Tuesday, May 08, 2012

How Global Missions Has Changed Forever

The 21st century is an exciting time to be a missionary, assuming you understand how both the job description and work environment of the task has radically changed!

To be sure, since the Holy Spirit's work began in the book of Acts, the core measurements of missionary work have not changed at all.  When we speak of missions, we are using a term that has a thoroughly Biblical definition.  More specifically, missions activity is any and all activity that results in people hearing and understanding the Gospel and coming to faith in Jesus, leadership being raised up from within that pool of converts, and new churches emerging from the result of the Gospel faithfully engaging culture.  But how this happens in the 21st century is much more multifaceted than it has ever been at any time in the history of Christianity.

A few examples from my own environment illustrate this well.

-As I write these words, we have a team from our Association on the ground in a city of 2.5 million in East Asia, and another team getting ready to fly out this Sunday to take their place.  After nearly 5 years of working in this area of the world, several house churches have been started, and our attention has begun to shift toward another city roughly 100 kilometers south.  Problem is, this is a city that does not welcome those from the west, which means if they are to be reached with the Gospel, we must train those in the north who have come to faith in Jesus to reach them, and pray that God calls some of them to relocate and plant churches. Doing this in the most contextually effective way would be a huge challenge, were it not for several Asian immigrants who worship right here in central Maryland in several of our churches!  Their insight and help will speed this process up in a way that would have been impossible just two decades ago!

-About a year ago, I was contacted by a member of our state House of Delegates who attends one of our churches.  She had just returned from a trip to the middle east with the Governor, who was hoping to establish a trade relationship, and discovered that immigrants from this country with whom our government was working believed themselves hated by evangelical Christians.  I responded to her invitation to a meal with an Imam and the Director of an organization that represents this group of people in Annapolis and Washington.  The result has been an ongoing dialogue with the local Muslim community.  We have been very clear with them about what we believe, and we have also expressed that our greatest desire in this relationship is to see them come to know the Jesus of Scripture.  But we have also committed to a lasting friendship that is not contingent on whether they convert to Christianity.  This fall, I and a half-dozen pastors from our Association will be traveling to this middle-eastern nation at the invitation of our new friends.  Yep, you read that right:  Muslims are hosting a group of Baptist pastors on a trip to the middle-east, and are even  helping with the cost of the trip!

-Several months ago, our office became aware of an orphanage in a former Soviet bloc nation where many Down syndrome children were being criminally malnourished.  We are talking about 14 year old girls who weigh less than my 3-year-old daughter!  Through working a number of different angles, the possibility for being able to help these kids has opened up, and we are preparing to assemble a team of nurses, pediatric specialists, and others from nearby Johns Hopkins, and Washington's Children's National Medical Center.  Our access to this opportunity will come from a hospital in the same city as the orphanage that is run by the Japanese.  Oh, and some from the medical community who have expressed an interest in helping come from the  aforementioned Muslim community, whose home country shares a border and strong diplomatic ties with the Eastern European country where we hope to be working.

-Four months ago through a relationship with the Wesleyan Church, our Association helped launch a Washington D.C. campus for a Burmese seminary headquartered in Syracuse, New York.  Several of our pastors will be serving as volunteer faculty, and though the school is cross-denominational, we will utilize the pool of Baptist church planters who emerge from this school to reach the growing Burmese population around our nation's capital.

-Three years ago, a new church was planted in northeast Baltimore through Acts29 and sponsored by an independent Baptist church.  In that time, some of our own church planters have partnered with this church in many ways, most recently through a conference on urban ministry, and multiethnic dialogue that seeks ways to eliminate the racial tensions that have existed in Baltimore for decades between various ethnic groups.  Three weeks ago, I sat with the lead pastor of this church, who expressed his desire to join our Association, but was skeptical about joining with the larger SBC, primarily because, in his words, "I don't know anyone at that level."  An hour later, and because of our prior relationship, and his relationships with our church planters in the city, I convinced him to make a commitment to get to know them.  As a result, we now have an additional church joining in our denomination's continued global missions efforts.

-A young couple in one of our church plants sensed a call to missions in Europe.  But rather than apply for service through a mission board, the husband decided to get further training in his current field of Information Technology.  IT is in growing demand in Europe, and with this realization, this couple is moving to Europe--not as "missionaries" in the official sense, but so the husband can get a job in his field of expertise, and influence an entire sector of society that is expected to grow exponentially over the coming years.

I could give many more examples, but those I've given above are sufficient evidence for the four primary ways "missions" has forever changed:

1. Networks are the new denominations.  Churches who work together in missions need both a theological core, and a mechanism for doing their work effectively.  For centuries, denominations and denominational structures were how both of these were realized.  That has changed.

This is not to say that there is no longer a place for denominations.  If I believed that, I'd have to find another line of work.  :)  Denominations still hold great value, both as a repository of common theological identity, and as a way for churches to combine their efforts in order to more effectively reach the world.  And while I'm at it, I'll also go ahead and say that the SBC Cooperative Program--where traditional delivery systems are concerned--is still the largest and most effective missions-sending delivery system in the history of Protestant Christianity!

That said, it must also be admitted that where common doctrinal identity and missional cooperation are concerned, denominations are no longer the only game in town!  And in some cases, emerging networks of churches are doing these things better than many declining denominational systems.

