Reimagining Christian Mission and the Role of the Local Church
By Kyle Wilson
How can the local church engage in meaningful and significant (intercultural) Christian mission? Before we engage in this question, it would be helpful if you would read the article from the Slingstone Newsletter 2021, “Local Church and Christian Mission,” by pastor Eugene Kim.
In the twentieth century, the overseas mission was a complicated task involving difficult challenges due to language, culture, logistics, economics, communication, and transportation, among other barriers. Therefore, the mission agency (parachurch organizations) played a key role in helping churches and missionaries engage in intercultural missions. However, the missional paradigm has not changed much, while the world has changed dramatically in the twenty-first century. I believe the local church was always God’s first choice as the main agent of Christian mission, and now it has the capacity and the ability to engage in Christian mission in a significant manner, more so than at any other time in history.
Christian mission is an outward display of the love of Christ we have received to become children of God!
Here are five ideas for reimagining Christian mission.
1. Many is not always better.
Walk into a church involved in world Christian mission, and often you will see a large map on the wall with various places marked off or a list in the church bulletin highlighting all the mission fields/missionaries the church supports. Some churches may support just a few missions; other churches may support many—even hundreds of different places and/or missionaries. While supporting so many missions may seem noble, the results may be non-transformative mission fields.
For example, if we have a significant resource to work on the malaria problem in Africa, Project 1 would use the funds to distribute many mosquito nets to many countries. Project 2 uses the funds in a multi-year educational and developmental program for a small village that will address core causes of malaria and robust solutions for long-term prevention. Which project would you choose to support?
For various reasons, the majority of Christian mission focuses more attention on the first project rather than the second. It may be because these short-term projects seemingly make a bigger impact; however, it is only the longer-term, focused project that will have any chance of providing a solution to the problem. Local churches may need to reimagine how many projects they engage in and their significance.
2. Mission is adoption, not charity or foster care.
Ephesians 1:4-5 (NRSV): "Just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will."
1 John 3:1a (NRSV): "See what great love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are!"
Christian mission is an outward display of the love of Christ we have received to become children of God! However, many churches think about mission as a charitable act of helping the poor! They believe that going to places and handing out goods, providing services, and/or evangelizing is mission. They feel that they have participated sufficiently in mission when they have donated goods or gone on a short-term mission trip (usually something less than a year).
I am not saying that this is not mission, but it is not mission by itself. Some churches have a foster-care model and set a period such as three years of support per mission area. This is a step above simply doing charity. However, both approaches to mission affect the identity of the recipient that does not reflect the “Spirit of Sonship.”
Foster-care statistics paint a bleak picture. As noble as the program is, it does not seem to provide much hope or transform the lives of the children in the program.
So how do we adopt a mission area? We need to imagine the mission area like a child that we plan to raise as our own. Doing this changes the pace and activities we engage in. We do not expect our own children to be born and ready to live on their own at age three, right? We need to have the right expectations, strategies, and the heart to walk with a person and/or a group through their Christian growth.
3. Hire your missionary as church staff.
In the traditional mission paradigm, mission support happens through a missionary/mission agency seeking support from various local churches/individual Christians to meet their annual budget. This leads to complicated relationships and expectations from supporting groups. Often, missionaries:
- Spend a significant amount of time receiving multiple mission teams from various supporting groups. Often these groups will do disconnected activities from the main mission of the missionary.
- Need to spend a significant amount of time doing fundraising, often spending a month or longer outside of the mission area.
Can you imagine needing to plant a church or even start a business, but you cannot be there two to three months of the year? For many missionaries, this is the reality. How can your church grow if your senior pastor is gone for a significant amount of time? And when he is at church, imagine he has other work for the district going on rather than local church work. What if Christian mission is so important that we create a staff position at our local church that hires the missionary to do mission work 100 percent of the time? The salary needed to hire a full-time missionary is more possible than impossible.
- A living wage for missionaries in underdeveloped places is often much less than local church wages.
- If we follow Pastor Eugene Kim’s recommendation of a united collaborative mission, we can create intentional partnerships with several churches to hire a missionary and to adopt a common mission area.
4. Traditional pastors may not be the best missionaries.
Although a strong theological foundation is key in the life of a missionary, it does not mean he/she needs always to be an ordained pastor or have an advanced degree in theology. In fact, missionaries need a very different tool set from that of a local church pastor. However, many great pastors also make great missionaries. As missionaries, the challenges we face in the mission field are more than simply sharing the gospel with words. We are tasked with transforming communities through education, health, economics, engineering, and more.
In the United States, where there is no compulsory military service as there is in Korea, often many pastors are not properly equipped for life in the mission field. As a missionary, I have had to change not only motor oil, but I have also had to change transmission oil, change brake pads, and transversal oil. I have had to flush the radiator and more, and that is just on our car. Imagine not only learning the language but maneuvering through different cultures and laws (many missionaries assume that we share similar labor laws). Missionaries need to be able to do project management and business planning. I am a plumber one day and an electrician the next. Mission agencies can become resources in training our missionaries in the life skills needed to succeed beyond theology.
5. Focus on sending just as much as gaining.
How many missionaries have you commissioned out of your own membership? Often, the focus of the local church is spent on gaining (and sometimes sadly retaining) members. Have you met a pastor or a church where its main vision or energy was preparing its members to be sent out to missions? One of the last commands given by Christ to the church, known as the Great Commission is, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mathew 28:19-20, NIV). One of the key components of the command is to “GO.” Yet, the church’s goal is to make people stay. What if the church became a place to equip and prepare people to be sent?
We live in a very different and mobile time. A significant part of our congregations will be transplanted because of jobs, education, and so on. What if we encourage students graduating to imagine working in places outside the United States? What if we encourage retired members to imagine meaningful retirement in places like Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, and other locales. (More and more US citizens are already doing it. There is a great untapped missionary resource right in our home churches, and often these missionaries are economically self-sufficient already. We need to equip them with theological and cultural tools for the task before them. If you would like to read about a church that has sent out over 1,000 such missionaries in the past twenty years alone from the same church, please find the story of The Summit Church in North Carolina.
Some of these ideas seem hard to imagine or reimagine; however, they are happening at the Korean United Methodist Church of Greater Washington. After experiencing missions in the late 1900s and early 2000s Korean United Methodist Church of Greater Washington spent intentional time evaluating and praying about how Christian mission and the local church should look. After much prayer and planning, the church laid out a twenty-year mission plan to adopt the small village of Cacalchen in Yucatan, Mexico. The plan included having the church hire a staff missionary to work and live in Cacalchen. We are now fifteen years into the plan. I have been blessed to focus on our mission work without a need to leave on extended fundraising trips. Children who attended early vacation Bible school activities became part of our after-school program, then young adults who became part of our mentoring and leadership program, then became our first university scholars, and are now becoming leaders in our community. If you would like additional information, feel free to contact us.
Missionary Rev. Kyle Wilson
Korean United Methodist Church of Greater Washington in Virginia
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