When David Mays taught in the Perspectives Course he would begin by asking if God has an end goal for the church and the nations. By lesson 7, the students gave him good answers from the Scripture: God desires that all nations hear the gospel, that reproducing churches be established in every people group, that God be glorified by all peoples, that all nations worship, etc. When we ask similar questions to church groups, the answers are less clear, much more nebulous. When we ask for a definition of missions, the answers are all over the map. It is obvious that church leaders do not spend a lot of time establishing the context for pursuing the Great Commission or its goal. It is our assumption that missionary efforts represent our obedience to disciple all nations. This is a very broad mandate, but it does have a goal, an end point. Perhaps this has been taken for granted but it is no longer common knowledge.
At one time missions was “foreign missions.” Our nation was assumed to be Christian - at least nominal Christians - and there were many in other nations that were not Christian. Missions was considered "taking the church where it isn't" and evangelism meant "growing the church where it is." As our culture has become less and less Christian, the need to evangelize our own culture has become increasingly apparent.
In addition, people from every language and nation have come to live among us so we have “cross-cultural missions” at home. But culture isn’t limited to nationality. We are increasingly a country with multiple cultures, many of them less affected by the Gospel or with greater social needs than others. Even the unchurched people who grew up on your street have a different cultural worldview. There is no longer a clear distinction between missions and other church ministry. For most people missions has come to be defined by whether the ministry occurs on church property.
“Local missions” is part of most missions budgets. It is not uncommon to find up to half or more of a church’s missions budget designated for ministry within Canada or within the church’s own community. Someone wrote me that their church board has mandated that they spend no more than 50% of their church budget on foreign missions.
Since the missions budget is about the only budget available for supporting ministry outside the church, para-church organizations present their ministries as missions. I have thought of the church as a building with one window. The missions department has the office with the window. Outside, above the window is printed: "Funds available. Apply here." Many people who work for Christian ministries consider themselves missionaries, even if their ministry supports almost exclusively middle-class American Christians. A gentleman who was principal of a Christian high school was indignant frustrated that the a host church wouldn’t support the needs of the school from its missions budget. The fact that the school primarily serves the children of Christians from his church did not change his perspective, nor does it affect the perspective of people in churches. Recently a young man wrote, “I am presently leaving a 15-year career in corporate finance to become a missionary with ____ Financial Ministries.” An organization that provides legal support for Christian organizations refers to its agents as missionaries. Church leaders often have pet projects and organizations they would like to have funded from the missions budget. One missions pastor smiled when he described his church’s missions budget as the wastebasket because it receives all the requests no one else wants to fund.
Increasingly missions money is used for ourselves. In one church the missions leader appealed for people to get involved in two missions projects. One was building a house for an elderly member of the church. A dozen years ago I observed missions budgets listing a maximum of 5 or 10% to be used internally for missions promotion and education. It was very common to see rudimentarybasic, even shoddy,low-quality missions promotion in very nice churches. For years I advised missions committees to do higher quality promotion because people judge things as important if they look important.
But missions leadership in many churches has been handed off to a generation that is comfortable spending more money. Missions promotion and education have escalated in quality and cost. The missions budget is also called upon to provide funding for outreach activities undertaken by other departments and ministries. In one church, a Sunday School class hosted an outreach barbecue on school property across the street. When no one showed up, the class asked the missions team to cover their $500 loss.
Without clear and understood boundaries for missions, a healthy missions budget is a temptation for any church leader with ideas. If a project or program can somehow be tied to outreach, the missions budget becomes a potential source of funding. Youth excursions have been converted to mission trips and are supported by missions budgets. In one church the missions committee budgeted funds for a youth missions trip. When the youth raised all the money they needed for the trip, they asked for (and received) the same funds for a retreat. When church leaders planned a community service project for cell groups, the missions team was asked to cover the cost of the lunches. In one church children were asked to give money to missions “for children who don’t know Jesus.” The funds were used to purchase playground equipment for the church, presumably to attract those children.
The missions budget is increasingly becoming a “miscellaneous budget.” One must ask what priority “miscellaneous” will continue to enjoy have in the church. Purpose-driven institutions try to focus their resources on their primary purposes and it’s easy to see that “miscellaneous” spending should be small. A missions chair wrote, “The leadership at our church has been arguing that everything the church does is ‘missional.’ Therefore, it is inappropriate to expect that a given percentage defines a "healthy, vibrant" church.” Missional is good. And it should maintain an appropriate balance between 'our world' and the rest of the world.
