Monday, July 23, 2007

Are North American Missionaries Still Needed?

Malcom asks, "Could you comment or post on what you see as the modern role of the North American church in global missions. To play my hand a bit, it seems to me that the NA churches biggest and most influential role could be in relinquishing its grip on needing to GO to the missions field and focusing its energies (primarily in financing) on the nationals already there."

I am in agreement that many Western mission organizations and denominations do need to retool for today’s mission reality. Their “grip” in global outreach has less to do with paternalism and more about finances. The unsavory secret in missions is that many mission boards rely on recruiting and sending people out to regions beyond, not because of any great missiological strategic plan, but for their survival as an organization. Sending agencies rely on the percentage of each missionary dollar (ranging from 10% to 25%), donor support to the organization and special projects and foundation money to stay in business. I predict that in another 50 years U.S. mission sending agencies will be as outdated as unions in the workplace.

Having said that, I do not believe that the role of the North American missionary is over now or will be 50 years from now. I do believe, however, that if we are to have a role in the future we must be better defined in our task and that we work smarter. Right now I am serving overseas in a capacity that few nationals can do and that is teaching the national missionaries how to serve cross-culturally. As the church outside the US becomes more aware of missiology they will take more of a lead in this area of ministry as well. Though the Western missionary’s task of frontline evangelism is diminishing, there are ministry specialist that I believe is unique for North American personnel, in the field of education, technology, medicine and in general support roles (administration, maintenance and construction). These ministry functions are vital in some parts of the world, but they are often not looked upon as doing the real work of evangelism or church planting.

As I write this post I feel compelled to remind myself, and others, not to despise the small things of ministry, i.e. the importance of support ministries. Much of Western work will continue to be in aiding the machinery of the Gospel worldwide. Though being a teacher at a MK boarding school or digging a borehole in a remote village is not as riveting as a national church planter who boasts that he has started one hundred churches, that does not mean the work of the American is not valid or needed.

Missiologically, the education and wealth of a Westerner place them in a socio-economic position that allows them to serve where many nationals cannot. The caste system in India is a barrier that prohibits many nationals from working among the middle and upper class people of society. If an American supporting church is just going national, they may feel they are getting more bang for the buck, but in reality they may be contributing the perception among others in society that being Christian is synonymous with illiterate and tribal.

The key in creating a well-rounded mission program is to recognize that as the world continues to change we must be current in our thinking as well. That means casting off the old that is outdated, yet not throwing away that which is valid for the sake of being trendy.