In Nik Ripken‘s book The Insanity of Obdedience, he describes three important elements of a mission effort: the needs of the lost (people without Jesus), worker concerns, and the sending body/agency. One of these elements will be the top focus of the mission, and the other two elements will supplement the main goal.
In a worker-concerns oriented mission, the focus is primarily inward. Priority is given to worker needs like housing, transportation, schooling, and security. The sending body and needs of the lost are secondary.
When the sending body is given precedence, the focus is outward–toward the sending church. In this model, things like church/denominational identity, policies, and administration are considered to be most important. In this case, secondary needs are worker care and people who don’t know Jesus.
The third model also looks outward but to the needs of the lost. The heartbeat of the mission is to preach the gospel, baptize believers, plant churches, engage in spiritual warfare, and relentlessly work to bring Jesus to the world. Worker care and the sending body come under that.
Ripken gives a more detailed description of each of these models than I am giving you here. Reading his words, I could not deny the implication that most of the conservative Mennonite mission organizations that I am acquainted with hold the sending body as the priority. It probably isn’t the stated priority, but it’s there, nonetheless. (Please note, I am not saying that all Mennonite missions are this way, and definitely not that all of their missionaries are this way. I only said that most of the mission organizations that I am aware of function this way.)
I quote from Ripken: In this model [sending body first] …success is often measured by numbers; important concerns may include the numbers of new believers, the number of churches planted, the number of church buildings built, and the number of baptisms… The language used in these gatherings might often focus on who is in charge or on matters of authority, policy, and procedure tied to the home office or church. In this model, strategy typically flows from the top down…What is most convenient for administration takes precedence over almost anything else. Field-based initiatives are not always highly valued and creativity is inadvertently stifled.
…When the needs of the sending entity are the highest priority, a shared and mutually owned vision within the group is rare. Even worse, new vision can be hijacked or new ideas sidetracked in the attempt to make them fit a particular management approach or a specific theological presumption. These administrative concerns can easily take precedence over creating a new vision for a lost world. (The Insanity of Obedience, pg. 63)
Spiritual warfare is unavoidable regardless of the model, Ripken says. And with keeping the sending body first, he says we will be less able to care for spiritual struggles. He concludes with this statement: The danger of this model is that the needs of the sending agency or the sending church ultimately assume priority over the needs of the lost world. (The Insanity of Obedience, page 64.)
I felt profoundly disturbed as I read his words because I have noticed that we do micro-manage mission efforts.
Why else would we demand that Africans wear Mennonite dresses and headcoverings, instead of letting the African church figure out a way to live out the Bible in their own culture? (I use Africa only as an example.) Why do we insist on missionaries living in a compound when they want to live among the lost people? Why do we insist on American-style church services with American preachers preaching from American-style pulpits? Why should only Mennonite preachers have the right to baptize? Why, if not because we have to keep the sending body happy, and because we think American Mennonites have the edge on knowing how to apply the Bible?
Why do we have fundraisers for big guesthouses to keep the American guests comfortable? Would you feel loved if someone built a mansion in your front yard and then tried to convert you to his way of thinking while you wondered where your next meal of rice was coming from?
Why do we have to oversee and manage every little detail of a distant church plant? Is it possible that Christians who have left the comforts of home for a life that includes hardship and loneliness are at least as spiritually mature as those who are living in ease? Is it remotely possible?
I have noticed several side-effects of this way of thinking. First of all, when a sending group has ultimate authority, people don’t think they need to answer God’s call to missions. They wait to have the church ask them to go. Never mind that Jesus’ last instructions to His followers were clear: Go into all the world. Preach. Teach. Baptize. When God’s call is ignored because a group of people didn’t ask us to answer His call, we have a problem.
Second, because people are called by an organization and not by God, they don’t have a vision for long-term missions. We do our two-year stint, then return with a sigh of relief that our turn is done. We spend our time longing for the comforts of “home” because we don’t see “home” as wherever Jesus calls us to work. This not the total fault of the sending organization, of course, but people do tend to be shaped by what is expected of them. If a church does not expect or train its members for a lifetime of service, it shouldn’t be a surprise when you don’t see much of that. Jesus had hard words for those who looked back instead of pressing on into their calling. He called them unfit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:32). This does not mean that we need to spend our lifetime in one location, but it does mean that we are expected to be active in revealing God’s kingdom all of our lives.
Third, this focus on the sending body means that if someone feels God’s call and answers it outside of being asked by a church group, they experience an almost complete lack of worker care. I think a rising number of young Mennonite adults are realizing that there must be more to life than endless meetings and fundraisers and rule-makings, and they are reaching out in new ways to their communities. Instead of seizing the opportunities and equipping these people to serve well, the church turns a suspicious shoulder.
Could we possibly change our model of missions to put the needs of the lost first, while still providing worker care and being respectful of the sending group? Again I quote: In this model [the needs of the lost first], the world’s lostness causes workers and sending entities to be broken before God and before their colleagues. In this model, workers willingly take on a servant’s role, submitting their own needs to the needs of the lost. The vision for the lost holds them in its grasp and, then, creative and responsive sending bodies develop approaches that grow out of ministry encounters. (The Insanity of Obedience, pg. 65)
“Creative and responsive sending bodies develop approaches that grow out of ministry encounters.” I love that! We should all be answering God’s call to bring the gospel to the world, and each of us needs the helping-hand of other Christians. We need support, not fear. We need wisdom, not control.
To those who are active in ministry, can we turn our lives over in service to Jesus, trusting Him for everything we need? If we are serving a sending organization above serving Jesus, is it because we are worried that we won’t have enough money? That we will be left alone? Our heavenly Father will provide for us. He will be with us, always.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
Which is the most important? The ninety-nine in the fold or the one who is lost?
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Luke 15:4-7 (ESV)
Do you know of a mission organization that does well with putting the needs of unsaved people first? I’d love to hear about it!