Tending to Eden: A Vision for a Church Missions Program

After putting up the last post in this series, I felt compelled to be a little more concrete. You see, years and years ago, I was charged with being the head of my church’s missions program, which was a ridiculously easy job because we had no missions program. We just sat around a room and talked about what we’d do if we had a budget. It was fun.

I moved on to other things, and our missions program now has a $100,000+ annual budget. I’m not in charge, but as an elder I’m supposed to be an overseer. And so I’ve been thinking about missions for decades. But it’s only been in the last couple of years that I actually learned anything about how to do it right. I’m learning to listen to the people who know what they’re doing.

I’m not a missionary, but many of the readers are or have been. I hope they chime in with their own thoughts. Let me know if I’ve gotten it right.

1. The first step in any missions program is to form a committee or team to oversee the program — under the authority of the elders. It’s critically important that the commitee be made up of the right people and that it have a good chairman or chairwoman. It’s much more about the people than the organizational chart. It’s hard job. The missionary’s livelihood and mission depend on how well these people do their job.

2. The elders shouldn’t micro-manage, but the role of the missions team is at the heart of what the church is about. The elders need to be dead certain that they and the missions team share a common vision. And the elders can’t delegate this. They can delegate working up a vision, but they have to buy into the vision heart and soul, because they have to support the vision and help bring it to the congregation.

3. Forget everything you think you know. The old ways don’t work anymore. Do not try to run your missions program the way your old church did it or the way it was when you were growing up.

The vision I grew up with was: find a foreign missionary, send money, make him give an annual report with slides, read his monthly newsletter, keep supporting even if he fails. Period. That’s a bad vision. Forget all of it.

The newer vision is to have a teen short-term program overseen by the youth minister, another one for the campus ministry overseen by the campus minister, and maybe have one for the adults, but consider the adult mission less important than the programs for the teens and college kids. Again, this is a bad vision. Put it out of your head. You see, ultimately, the teens are going to grow up to be like their parents. If you want the teens to love missions, get their parents to live missions.

4. The team and perhaps some of the elders need to get trained on how to oversee missions. They might ask the head of the missions department of a Church-affiliated university to come visit — and they might go there for a seminar. You’d think this would be routinely covered at lectureships, but it’s not. But you might find the right lectureship to attend.

Because it’s so hard to find decent advice on how to do missions, I’m trying to get some useful thoughts typed into the blog here as training material — not that I’m the expert. But it’s better than nothing, and most churches offer no training in missions at all to the people charged with the ministry.

Don’t guess at how to do your job. Learn from someone who knows what he’s doing, even if you need to visit a nearby Baptist or Methodist college to find an expert in missiology. Missions is missions, whether it’s a Methodist missionary or Church of Christ missionary. The theology taught will differ, but the methods don’t really change as you move across denominational lines.

5. The goal isn’t to effectively support a missionary that you pick out. The goal is to transform your congregation into a congregation of missionaries so that the congregation can go on mission and support others who are on mission. If you church isn’t transformed by your mission program, you’ve failed at your primary task.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t support missionaries and congregations outside your church — quite the opposite. Rather, it means that the missions you support need to become a part of your congregation’s self-identity. It’s not a program. It’s what the church does. The money is secondary to the personal commitment —  which means that there will be more money, because the church will own the mission.

6. Expand your concept of “missionary” work to include domestic missions as well as foreign missions.

7. If you want to support a church in the US that’s a “mission church,” it needs to be a missionary church — a church plant — not a refuge for Southern Church of Christ members that just want a place to meet. Church plants that don’t grow should meet in someone’s house or find a church to merge with, rather than taking money from a supporting church that could be used for actual missionary work.

8. Find a mission — domestic or foreign — that your entire church can get behind. Find ways for the entire church to meaningfully support it. For example —

a. A class or small group could engage in a season of prayer and fasting for the work.

b. The teens could do car washes to raise money for the mission work.

c. The entire church might send a delegation to help with Bible studies, a VBS, or a construction project. Teens and college students would work with the adults and see parents and other respected adults do mission work. They’d form relationships not only with each other but with adults and other leaders in the church — and with the mission congregation they are helping. They’d learn that grown ups do mission work — so when they grow up, they’ll do mission work and bring kids their kids with them.

That’s much better than the teens having a great teen trip, forming great relationships with other teens, and then wondering where they fit when they graduate from high school since they’ve never seen an adult mission trip.

d. The goal would be for the congregation to form a close connection not only with the missionary, but also with his congregation and fellow church planters. If the missionary were to retire, the congregation should feel such ownership for the effort that they might send one of their own to keep it going.

9. The church should feel such a connection to the work that members are, all on their own, staying in touch with the missionary and members at his church via email and Facebook or even snail mail. The idea is not so much to support a missionary as to have a sister congregation that your church helps to support.

10. As noted in the previous posts of this series, if the congregation is in an area of poverty, the missionary should have a vision for repairing all the broken relationships — seeing missions as being about more than evangelism. But even for a church plant in an affluent community, people still need to find healing for broken relationships. The goal isn’t only to baptize people, but to add those baptized to a living, vibrant community that looks like Jesus to those outside the church. The missionary has to build a church that serves others.

And this will create opportunities for the sponsoring church to be involved in the work of the mission church. If the mission church decides to spend a weekend cleaning a creek in the name of Jesus, some members from the sponsoring church can visit to help.

