This paper addresses some important issues faced by mobilizers and other mission representatives as they interact with home country churches in their desire to best prepare and send people into overseas mission. Many questions can and should be asked as we seek to discover who is responsible for what in mission.
Dick Dowsett joined OMF in 1968 working first in the Philippines and since 1978 involved in mobilisation, expository ministry, and cross-cultural evangelism with student groups and churches in many parts of the world. Notionally retired from OMF in 2008, he continues in this ministry, though at a slower pace!
OMF Mobilisation and the Church
Mission Round Table 13:3 (Sep-Dec 2018): 28-31
I joined OMF at the end of 1968, initially seconded to student ministry in the Philippines, and later appointed to mobilisation, coupled with Bible exposition and evangelism. Since 1984, this ministry has been exercised in a wide range of different cultures. The ecclesiology of OMF has evolved as different ideas have surfaced and come to dominate in the cultural and theological melange of our beloved and sometimes infuriating mission family. Many, though not all, of the dominant ideas have come from those who speak English easily and are least good at godly compromise.
The default position we OMF workers have arrived at is that a missionary candidate should be sent out by the local church of which they are a member. Candidates’ calls should be confirmed by the leaders of their churches who should then take on the responsibility of fully financing them throughout their missionary service. On this model, OMF is reduced to an agency facilitating the sending of missionaries, and less and less a fellowship of sent-out ones. These present day convictions raise several issues for those involved in mobilisation.
The New Testament does not give a detailed blueprint for the church. If it did, we would have great difficulty in justifying the vast number of different evangelical denominations in the world. In New Testament times, the church was finding its feet. The Epistles are written to answer specific problems in fledgling communities of young believers. Acts of the Apostles tells us what happened under the leading of the Spirit, but is mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive.
In modern missiology, an idea is too often “baptised” by having an example from Acts appended to it, with no appreciation of the fact that the illustration is far from a New Testament norm. Let me explore several examples.
Who determines the call?
Acts 13:1–3 is widely read as though the cosmopolitan small group of prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch are the equivalent of the pastor and elders of a local church today. The conclusion reached is that this is precisely what we should expect for every missionary call today. But there is no other example in Acts of such a group in a church confirming two men’s calling or any teaching in the Epistles that this should be normative. Paul’s vision of a call to Macedonia was weighed by his travel companions (missionary colleagues?) before they set sail, but that is hardly a local church decision. Paul clearly consulted believers in Lystra about the suitability of Timothy as a missionary candidate before recruiting him, and demanded a painful cultural adjustment. It is sensible to get references from believers who know a candidate well, but even this is not taught as a norm.
Who should pay?
The present widely-held conviction that the church that sends missionaries out should be the church that pays for their support, has no biblical warrant at all. Paul tells us that the only church that regularly supported him was the church he planted in Philippi. He raised support from the church in Rome, in another country far from Antioch, to further his ministry in Spain. He trusted God for support from many places, though not from the church which first sent him out. He may well have received some support from Antioch, but the New Testament has not revealed that to us. When support was not forthcoming, he worked for his living, making tents, though that greatly increased the pressure on him as he continued his extensive ministry at the same time. Sending church support was not regarded as the sine qua non of his going or the confirmation of his call.
Of course, the New Testament reminds us of the Old Testament principle that the labourer deserves his pay, but it seems to be saying that those receiving the ministry should be giving support—a dignity often denied to new converts who, despite the increasing general prosperity of East Asia, are still regarded in many sending countries as necessarily the objects of our charity.
Who calls the shots?
Voluntary societies—of which CIM is a typical example from the Victorian era—have always been regarded with suspicion by many major Christian denominations. Less hierarchical denominations have found it easier to live with the idea of people from many churches mobilising together for a specific work of God in another part of the world where they would adjust in godly compromise to work with emerging churches with a different church polity from their own. During my lifetime, a theology of the local church has been developed that more or less disapproves of para-church structures like OMF. Indeed, in some circles, “para-church” is dismissed as a departure from the biblical norm. But is it?
There is an extraordinary mobility in New Testament church life, remarkably similar to the way many committed Christians behave in our unnervingly mobile twenty-first century. We first meet Saul, later Paul, based in Jerusalem. Converted on the road to Damascus, he was initially discipled in the church there before fleeing to Jerusalem where he joined the apostles in the church there before having to flee via Caesarea home to Tarsus from whence he was recruited to share in the ministry of Barnabas in Antioch. After a year’s ministry in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas both moved to Jerusalem, bringing famine relief for the believers there before returning to the newly planted church in Antioch. While they were there, a group of spiritual men were guided by the Spirit of God to send them on for new outreach. Later Paul returned to Antioch to report on what the Lord had done. Would he have called that his home church, where he had his “church membership”? That is a question that is open to debate. In contrast, Aquila and Priscilla seemed to behave like snails, carrying their “church” on their backs wherever they went. They appear to have been responsible for house churches in significant cities in Greece, Turkey, and Italy, “called” by such diverse factors as ethnic cleansing and a missionary request. We know nothing of a “sending church”. Indeed, examples in Acts and the pleas of Paul for churches to care for others abroad suggest that the New Testament Church was far from enthusiastic about the call to world mission.
