So far we have identified three issues which cause problems. These are theological ignorance, the work of false teachers, and an unfettered pragmatic approach to ministry as possible reasons for the current theological crisis in evangelical mission organisations. However, there are other factors which may support the spread of heresy and problematic mission strategies.
Low view of local church
Sometimes it is a low view of the local church and its role in world mission that fosters unhelpful strategies and even heretical views in the mission field. For many years mission organisations have been reminding local churches in the West of their responsibility for world mission. Local churches, they rightly argue, must be mission-minded.
However, there is also a need for mission organisations to be church-minded. Unfortunately, there is still an attitude among mission organisations that sees local churches first and foremost as a source of new missionaries and financial means1. Local churches and their individual members are seen as supporters of mission agencies and their missionaries rather than as mission partners. This is especially true for interdenominational mission organisations which have no formal link with any particular church body. One reason for this is obvious: a lack of understanding of the biblical view of mission.
The biblical model of mission, as it can be found, for example, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is not a support model but a partnership model. This model stresses a fourfold partnership between local churches and their mission workers: a partnership in praying (1.4; 1.19), in serving (1.27; 4.14), in giving (2.25; 4.15-18), and in sharing news (2.19; 2.25). The role of mission organisations must be to support these partnerships. Instead, many organisations tend to see themselves as mission specialists whose job it is to fulfil the Great Commission. As a result they are in danger of mobilising the local church for their own mission which is not necessarily God’s mission2.
Lack of accountability
Such a low view of the local church and its role in mission often has implications for the accountability of mission organisations — not only in the mission field in Africa but also back home in Europe or North America. While most mission organisations have councils to which the senior leadership is accountable, these councils do not necessarily consist of official representatives of local churches, church fellowships or denominations. Instead, they are often made up of former long-term or short-term missionaries, representatives of other mission organisations, Christians with a special interest in world mission and perhaps the occasional church minister. In some cases, the general mission council consists exclusively of serving missionaries which means that there is no external accountability at all.
Because of this lack of external accountability there is little sense of ownership among local churches, but, even more important, mission organisations receive only little or no advice and correction from churches when it comes to theological issues and mission strategies. When confronted with heretical teachings they are left pretty much on their own to deal with these.
Complex organisational structures
When faced with heresies it does not help that many mission organisations, especially the larger ones, have a rather complex organisational structure, which makes it difficult to hold missionaries and their leaders accountable. These structures can lead to bizarre situations, where, for example, mission leaders are directly involved in appointing their own supervisors every year, or where missionaries, mission leaders and their supervisors are all members of the highest decision-making body of the organisation. In both cases, real internal accountability is hardly guaranteed.
Also, it is not unusual that missionaries working together on the same team are affiliated to different national mobilising offices of the same mission organisation or have been seconded from different agencies. While working under the same umbrella these national branches and agencies might have very different approaches to mission or take very different views on some theological controversies. Put differently, what the UK branch may consider as heretical may be perfectly acceptable to their Canadian colleagues. A situation like this becomes problematic when for the sake of unity and harmony these theological issues are not addressed.
Recommendation to missionaries
Potential missionaries should choose their mission organisations wisely. How do future missionaries learn about mission organisations?
Some are recommended to them by church leaders, Christian friends or missionaries sent out by their church.
Others attend mission fairs organised by Bible colleges, visit the stalls of mission organisations at Christian events such as New Word Alive, or study helpful brochures, such as Mission Matters published by Christian Vocations.
Whatever organisation they finally decide to join, their decision needs to be an informed one. The selection process of mission organisations can be quite rigorous. Enquirers and candidates have to fill in questionnaires, provide several references and undergo a number of interviews. Such a thorough process is undoubtedly helpful and necessary, but it must not be understood as a one-sided process. While it is important for the mission organisation to find out if someone is right for them, the candidate must seize the opportunity to find out if this particular mission agency is also right for him or her. It is the time to find out more about the agency’s character, beliefs, ministry philosophy, strategies, values and policies. It is the time to ask the agency some tough questions. What exactly is your view of mission? Is this view also shared by your leaders in the field? What do you mean when you speak of partnership? How closely do you work with local churches? What role does relief work play in relationship to evangelism, church planting and leadership training? What is your leadership style? What are your structures like? How would you describe your organisational culture? How do you deal with false teaching in your organisation? What happens when things go wrong?
Not to ask such questions and to join a mission organisation just because it is well-known and long established can be dangerous. Let’s not forget: what is true for individual Christians is also true for mission organisations; they cannot live on their glorious past. What counts is not their past achievements and missionary zeal, but their present faithfulness to God’s truth as it is revealed in God’s Word.
Heart of God for mission
Mission does not belong to the church, but to God, or, as Peter Lewis once said: ‘Mission is not an activity of the church but an attribute of God. It is God’s activity in which he includes the church. The church is thus caught up in a missionary movement for God. It is caught up in his flow… There is church because there is mission, not mission because there is church’.3 The Bible tells us that at the heart of God’s mission is His desire to see ‘a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language’ standing before his throne in worship (Revelation 7.9). It also tells us that as his covenant people, the church, is entrusted with his mission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28.19).
What is needed for the church to be faithful to her commission globally are mission-minded local churches, church-minded mission organisations, and theologically-minded missionaries who have a passion not only for people but also for God, his word, his truth and his glory.
Thorsten Prill is a lecturer at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary (NETS), and a Crosslinks mission partner.
1. McCain, D., 2010. Church-minded missions: taking the local church seriously. EMQ 46(2):136-138,137
2. McCain, 137.
3. Quoted in Paterson, R., 1994. Explaining mission. Tonbridge: Sovereign Word.
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