The Mission Has An Image Problem

The state of missions in 1970: too few workers, limited resources, separation between church and mission field, competing sending organizations, a remarkable lack of information about missions.

The state of missions today: too few workers, limited resources, separation between church and mission field, competing sending organizations, overwhelming amounts of unremarkable information about missions.

Except for the move from “not enough information” to “too much information,” the state of missions in the church has not changed in a generation. Despite sending hundreds of thousands of short-term volunteers on mission trips every year (according to Barna, 9% of the American population has been on a mission trip), the church is no more engaged in the mission than it was forty years ago.

I’ve written before about marketing missions, and how believers’ understanding of missions is, to an extent, shaped by how missions is communicated to them. When the “experts” have a narrow understanding of the nature of the mission, that’s what gets communicated.

  • Regular believers aren’t spoken of/to as missionaries.
  • Certain fields are neglected while others are saturated.
  • Missions becomes about numbers, statistics, and difficulty rather than people, opportunity, and calling.
  • Missions is marketed as an “Xtreme adventure” rather than a normal part of Christian life.
  • Mechanics, salesmen, therapists, and entrepreneurs are left thinking that their skills have no missionary value.
  • Missions is misunderstood to be a vocation rather than an orientation.

The problem won’t likely be resolved by a cool website or the launch of yet another “network.” What it needs are vocal missionaries. Practitioners who won’t shut up about what God is doing in their lives; how cultural barriers are being overcome and the gospel is transforming lives.

In a difficult economy, “non-essentials” like communications and public relations are some of the first things a missions organization might cut. I say if there ever was a time when missions agencies needed to focus on communications and PR, now is the time.

Everyone A Missionary?

We’ve got to stop distinguishing between “missions” and, well, “not missions.”

The old paradigm was this: ministry is sharing the gospel. If you preached to believers, you were called a “pastor.” If you preached to non-Christians in your own culture, you were an “evangelist.” If you needed a passport to get there, you were a “missionary.” If those distinctions were ever helpful, they certainly aren’t today. Not when “the nations” are moving in next door and going to school with your kids. Not when there is yet to be an expression of Christianity that is truly free from modern rational humanism. We’re all missionaries because there is no “home.”

The division has resulted in “that’s not my job calling” on both sides of the divide. Many missionaries today see the church as a major distraction from their focus on evangelizing unbelieving people. Most churches outsource missions to a homely couple they send money to and pray for once a year.

The new paradigm is simple: all Christians are missionaries. They must be, because none of us are at “home.” Even if your ministry is to a group of people that you grew up with- a group that looks, talks, and acts just like you- you must recognize that your transformation in Christ necessarily makes you an outsider- a foreigner- to even your own culture. You can’t afford to assume that you are ministering in your own context. You don’t have a context in the world anymore.

Saying that all Christians are missionaries doesn’t mean we’re all good missionaries. Most Christians lack the skill, sensitivity, intentionality, and to truly be effective missionaries. Most Christians don’t worry about working to enter and engage culture because they think they’re already immersed in it. They may be, but the vast majority still step out of their cultures and subcultures and into an artificial “Christian” one every Sunday in order to worship and be discipled. We need missionaries.

If you are a Prius-driving, Lego-modding Starbucks barista, you’re uniquely qualified to be the missionary to that tribe. If you’re a Mac-using, soccer-mompreneur PTA member, your job is to incarnate the gospel among your people. It’s not enough for you to just try to fit in. You were saved to live out a Christ-transformed life in the midst of your social circles. You are where you are for a purpose.

There is no “home” and “foreign.” You are a missionary.

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.2, The Gaps)

PREVIOUSLY: The Counterintuitive Church

Despite the Church’s current tendency toward extreme pragmatism, much of the life that Jesus calls us to is counter-intuitive.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us from depending (almost entirely!) on our human logic when it comes to our missiology. Why is that? Why would we assume that a counterintuitive God would leave us to do things in ways that make sense to our rational process?

