I regularly talk with pastors across the country. One thing is clear from our conversations: the last two years have been particularly difficult for them. As COVID regulations, racial tensions, and political divisions have mixed a cocktail of confusion in their congregations, pastors have been forced to drink from the bitter gall swirling among their people.
But there’s something else that I’ve noticed from my conversations with pastors—and that well before 2020. Many of them don’t know their missionaries, or else they don’t know what those missionaries do. From my perspective, such ignorance is as troubling as—if not more concerning than—many of the stress-inducing issues from the last two years.
When Pastors Don’t Know Missionaries
There are various reasons why pastors might not know their supported and sent-out workers. Some pastors are new to their posts. They’ve inherited a church’s existing roster of missionaries, much like a new professional football coach might inherit a scouting team. Those reps living in other locations will likely be the last people he meets within the organization.
In other cases, pastors and elders don’t know missionaries because they’ve delegated the vision and administration of missionary support to others within the church. This outsourcing is understandable, especially as churches process multiple requests for support and manage multiple workers on the field. To return to the football analogy, it makes sense for coaches to focus on developing those within the locker room; the front office is better suited to directly oversee those searching for future players in other fields.
But I wonder if that understandable division of labor creates more problems than it solves because it leaves pastors disconnected from one of the most strategic ministries of the church. Elders are effectively uninvolved in the process of vetting a significant staff hire. Just as it would be unimaginable for a pastor not to be involved in the search for a new associate, I believe it should be unimaginable for those leading the church not to be involved in the process of commissioning church-sanctioned representatives for frontline ministry.
It should be unimaginable for those leading the church not to be involved in the process of commissioning church-sanctioned representatives for frontline ministry.
Taking responsibility for selecting and sending missionaries, however, is only the beginning. As I’ve observed, even pastors who know and care for their missionaries don’t necessarily think deeply about the missionary enterprise. They rarely read books on missions. They don’t follow trends in missiology. They’re not aware of sending organizations or their theology. Nor can they identify the dominant methodologies espoused by those same organizations. While pastors can’t know everything, and while they’ll need to delegate responsibilities, they must be aware of what’s happening on the front lines.
State of Missiology
Let me give some examples. One common priority for cross-cultural missionaries these days is to identify a “person of peace.” That person may or may not be a believer. But if the “person if peace” is favorable toward the missionary and an individual of some standing in the community, his (or her) influence can be leveraged to introduce others to the teachings of Jesus. With their help, once missionaries can gather a group that commits to obeying what they learn, that group is often counted as a church or, at the least, new disciples.
Another common strategy is for missionaries to remove themselves as soon as possible from these gatherings. Early on, locals are encouraged to take leadership of the meeting and discover God’s Word on their own. Practically, this means a “church” could be established, led by, and made up of those largely isolated from authoritative teaching or received tradition. If they don’t accurately understand and follow the gospel, the absent missionary may be none the wiser. Further, if those groups divert from the beliefs and practices of the historic church (or other national churches), missionaries may hesitate to intervene and impose “Western” views.
That doesn’t mean missionaries never take the lead. In some cases, they may actively encourage new “disciples” to develop their own ways of following Jesus, including the option of continuing in prior religious practices (i.e., offering gifts to ancestors or attending the mosque). In recent decades, missionaries have also developed Bible translations that avoid controversial issues (i.e., identifying Jesus as God’s Son) to accommodate the sensibilities of non-Christians.
Some pastors are shocked to hear this. They’re not aware of mission praxis, much less theory. Again, such ignorance is understandable. It’s hard to keep up with the variety of models on offer, such as Obedience-Based Discipleship or Discovery Bible Studies, Disciple Making Movements or Insider Movements, not to mention the endless iterations when missionaries pick and choose from among them. But it’s important for pastors to understand these dominant methodologies because they influence mission strategy in nearly every major sending organization today.
Suppose our imaginary football coach wasn’t concerned only about his players. Suppose he took an interest in having quality scouts within the organization. Would it be enough to simply identify and hire talented representatives (missionaries)? Wouldn’t he also want to know how they conduct their work, especially their priorities and methods for acquiring future players?
Aside from pastors, I regularly talk with missionaries around the world. And I’ve heard from young international workers who wish church leaders back home had prepared them for the strategic approaches advocated by their mission organizations. They’re not necessarily rejecting everything about those methodologies. But these missionaries are deeply concerned, not only by what they observe but also by what they’re expected to practice.
In recent years, I’ve talked with multiple missionaries who’ve resigned because they were compelled to adopt methods contrary to their conscience and, they believe, to Scripture (which doesn’t begin to account for those missionaries who blindly follow the latest fad because they’re told it works). This should be of utmost concern to the churches who send these missionaries. But sadly, pastors are often unaware of the issues and ill-equipped to shepherd the next generation of foreign workers. The local church and its elders need to take more responsibility in the missionary enterprise, first by learning, then in leading.
Engaging a Global Opportunity
Pastor, this presents an incredible opportunity for you. By taking greater responsibility in selecting and sending missionaries, you can help recover your church’s essential role in our shared global task. By knowing and caring for your missionaries, you’ll also be caring for those who’ve yet to receive their ministry. But perhaps more important, you can also help to guard their future churches—and your supported workers—from error.
You can help recover your church’s essential role in our shared global task.
You don’t have to be an expert in missiology. You just need to know the Scriptures, know your missionaries, and commit to learning some about prevalent methodologies. Because gospel ministry—and the challenges that accompany it—are not fundamentally different whenever you cross cultures and borders. This means you as a pastor have a lot to offer your missionaries as they navigate the difficulties before them. It also means they’ll probably understand some of what’s made the last couple of years so stressful for you.
Maybe it’s time you got to know them.
Read more from Elliot Clark in his book, Mission Affirmed: Recovering the Missionary Motivation of Paul (Crossway/TGC, 2022).