The churches in my association are exhibit A of this fact.  20 years ago, all of our churches would have given the sum total of their missions support to the Cooperative Program and Associational Missions.  They would have all done their relief work through the World Hunger Fund of the SBC.  They would have all done their church planting work through the North American Mission Board.  They would have automatically sent anyone in their church who felt called to missions to the International Mission Board.  And, anyone called to preach would have automatically been referred to the closest SBC seminary.  This is no longer the case.  International mission work might just as easily be done through New Tribes Mission.  Relief work might be done through Samaritan's Purse or World Vision.  Churches might be planted using Glocalnet, Acts29, or SEND Network.  And pastors might sometimes be considered more qualified if degreed from Fuller or Trinity.

The emergence of the internet and the subsequent opening of even the most remote areas to the reality of globalization means that local churches are discovering, and leveraging, those network relationships that are most effective at helping them achieve the goals toward which they believe God has called them.  As a result, missions in the future will necessarily involve multiple levels of working together.

2. Relationships are the new currency.  In a former life, when churches sent the lion's share of their missions dollars to a single "clearing house," that collective financial pot was what held most mission endeavors together.  But this approach also created some unintended consequences.  At the Associational level, we gravitated toward an approach whereby we relied on larger churches for the financial support we would give to the smaller ones so that they could "survive."  In many Associational contexts, we weren't doing missions.  We were promoting ecclesiastical socialism!

Another problem that emerged from this approach was the fighting that ensued over how the collective dollars were spent.  If a donor wants to give my Association $20K to support a new church, we can funnel those funds through our administrative machine.  Problem is, once he writes the check, that money automatically becomes the "community property" of almost 60 Baptist churches, all of whom want to draw lines in different places regarding where and how that money can be spent.  Thus, in the new world, we are better off if I can simply broker a solid relationship between donor and church planter, and have the money sent directly through the field.

Between donations for new churches, handling the logistics of visiting mission teams, and various other kinds of partnerships, I will likely arrange more than $500K in mission efforts that will NEVER pass through my Association's budget!  Most of the benefit to our churches and their mission efforts doesn't come from our office writing a check, but from our staff leveraging relationships.

For this to be judged a "success," the scorecard for missions organizations must change!  Years ago, my role was judged by how big a slice of the "budget pie" went to the direct funding of missions.  Honestly, less than 40% of our "official" budget goes toward these ends.  So if we are judged by the questions of the past, I would have to lay off a highly competent staff member who has helped us broker the relationships I speak of so that the "pie slices" would look better.  But that's not the work of a missionary.  That's the work of an accountant!

Denominations and missions organizations who succeed in the future will have to realize that an open handshake is, in many ways, more valuable than an open checkbook!

3. Societal Domains are the new "Mission Boards."  In the past, anyone and everyone who wanted to be a "missionary" applied for service, and was "sent out" by  a Board who oversaw their work, as well as provided them with the financial support necessary for them to concentrate on the work to which they were called in a full-time way.  There is still a very real need for this way of doing missions.  But as the world has opened up more and more, multiple avenues have emerged through which people can be "sent," and the "sending agency" might not even be Christian!

Just this week I had a conversation with someone in our Association who feels a possible call to missions in a part of the world that is largely untouched by the Gospel.  He has a high level of skill in computer programming that could essentially earn him a living anywhere in the world!   He had looked at a few traditional mission boards, including exploring the website of our denominations IMB, but didn't sense a strong push to go the route of the traditional "missionary."  Instead, he and I spent some time talking about the various parts of this nation that were in dire need of improvement.  For any civilization to survive in the 21st century requires education, government, transportation, health care, agriculture, and economics to work together effectively.  And in the 21st century, every single one of these societal domains requires computer technology to run efficiently!  I told my friend, "Send your resume to [this country] and you can move to the mission field tomorrow if you want!"  In the future, who "receives" you might be more important than who "sends" you!

4. Laity are the new missionaries.  I'll never forget the young lady who came to me after one of my evangelism classes years ago.  I was a professor at a Baptist University, and this particular class was held right after the morning chapel service.  That morning, a spirited message from a local pastor had touched this young woman deeply, and confirmed in her heart a call to international missions.

But her reason for meeting with me betrayed the contextual misunderstanding of missions that surrounded her on this campus.  "Dr. Rainey," she said, "As much as I love working with children, God has called me to missions.  So I need to find out how to switch majors; from elementary education to Theology."  My response shocked her.  "If that is what God is clearly telling you to do, then by all means do it.  But you do know, don't you, that God doesn't just use people with theology degrees.  In many places around the world, a theology degree means they won't even let you in the country!  But do you know how many otherwise 'closed countries' are begging for good teachers?"

That young lady is now doing what she loves--teaching young children--in an environment overseas that she would have never been allowed to engage had she switched majors!  For this to happen, she had to come to the understanding that some of the most effective missionaries aren't trained missiologists!

Likewise, if we are to have any hope of effectively engaging our world going forward, local churches must tap into the skill, talents, and knowledge of those who sit in the seats week after week, and equip those people to engage their spheres of influence--through the profession to which God has called them!

The world has changed tremendously.  The command of Jesus to reach that world has not!  To obey His orders, we must understand both the Gospel AND the world!  And understanding the world means adjusting our missiology so that the Gospel penetrates the multitude of avenues God has opened up for us at this critical juncture in human history!


mlblines said...

I just came across you blog, and I’m really enjoying it. Could you give me your thoughts on Tellstart. Have you heard of churches having success with Tellstart?


. said...

Tellstart's effectiveness is dependent on the work ethic and resilience of the church planter and/or core group that employs it. But if capitalized on correctly, its a great way to raise awareness of your new church and bring in additional core members. I have endorsed their work and you can find that endorsement on their website. Hope this helps.