospel to bring life to this dying world and I pray that we would go. We have the resources, the training, and the wealth.

    So, yes, missionaries should train up indigenous leaders to lead their people (and there is a great need to trust that once trained, they will be able), but it doesn’t mean we should cut out missionaries to provide for national leaders. It means we need to do both. As I believe I have shown above, there is MUCH work to be done, even if only training up national leadership. This is not just for the sake of world missions, but it provokes them to live more mission-minded here in America as well. Let’s get people excited to be on mission and get personally involved and informed in what God is doing around the world.

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