Not every strategy to reach the unreached is a good one. But with hundreds of organizations and thousands of articles, books, and podcasts about missiology, how do you separate the good from the bad? Without being able to walk through and analyze every individual with you, let me offer four questions to ask as you research missionary strategies. These questions should give you a good start in determining what kind of overseas work to pursue or support.
Is the missions strategy rooted in the Bible?
The Bible is the final authority to which any proposed mission strategy has to bow down (2 Peter 1:3; 2 Timothy 3:16–17). When it comes to missionary methods, the Word of God has final say. Missiology is often a wild and wacky world of human invention and earthly wisdom. Faithful missiology will be marked by a humble reliance on Scripture.
Most of the agencies or methodologies you research will claim to be biblical. But what does it mean to be biblical? Is taking an Old Testament narrative, a parable, or a few words and phrases out of context biblical? There’s a difference between using the Bible to support your strategy and relying on the Bible to tell you your strategy. Healthy missiology has its foundation in a correct understanding of the big story of Scripture, how that story comes to fulfillment in Christ, and how all of this is applied in this new covenant age.
There’s a difference between using the Bible to support your strategy and relying on the Bible to tell you your strategy.
Look for biblical citations as you examine modern missions methods. Open your own Bible and look at the references. Do you see their principles naturally flowing out of the text?
There is room for flexibility and ingenuity in missions. While the Bible is our infallible guide, how we apply its principles may change depending on the context. But the core tenants of any missiology should be drawn either directly from Scripture or prove to be a legitimate inference from Scripture.
Is this missions strategy clear on the gospel?
Missionary activity without gospel clarity is malpractice. Everything a missionary says and does should serve gospel witness among the nations –– humanitarian aid included.
What do they say about God? Is he presented as the holy Creator of all or a hapless cosmic grandfather? Is he the only option or one among many?
Missionary activity without gospel clarity is malpractice.
Where does this strategy locate humanity’s greatest problem—sin or something else? Will everyone outside of Christ experience God’s wrath?
Who do they say Jesus is? Are they upfront about Jesus being fully God and fully man? Do they affirm his sinless life? His sacrificial death? His triumphant resurrection? Look out for people who shy away from teaching Christ’s substitutionary atonement at the center of their missiology. Make sure anyone you would work for is crystal clear on Jesus’ identity as the God-man and on his saving work as the only mediator between us and a holy God.
What does the methodology say is the proper response to the gospel? Don’t endorse any strategy that neglects the need for genuine conversion evidenced by repentance and faith. Some will attempt to make the gospel accessible by downplaying the social costs to following Jesus in the name of contextualization. Biblical contextualization is necessary—unavoidable really—but always works to clarify what the gospel demands of us.
Does this missions strategy focus on the local church?
I’ve talked to pastors overseas who say their biggest ministry headache is dealing with Western missionaries in their region. Some missionaries don’t care about the local church and a few are openly hostile to local churches. For whatever reason, we’ve lost the connection between the Great Commission and the local church. Rightly understood, however, the church is the agent and the goal of missions.
Biblical contextualization is necessary but always works to clarify what the gospel demands of us.
Look for how a particular strategy talks about the church. Do they believe in church planting? Organizations boast thousands and thousands of new churches planted each year but it remains unclear what they consider a church. Do they believe in membership? Who can be a member? Why? How about church discipline? Do they practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper?
Find methodologies that use the church as a vehicle for evangelism and as a family for new converts to enter and learn to follow Jesus with others. Paul said God’s manifold wisdom is shown in the church (Ephesians 3:10). Any missiology worth its salt won’t try to be wiser than the Lord.
How does this missions strategy define success?
Organizations may feel pressure to deliver results. Missiologists may be tempted to demonstrate why their method “works.” To be sure, we want to support fruitful missionary work. But what kind of fruit are we looking for?
Truth is, fruitfulness is inherently hard to quantify. Fruitfulness can mean bringing a new convert into membership and removing an unrepentant person from membership. Numbers-wise, that’s a net zero. Fruitfulness can trickle in slowly or come all at once. Ultimately, it’s up to God. Faithfulness is a far better upfront guide to who and what missionaries to support.
Faithfulness is a far better upfront guide to who and what missionaries to support.
Numbers are notoriously misleading, especially when organizations rely on reporting numbers to increase partnerships and giving. Beware when someone tells you how successful they or their strategy have been based on how many decisions they’ve seen made for Christ, how many baptisms they’ve performed, or how many churches have been planted. A focus on numbers almost ensures one will cut corners or compromise on biblical definitions to make ends meet.
If you ask these four questions of popular missions strategies and movements, you’ll be well on your way to determining how faithful they are and whether or not you should endorse them.