In part one of this series, we looked at a major shift in global missions that have occurred as our world has changed and globalized in recent decades and with the rise of the megachurch in America. As a result of these phenomena, we have seen a shift from global missions through missions agencies and supported by a network of smaller churches and individuals to global missions through large churches that have the resources to act as their own sending agency. Additionally, there has been a shift from sending long-term field workers to developing international partnerships and sending short-term teams. As a result, the missions pastor role has taken on great significance in the field of global missions. Ultimately, it is missions pastors who are the current driving force in global missions today.
As we’re shifting away from agency-driven missions to church-driven missions, there are three models that I’ve observed emerging in church-led missions. These models describe how missions pastors are attempting to establish healthy and vibrant church-led missions today.
The Partnership Cluster
The first model is called the partnership cluster. A partnership cluster describes when a small number of churches combine efforts to accomplish a mission project together. There are several ways that churches are building these types of partnerships. First, some churches are forming partnerships with a cluster of churches in a specific international location. For example, Mike Constantz of Saddleback Church describes that when they build a partnership with a group of churches, they intentionally place the leadership of the partnership in the hands of one of the local pastors and avoid inserting funding into the partnership in the early stages. This allows the partnership between the cluster of churches to form relationally. It also reduces the chances that indigenous leaders will defer to Saddleback’s leadership out of concern over losing funding. As a result, genuine relationships can develop, and partnership projects are driven by the indigenous leaders.
The third type of partnership involves multiple churches partnering together on a ministry project in another location. For example, The Austin Stone Church, The Village Church, and Redeemer Church in Texas joined together with three missions agencies to form the 100 UPG Collaborative. They are joining efforts to plant churches among 100 unreached people groups. International churches are also building partnerships. Nairobi Chapel in Nairobi, Kenya has built partnerships with multiple churches in different countries and continents to partner together to plant churches in strategic cities around the globe. Another church in Egypt, Kasr El-Dobara, is building an international network of churches to engage in missions together in the Middle East. As a result, churches in western countries are able to utilize the connections of the Egyptian church to open new locations for ministry which were previously inaccessible.
The Solo Church
The second emerging model is that of a solo church, engaged on a global level. Generally, very large churches possess enormous resources and therefore have the capacity to function as their own “mission agency,” sending missionaries, planting indigenous churches in foreign contexts, and partnering for mission work like drilling wells, building schools, and child literacy programs.
Often solo church engagement in missions tends to focus on mission rather than missions. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about this distinction but, simply put, the mission is God’s broader redemptive work in the world while missions are the unique “sent-ness” of the Great Commission in cross-cultural settings. Missions are engaging in the work of proclaiming the gospel to lost peoples. More often than not, solo church mission engagement is more focused on demonstrations of the gospel (e.g. digging wells in Jesus’ name) rather than the proclamation of the gospel (planting churches that declare Jesus’ name).
The challenge for solo churches now is to develop a broader and more holistic view of global engagement that includes both gospel proclamation and gospel demonstration in a way that is culturally appropriate so that churches do not cause unintended damage to the indigenous culture. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, it is much easier to engage in justice and development projects that are broadly applauded by Christians and non-Christians alike. It is less vogue today to talk about the lost and the redemption that is found only in Jesus. Yet, this is the unique mission of the church, to create new outposts where Jesus is known and where God’s kingdom reigns.
The Church Engaging on Multiple Fronts
A church engaging on multiple fronts does not have a singular strategy. Instead, it is connecting on multiple fronts with multiple strategies. As I’ve noted about other approaches, this can have both positive and negative consequences.
One of the positive consequences of a multiple front approaches for a solo church is that it gives the church the capacity to respond to the unique opportunities that the Holy Spirit gives to the church. It also allows the church to develop a robust, holistic, and comprehensive approach to gospel ministry.
The potential negative consequences are that strategies can be formed and based upon the will of the people. Rather than a Spirit-led multi-front strategy, a church may adopt a consumer-driven approach to satisfy its “stakeholders” (the congregation). A church’s board member or influential giver may drive decisions and projects rather than fostering a Spirit-led endeavor that responds to the real needs of an indigenous community. Sometimes churches that engage on multiple fronts lack thorough strategy which may lead to visionless chaos.
The Opportunities Before Us
Evangelicals in the United States and Canada are in the process of reforming the way we engage in cross-cultural missions. It’s necessary therefore that we pay careful attention amidst this slow missional reformation to both the opportunities and challenges within our new and innovative approaches.
My deepest concern in the continued shift from agency-led missions to church-led missions is that we will unintentionally let missiological wisdom take a backseat. Megachurches are the trend of the day (and likely the trend of tomorrow too). With that in mind, churches, and missions pastors must work together with agencies, denominations, and educational institutions that train field workers so that churches can glean and utilize their accumulated missiological knowledge from their long history of missions work. In so doing, churches can do the best with the resources and vision that God has given to them. Megachurches can and often do accomplish great things, but if we are not partnering with them with good missiological thinking, the church-led missions era risks being the 800-pound gorilla in the room stumbling into things out of well-meaning, but youthful ignorance. We have to be willing to speak prophetically to churches. We also can draw from exemplar churches, such as those I’ve highlighted here, that are doing church-led missions thoughtfully and responsibly.
We still have great opportunities before us for churches to take the gospel to places where Jesus is not yet known. The particulars of the opportunities and challenges before us may be new, but the continued reforming of the church is not. We need the Holy Spirit to continue to inspire his church to find new methods to carry the gospel of Jesus the Christ to the uttermost parts of the earth so that all will come to know him.
Wheaton College has a long history of preparing leaders for engagement in global missions.
Wheaton College Graduate School is now taking applications for a specialized M.A. cohort for missions leaders which will develop spiritually formed, biblically grounded, and culturally intelligent leaders to serve the world in missions.