It is clear that the New Testament taught that believers should meet together, submit to the apostles’ doctrine, pray and break bread together, and make disciples. Leaders were appointed to minister God’s word and exercise servant leadership. It is also clear that New Testament missionaries were highly mobile without being criticised for committing themselves to different communities of believers and teams of them in one place after another. They proved the wonderful fact that has always helped me in my far-flung ministry: Christians have “family in Christ” and real “belongingness” wherever they go. Mobile people belong to the church where they are: the church is both local and global.
In many situations today there are many different gatherings calling themselves the local church. In one place there can be several different varieties of Presbyterian, Baptist, independent, ethnic, and youth churches, to say nothing of Methodists, Episcopalians, huge varieties of charismatic, Reformed, and Brethren churches. As an international mobiliser, I have adjusted to work in all of them. And it sometimes required a lot of adjustment! Most of these gatherings reckon they embody all that is necessary to qualify as a biblical church. My observation is, if I may say so as one who feels a deep love for almost all of them, they are all lacking elements of the wonderful vision of the church as it should be as described by Paul in Ephesians. In some respects, like OMF, they are groupings of relatively like-minded Christians sharing a vision and working together to achieve a goal—para-church organisations, expressions of the church in action—but lacking many elements of what the church in its fullness ought to be.
In a shopping culture that is almost global, Christian believers shop around for a church that fits what they want in the same way that missionary candidates shop around for an agency that will serve their purposes. I once asked a church leader in East Malaysia for whom I was working what were the main distinctives of his church. He replied, “Firstly, we believe in noisy worship.” And they really did! Their outreach, in which I shared, was warm, exciting, and occasionally bizarre. “I want you to bring us the word of God,” he told me, “because we are lacking that.” Modern Protestantism is so fragmented, catering in separated assemblies for different convictions, preferences, gifts, and cultures. As a result, all our twenty-first century churches are lacking this or that. It is tragic, but it is also the situation in which we are called to find the next generation of missionaries for Asia. We work with the churches as they are, not as we might wish them to be. This raises many questions for the thinking mobiliser.
The role of local church leaders
In our mobilising countries there are often those with some understanding of the Asian church. There are Asian nationals but they are usually serving in separate ethnic congregations. There are serving or retired missionaries but they are scattered among a variety of churches. So how can we expect the average local church leader to understand what is involved in missionary service in Japan? How can they evaluate whether their members could adjust and serve well there? We OMF workers, though we sometimes find ourselves thinking like an Asian, make plenty of mistakes in candidate selection. So what hope do we have if we give the final word about who goes and who stays to those with little or no understanding and experience of Asia and no regular contact with those who have?
With the rise of emphasis on the authority of the local church has come the insistence that the sending church’s leaders should oversee and direct the missionary’s work and activity. But who should have authority over the work of a missionary in a foreign country? Is it the sending church or the mission agency? I believe this should normally, if not absolutely always, be the church leaders in the place where the missionary is working. I have worked in churches in several countries where the “real leadership”, those who call the shots, are sitting in sending countries with all their limitations of understanding. The frustration of that type of situation led to the founding of the CIM!
I am not suggesting a return to the old ways of working. We in OMF have too often acted without proper accountability. We have to acknowledge that sending churches are able to ask the searching questions that expose our OMF weaknesses, our OMF wrong decisions, and our OMF sins. I am, however, suggesting a more realistic and equal partnership that faces up to all parties’ inadequacies and limitations, and our different contributions and need of inter-dependency. I am advocating an enthusiastic embracing of the variety of New Testament missionary relationships.
Finding a supporting church
In a world where everyone is highly mobile, candidates move many times: for university, for work experience, for Bible training, and for so much else that we now require of new missionaries. They end up belonging briefly to several different churches. Those raised in stable believing families may have an original home church to which they return from time to time, a community that owns them as theirs to support. But such people are increasingly rare and we are seeing many new candidates who were converted during their most mobile years. Which local church should the mobiliser approach for significant partnership?
Years ago, a Malaysian shared with me her burden for China and her desire to serve with us. She had lived in Britain for ten years or more, studying and working, and was in active ministry with more than one church standing behind her. Not being a British citizen, she was told to return to her home church in Malaysia to raise her support. She returned to a church that had completely forgotten her, had suffered from a disastrous split, and lost its way. Support was out of the question, so this woman had no part in the urgent evangelisation of China’s billions. Yet Paul was supported by a church in northern Greece where he was not a citizen!