As a church planter begins to think about where (geographically) to begin, he almost always looks at where there isn’t a church. The thinking, I suppose, is that you don’t want two churches side by side (except, I suppose, in the Bible Belt, where neighboring churches often fight over parking space). So the planter looks as a map of the city, and decides to focus on the next largest area that doesn’t have a church. It just makes sense to do it that way.

Same thing with missionaries; they look at unengaged people, unreached groups. They assign people to villages that have no (known) evangelical work. It makes the work manageable to look for the gaps and fill them.

Churches are obsessed with the gaps. We want to know what we’re not doing, and then do that. No program for recovering cross-dressers? We feel like we need one. No church for the tattooed-and-pierced crowd? Light some candles and call it good. It just makes sense to start with need and then come up with a solution to meet that need.

But that’s not how God did things in the scriptures. I’m not convinced it’s the way He does things today, either. It didn’t make sense to Peter that God would tell him (in a dream) to focus his ministry on the unclean (and undeserving) Gentiles. It didn’t make sense to Paul that the Spirit would prevent him from going to Asia.

What if God is calling you to plant a church in a neighborhood that already has several? Rather than compete, you might see your work as a demonstration of Christian unity. What if God wants your church planting team to focus on a people group that is, statistically, “reached?” He, in His wisdom, might use your ministry to send members of that “reached” group to take the gospel to the unreached.

My point is this- the gaps aren’t the best place to start. God is the best place to start.

NEXT: Distribution

International Mission Brand

A brand never changed anyone’s life. At least not for the better. In fact, we are a society of people who have been let down, frustrated, and ripped of by brands. Microsoft has frustrated our daily lives, McDonald’s has made us unhealthy, Starbucks has charged us ungodly amounts for coffee, and American Airlines loses our bags. Time after time, brand loyalty was taken for granted and rewarded with inferior products and services.

People, on the other hand, can make a difference in our lives. My life has been filled with teachers, pastors, friends, and others who have influenced me in life-changing ways. The influence of people helps me make sense of the world. We need people. We don’t need brands.

Yet why is it that the majority of missions organized by brands and programs? When we want to learn about theology, we go to Sproul, Wright, and Piper. Warren and Hybels are our gurus for growing megachurhes. Leadership, Maxwell. Church Planting, Stetzer. Missional stuff? Hirsch, Keller, etc.

Missions? The International Mission Board. YWAM. Christian Associates International. International Missions Society. Greater Europe Missions. International… well, you get the point. Missions is full of organizations and denominational entities. If you know a missionary at all, it’s likely because you knew her before she left for the field, met them on a trip, or that he’s come around asking for money. That’s your connection to the mission field.

Where are the missionary practitioners who will lead the church into a direct, responsible, and missiologically sound participation in missions?

Brands don’t cut it. We need some leaders.

The Myth of “Insufficient Resources”

I’ve been part of a couple of conversations lately about whether or not we still need denominations or associations of churches. Many times, supporters of these associations cite the benefits of smaller churches partnering with larger ones to be more effective in missions. There may be a good reason to hold on to denominations, but partnering for missions isn’t one of them.

More often than not, when you say that a collection of churches is “partnering in missions,” you really mean that small churches give what little money they think they can afford to a larger church or a missions sending agency that will handle mobilization, screening, indoctrination, training, sending, and maintenance of missionaries on the field. This is not “partnering,” it’s outsourcing.

The difference is subtle, but detrimental to our efforts and disastrous for our missiology. The myth of “insufficient resources” has left missions strategy to those with the most. It perpetuates the distinction between the “professionals” and everyone else. For members of the small church who faithfully send their offerings to “missions” there is very little personal connection with the work or the missionaries they “send.” Motivation (apart from guilt) can be hard to come by. The larger churches are left with the most influence over what “missions monies” are used for and by whom.

Small churches can do missions. These days, travel, education, and communication (essential for missions) are easier, faster, and cheaper than ever. Even in the smallest of towns, “the nations” live next door. No matter how big your church may be, incarnational ministry is done person-to-person. The myth that it takes lots of money or people to make a difference has left the commission in the hands of the megachurches and sending organizations for too long.

A true missions network would not connect churches in order to do missions, it would connect churches who are doing missions.