Even while the prosperity of the North American church grows, the challenge also grows to increase, or at least maintain, outreach ministry focused on the peoples and nations with the greatest needs and least access to the Gospel.
For a long time, many evangelical churches focused on serving believers within the church and reaching the nations abroad. Occasional revival meetings were meant to revive the faith of nominal Christians in the neighborhood. But reaching the community was not a major focus. However, iHhdf n the last three decades, there has been a long overdue movement to reach our communities. Most of the recent books I have read about the Church focus on how to reach your community and grow your church.
Many of these books begin with the Great Commission as stated in Matthew 28:19-20. Working from the New International Version, they suggest that the “heart” of the Great Commission is to “make disciples” and they apply this to reaching your community. What is often missing in these books is discipling “all nations.” Cross-cultural missions is taken for granted, off the radar screen of the book, frequently limited to a passing mention in a page or a paragraph or a sermon. Not too long ago I proposed “The Great Commission-Driven Church” as a workshop title. One pastor said to me, “I’ve studied the Great Commission Church and taught on it and I was hoping for something more global.” It seems that the Great Commission is now commonly thought of primarily as local outreach by many church leaders.
Pastors and church leaders seem to be looking primarily to mega-church models for how to do church. These model churches usually have a missions program, sometimes an outstanding missions ministry, but it has not been a major feature of their books and conferences. One person involved in missions told me about returning with a van of church leaders from a mega-church conference. One of the leaders said to the other, "Why are we putting so much money into missions? Did you hear them talk about missions?" This needs to be changed. We need to pour ourselves into the world.
New church plants are nearly all focused on reaching their unchurched community as you might expect. They are often slow getting started in missions. Several years ago I asked the receptionist of a young church plant, “What are you doing in missions?” “We are a mission,” she replied. In a recent book about effective church ministry the authors reported putting their teenagers to work “on the mission field” on Sunday morning. He was referring to having them work in the church programs. Recently one young church planter was asked what his church was doing in missions. “We have a miscellaneous budget line item for that kind of stuff, “he responded. Another young seeker church of more than 1200 people reported a missions budget of 1% in 2004.
Doing church in a culturally relevant manner is increasingly expensive. It is difficult for churches to maintain the percentage they used to give for missions. Large churches with large budgets have huge internal expenses. Churches of more than one thousand in attendance rarely give more than 20% of their regular income to missions. Younger large churches not infrequently have missions budgets of 5% or less. A large church in the Chicago suburbs has designated 80% of their missions budget for expanding their multi-campus sites. Traditional churches with large missions budgets are spending more on staff and facilities. Becoming more seeker-oriented means spending increasing dollars on facilities and accouterments for a more hospitable and pleasing place for secular people. Almost all churches are facing these pressures in order to be acceptable, if not competitive.
The non-negotiables are changing. At one time the missions budget was sacrosanct in many churches. Now, as one worship pastor told me, “We have two media projectors in the worship service. Each projector has two bulbs. Each bulb costs seventeen hundred dollars. And if one blows, you gotta’ replace it.” A volunteer technical assistant in a church of six hundred told me, “In five minutes I could write down two million dollars worth of sound equipment we need.” Many younger churches desire to do more missions, but missions must wait on higher priorities.
Twenty-five years ago, church purpose statements frequently specified "reaching the world.” Current purpose statements are shorter and less specific. The world is not clearly stated. As someone said, "a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew." Missions is treated as a program rather than part of the church’s purpose. There is a huge difference. One missions pastor told me, “In our church, missions is one of 125 ministries and it must compete with all the others for pulpit time, resources, and volunteers.” In highly professional, time-delineated worship services, time is not available for missionaries to tell their stories. Brief interviews or video clips must suffice to let church people know they are involved in missions. Many churches are reducing the number of missionaries they support so they won’t be overloaded in trying to keep themselves and their people informed.
The effort to reach our communities deserves to be supported and applauded. How to retain and build a focus on reaching the rest of the nations at the same time is the challenge.
Personal evangelism is a much tougher sell than giving a cup of cold water in Jesus' name"
What is a UPG? "UPG" stands for unreached people group but to understand what that means we need to first talk about people groups. When Jesus told his followers, “Go and make disciples of all nations," the Greek words he used were "ta ethne" meaning all ethnic groups or people groups. So what is a people group?
A people group is basically a group of individuals that have a common sense of history, language, beliefs, and identity. It is pretty much a group of people that considers "us, us" and everyone else "them". While there are about 196 countries in the world today, there are over 16,000 distinct people groups.
