After serving in the church as a missions pastor for more than twenty years, I am often amused when I reflect on the variety of failures I experienced while trying to be innovative and creative in getting the congregation engaged in God’s mission “across the street and around the world.” We tried everything! We copied everyone! When we heard about a church that was experiencing success, we made an appointment to interview the leadership to learn their “secret.”
We noticed some common themes and learned some best practices, but we also discovered some unhealthy methods for trying to get people’s attention in the church. In the first part of this series, we’ll look at some unhealthy approaches to cultivating mission awareness. In part two, we will discuss some effective best practices.
The Guilt Trip
The first unhealthy practice is a classic: emotional manipulation, or “The Guilt Trip”! This form of attention-getting makes for a great comedic movie script or a setup for a joke, because we have all been on the receiving end of manipulation. Some of our most influential political leaders are masters at manipulating the masses. When a leader uses guilt to create a sense of responsibility, and thereby prompts the people to change their behavior and take action, it can feel very empowering. But it can also lead to very shallow involvement and short-term engagement. Here is a well-known example:
We have all seen television commercials with the emaciated bodies of children living in utter poverty. They have flies buzzing around their faces, bloated bellies, and are carefully positioned next to garbage heaps in some third-world country. Most people see these commercials and are moved with the desire to help. The narrator announces that “you can make a difference in the life of a child for only $29 a month, less than a dollar a day.” This is a highly crafted, emotion-driven plan to create within you a desire to help, which culminates in a very easy and simple solution: a monetary donation that will not cost much but will alleviate your guilt.
While this happens frequently on TV, there are more subtle forms of guilt-induced promotion in some churches, like “Give up your daily Starbucks coffee and give that to missions,” or “Everyone should either be on the mission field or supporting someone who will go.”
It is important for mission leaders to process their own emotions prior to making any impetuous decisions.
Appealing to emotion is good and healthy when you’re promoting a mission project in your church, but we have to be careful not to cross the line into manipulation. Travis Bradberry provides a great framework for understanding the relationship between our emotions and our thinking in his book Emotional Intelligence 2.0. He states, “We are emotional creatures before we are rational creatures. We have an emotional reaction to events before we have a rational reaction. That’s just the way we are wired.” Consider how our limbic system works in the following scenario:
Walking through the woods, you encounter a snake. Your first reaction is an emotional one. Your body begins to respond—your heart rate increases, your muscles tighten, and you jump back. The fight-or-flight impulses quickly engage. After a few moments, however, your thoughts and reasoning skills take control, and you notice that it is a harmless and beneficial snake. Now, your body begins to calm down. That is the way we are designed by our Creator—emotions appear first, and thoughts appear last.
It is important for mission leaders to process their own emotions prior to making any impetuous decisions. Over the years I have seen well-meaning people return from a mission or vision trip with vigor and energy and begin campaigning for a project. Some came back with an enthusiasm that told them, “All we have to do is raise money and all these problems we saw will disappear.” Others experienced deep disappointment that their friends and family did not share their enthusiasm for the project. Many people develop deeply emotional bonds with their mission contacts overseas and end up making hasty decisions to give up their careers, sell their belongings, and leave their families to “go make a difference.”
Don’t let the emotion of guilt overtake wise decisions grounded by thoughtful conclusions.
All of these emotional reactions can be good, but only when they are accompanied by an appropriate amount of reflective thought, the wisdom of elders, and guidance from those who have gone before. Don’t let the emotion of guilt overtake wise decisions grounded by thoughtful conclusions.
The Great Commission is found in all four Gospels as well as in Acts 1:8. It provides a wonderfully balanced approach to the mission of the Church. We see baptism and discipleship, teaching and proclaiming, going and sending, witnessing and receiving power, all simultaneously happening in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. We have noticed that some churches like to “specialize” in one or another of these aspects. Some like to measure their success by how many baptisms are conducted, others by how many people are enrolled in a discipleship class, or how many missionaries they support, or how much money is devoted to their local community outreach projects.
I remember years ago, as a newly hired missions pastor for a local church, having an amazing first week on the job. I scheduled five meetings a day to personally meet all of the mission leaders and get to know what the church was really like from their perspective. We had so many actively engaged people who devoted much of their time to the work of the Lord. They each shared what was on their hearts and minds, and I got so excited to be a part of what was already happening at the church. Most of them were able to articulate the role they performed in the Great Commission, and I always ended our meeting with the question, “How can I best support you in this?” There were two people I did not ask this question to, however: Don and John.
Don was a local high school football coach, and he was well known in the community. He was a prolific fundraiser, served on the board for local charities, and had a huge heart for marginalized people in our city. When we met, he shared with me his belief that the church was “wasting time and money on global missions. All you have to do is look around this community and see homelessness, poverty, teen pregnancies, illiteracy, and people in need. Why do we need to go overseas with all these needs right here?” Then he quoted Matthew 23:15:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
John was retired and used his retirement and wealth to travel to hard-to-reach places in the world. He was a “major donor” to many mission agencies and described his relationship with several presidents and executive directors of those agencies. In our meeting he expressed his belief that we were “wasting God’s resources here in this town. If you look at the church budget, you’ll see that we spend over 55 percent just on church staffing and 30 percent on facilities, which leaves only 15 percent for ministry, and only 1 percent of that goes to reaching the unreached!” Then he quoted Matthew 9:37–38:
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
I’ll never forget Don and John. They both had earnest passions and a sincere devotion to the Lord, but they landed on opposite ends of a dynamic struggle within the church. They each had a sound reason behind their mission engagement and were fierce advocates for their part of the Great Commission. And I knew if I had allowed either of these men to have stage time at the church, then they would have used that time to convince people to become involved in their “silo” ministries.
Purely rational salesmanship can hinder participation and create silos that battle for time, attention, and resources.
Just as emotional manipulation can increase interest in a congregation but result in shallow involvement, purely rational salesmanship can hinder participation and create silos that battle for time, attention, and resources.
We have discussed the pros and cons of using either emotion or reasoning as the primary means of cultivating missions awareness in your church. In part two, we will provide helpful, creative, and tested strategies for getting your congregation’s attention and motivating them to rally behind a united vision that maintains our high calling to be the Church in a world longing for hope and salvation.
David J. Wilson (DMin) and his wife, Lorene, have served together in the local church since 1996. David was a missions pastor for over twenty years. They currently live in Kansas City, MO, where David serves as the Director of Church Engagement at Avant Ministries. They have written three books together: Pipeline: Engaging the Church in Missionary Mobilization; Mind the Gaps: Engaging the Church in Missionary Care; and Transforming Missionaries: A Short-Term Mission Guide.