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.