The Training that Matters Most (Part 2)

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In the previous post, I argued that the local church is integral to preparing aspiring missionaries because it refines their character. I’ve made a general argument for a missionary candidate to be involved in the life of a local church. But what I said at the start was that I’m much more concerned about which church a person is coming from. The kind of character formation I described above isn’t automatic. Not every church has a strong culture of discipleship that promotes spiritual growth. But the kind of church a candidate comes from is important because ministry intuitions are shaped by church life.

The local church will shape not just what people say they believe about ministry—it will fundamentally orient their instincts for ministry. Let me give you a couple of patterns I have observed in which a local church’s ministry has positively or negatively prepared a missionary’s instincts.

Who does ministry?

Every church likes the phrase “every-member ministry.” But like in Orwell’s farm, in some churches some members are more equal than others. It’s common and easy for churches (especially resource-rich churches) to default to the practice that professional Christians do most of the ministry. I say common and easy because many churches will say they want members involved, but then when there is a need for something to be done well, they create a paid position for it. It’s not bad to have full-time staff doing ministry (I’m thankful my church supports me to do that work!). But it’s dangerous when that’s the default for every need or opportunity.

In practice, missionaries raised up in a church that prioritizes professional ministry will have those same expectations on the field. That means that they, the missionaries, wind up doing the work for a young church, instead of helping indigenous believers slowly and stumblingly grow into mature leaders themselves. It will lead them to assume that many of the most important elements of church life “don’t work here,” because they’ve never seen ministry done without full financial backing. They’ll assume young believers need money to do ministry, and so they’ll perpetuate many of the ills of past generations of missions. It’s hard to blame them; they’ve never seen another way.

To help their future ministries, future missionaries should look to be discipled by a church that practically, actively, and sacrificially encourages and equips members to do ministry. Here are some helpful diagnostic questions (use them as scalpels, not sledgehammers!).

  • Are members the ones who drive a lot of ministries in the church? Or is everything good initiated or taken over by the full-time professionals?
  • Is ministry only done by people in full-time pay of the church?
  • Is the only path for those passionate about ministry full-time employment by a church or para-church?
  • In corporate worship, are people other than the paid staff involved in what happens? Can you hear the congregation sing, or is their voice drowned out by the more gifted singers on stage?
  • Do inexperienced preachers ever have opportunities to grow in their teaching? Or is it always the trained experts who teach?

What kind of ministry is valued?

Related to the previous point, what kind of ministry is valued? Programs or people? Programs can be helpful in cutting up ministry into bite-size pieces. But they can also easily twist from platforms for building relationships into replacements for the messiness of relationships. After all, a program is an easily scheduled event. It clearly fits on the calendar. You know when you’re done. But people are messy. It’s a lot harder to intentionally invest in spiritual conversations with your neighbor than it is to invite them to an evangelistic event. Again, such programs can be useful—but only as dietary supplements, not as the main diet of a church.

On the field, missionaries accustomed to programs will be easily frustrated. Especially in the 10/40 window, where advertised official events are . . . imprudent. Sometimes, it can feel as though newly arrived missionaries don’t have any ministry to do. I’ve actually heard new missionaries say that, even as they live in a building with 20 families who’ve never met a Christian before. They will lament that their job or paperwork prevents them from “doing ministry,” because they’re not used to utilizing non-programmatic ways to become platforms from which we can launch new relationships.

Conversely, we have members of our church who have initiated Bible studies with neighbors, with baristas, and even a person who helped them at an ATM! That was because they had learned to see all of life as an opportunity for ministry.

What kind of successes are celebrated?

What people celebrate will form what they’re encouraged by. If your church’s main way of celebrating ministry success is by reporting impressive numbers of baptisms or evangelistic contacts or attendees to a youth conference or amount of money given, then the odds are you are being set up for discouragement on the mission field. Of course, we should celebrate conversions and generosity and all the rest. But we shouldn’t only celebrate the big wins and the exciting stories.

Celebrate that widow in your church who has faithfully witnessed to her unbelieving children for forty years. Celebrate that man who has prayed for his wife’s conversion ever since he first believed the gospel; commend publicly his quiet, patient care for her. Celebrate missionaries who are persevering, even if they don’t have an amazing conversion story from this year—or the past few years.

When we only celebrate the big results, we train people to evaluate the worth of their ministry by the obviously reportable evident results. But what happens when a missionary’s first convert renounces the faith and slanders them? The devil will tell that brother or sister their ministry is a failure. He doesn’t need our help in discouraging them even more.

A church that celebrates faithfulness even when God hasn’t given clear growth is one I’m willing to trust. Missionaries coming from a church like that are ones I expect to endure.

Where do you go for help?

Lastly, a church will have tremendous formative influence over where a missionary goes to for help. Too many churches have pastors who are inaccessible to most members. Too many churches treat professional counselors as the first line of pastoral care. They produce missionaries who do not practically value the local church. They might speak highly of community, but when they face hardship, they go to the professionals.

Let me again insert the caveat I’ve stated at every point. Professional counselors are not a bad thing. What I’m addressing are default expectations, first-response instincts. I’ve seen many missionaries who, instead of looking for help from godly members of their church for wisdom, they begin with looking for counsel from places outside the local church.

The main problem with this is that it models to new believers that the church isn’t actually that important for the Christian life. I know missionaries who are deeply concerned about the lack of professional counselors in my city, but they seem to be unengaged in their local church in this same place. This doesn’t help the kingdom here. They will unintentionally teach Christians to remain unattached from each other. They will unintentionally undermine the kind of sacrificial love necessary to visit brothers in prison, or to endure in the face of decades of persecution.

CONCLUSION

There are many dear, devout brothers and sisters who have labored for the advance of the gospel with the sincerest of intentions, but disordered priorities. The Lord has certainly used them, just as he is faithful to use me in the midst of my own faults. My goal here has not been to discredit how the Lord has used others. Rather, my goal is to say this: disordered priorities in Christian ministry lead to added dysfunction in frontier situations; there are enough challenges here already. We don’t need to bring more with us.

I pray that churches will recognize the responsibility that comes with sending out missionaries. I pray that they will work to affirm healthy ministry intuitions. And finally, I pray that future missionaries will prioritize finding and investing in churches who will equip and refine them well so that they can commit to decades of faithful and fruitful ministry.

Caleb Greggsen

Caleb Greggsen pastors an English-speaking church in Central Asia.

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