A Model for Missions

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!

22 thoughts on “A Model for Missions

    1. Thank you, Bethany! 🙂 I’m sure you know that I’m not trying to bash the Mennonite culture, or say that mission organizations aren’t doing any good, or that the sending body isn’t important. The sending group IS very important! My longing, though, is for the sending group to perform a supporting/equipping role and not a controlling role. I’d love to see all Christians work together for the good of our brothers and sisters across the globe, to allow God’s Spirit to move freely without being contained to a certain cultural way of doing things.


  1. Karen

    And when the mission doesn’t produce like the sending body expected, the workers are disciplined or even sent “home” because it’s obviously their problem. How can this be God’s will? And yet I believe that God can work through these less-than-ideal situations. His kingdom is far stronger than any human mistakes. He is more interested in people’s hearts than whether they get everything right.


    1. Sometimes the places where we are called to labor show little fruit for a very long time. There are many stories of missionaries who worked for years and years with few results. In a way, I think God is especially honored by people who persist in these situations, who are intent on following Him even through very discouraging conditions. I don’t know if I could do it, but I immensely admire those who do.

      You’re right, God is so much bigger than our mistakes, and His ability to redeem is what makes Him God! Thanks for commenting!


  2. Linda Glick Yoder

    Hi Rosina! I’ve recently started reading your blog posts, and have been enjoying them! This one resonates with me for different reasons. I’ve seen first hand, the dangers of taking our culture and imposing it on others, when we really could learn so much from their way of doing life.
    I really like your attitude toward this, not judgmental toward our culture, but also not afraid to address the things we need to rethink and change. Bravo! 🙂


    1. “…we really could learn so much from their way of doing life.” YES! The more I am exposed to people outside of my birth culture, the more I am humbled by all I have to learn. There are so many beautiful people in the world who have wrestled with life in ways that I have not.

      Thanks for commenting! I’d enjoy meeting up with you again! 🙂


  3. JM

    I haven’t read Nik Ripken’s books yet, but it has bothered me for a long time that “our” mission organizations promote the very things you pointed out: essentially proclaiming that American Mennonite culture is THE Biblical way to live, when it seems logical that the perspective of the host culture (whether here or abroad) is important to consider for effective ministry and connection with people.

    I agree that more people (especially young adults) are looking for more effective ways to make Christ’s name known, without insisting on all the traditional trappings, but it seems like we haven’t reached critical mass yet. 🙂 I, for one, still have so much to learn about this subject.


    1. Before we can reach “critical mass”, I think several things need to happen. First of all, we need an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Our churches are so afraid of the Holy Spirit, even though the Bible tells us not to quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19). God’s divine power is the only thing that can give us the strength to work in His kingdom.

      Also, I think churches need to get much better at what Ripken calls “worker care” for those of us who are reaching out in nontraditional ways. We are so extremely pampered in our large Mennonite communities that it’s a bit of a shock to be exposed to even American culture without the support systems we’re used to. Relating to people of different cultures raises questions we never thought about before, and we need the prayers and encouragement of others–not to make us unhealthily dependent but to spur us on as we serve Christ.

      Thanks for sharing! Any other thoughts? 🙂 We all have a lot to learn!


      1. JM

        If by “thoughts” you mean “questions,” then yes. 🙂 Maybe you can write about worker care sometime. Since non-traditional forms of outreach are not -ahem- traditional, I think we haven’t had much practice in providing support, and aren’t sure what’s needed. (Prayer is important, of course, but that can be vague too.) It would be good to hear specific ways the church can help.


        1. E

          Right now my tendency is to think that the most effective worker care would be to be thrown out into the wild with the bears and the wolves and the lions, and see if our/their God exists. If upon finding He does, or upon finding that He doesn’t (and hopefully finding the one who does) this setting would surely be the fastest way to get to know His Name.

          Cynical, maybe? Weeping, maybe? At any rate, I don’t know which is the parent and which the birth child–sending agency or worker. As much as worker may growl at sending agency’s mentality, I see it’s very easy for worker (ouch my toes hurt) to turn around and make much of life about themselves also. I’m curious how much actually hinders God’s work in an individual’s life and sphere if they know Him and are willing to follow Him no matter what. I don’t really know. I’ve seen the heart-screaming, heart-aching seeming reality of opportunity lost, but then I’ve seen so much whining too when meanwhile literally tons could be done for the Kingdom, behind the scenes.


  4. Sylvia

    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!
    This one gets me excited! Macedonian Teaching Ministry. Geared towards equipping native Christian leaders, it is reaching the lost very effectively! Check it out at rayburkholder.com


  5. In response to E, I had to laugh a little at your first paragraph because I’ve had similar thoughts. 😉 I also know how much God can come through for us when we are totally dependent on HIM and not on people.

    However, assuming Ripken’s model is effective, worker care is a necessary part of that even though it should NOT be the primary focus. I’m thinking worker care should look more like mentoring than like pampering, although physical needs should be considered, too.

    I’ll give you an example. We were working with some baby Christians who wanted to learn how to pray, but were scared to try since it was such a new thing for them. Will and I asked a couple of our close friends (who we know hear the Holy Spirit) for advice. As we talked with our friends, God gave both us and our friends ideas. It was so awesome to see God speaking to us as a group. Could we have done this alone? Maybe, but there was something so special and encouraging about having other believers brainstorming with us.

    In contrast, I have friends who are ostracized for “associating with THOSE people”, and are warned against and slandered, when in fact they are busy with kingdom work! Can we do no better than sending a clear message that anything outside of the organization is not valid regardless of how sincerely a person might be following God?

    If God has called you to work for an organization, by all means work for them and God will use you! But then if He calls you to do something the organization does not approve of…you’ll have to decide what is truly most important.


  6. Wow, what an interesting conversation. I really would love to hear more on this subject. So far, my experience in the area of worker care has been good. I work with a native church, but am under the spiritual care of a missionary organization. I get my marching orders from the native church, but when I’m an emotional wreck, when I need advice for times when I feel like Biblical principles are not being applied and don’t know what to do with it, when I need someone to support me in prayer or need a shoulder to lean on, I can talk with a couple from the missionary organization. This gives me freedom to spend most of my time and energy on being with native people, which I love, yet provides a solid shelter for me emotionally and spiritually. Because, yes, workers can be worn out physically and emotionally by the native churches they are serving, because many natives believe that missionaries can do anything (depending on the culture as well.) However, as time goes on and I am connected more and more with native believers, I find comfort in sharing prayer requests and struggles with them too.

    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?

    Amen. Live among and like the people you are serving as much as possible. I am by far and away not an expert on this, but I am learning. Thanks for the thought provoking post!


    1. Thanks for your response! I’m happy to hear of your good experience. It sounds like a healthy blend of reliance on both cultures.

      I’m sad how few people have been able to unreservedly say “Yes! We know our organization values the needs of the lost above other needs!”

      Instead, I hear of the quiet, but heartbreaking pain of people who are sent home or disciplined because of petty American issues that have nothing to do with what is best for the people they are leaving. I just heard of another case today and I feel sick. We American Christians need to grow up!


  7. Louisa

    Youth for Christ
    Church Resource Ministries (Ryan and his parents served under this ministry)

    Both of these ministries are interested in empowering native leaders, as well as matching gifting and calling with work.


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