Written by Larry McCrary, Executive Director
If the church is to take the lead in sending, that means it must take the lead in missionary development. For too long we have viewed this as the responsibility of missions organizations. While such organizations definitely have a place in training the missionaries they help to send, the church should not simply outsource this and check it off their to-do list.
Both the church and the missions organization have roles in developing missionaries, and they do well to work together.
The First Aspect of a Church’s Missionary Preparation
There are two aspects of missionary preparation that we need to consider in the church. First, it works best as a natural part of the church’s discipleship process. In recent decades missions has been mystified to the point that it is considered beyond the scope of our discipleship ministries. The fact is, in Scripture we see not only that every believer had a missionary identity as a sent one (Acts 1:8, John 20:21), but also a sense of missionary responsibility to make disciples of the nations (Matthew 28:28). This did not mean that every Christian moved overseas in a full-time vocational missionary capacity. But it did mean that every believer was expected to contribute to making disciples wherever they lived, worked, or played.
If indeed this was the case, then today as pastors and church leaders we need to be about equipping our people in sharing the gospel and making disciples. After 30+ years of church planting and missions, I have observed that church planters and missionaries who are already sharing the gospel and making disciples in their local context will typically do so in any context. This is commendable! But it should be true of every church member.
The Second Aspect of a Church’s Missionary Preparation
In addition to our churches’ basic discipleship processes, we also need a plan for how to develop church members who sense that God is moving them to new places around the world. This is the second aspect of missionary development we must consider. Whether church members are seeking to be traditional missionaries, marketplace workers, study abroad students, retirees, or intentional travelers, we need to equip these people for cross-cultural disciple-making.
At my church we have a process that helps us move people through our “sending pipeline”. We are trying to place people in the pipeline as early as possible so that whenever the opportunity arises, they are ready to go. This is extremely important for people who may be students, taking their job overseas, or deciding to spend some of their retirement years abroad. With traditional missionaries it normally takes 18-24 months to arrive on the field, and the departure date is usually known months in advance. However, anyone seeking to go through an alternative pathway often has only a few months to move, and the departure date can arr;llive with little notice.
My church’s process includes the potential sent one filling out an application that inquires about their character, family health, theological knowledge, and prior missions experience. Once they complete the application, one of our pastors who is trained in missionary assessments will lead an assessment interview that takes a look at the person at a deeper level. We try to categorize this in three areas: Head (knowledge), Heart (character), and Hands (skills). Once the assessment is completed, we put together a personal development plan that is customized for their growth while they are preparing for their departure. Some of the things we suggest are serving locally among internationals, reading missionary biographies, going on a short-term trip, participating in a mid-term apprenticeship, and receiving counseling for areas in their personal and/or family life. We then assign a coach that will help them through the process.
How Churches and Missions Organizations Work Together
Since my church places a high value on the missions organizations whom we partner with, and thus have a deep relationship with them, we have found that such organizations welcome our shepherding approach to assessing and developing our sent ones. We have chosen to work with organizations who have a high value for the local church’s centrality in missions, and who therefore come along beside us as we develop our people. They honor our decision to approve the candidate, call the candidate to slow down, or deny the candidate’s readiness altogether. We often will share the personal development plan with the organization so they can also see how we are wanting the candidate to grow.
The missions organization also plays a critical role. They provide specific training and strategic development. They also educate the candidate in how their organization works, what systems and services they provide, and what team structures will look like. Most missions organizations also require candidates to obtain cross-cultural and language acquisition training before they go. Some even provide such training themselves.
We would do well to see churches and missions organizations communicating and working together in the development of sent ones. It is a partnership between three entities: the church, the sent one, and the missions organization. It is a three-fold cord that is not easily broken.
By the way, The Upstream Collective provides pre-field training for marketplace workers and vocational missionaries since some missions organizations do not provide it themselves. Check here for upcoming training events: theupstreamcollective.org/events