Should we send "ordinary Christians" as missionaries? That is the question that came to my mind when I recently read an intriguing tweet from Chuck Swindoll:
On the one hand, I agree with this statement. I know my own sins and weaknesses. I am regularly astounded at how God has used me. It is his grace at work in me, an ordinary person. A major biblical theme is that God likes to use weak people, sinful people, and people who we would not expect for his Kingdom work.
But on the other hand, Swindoll's comment brought to mind what Ugandan church leaders have told me about missionaries during my When Helping Hurts discussions with them. I get the feeling that Ugandans are frustrated with "ordinary missionaries." Ugandan leaders told me to tell the North American church that we should stop sending missionaries who aren't prepared. And above all, they want missionaries who are theologically trained and strong in faith and character. One Ugandan asked, "Are the donors back home actually strong in faith but they are just sending us middle-men?" Another said, "If they are not trained and not able to teach, then why are they sent to work here?" They are confused when North American churches and mission organizations emphasize the importance of Bible college and seminary education, and yet some of the missionaries they send, who are trying to teach pastors, have not had these types of education themselves.
This reminds me of a quote I read in a book from a 1926 conference in Le Zoute, Belgium that says, "Surely the day has gone when the best men could be picked out for India and China and the rest sent to Africa, as if any man or woman were good enough for Africa. The time for amateurs has passed – if it ever existed. Nothing is too good for Africa.”
How do we synthesize all of these comments, from Swindoll and from the Ugandan leaders? They all seem to be true and important. Should we send ordinary Christians as missionaries? My answer is a qualified "yes." Missionaries are indeed ordinary people, but they should be trained and well-prepared ordinary people. God can use anybody for his work, even if they are ordinary, and in fact even if they are not prepared or if they are weak or sinful. But we should never use this as an excuse to be unprepared, weak, or sinful.
I'd like to elaborate in this post about the Ugandans' perspective for two reasons:
- It's important for you to hear about the point of view of the people we are actually sending missionaries to, and I think there are surely similarities between the Ugandans' perspectives on missionaries and the national people of many other countries as well.
- I think a historical shift has taken place in the North American Church. I'm referring broadly to different evangelical denominations in North America, not just the Christian Reformed Church of which I am a part. In the recent past, I'm sure that emphasizing this theme of Swindoll's was helpful, in that it was a corrective to churches that idealized missionaries too much. At times in the longer ago past, missionaries were not really looked at as ordinary people, but more as abnormal super spiritual Christians. They were the legendary Christian heroes. People could not possibly hope to live up to their examples. I am truly glad that this attitude has changed in accordance with quotes like Swindoll's above. The attitude change helps people to get over their fears of inadequacy, and trust God to use them despite their weaknesses. But it seems the pendulum has shifted to the other extreme side. I'm troubled that the North American Church might be emphasizing this idea too much today in regards to mission work, or at least not emphasizing it with enough nuance. We don't view missionaries as elite Christians anymore, but now we view them as a little bit too ordinary. This is causing some people to regard the missionary calling less seriously. I'd like to further explain this in what follows, and at the same time I hope my explanation will help you to understand what the Ugandan leaders were getting at.
The consequences of this historical shift:
Some very good things have resulted from this historical shift. People like me were encouraged that despite our weaknesses God could use even us. Our fears were largely taken away. This shift has also helped church members in sending countries to better relate to, understand, and befriend missionaries because they realize that we are actually not extraordinary people, but just regular ordinary folks.
But there have been some serious negative consequences from this historical shift as well:
- While before some people were too afraid to go to the mission field out of fear and feelings of inadequacy, now it seems that people do not have enough fear and enough feelings of humble inadequacy.
- Some missionaries are not being adequately prepared and trained before going to other countries. They are told God can use them just as they are, in their weaknesses. So they rush off to try to change the world with scant theological and mission education, very little reading of theology and mission books, and little practical ministry experience.
- Perhaps some people are becoming missionaries because they are told repeatedly, "anyone can be a missionary" but they are not truly called by God to do it. In some cases, perhaps their callings are not adequately tested and confirmed by sending churches.
- Many missionaries have had to go home because of falling into sin, having mental breakdowns, or having unfruitful ministries. Stories are common of such tragic missionary stories from many different denominations and mission organizations and in countries all over the world. Many of these unfortunate stories resulted because missionaries were not adequately prepared or counseled before going overseas.
- Many missionaries in developing countries are doing as much harm as good as they try to reach out to the poor (see the book “When Helping Hurts”). Many missionaries jump in the airplane and go without ever having read any books on poverty alleviation. If all you have is a compassionate heart and you haven't been taught about how to effectively help the poor, or how to counsel alcoholics, or how to work with the homeless, or how to work against corruption, (you name the issue), then you can't really expect to make much of a positive impact.
