This article is by Zach Bradley, Content Strategist for The Upstream Collective.
In Part One of this series we focused not so much on the local church’s biblical posture toward the missionary, but the missionary’s biblical posture toward the local church. And in light of the New Testament evidence of Paul’s initiating love toward churches, we paused with the question, “Why is it often different today?”
Let’s be realistic. There are legitimate reasons that missionaries struggle to have deep, abiding relationships with local churches. Let’s examine some of them.
Four Reasons Sent Ones Struggle to Relate with Sending Churches
Missionaries haven’t always been sent by local churches in the first place. For years some churches (not all) have chosen to “support” rather than “send” missionaries. By “support” I mean churches commit to finances, prayer, and affirmation, but they ultimately outsource the central role of sending to missions agencies. Missionaries are left to discern calling, pursue development, endure assessment, experience commissioning, and forge community in the halls of the agency rather than the homes of their pastors and church members. In accepting this, churches turn over their right and responsibility to be God’s primary under-shepherds for missionaries (1 Peter 5:1-4). No wonder the local church takes an insignificant place in the missionary’s heart and mind. No wonder “missionary” is a common term rather than a term like “sent one.”
Missionaries are easily neglected by local churches. One of my fears in addressing this topic is that I’ll ignore the deep hurts of missionaries who have been forgotten and forsaken by churches. Have a few conversations with missionaries and you will hear a horror story or two: a church who cut their support without reason or warning; a church who made lots of promises they didn’t keep; a church who split or dissolved while the missionary was overseas; a church who sent a short-term missions team that culturally sabotaged the work; a church who over-publicized the missionary and got them kicked out of their country; a church who gave the missionary no time or place to report back; a church who wasn’t a safe place for the missionary to be honest because they were put on too high a pedestal. In biblical terms, these churches have fallen short of sending their people in “a manner worthy of God” (3 John 1:6).
Missionaries are already overwhelmed with the mission, let alone staying connected to local churches. Asking missionaries to invest back into their sending churches is a great idea. But anyone who’s served overseas will wisely rebut, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” (perhaps with better grammar). Missionaries are relentless enough to push through all the reasons not to go, so it’s uniquely difficult for them to deeply root in a church for a prolonged season instead of just taking off. When they do finally arrive on the field, they face the pythonic squeeze of succumbing to a new culture and language. And all this is added on top of maintaining their marriage, children, health, and sanity during an identity flush as violent as the airplane’s toilet. Investing their limited time and energy back into churches – or more, initiating it all, seems too much of a distraction from life and ministry’s demands. I regularly sit with missionaries who essentially challenge me to convince them why it’s important to keep reaching out – writing newsletters that go unanswered, sharing struggles though people can’t relate, pursuing friendships when others have moved on, asking for help when no one comes through, receiving short-term trips despite the risk and exhaustion, mentoring mid-term team members even if the investment may not return much. It’s understandable that missionaries hesitate to add weight to the great burdens they already bear.
Missionaries recognize it shouldn’t be their job to lead in relationships with local churches. If the church is indeed the means by which God will fulfill his mission, and if local churches are the hubs from which Christians are sent into the neighborhoods and on to the nations, then local churches should joyfully and jealously initiate in relationships with their sent ones. Though the task is daunting, churches should allow themselves to be compelled by the word and Spirit to send and to shepherd those who “have gone out for the sake of the name” (3 John 1:7). Missionaries may not traditionally assume this exact formula (especially considering the focus on agencies), but they have a nagging sense that churches ought to be more on board with the mission. That explains missionaries’ disappointment with churches, ranging from hopeful longing to embittered disdain. In some ways, they might justifiably say, “It ain’t my fault,” and carry on without giving the church a second thought.
Do We Submit to New Trends or Old Truths?
In light of these struggles, expecting missionaries to initiate relationships with local churches—or even hinting at a chink in their armor—feels audacious. Keep in mind, as a former missionary who dreams of returning overseas, I’m throwing rotten tomatoes at my own house here. Yet what’s on the table comes not from new trends but old truths.
For all that Paul embodies as one changed by God and obedient in mission—a model we often love to tout as second only to Christ—he also showcases the appropriate missionary posture toward the church in word and deed. Was he so driven in his relationship with local churches because he was a highly gifted Apostle? Was it merely his responsibility as one who established many of those churches? Did he initiate only because he had the authority to do so? Theologian George W. Peters says no way:
Paul did not exercise such authority in missionary partnership. Here he was a humble brother and energetic leader among fellow laborers, and a dynamic and exemplary force in the churches in evangelism and church expansion (236).
No doubt Paul’s frontier dreams were slowed down, so to speak, due to his inconvenient devotion to local churches. He too experienced neglect and discouragement from churches (Philippians 4:10-15, Galatians 1:4, Acts 21:13, 2 Corinthians 2:1-4). He too carried an overwhelming ministry load (2 Corinthians 11:28). He too could have chosen to operate exclusively within a mobile missionary dream team.
But he didn’t.
Despite every failure and hindrance, Paul loved local churches (Philippians 4:1, 1 Thessalonians 2:8). He knew that ditching the bride meant insulting the groom. He knew the church, with all her warts, was not merely a hindrance nor side note to the mission of God. Though there are many honest reasons missionaries might not pursue deep, abiding relationships with local churches, these old truths seem to trump them.
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