Why I've changed my mind on how to support missionaries.
In the last three years a lot has changed for me. I've gone from being a parish rector in Sydney to being a missionary with CMS in Mexico. I've gone from being comfortable and confident in my surrounds, to being way out of my depth, struggling with language and culture. I've gone from someone who talked a lot and gave direction, to someone who needs to sit back and listen to the directions of others. And, I've changed my mind on how churches should be involved in supporting missionaries. (Of course, this change has been prompted by me seeing things from 'the other side of the fence', but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it make my change of mind illegitimate.)
Three years ago, if you'd asked me what I thought the role of the local church in supporting missionaries and mission organizations was, I think I would have said something like this.
Following the mission imperative of the gospel going to all the nations which is clear throughout the Bible, local churches need to be active in their promotion of cross cultural and overseas mission as a normal part of the everyday Christian life. Its important for churches to have particular missionaries they support in prayer and care for - for example through the CMS system of missionaries being linked to particular churches which they visit when on home assignment. The missionaries have a responsibility to keep link churches and other supporters up to date with prayer points and news, and the churches have a responsibility to regularly pray for the missionaries and their work - both in Sunday gatherings, small groups and personal prayers. The church as a gathering should model personal involvement with the missionary, and encourage individuals to contact and care for missionaries. The local church also needs to be active in recruiting and sending new missionaries to the field - usually through a society like CMS. In the matter of finance, the church needs to encourage all its members to become a member of the mission society and to be individually active in giving money regularly and generously.
Today, in answer to that question, my response would be 90% the same. I still whole-heartedly believe the local church has a critical part to play in the promotion of mission as a normal part of the Christian life, in encouraging people to pray for mission, to care for missionaries and to ask the question of going. The difference would come in the last sentence. I still agree that the local church needs to encourage its member to become a member of the mission society and to be active in individual giving. However, I now think that the local church also needs to be actively supporting mission financially from its own budget - having a 'mission support' line in the budget right alongside 'staff salary', 'building repair' and 'electricity'.
A number of factors have been influential in my mind change.
1. I think giving money 'as a church' reflects the scriptural model.
Generosity and giving to those in need and in ministry is a clear Biblical principle. (2Cor 9:6-15) In Acts and several of Paul's letters we get snapshots of the money that is being given from one group to another to aid the growth of poorer churches. (Acts 24:17, Rom 15:25, 1Cor 16:1-3) Paul himself benefits from the generosity of the Philippian church (Phil 4:15-16). In each of these cases, it seems it is the 'organised church' that is providing the material aid, rather than individuals.
I am in no doubt that Paul received aid from individuals as well (Acts 16:15) but also at times refused this aid, both 'personal' and 'institutional' so as to remove potential stumbling blocks (1 Cor 9:1-18).
2. Being a model
The local church plays an incredibly important role in providing a model of Christian life to its members. The things that the church thinks is important, it demonstrates and models to its members. Through the way we read and engage with the scripture in our public meetings we want to model serious and contemplative Bible reading that requires a personal response. In our public prayers, we want to model that prayer is important, how to pray and what to pray for. We want to model love, community, compassion, generosity, willingness… the list is almost endless.
Perhaps a question worth asking is 'How is my local church modelling partnership in cross-cultural mission?' We host a visiting missionary from time to time. Maybe we have a missionary prayer and support group. We encourage people to attend missionary conferences, like CMS Summer School.
As I thought through that question, and I thought about the church budget, I wondered if saying 'we are a church that supports mission' while not significantly supporting that mission through the church budget was something of a disjunction.
3. The role of mission society membership
Because Christian mission is a normal part of Christian life, rather than an 'add-on' for the really keen, I think it should be a normal expectation for all Christians to be involved in some sort of mission organization. In the case of CMS, that is seen in the form of being a member. Other organizations have partners, sponsors, givers - but the principle is the same. The individual is committed to the organization, prayerfully, financially and personally.
One of the great advantages of making this mission involvement personal rather than 'institutional' (ie: our church is involved in supporting mission) is that it encourages long-term involvement and more personal consideration. If you rely on your church to 'do' your mission involvement for you, and you move churches to a place that doesn't support mission, your mission involvement potentially ends.
Three years ago I would have said the model of giving needs to follow this model of membership, ie: its personal. I still believe that mission involvement needs to be personal, but I'm not sure that takes the local church out of the equation, particularly in the area of giving.
4. Missionary work is costly business
I recently heard a speaker say that his study had concluded that of every $100 earned by a church member in America, $0.025 goes towards cross-cultural mission. Even if that figure is out by a factor of 10, or even 100, the amount of money that is given to mission is relatively small, particularly in comparison to the amount of money that is given to local church ministry.
And, let's face it, missionary work is expensive. Relocating families, training them in language and culture, caring for their pastoral needs and helping to provide the resources they need is a costly exercise, but its an exercise that the gospel requires of us. Perhaps the burden of this expense needs to be shared by both individuals and churches.
I am not suggesting for a minute that most local churches are rolling in cash and spending without thought or careful consideration - I know from my experience and the experience of my peers that nothing could be further from the truth. Also, the budget figures of CMS clearly indicate that there are a large number of very generous members who see mission as a high priority and that priority has translated to their wallet.
But I do want to ask the question, in the context of the annual church budget, is the figure for mission support generous and adventurous? When the budget is increased for the salary of the next staff member, or when the building fund appeal is launched and the minister and treasurer make excited and 'visionary' presentations to the congregation, is the cross-cultural mission budget equally being raised?
Of course, it's not fair to say it's all up to the local church at this point. The missionaries need to be active players in the local church - missionary partnership, ensuring regular prayer points are sent, deputation times are well prepared and presented and that they are praying regularly for their partner churches.
My mind has changed over the last 3 years. The thinking behind that change of mind has been largely prompted by the fact that I've moved from being the guy who thinks about giving the money to the missionary society to the guy who asks for it. It would be easy to say "I've changed hats and therefore my perspective has changed." Yes - I've changed hats, but I think that has been the catalyst, rather than the reason for my change of mind.
So what's my request. I'd like it if all Christians were an active member of a missionary society. Praying for, caring for, giving for and sending missionaries. CMS is fantastic but by no means the only one. But I'd also like it if all churches were an active partner with a mission society. Regularly and publicly praying, actively caring, generously and adventurously giving and excitedly and regularly sending.