In this day of easy travel, a plethora of organizations and individuals talk about going overseas “on mission.” It doesn’t take long, then, for stewardship and accountability questions to emerge regarding how time is spent and how finances are used. Comments range from “That orphanage has already been painted 14 times” to “It seems that some missionaries do more traveling and social media posting than church planting.” There have even been concerns about supported missionaries whose family focus has become living “organically” and providing social community projects instead of carrying out the gospel work they were sent for. These stories are sad, but the concerns are real because the sacrificial giving of money and time from supporters is real. And, since overseas accountability is hard for the church to provide, the sticky questions just keep getting stickier.
Last week, while contemplating this issue, we heard a devotional at church about the story of Eli the priest, a man who became complacent in his ministry (1 Samuel 2–3). His sons failed to serve in the temple with reverence and integrity, treating the Lord’s offering with “contempt” (1 Samuel 2:17). They were using the Lord’s “resources” for selfish gain, abusing the stewardship they’d been given––right there in the holy temple! And Eli was not holding them accountable. In the end, God took out Eli, who had grown old and heavy living on the abuses, along with his sons . . . all on the same day. Frightening.
In light of today’s trendy mission movement, how can the church avoid partnerships with those who may be self-promoting or “treating the offerings of the Lord with contempt”? Here are seven general guiding principles when choosing a long-term partnership for the purpose of a Great Commission missiological effort. These principles can be applied to individuals, families, teams, or organizations.
1. Gospel-Centered, First and Foremost
The gospel, not social concerns and physical needs, is our primary concern. As Bible-believing churches, we cannot in good conscience feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or dig wells only to leave their souls in the same place as we found them––headed for hell and a Christless eternity. Choose partners who keep the gospel central and who are willing to say “no” to some good social concerns in order to focus on saving souls. A grounded and mature local church will be able to identify its own true practical needs. The church then can be trained to sustain any resources or education given.
A long-term missions partner should approach the Great Commission with reverence for God and His Word. It should also recognize the authority God has given to the local church and its leaders. God is holy, and He should be treated as such. Look for partnerships with individuals and organizations who view Scripture as their authority and who are pursuing holiness through individual and corporate means. This will safeguard against the temptation to treat the offerings of the Lord with contempt.
3. Humility, Wisdom, and Integrity
Humility puts a spotlight on the worthiness of Jesus and treats the task at hand as a “privilege,” for it sees all circumstances through the lens of undeserved grace. Humility allows input and reason to speak truth, which can then recalibrate our work towards the gospel when we have fallen off course. Where there is a reverential fear of God intertwined with humility, there should also be a display of biblical wisdom. Thoughtful, biblical thinking will then lead us to integrity. Choose long-term partners who have exhibited a record of transparency in their spiritual walk, in their finances, and other resources that have been under their stewardship. Look for partners who display wisdom and integrity as they strategize, and link arms with those who humbly depend on God.
4. Faithful in the Small Things
Missions is messy, but those who keep their word, work faithfully, and demonstrate a dependence on the Lord to complete the smaller tasks at home will continue to do so in each new context. Look for families who are serving faithfully as a healthy unit in the messy “other-centered” contexts of local shelters, evangelism outreaches, elderly care centers, etc. Consider organizations who already have a track record of faithfulness in fulfilling their stated goals.
5. Strategies Grounded in the Great Commission
Wise missiological strategies will look for ways to obey the Great Commission in its entirety. That means following evangelism with discipleship that promotes maturity and multiplication. Such strategies will include a long-term vision for partnering interdependently with (local) national churches. Also needed are exit strategies that clearly define the end goals and allow for the missions partner to phase-out in the interest of the national churches. These strategies should be developed before the work begins and then re-evaluated yearly based on the changing needs of the church. This kind of wise planning helps keep mission goals on track with the ministry’s stated purpose. Involving the national or local churches will often mean that timelines will move more slowly. Long-term vision and commitment is required, but the fruits will extend to future generations. Be cautious of individuals and organizations that use initial evangelism stories primarily as a stepping-stone to other ministry endeavors.
6. Dependence and Recalibration Abilities
Strategies are good and needed, but God also works through people who are dependent on Him and understand that He alone is sufficient to carry out the work of missions. Look for partners who are ready to give 100% and set ambitious goals because the King is worth it. These partners should also be able to adapt easily when God spiritually redirects them for His kingdom purposes. Find partners who embrace and grow through evaluation, and then go visit them and hold them accountable to their stated goals and vision statements. Talk to the people they work with and find out how to best encourage and pray for them as you continue to work together for the advancement of the gospel.
7. A Theology of Suffering and Finishing Well
Wherever there is growth in ministry, there are two things happening in the background. First, God’s is moving, displaying His power and faithfulness to build His church. Second, those whom God is using are experiencing suffering and sacrifice. Things don’t happen by chance. An athlete doesn’t just show up and win the Olympic Gold. Gold medals always follow sacrifice and discipline. Ministry is no different. Jesus stated clearly that those who follow Him will have to carry a cross, but that’s because He loves us and works through our sufferings. Look for partnerships made up of individuals who truly understand the cost of following Jesus (Luke 14:25–33). Avoid partners who habitually choose the road of least resistance. In reality, missionaries and mission organizations are imperfect and affected by sin, and we all need room for grace as we work in arduous circumstances. But if long-term partnership is the goal, look for partners who are training themselves now to suffer well for God’s glory.
In the end, those who want to wisely invest their earthly talents in eternal Great Commission work desire something good and biblical. They should thoughtfully make these weighty decisions. When Christ-centered churches and mission partners team up with a long-term vision of fulfilling the Great Commission, we have a much better chance of seeing communities radically changed long-term for the glory of God.