“Set your course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.” – Omar N. Bradley
Reaching a Turning Point
From the beginning of my involvement with our church’s missionary care team, there was always the nagging question of how to adequately fund our individual global workers. Making decisions about funding was not in our wheelhouse; nevertheless, the responsibility of evaluating the mission, organization, and location of service to determine the level of financial support ultimately fell to our team. Providing fair and appropriate financial support was a constant focus of our discussions. Historically, the practice of funding a percentage of a partner’s budget involved assigning them to one of three tiers of financial support. While it was equitable in most cases, it wasn’t based on a set of missions priorities. We struggled to gauge which partnerships were in line with our church's missions philosophy and which were not because we weren’t sure what our missions philosophy was. How did we define The Great Commission and evaluate our participation in it? Frankly, it was all a bit hazy.
while our missions involvement was extensive, it wasn’t driven by a concrete set of convictions that reflected a guiding philosophy.
We attempted to clear the haze by forging ahead as a care team to learn as much as we could about the modern-day missions environment. Years of training ensued as we participated in book studies, conferences, and workshops with churches and organizations known for their knowledge and expertise in missions, including Summit Church, Sojourn Collective, Austin Stone, Pioneers, PTM (Barnabas International), and, of course, The Upstream Collective. We had lengthy conversations with our own returned global workers and probed the memories of long-time church members who knew our missions history and practices.
A turning point in our education came during a conversation with Upstream Collective's Larry McCrary about an essential element we lacked in our missions efforts. While we had plenty of missions involvement, we had no compass by which to navigate our course, no documentation of what, specifically, God was calling us to do as a church in obedience to the Great Commission. In other words, we had no Missions Convictions. We needed convictions that would steer our procedures, clarify our vision, and help us steward the tremendous resources God had entrusted to us.
The Tipping Point for Change
The first step to developing our missions convictions was to analyze the data around the one hundred plus individual global workers and organizations our church was supporting. To our knowledge, no one had ever done this type of analysis. Undoubtedly, this lack of information contributed to the haziness we all sensed. Our church had a multi-million-dollar missions budget with a legacy of more than a hundred years, and it was divided among individuals and organizations from within our church and outside our church and every kind of missions effort imaginable. The data we gathered confirmed what we had suspected: while our missions involvement was extensive, it wasn’t driven by a concrete set of convictions that reflected a guiding philosophy.
In their book, When Everything Is Missions, Denny Spitters and Matthew Ellison suggest that “when everything is mission, nothing is mission.” Over the years, our missions ministry had become an everything is mission environment because we had not defined our priorities along the way.
Our broad-based support picture was (and is) evidence of the abundant resources and holistic support provided by God through our congregation. But what about the relationship factor, and especially the care component? Given the size of our supported network, was it realistic to think we could maintain healthy relationships and provide proper care to all our missions partners like we knew we should?
There was one glaring observation in our analysis that solidified the need for better guidance, and it took everyone by surprise: our most highly supported partners were those working among reached North Americans. When we presented that statistic to our Missions Council, you could have heard a pin drop. After a long silence, several Council members who were returned global workers expressed their desire that this statistic would cause us to pause and take stock of where we really wanted our support to go. The prevailing assumption was that we had significant partnerships in the 10/40 window, but we were largely focused on work in North America, and it turns out that focus wasn’t even the result of an intentional decision; it just happened along the way.
In his book Visions of Vocation, Steven Garber poses an essential question for all believers: “Now that you know what you know, what will you do?”
There was only one thing for us to do: form a team and hash out our convictions.
A Team to Chart the Course
Our first step was to determine who the primary stakeholders were in our missions ministry. We formed a team that included multi-site leaders, care team members, care contacts, missions department staff, Missions Council members, deacons, professional counselors, church leadership, and key financial personnel. Our multi-generational group was composed of several returned global workers and many others with decades of experience in missions ministry, all of whom had a passion for bringing the gospel to the lost.
Over the next several months, we met, prayed, shared meals, and wrangled over our local church's multi-faceted missions ministry. We dissected Matthew 28 more than once. Our discussions were spirited at times as people expressed their opinions about the definition of missions and where our efforts should be focused. With that much experience and expertise in the room, we were bound to have different views and favored areas of mission work, and there was always the risk of treading on someone's hallowed ground. To reach a consensus about our convictions, we all had to trust the Holy Spirit's leading as He worked through the wisdom and experience God had placed within our circle. Doing this required having open hands as we put aside our personal preferences, accepted change, and yielded control. After all, we were attempting to correct the direction of a supertanker without damaging the precious cargo. It was no easy task.
Ten Points of Direction
The result of our efforts was ten points of conviction and supporting documentation for context and further explanation.
Our endeavor provided valuable insight into our church's missions history and where God was leading us. It became clear that our broad-based support network was unique in the missions world and that it would be unwise to abandon it. We developed Missions Convictions that are committed to obeying Matthew 28:18-20, that honor our legacy and the abundant resources God has given us, and that provide a guiding compass to prioritize our efforts.
Slowly Turning the Tanker
Steven Garber’s quote lingers: “Now that we know what we know, what will we do?” I don't think anyone on our team is under the illusion that implementing the changes our Missions Convictions require will be easy. We are making a fundamental pivot in how and whom we support as a large church. Fleshing out our convictions will be a long and arduous process that will require hard work, patience, commitment from leadership, and careful attention, but our formidable task has a promising start.
To reach a consensus about our convictions, we all had to trust the Holy Spirit's leading as He worked through the wisdom and experience God had placed within our circle. Doing this required having open hands as we put aside our personal preferences, accepted change, and yielded control.
The Missions Convictions we developed have already been presented to our Missions Council and incorporated into Council documentation. One helpful outworking of our convictions has been the development of a matrix to help us allocate support for individual global workers in a way that aligns with our priorities and avoids overly subjective decision-making. Our goal is to prioritize work among least-reached (unreached and unengaged) people groups in closed or restricted countries by assigning a greater percentage of our support to those working in these areas.
In time, we hope the convictions we developed will become fully integrated into all our church’s ministries and that the congregation will be aware and take ownership of these ten convictions that solidify our commitment to go and make disciples of all nations.
One thing is for sure: given the size of our support network, developing healthy relationships and providing excellent care for our partners will require our most precious resource, the body of Christ. We won't be able to do it without every member helping us carry out our mission.
If you would like to know more about developing Missions Convictions for your church, check out the article: Establishing Missions Convictions Explained. If you would like to know more about our church’s process of developing Missions Convictions, you can contact me at Swralston59@gmail.com.
Shirley Ralston (MA Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a founding member of the Missionary Care Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. She also serves on the pastor’s research team and teaches Life Bible Study to single young adults. Shirley and her husband Jeff now reside in Houston after several years living overseas. You can find her on Twitter and texpatfaith.org.