Let’s look at Pakistan as an example. That is one nation, going by our English word and definition, but ethnically Pakistan has over 400 distinct nations (or people groups) within its borders. Around 7,000 of those 16,000 total people groups are considered UPGs or unreached people groups. A group is considered unreached if less than 2% of their population is evangelical Christian - that is, it has too few true believers to evangelize and disciple the rest of the people group. Almost 3 billion people fall into this category.
Over 3000 of those 7000 unreached people groups are considered UUPGs or unengaged unreached people groups. These people groups have no churches, no believers, no missionaries, and no one actively focused on engaging them.
95% of all unreached people groups are located in the 10/40 window - that part of the world between 10 degrees latitude and 40 degrees latitude stretching from North Africa to Southeast Asia. It’s in the 10/40 window that most of the major non-Christian religions hold sway. Collectively, they are known as the THUMB people - Tribal, Hindu, Unreligious (including many Chinese), Muslim, and Buddhist.
Jesus said that the gospel of the kingdom would be preached as a testimony to all the people groups and then the end would come. Less than 3% of our total cross-cultural missionary force is working in the 10/40 window. We must Go to the unreached.
At the same time, it’s estimated that over 350 unreached people groups are living in Canada and the US today as immigrants, refugees, and international students. So we must also welcome the unreached.
Christ commands us to make disciples of all nations. Jesus is alive. His mission for us is clear. Yet the task stands unFinished.
Together we can change that! What steps will you take to reach the unreached?
Missionaries today live a very marginal lifestyle. They are called to sacrifice almost everything in order to do the work God has called them to do. But this doesn’t mean we can’t bless them once in a while with gifts of love. Below are five suggestions on how you can bless missionaries you support this year.
1. Get Connected
Getting a call from church members is an emotional boost. This doesn’t have to be the missions chairperson. It could be anybody. When a missionary has been away for more than 12 months, those contacts slow down and leave the missionary feeling somewhat disconnected. It is important that the missionary knows that the church back home hasn’t forgotten about them.
So, whether this is by telephone, skype or letters, a conversation can go a long way. Find ways to pray for them as a family and show them your love and support.
2. Ask the missionary about personal family needs that you can fix
What is something that would take a “rough edge” off their life for which they simply don’t have available funds?
• Perhaps they have a broken piece of furniture, but no available or budgeted funds to fix it.
• Perhaps they need a dishwasher.
• Perhaps they need funds to fix a window, paint a room, or replace a toilet.
You might send them funds to fix it, or if practical, send a team to fix some of these things.
I know one missionary who wept in gratitude when a church sent them a new pair of sandals, a box of fancy perfumes, and a particular napkin holder for their table.
What is something they need that would reduce a constant stressor in their life?
3. Donate frequent flyer miles
A missionary family should be able to visit with their home churches and family members on a regular basis. But getting flights for a family of four can run anywhere from $2000-$4000 or more.
Frequent flyer miles can go a long way to enabling this kind of member care. Work with your missionary to find out how to make that happen.
Help them see their family or make their trip home for their partner development. This will also give you an opportunity to meet with them in person as well.
4. Ask if there is a technology product or service they need
Many missionaries live off of donated and terribly outdated equipment.
Perhaps they could use an updated / upgraded mobile phone. Perhaps an Ipad or Amazon Kindle. Maybe your missionaries are functioning with a 7-year-old laptop with outdated software. Maybe the humidity in some climates has destroyed their old computers from rust. Maybe they need that video projector for their training events, or even a video camera and wireless microphone for some of their work.
You get the idea. Find out what they need and work with them to acquire it. Remember, it might be easiest to acquire locally rather than shipping it.
Find out what your church can raise funds to upgrade or provide.
5. Ask if you can provide a “mental health” weekend
Living cross culturally can be extremely stressful and a weekend away at a nice place can bring a sense of restoration back to your missionary.
Most missionaries I know live on such a shoe string budget that spending a weekend at a resort or in a mountain vacation home is hardly ever on a calendar.
Perhaps there is a nice place within a 2-3-hour drive from where your missionary lives. Ask about the cost of a full weekend at a nice place, and include the cost of transportation, gas, and food.
I’m not talking about $20,000 family vacations, but maybe $500-$1000 for a weekend somewhere.
What can you provide to give your missionary a respite break?
Encourage your missionaries this year. They are giving themselves away on behalf of the gospel, often at the high price of living on the margins. These don’t have to be overly expensive projects. Living on the margins is stressful. Take one of these suggestions or think of another way to bless your missionary today. You may not see it, but it will make a huge difference in their lives.