Lately, there’s been much talk in evangelical circles about the centrality of the local church in missions, raising an underlying issue of how missions agencies can support local churches in faithfulness to the Great Commission. But before we dive into this surprisingly complicated issue, let me ask a question. In real missionary life on the field, who makes difficult and serious decisions in the missionary’s life?
Who makes the decision?
Here’s a real-life example of a missionary who was a member of the local Iraqi church I pastored in Erbil. When Iranian bombs fell near the church, the question arose if this missionary should relocate. So, who made the decision? Was it his elders of our local Iraqi church? Or the missionary’s sending church back home? Or an independent judgment by the missionary himself? No, the large mission agency’s HR department overruled all three, moving him and his family to another country––despite everyone else agreeing he should stay.
Perhaps it was a good decision––sometimes getting out of town is okay. My concern wasn’t the specific decision, but rather that the conflict exposed who was the actual authority in the missionary’s life: the HR department. However, when HR departments overrule churches, they exceed biblical authority and are not genuine about their partnership.
When HR departments overrule churches, they exceed biblical authority and are not genuine about their partnership.
How did we get here?
There are reasons the centrality of the local church in missions seems to be a new issue. It’s not that suddenly we have discovered the importance of the church in missions—rather, for centuries, the conversation was unnecessary. From New Testament times until the very first modern missions agencies, it was assumed that the mission strategy of Jesus was his church.
Modern missions agencies started in the 18th and 19th centuries when Christian missionaries in the West began venturing beyond their home countries to share their faith and provide humanitarian assistance in foreign lands.
The very first was the Baptist Missionary Society, formed in 1792 by William Carey, the “father of missions agencies.” Of course, we remember Carey for his devotion to Bible translation in India. But any study of Carey shows that he, as a Baptist pastor, took the establishment of the church as of utmost importance.
If William Carey is the father, he would be astonished by his offspring. Over the last 200+ years, missions agencies diversified, encompassing various religious denominations and large independent parachurch organizations. The pragmatic reasons Carey formed an agency remain largely the same for existing agencies.
They are a hub that mobilizes mission activities. They deal with the financial issues of fundraising and accounting. They recruit, train, and equip missionaries, engaging in strategic planning for work in difficult places. For two centuries, agencies clearly understood their submission to the sending church to establish indigenous churches where they were sent.
What have we lost?
Agencies have become a multi-billion dollar enterprise spanning the globe with a mind-boggling array of ministries. Today, there are parachurch ministries that minister to parachurch ministries that minister to parachurch missions agencies. But with the rise of these parachurch organizations, some of whom vastly eclipse the size and mission expertise of even the largest mega-churches, come some downsides. There are a number, but let me outline two.
The Loss of Accountability
First, as agencies become more broad-based with long histories, they become more financially independent and can operate apart from the local church’s authority. Ironically, as the missionary enterprise has grown, it has become self-propagating and autonomous––usually applied as goals for indigenous church plants. Although all missions agencies would say they love the church, many missions agencies have no meaningful structural accountability to the church. Consequently, agencies make decisions when conflict arises.
Although all missions agencies would say they love the church, many missions agencies have no meaningful structural accountability to the church.
Furthermore, as agencies lose accountability to the church, agencies––and, I would argue, all parachurch ministries––lose their biblical footing. The shores of the evangelical river are littered with hulls of once powerful missions agencies, like the Salvation Army or the YMCA.
Secondly, there is confusion about the church: what it is and what it isn’t, how a church is planted, what are the biblical principles of the church, and what is merely cultural. Some missions agencies forbid their missionaries from attending local churches, which sows confusion among indigenous peoples about what it is to be a church.
Of course, some missionaries are in places without churches altogether; others are in areas where the local church is in disarray. So, the temptation is for missionary teams to take on the church’s role in the field––furthering confusion.
When we first landed in the Middle East, I remember some wonderful missionaries greeted us. Godly, devoted, adept, and willing to steer us as we navigated cross-cultural work. Yet, when it came to church, they quickly told us we should not get involved in the local church in our city.
“It would hinder our ministry,” they said.
“Well, what do you do for church?” we asked.
“Our team is our church,” they told us.
Helpful partnerships can be established between churches and missions agencies when the correct principles are established and agreed upon.
Fortunately, I had been involved in parachurch student ministries for years, and though I loved our team meetings, team meetings are not the church. So, our team rolled up our sleeves and helped revitalize the church that already existed in our city. It took time and effort, and yes, it took away from “our ministry” for a time. But in the end, as the church became vibrant and healthy, it provided a solid, local church for those who later came to faith through our ministry.
When agencies try to take the role of a church––something they cannot do by definition because they are parachurch—they will eventually see church as a way to fulfill “their ministry” and not see that churches are the mission. However, genuine, helpful partnerships can be established between churches and missions agencies when the correct principles are established and agreed upon.
This article comes from a congress of missionaries directed by Mack Stiles and will be featured in an expanded form in a forthcoming book on missions published by Crossway. To learn more, read Mack’s article on What Churches Should Look for When Partnering with Missions Agencies and What Missions Agencies Should Look for When Partnering with Churches.