11. Now this requires that the elders, the missions team, and the youth minister all work together to put this all together. It has to be an all-church effort and so all the staff has to be on board.

12. One final note. Not all missions points can work this way. Some are too far away to allow many church members to travel there. Some are in places too dangerous for kids. And these need to be supported, too. Some churches have to support the hard-to-support locations.

But even distant, expensive, dangerous places need more support than a check and an annual visit with a slide show. Look for ways to help. Make sure someone visits the missionary regularly. Stay in touch via email.

When the missionary has a birthday, call him. Support his wife. Send packages of things from the US that they miss — and find out what they like and need. Maybe they can’t find a certain kind of food or spice they miss. Maybe they’d like a quarterly box of grits or barbecue sauce. (Who wouldn’t?)

Make them feel so loved and supported that mission work is a delight. Offer a shoulder to cry on and ear to listen to their struggles. Counsel and pastor them. Share ideas. Send them the latest in excellent evangelical literature. Or maybe some women’s magazines or a Sports Illustrated. Better yet, send a video of the Alabama – Texas BCS championship game.

Challenge the entire congregation to learn about and support the missionary, his wife, and his children. You see, you want the teens to sit at the dinner table with their parents and discuss how they can help that mission be effective.

Now here’s the crazy thing. While this is harder than what we’re accustomed to doing, it’ll be better for the missionary, his congregation, the church, and the future support of the church for missions. It will likely produce more support for missions — and in the long run, more missionaries.


9 Responses

  1. Jay,
    I have done a couple of short term mission projects, and have been in a church with a solid mission program, and I couldn’t agree more. (Well, except for the bit about grits – but I’m from Michigan. We show our grit by dealing with snow!) Still, finding the balance between dealing with the root causes of the poverty AND the lostness of souls does take a lot of love, which really means hard work for a long time. Thank you. The book is on order.
    Pastor Mike

  2. Jay,

    I worked as a missionary in Argentina for 15 years and greatly appreciate much of what you have to say. I think there are very good ideas here. (though I’d skip the video of the Bama-Texas game, unless you edited it down to just the first quarter 🙂

    The problem I see is that most congregations look at this and decide it’s just too hard, too expensive, etc. to do missions right. If we can send our kids to Mexico to build houses and still call it missions, well, let’s just stick with that.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Respectfully, Tim: for most churches, it IS too hard.

    Most churches in America are attended by WELL UNDER 100 people. Combine that statistic with the historic holdovers from the retarded battles over the missionary society, and where do we find ourselves but with collections of small churches who can’t hope to begin the kind of long-term mission effort we’re talking about, and who feel conscience-bound to A) send missionaries and B) NOT participate in para-church missionary organizations.

  4. It’s not hard to see how the idea of the missionary society came about, is it?

  5. We live in a brotherhood that tries to simultaneously and equally honor three points: Autonomy, Evangelism, and Democracy.

  6. Nick,
    I’m not sure how all this fits together, but I ran across some info that I find interesting regarding church size. You are correct, the median church attendance is 75, that is half the churches are larger and half of them are smaller. However, the mean (average) church attendance is 186. The part that I’m still trying to understand from a missional stand point is that 50% of church goers attend a church of 350 or more regular participants.

    I’ve heard it said that it has to do with anonymity, (people can hide in a larger church) but I’m not sure that is generally the case. As you suggest in your post, small churches struggle to put together meaningful ministries. For example, I have pastored a couple churches with attendance that rarely broke into triple digits. They had a hard time sustaining a viable youth ministry. If I were a parent looking for a church for my family of pre-teens, I would be looking for a church with a solid youth ministry – and that is generally going to be a larger church.

    I suspect that same is true of a vibrant mission program/mind set as you suggest. Is it possible to do with missions as one of my small churches did with youth; combine forces with another like-minded church in town to create a more viable youth program? Can we learn to work with other Christians in our communities who have a similar passion for a healthy mission program to build a healthier program/mind set about the lost and hurting in our world?

  7. Hmm. “Work with other Christians in our communities.” Now, that’s an original idea….

  8. Is it possible to do with missions as one of my small churches did with youth; combine forces with another like-minded church in town to create a more viable youth program? Can we learn to work with other Christians in our communities who have a similar passion for a healthy mission program to build a healthier program/mind set about the lost and hurting in our world?

    Not only is it possible, Mike — it is essential to the mission of God among us, in our communities, and in the world as a whole.

    Autonomy is a good principle, but it must not be understood in such a way as to eliminate the potential for partnership. One reason why bridging the grace divide is so essential in Churches of Christ is because it is precisely our traditional understanding of grace that prevents us from partnering with other churches.

    The traditional understanding of grace says that in order for one church to partner with another, they must agree on every (or at least a particular list) of practices. Partnership = endorsement (so the argument goes), and if we endorse error, we fall from grace.

    God is great, though. He will teach those who are willing to learn how to walk by grace and not by law.

  9. What generally gives me pause about missions is that it seems to be exporting the divided nature of the American religious scene. For instance, when the Soviet Union fell we sent a lot of missionaries across into Eastern Europe never considering that many of these people were already Christians. The Orthodox Church in Russia suffered greatly under communism and just when it becomes legal again we kick ’em when they’re down. Rather than asking how we could strengthen the Church as it already existed there we shattered it into hundreds of tiny pieces who are fighting amongst themselves just like in America. Yippee!

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