Who should pay for what?
In my early years in OMF, it was estimated that the average OMF support figure could be raised from three German tithes, 10 British tithes and 100 Filipino tithes. Against this backdrop, OMF gradually developed its emphasis that the sending church should be the one that supported fully. Since those days, church membership in Britain and, indeed, most of Europe has declined appallingly. More than half our congregations have less than fifty members who pay the pastor, maintain the building, finance the church’s local outreach, and everything else. Expecting full support from such a church is not an act of faith but of unreasonable exploitation.
I used to work quite often for OMF Canada. Thinking about candidates needing a financially supporting church, a mission leader commented to me: “From now on we just need to target the mega-churches.” But what do mega-church members understand about pioneer outreach or working in a relatively isolated environment? A friend from a mega-church in Singapore became increasingly frustrated as he tried to implement mega-church activities in a struggling Chinese/Scottish congregation. He moved on. As I write, UK missionaries and retirees are rejoicing in 100% remittances. So should we question our emphasis on requiring full support from the sending church? I know that those who contribute to my support are scattered believers in a number of countries, and others, including some of my prayer partners, who give to OMF rather than specifically to me. My home churches both in England and in Scotland have been wonderful to us, but have never been able to cover the whole of our life and ministry expenditure. The church has, but not the local church, not even just the church in my country. So should we reconsider where we expect missionary support to come from, or even whether most of our workers should earn their living working professionally in East Asia?
No OMFer doubts that there is still plenty of pioneering to be done in places around East Asia. However, as a mobiliser I am convinced that I need to look for highly motivated Christians living out their faith in their professions. I long to send more of those to Asia. They will need prayer support, probably more so than the missionary preachers, but will mostly be able to live on their salaries. Many of our young churches see full-time Christian ministry modelled, but have no one to model for them how to live as authentic gospel believers in the workplace. Our leadership has acknowledged this need. We mobilisers need to run with it, changing some of our work style. We have rightly focused on being part of the church, but been weak in our focus on being the church in the world.
As I have written of the struggles, frustrations, and questions of a mobiliser, some may find this too negative, so let me conclude with a few positive reflections.
The beauty of God’s church
Undoubtedly, there remains much in churches and in OMF that is profoundly what it should not be, but our Lord, the friend of sinners, is wonderfully committed to work through us even as he patiently works on us in forgiving grace. The church is not perfect, but in our broken, fragmented world it is a wonderful sign of the gospel: walls being broken down, people being restored, communities of interdependence being established. It is God’s church, the bride of Christ, a community where the Holy Spirit is “at home”. Its future hope is glorious. I once heard John Stott say that the believer who did not identify with the church was an obscenity. The same might be said of a mission agency. First John is forthright: if we do not love God’s family, our love of the Lord is highly questionable. I love my home church, not because it is perfect, but because it is my family. There is love, a degree of acceptance, support, teaching, and teamwork. It’s not perfect: we are a work of God in progress.
As OMFers, we cannot act as though we are the only ones on the block. We do not even know everything about East Asia. We greatly need input from the many gifted Asian Christians and their churches. We also greatly need input from our home churches. Both feature hugely in God’s plan and the future of the whole church, as, at least for now, does OMF. We are designed to need each other, to bless each other, and to learn to work together, not by swinging between extremes but by realistically facing up to the strengths and weaknesses of us all.
The dynamic flexibility of the Holy Spirit
Systematic theology has an inbuilt tendency to want to tidy up what we learn from the Bible. Often this has meant excising those parts of Scripture that do not fit our framework. Pragmatic missiology often hangs a whole theory of working on a few random biblical examples. Both can be uncomfortably dogmatic. God, however, has not revealed everything to us: we see only as in a reflection in a mirror, we know in part. The Scriptures are often too untidy, especially for the Western-trained mind. They give us boundaries within which to work, not detailed blueprints for how to run a mission. In that area, I have learnt that I should be more experimental, flexible but not reckless, keeping close to the Lord who frequently refuses to conform to our sacred patterns of working. We need guidelines, not rigid systems as we seek to keep in step with what God is doing. New Testament mobilisation sometimes originated in the church, was sometimes confirmed by the church, and was sometimes opposed by the church. Mission was directed by church initiative, missionary initiative, aggressive opposition, response compelled by the commands of Scripture, and highly personal calls and visions. The Holy Spirit mobilises and provides in ways of his choosing. It is our job, sanely and thoughtfully, to get on with what he is doing, both through the churches and sometimes despite them.