BY DIRECTOR OF CONTENT, BRADLEY BELL
One of the most prayerful, deliberate, and proactive tasks required of a sending church is the development of sent ones. As already mentioned, the initial stage of this process includes educating the entire church in their sent identity. In other words, a sending pipeline begins with every single church member thinking and acting like a sent one, as represented in this graphic:
Then the church shepherds some members through an intentional process toward being sent from the church into a new work. This process includes three broad phases: identification, assessment, and development. In the previous article we discussed identification. Now let’s talk assessment.
When Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum said that he wanted to put Dubai on the map with something really sensational, he wasn’t joking. Only a few years later he baffled the world with a true modern marvel, the Burj Khalifa. To call it the world’s tallest building is an understatement. The last time I flew out of Dubai, after more than a minute of circling the city I was still looking up at the monstrous tower.
Interestingly however, it turned out that Dubai bit off a little more than they could chew, and had to be bailed out for $10 billion by neighboring Abu Dhabi in order to finish the project. That meant the Burj’s grand opening was followed by several months of most offices and apartments left as empty the project’s budget. Ouch.
Such contemporary matters are ironically reminiscent of one of Jesus’ old teachings. In Luke 14:28-30 he said, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him.” We know, of course, this wasn’t spoken to poke at an ambitious leader, but to relate the necessity of counting the cost in being Jesus’ disciples.
The sending church thus seeks not just to make converts, but disciples who observe everything Jesus commanded. It issues the gospel’s duel call to come to Jesus and to go with Jesus. This kind of culture naturally demands each member assess their willingness to welcome Jesus not only as Savior, but Lord.
Western churches typically assess the legitimacy of new believers mainly by calling them to profess their faith before the church, where it counts—on a membership roll, that is. Conversely, many global churches expect them to profess it primarily outside the church, where it often costs. The Bible calls for both. And according to Jesus, that’s where true assessment begins.
He continued after his tower analogy, “If salt has lost its taste…it is thrown away” (Luke 14:34-35). Sending churches unapologetically expect all legitimate believers to live as sent ones, to be commissioned heralds of their great salvation. With this foundation in place, the church, says missions leader and author Neal Pirolo, becomes “the ideal testing ground for potential missionaries” (56).
As the church locally equips the entire congregation as sent ones who “think and act like missionaries,” the Holy Spirit will, just as he did in Acts 13 with Paul and Barnabas, begin to draw out some as missionaries to be sent out to start new works globally. Raising them up may begin with identification, but it quickly moves to assessment.
Although the sending church encourages everyone in their sentness, “church selectivity” is crucial when it comes to those wrestling with an apostolic desire to start something new across town or across cultures. This means following the biblical pattern of selectively, and collectively discerning an individual’s sense of call to be sent. When a church fully outsources the assessment of their missionary candidates to an individual’s discernment or a missions organization’s decision, it “indicates a lack of understanding of the central role of the local church in world missions.” In other words,
The most that an individual can do is express his willingness. Others must determine his worthiness. The individual may be free to go, but only his church knows if he is really fitted to go (Beals, 86-87).
Veteran missionary Thomas Hale echoes that the often strong-willed missionary candidate cannot rightly call for independence, for “the sending church must share in this call; they have the duty to examine the call and modify it as necessary” (19). If this is a problem for the candidate, then the assessment may have already revealed a red flag, for “a high view of, and a deep loyalty to, the church of Jesus Christ” is an indispensable missionary trait (Peters, 297).
I realize that writing this subverts the common approach to missionary calling. Due to our Western tendencies toward individualism and an unofficial hierarchy that places missionaries at the top, the missionary call often carries a nobility that cannot be questioned. We can’t imagine someone willing to suffer for Jesus in faraway places for less than pure motives. But having been a missionary, and having pastored missionaries, I am keenly aware of common driving motivations behind the most zealous candidates’ sense of “calling,” some of which include desire for adventure, escape from hardship, unresolved fear/shame/guilt, a Savior complex, and resolve to stand atop the hierarchy. None of these discoveries would have been made or addressed tenderly without assessment in the context of church community. Thus a spirit of submissiveness is absolutely necessary among healthy missionary candidates.
However, may the church act worthily of such holy submissiveness! Plurality in assessment applies as much to the church as to the candidate. David Harley nails it in Training for Cross-Cultural Mission: “The final evaluation of a [candidate] should not be left to one person. If possible, it should be discussed by all…[they] will have a broader perspective on strengths and weaknesses and will produce a more balanced assessment” (120).
This includes partnership with the missions organization, who with its experience and expertise “ought to be the church’s provision, instrument, and arm to efficiently expedite her task.” After all, “the church and not the missions agency…is God’s authority and creation for sending forth missionaries” (Peters, 229).
What does this look like practically? One safe bet is to start with Scriptural models of assessment, such as the qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Another helpful guide is to think in categorical terms, such as head (knowledge), heart (character), and hands (skills). Missions pastor Nathan Sloan has developed twelve categories in which he assesses candidates:
Strong marriage and family
Clarity and strength of call
Commitment to the local church
Theological foundation and clarity
Missiological foundation and clarity (114)
Regardless of what categories are chosen, it’s important that the sending church takes a holistic, relational approach to assessment. The focus isn’t just on the evangelism skills or cross-cultural experience of a candidate, but the whole person.
An assessment interview thus invites candidates to honestly express their strengths and weaknesses as a way of partnering with the church rather than proving themselves to the church. Whereas the candidate’s relationship with an organization or seminary is ultimately temporary and transactional, their relationship with the local church is ongoing and covenantal. The sending church’s ultimate aim is candidates’ conformity to the image of Christ. So, assessment is much more than pass-fail—it’s part of the bigger picture of making disciples who observe everything Jesus commanded.
And robust assessment opens the door for great development.