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.