- Since the message is that "any ordinary person can be a missionary overseas," churches have severely downplayed some biblical passages:
- Passages about each person having different gifts and abilities, and therefore different roles. Not everyone is supposed to be a missionary in another country just like not everyone is supposed to be a pastor or elder (or doctor or businessperson).
- Passages about the importance of teaching, being taught, and training up new leaders. We need to be prepared. 1 Peter 3:15 - But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
- Passages about special qualifications and ordination to positions such as Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3, and the powerful James 3:1 - "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." 1 Timothy 5:22 - "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others."
Logically and biblically, those we ordain as leaders, such as elders, deacons, or pastors, should be people of excellent character, knowledge, and leadership skills. They should be the best of the best. Why would we think it would be any different for those we ordain as missionaries? Wouldn't we send our best? I think about the army. Those we send first are the marines, "The few, the proud, the Marines." They are the best of the best. If we are to choose "the best" as elders and overseers of the church, why wouldn't we also choose "the best" to be sent out to new cultures to start new churches, as representatives of the churches that send them?
Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
I admit that these are not easy issues, and I don't want to be legalistic about the following items. I can apply these tough questions as easily to myself as to other missionaries and not fully get a passing grade. But it's good for us to be thoughtful and at least consider these tough questions. We should try to get prepared as we can be, even if we cannot get perfect preparation.
- Why do some denominations have vigorous standards for ordination to pastoral ministry, but not for missionaries? In the Christian Reformed Church, for a person to become ordained as a pastor, it takes years of education, training, psychological evaluations, internships, difficult exams, and a local church affirming your calling. I think this is good and fitting for the difficult calling that being a pastor is. Why don't mission agencies and denominations have vigorous standards for people to become missionaries, as they do similar work but in a foreign culture?
- Why is it that we send people to start new churches, who have not pastored a church in the US first?
- Why is it that we send missionaries to preach who have never preached in the US?
- Why do we send people overseas to help the poor if they have not done any poverty alleviation work in the US first?
- Why do we send people to evangelize who have never led someone to Christ in the US?
- Why is it that we send people to teach others theology who have not had theological education themselves first?
- If you would not be comfortable with your missionary leading at your own church as an elder or pastor, then should you really be comfortable with them representing your church to a new culture in another country?
I believe my own testimony brings together a good synthesis of these two themes, being ordinary yet being prepared (though as I mentioned I also could have used even more preparation). Besides the sins I have struggled with like everyone else, I grew up being very shy and socially awkward. I could hardly speak to relatives, let alone evangelize to non-Christians. I was sheltered due to my own shyness. I wasn't particularly spiritually mature. Yet for some reason, God called me to overseas mission work when I was only in tenth grade. Because of the great encouragements and positive affirmations about how God can use anyone as a missionary, even ordinary people like me, I was ready to rush off for a quick 1 or 2 year missions training program after high school and then go overseas and change the world. It is only God's grace, wisdom, and direction that kept me from doing this. Over the years, at times I was really frustrated that I could not get overseas sooner, and at times I resented having to do more things in the US first.
But looking back, I am extremely grateful that God made me get more preparation and training first. I seriously cannot imagine how I could do any of the ministry that I do if not for how God prepared me. I would have been a disaster and a train-wreck waiting to happen if I had rushed off right after high school. But I ended up getting 9 years of emotional preparation between my calling and the first time I went to another country for ministry. In that time, I grew so much in my social awareness, emotional maturity, character, confidence, wisdom, and spiritual life. I faced the hardest questions against the Christian faith during my college years, and nearly surrendered to my doubts, but came out much stronger for having faced those hard issues. I was able to experience many types of practical ministry, from counseling college students, to jail ministry, to church internships, to leading Bible studies. I was able to have many diverse experiences of sharing my faith with non-Christians. I had the privilege (largely due to scholarships from generous Christians) to get 7 years of formal theological education. I was able to meet my wife Sara, who is a great partner to me as we both build each other up and complement each other in so many ways. I was able to get training through missions programs, was able to read many theology and missions books, practice living simply, and get personal counseling and marriage counseling. I was blessed to be able to pastor a church for two years and I don't know how I would have been able to teach pastors were it not for that crucial experience.
I am so blessed and grateful for these experiences. It is knowing how extremely important all of these types of preparation were for me, that causes me to want to speak more and more about this topic so that others can also get the preparation they need before going to the mission field. I want more ordinary people to become missionaries, but as ordinary prepared missionaries.
Let’s make sure whatever missionaries we send are thoroughly prepared, experienced, counseled, discipled, and trained before they go. Let's embrace humility, remembering that missionaries are ordinary people, and it is God who works in and through us. But remember, we are dealing with the Great Commission, the Good News, the Gospel. It is important. Let us take the missionary calling seriously.