Changing Missions ( 10/16/2011 Tuesday Column)

Sometimes I’m tempted to think the most radical church changes in the last 30 years have been in worship but I think more changes may have happened in missions. Here are the changes I’ve seen in the last 30 years, since 1980.

1. Collapse of the “just-send-us-your-money-and-trust-us” mission boards.
Before the 1980s most missions boards simply raised money for missions. Churches gave their money and the missions boards spent it sending out the best missionaries they could find. This was virtually the only way denominations raised missions money. Churches had annual missionary conferences and raised “self-denial offerings” and sent bucketfuls of undesignated money to their denominational office to spend the best way possible. When missionaries did “deputation” they told specific stories about their field but the offerings went into the general pot to support all missionaries everywhere. This model has just about collapsed everywhere with a few notable exceptions (Nazarenes?).

2. Growth of missionaries raising their own support.
The trouble with the first model for denominations was that eventually an independent missionary showed up on the church’s doorstep and said, “Please support me—I am not like denominational missionaries who get paid out of a common pot—if I don’t raise my support I can’t go to the field.” Lots (and lots) of churches bought this pitch and began funneling support to these “faith missionaries”–especially if they were related to someone in the church. Denominations and boards with method number 1 were simply forced to switch to individual missionaries raising their own support or they couldn’t compete. Some worried that there would be some really good missionaries who might be poor fund-raisers, or (worse) there’d be some really bad missionaries who could raise lots of money, but most denominational missions agencies in the 1980s or 90s succumbed to this individual support-raising system. Now everyone is out there raising support on the same basis—“help me or I can’t go.”

3. Merger of home missions and foreign missions.
Even if denominations didn’t actually merge these two missions departments, local churches merged them. Churches dropped the “s” from missions and offered a single mission pot. The mission now included everything over the ocean, over the state line, and across the street. A church might still recruit a high powered missionary to give the sermon on faith promise Sunday but when the money came in, it went to the local Christian radio station, the town’s crisis pregnancy center, the city mission, Habitat for Humanity, church planting in the district, supporting local students at college, along with supporting foreign missionaries. To get a local church’s support missionaries had to “apply” for it through a committee like they were applying for a grant. Missionaries started recruiting money person-by-person at this stage, and eventually facebook and email began replacing church-to-church visits.

4. Preference for short term.
In the earlier stages above, almost all missionary money was channeled into long term projects—like paying actual missionary support to a person who would move to country for a few decades and learn the language. Increasingly many churches considered these missionaries “overhead” or merely “denominational bureaucrats” and sought instead whiz-bang short term projects that produced more excitement. It seemed like you’d get a quicker return on the dollar of you supported your brother in law to spend two weeks building a school in Zambia than just tossing your money in the sack toward a missionary’s salary or pension. You got to see your brother in law come home transformed and contribute something to your church. It seemed sexier to buy a thousand pairs of shoes than pay the salary of the person who would hand them out. Missionaries could more easily get people to buy shoes, or fill shoeboxes, or drill wells than they could to raise their own support to be an actual missionary. Missions was moving from people to projects.

5. Evangelism to social ministry.
As evangelicals lost their nerve to do evangelism at home they increasingly had less motivation send evangelistic missionaries abroad. Evangelicals had wearied of “The Four Spiritual Laws” and talking about “the lost” who are “headed to hell “ or having heroes who were “soul-winners.” In their weariness along came all kinds of social ministries that were worthy—drilling wells for life-giving water, rescuing AIDS orphans, establishing schools and colleges, or fighting sex trafficking...and a score of other worthwhile things. Evangelicals still expected people to get saved, but evangelism was not the primary focus. It became a collateral benefit. Professional missionaries plugging away at evangelism found less zeal for their work on returning to the USA, and saw greater interest in shorter term social projects with “no overhead” for the missionary’s salary or for the centralized missions office.

6. Local church becomes its own missions board.
The latest change is the local church itself (especially large churches) becoming their own missions board—doing missions direct and “cutting out the middle man” that avoided boards “taking their cut.” Combined with all of the above, this final change yields a totally new approach to missions since 1980: Raising money locally to support local and global (“Glocal”) projects that are mostly short term involving our own people involved especially in social ministries. Smaller churches can band together as a district and do the same—even launching and supervising their own mission fields sometimes in “partnership” with the former centralized missions boards.
This week I’ll be thinking about these changes. Which of these changes have been good? Bad? What other changes have I missed? Are there “unintended consequences” of some of these changes? Where does all this lead?

That’s what I’m thinking about this week.
So, what do you think?

The discussion of this column is on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/profile.php?id=161502633

Keith Drury October 18, 2011

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