Having just returned to the mission field of Niger from our home assignment in the U.S., I went through my four months of accumulated mail and just browsed through the May-June 2010 issue of Mission Frontiers (published by the U.S. Center for World Mission). In it, USCWM Director Greg Parsons observed that many churches put more emphasis on “missionaries” than in “missions”.
He believes that there’s more concern about the missionary unit than in the ministry that missionary is engaged in. In other words, “our” people and personalities trump “their” people and God’s purpose in supporting churches’ mission practices. Our local churches may pray for the missionaries, their families, their health and their struggles, but are they praying that God uses their work for His Kingdom---that lives in another culture or place are being transformed through the missionaries living and witnessing for Christ? Parsons wonders if the missionary’s home-based prayer support teams are in serious partnership with the work itself on the mission field. If not, he argues that the missionaries’ effectiveness is being negatively impacted.
Indeed, there are some churches that do try to create “missionary heroes” (and some missionaries who gladly play along). When you visit these churches, people marvel at the sacrifices the missionary is making to serve the Lord. They want to know about the strange foods you must eat, the foreign language you’re obliged to learn and what kind of house you live in and if you have electricity, indoor plumbing, etc. The missionary can be held up as an ideal Christian, the fulfillment of obedience to the Great Commission and someone to be admired. Perhaps in our celebrity-driven culture, we shouldn’t be surprised that this happens even in local congregations, but shouldn’t our emphasis be less on the missionary and more on the ministry? I don’t mean that we should stop praying for the missionary or ignoring his or her needs, but rather we should focus on our partnership in mission work in seeing the Gospel fulfilled through the Holy Spirit working through the missionary. We all should want to see God glorified in this “other” land, knowing full well that anyone we send in mission is foremost an "instrument" in God's hands.
If you look at the RCA’s mission history, we have invested years in ministry fields such as South India; Amoy, China; Chiapas, Mexico; Oman; Bahrain; South Sudan, Alale, Kenya; Dulce, New Mexico and many other places. Some RCA churches are dedicated to such mission sites and have supported whatever person or project that the RCA has determined will advance the ministry there and in today's jet-set world, many have even visited in person. As a result, such long-term commitments have seen great rewards for the Kingdom: with strong, faithful indigenous churches or a Christian presence where history and current events argue there shouldn’t be one. Certainly the prayers, financial support and continuing interest of local RCA congregations were instrumental in these accomplishments and we must be thankful that these churches stayed with such mission fields even when that first beloved missionary left.
Missionaries, like pastors, will come and go over time. While most of us couldn’t fathom the classis abandoning its ties with a local church when the charismatic pastor moves on (although we know individuals do so), far too often a local church will quit supporting a mission field when the missionary departs if there isn’t immediately a “likeable face” to associate with that ministry. Personality-driven ministries aren’t good for local churches, nor are they appropriate anywhere where we want people to know Christ and to grow deeper in Him. In covenantal relationships, the two parties stick with each other over good times and bad, believing that grace will see them through. Of course there are times and circumstances that dictate a change in support or in strategy, but remember that many mission fields will require years to produce a harvest, as God’s time isn’t our time.
Mission strategists suggest that local churches should prayerfully commit to a people group (i.e. the Hausa), to a geographic location (i.e. Eastern Europe) or to a specific ministry (i.e. prison ministry) and find ways to incorporate these missions and ministries into the overall life and identity of the church and not just solely as an item in the missions’ budget. The missionary shouldn’t be the primary focus, but rather the mission: those people that we are praying for. As covenantal people ourselves, we know first-hand the value of such lasting relationships.