Who is responsible for the souls of missionaries? Who should help them watch their life and doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16)? Who should be providing care and rest for the missionary? Who should be encouraging holiness and ensuring sound doctrine on the mission field? Who is responsible for making sure that missionaries on the field are walking in a manner worthy of their calling (Ephesians 4:1)? The local church.
Missionaries are Accountable to the Local Church
Far too often, missionaries have been entrusted to missions agencies, team leads, a board of trustees, or some kind of parachurch organization. But the Lord Jesus didn’t give missionaries as a gift to parachurch organizations; he gave them to the church (Ephesians 4:11–16).
My friend Garrett Kell likes to say, “Missionaries are not free agents. They are commissioned agents from Jesus through a local congregation.” I think he’s right. You can see this pattern most clearly in the book of Acts.
If you take the time to study Acts 15, you’ll see that the dispute between Paul and the Judaizers was a dispute between two local churches (Acts 15:1–4). How was it resolved? A complaint with the missions board, denominational head, or an ad hoc committee? No. They sent Paul and Barnabas to the false teacher’s home church to hold them accountable for their false teaching (Acts 15:2).
Partner with Receiving Churches
The first step towards meaningful accountability in missions is to understand that missionaries are first, and foremost, accountable to their sending church. Even so, sometimes it’s necessary to combine forces.
Missionaries are first, and foremost, accountable to their sending church.
Missionaries should, when appropriate, and as much as possible, place themselves under the leadership of their church on the field in conjunction with the leadership of their sending church. Dual accountability can be useful for sending churches to build relationships with local churches on the field, allowing both churches to support one another in caring for and keeping the missionary accountable.
Support Fewer Missionaries
If you want to encourage robust missionary accountability to the local church, consider supporting fewer missionaries. I know, encouraging churches to “support fewer missionaries” is not the typical missions strategy, but stay with me!
It seems wise for churches not to send or support more missionaries than they can care for.
Most churches find it difficult to maintain a strong, intimate, and accountable relationship with their missionaries beyond the occasional update and annual check-in. Therefore, it seems wise for churches not to send or support more missionaries than they can care for. This will lead to more quality time, attention, resources, and meaningful accountability.
Love Your Missionaries More
Our goal in missionary care is to love our missionaries well. We aren’t trying to keep missionaries accountable so they don’t “break the rules.” Communicate the importance of accountability in a way that demonstrates the love and care that you already feel.
Sending churches should continue to shepherd their missionaries. Missionaries are Christians, too. They are sheep, and sheep need to be shepherded. This means that sending churches should email, call, visit, and counsel, as much as possible. They should not assume that their missionaries are being shepherded by their teammates on the field or their mission board leaders.
Certainly, more can be said about missionary accountability, but these three ideas should be a good starting place for any local church looking to think more carefully, wisely, and biblically about missionary accountability.
Ultimately, when a missionary receives accountability and support from their sending church, they help protect themselves from sin and are positioned for a faithful and healthy ministry among the nations.