If you have been a member of a North American evangelical church for any length of time it is likely that you, or one of your family members, were invited to join a short-term or long-term missions team. The number of different opportunities is literally endless: a two week medical missions team to an impoverished country; the church youth group hosting a basketball clinic in Thailand; teaching English in a closed country; running a VBS in the slums of a North African city. With more than 960 mission organizations in the US and Canada, many are more than eager to connect new recruits with one of the countless opportunities worldwide. One organization even has a Five Minute Missionary Test that invites candidates to take a “25 question test to see if you have the characteristics of a missionary” so they can promptly match an individual with one of twenty participating mission agencies.
A common theme that seems to be a near universal maxim among North American churches and mission organizations is the perception that anyone can be a missionary. If you are willing to go, and have a zeal and passion for your future task, then in most cases you qualify. Any concerns that may arise over a lack of training, ministry experience or a knowledge of sound doctrine – all key ministry traits of “elders” as defined by Scripture – fall to the wayside as ardor, fevor, and an unbridled enthusiasm take over. The popular perception is that the traits that qualify you vastly outweigh the traits that may hinder or prevent you from serving overseas.
The Bible, however, paints a very different picture of how missionaries are to be trained and sent out. Building healthy churches abroad begins by learning how to build healthy churches at home. Learning how to build healthy churches at home – that is, understanding and putting into practice expositional preaching, sound doctrine (flowing from good hermeneutics), church membership, discipleship, and evangelism, to name a few – often require YEARS of training. Proficiency does not come overnight. It takes time to be mentored by a seasoned pastor / elder / missionary. A missionary can only go where their prior ministry experience and training have taken them before. If he has no prior knowledge or passion for what a healthy church looks like, then he will be unable to reproduce the same overseas.
In my experience when I have tried to explain to North American churches the importance of pre-field training and church based ministry experience for future missionaries – in particular the biblical qualifications of an elder for those in spiritual leadership positions – a confused, bewildered look comes across their face. They simply have not heard of such a thing before. It is as if I had been speaking Swahili in rural Kansas.
Most churches simply have a hard time trying to wrap their minds around how zeal without knowledge and thorough preparation can shape their missionary outreach as a church. To help bridge this divide, I encourage churches to consider an example from the world of medicine. Consider the following hypothetical scenario:
Suppose you are a medical doctor practicing at a world famous medical facility (Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, etc.). You spent four years going through medical school, then another three years of a grueling residency program. The time away from home and sleepless nights took a severe toll on your physical health and on your marriage, but somehow you survived. Yet, despite the pain and struggle of your medical training, you became a highly regarded physician! Your colleagues at the hospital are in awe of your extensive understanding of the human body and its various maladies. Your patients love you because you have an excellent bedside manner. Overall, your work as a doctor is making a real difference in the lives of your patients and they are very thankful for your dedication to them.
Then one day the president of the hospital approaches you and says: “I have an excellent idea on how to extend the influence of our hospital!! My new plan will exponentially increase the number of patients we can see on a yearly basis and will make a real, meaningful difference in the lives of our patients and community. When fully implemented we will soon join the ranks of the top hospitals in the country. Remarkably, all of this can be achieved at little or no cost!
The hospital president then adds: “This is what we will do. Next week I plan to add 50 new doctors to our staff. This will enable us to see thousands of new patients each year and will establish us as one of the leading medical facilities in the country. But there is one small difference to what we have done in the past: none of the 50 new doctors have any medical training; they have never been to medical school, nor have they gone through a residency training program. But no need to worry! Our new colleagues have endless zeal, boundless joy, and a deep dedication to the health and well being of our future patients.”
“Even more exciting is that our expansion can be done at no additional cost. To pay for these 50 new doctors we plan to take your salary and divide it evenly among them. Each new doctor will receive a small fraction of your annual salary. Times are tough and we must work within our financial limitations. There is a good possibility that your new salary will result in an increase in marital problems, an inability to pay for basic necessities, and time away from your family and medical responsibilities because you must search for additional funding. In fact, you may even discover that you will need to leave the medical profession altogether because it is not possible to support your family solely on the salary the hospital provides. But, in the end, I am sure that you will not mind the cut to your pay because when you see how much good is being done worldwide through your 50 new colleagues you will say that it is all worthwhile!”
Sound absurd? We may laugh at the thought of such a scenario in the medical world – and no one in their right mind would actually go to such a hospital – but this is a PERFECT description of how most evangelical churches view who is qualified to serve as a missionary and how they are financed. Literally, anyone can do it. All are worthy of financial support. “All it takes is a willing heart!” according to one mission recruiting poster I saw.
My urgent plea to evangelical churches is to carefully evaluate your missionary outreach program. Ask yourself this question: If our goal is to build healthy churches around the world – churches that reflect the whole counsel of God in key areas such as the nature of saving faith, church membership, expositional preaching, prayer, discipleship, corporate worship, and so on – how can we expect to establish these churches if the missionaries we send have no knowledge or practical ministry experience in these areas?
Education, practical training, and giftedness are just as vital in planting churches as they are in the medical world. Just as an untrained doctor practicing medicine can lead to injury or death, so also can an untrained, unqualified missionary cause great damage to the churches we send them out to plant. Let me illustrate with a heartbreaking letter I received recently. Unlike the medical scenario above, this example is not hypothetical.
I am…a Namibian national, born to German immigrants. I was converted in 1978, went to seminary in 1986. In 1990 I became the pastor of the congregation of which I was a founder member in 1985. Our church was started by a…missionary with an aversion to Reformed theology. He started a number of churches, all of which landed in charismatic hands. Our church, due to its poor foundations, went through an awful struggle (this is a long story) and transitioned to a Reformed and Confessional Baptist church in 2001. Since then we have seen remarkable growth in the Reformed Baptist movement in Namibia as other churches embraced a vision for God centered, Word centered, Christ centered preaching and church planting. I have seen first-hand, the disastrous missionary practices at the hand of… missionaries in the 80’s and 90’s. They came and they left, and mostly, they left nothing of substance behind. I shudder to think of all the sacrificial money that was spent and wasted on sending ill equipped, unqualified missionaries, many of whom lived on a high standard, enjoying the beauty of our country.
Here is the key take away: God-glorifying churches can not be planted with greater speed by rushing unqualified and untrained missionaries to the foreign field. The extensive amount of time needed to identify and train a biblically qualified elder / missionary is never at cross purposes with the urgency of the Great Commission. These two truths are not in competition with each other, but are designed by God to work in harmony with each other culminating in the establishment of a new, biblically faithful church in a region of the world “where Christ was not known…” (Romans 15:20).
Much of this thinking – as I am sure you are well aware – runs counter to how missions is often understood in our day. Today, when speed and urgency trump careful preparation, you may be tempted to think that you and your church are wasting time in the Lord’s vineyard. Actually, just the opposite is true. Do not apologize or be ashamed for taking the time to ensure that the missionaries you send out are fully prepared in each of the key areas of church planting. This will go a long way towards reducing the number of unqualified missionaries overseas, and will increase the likelihood of a healthy, God-glorifying church being planted abroad.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Copyright © 2021 By Phil Remmers. All rights reserved.