Posts Tagged ‘mission strategy’

missionsMidterm sounds like I’m talking about a political election topic, doesn’t it!  Not true!

This last week at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, Let’s Start Talking and Missions Resource Network announced a new initiative for carrying the message of Jesus to the world more effectively.  With this initiative, we believe we can help make better use of time, resources, and people when sending Americans overseas on the mission of God.

Let’s start with the most common current approach to new missions:  Most of our missionaries first participate in some kind of short-term mission. Many of these trips are either compassion missions—medical, disaster relief, construction, poverty-related, or children/orphans—or they are “survey” trips to better understand what needs to be done to prepare for a long-term mission.  A few short-term missions could be categorized as evangelistic, though all of them are intended to share the love of Jesus.

Usually young couples, some young single professionals, or an occasional family then makes the commitment to long-term missions.  By this, we usually mean a complete move to a foreign location for five years or more.  You sell your house and your car and move to a foreign place, spend probably two years learning the language and acclimating to the new culture, perhaps working with an established congregation or, if not, laying the groundwork for establishing a new congregation—mostly “house churches” today.  The sponsoring church is willing to invest a huge amount of money to move these new workers and spend two years preparing them because they expect to get at least  three more years—maybe longer—of excellent service from them.

So here are the unfortunate facts that drove LST and MRN to stop and think about an alternative strategy for churches to send Americans overseas on mission:

  • Most Americans stay on average just over 3 years on their mission site—regardless of what their commitment was.
  • In three years time with two spent primarily in preparation, it is very difficult to accomplish any of the initial long-term goals. Planting self-sustaining churches with national leaders which survive the departure of the American missionary in essentially one year is really a completely unrealistic goal.
  • The supporters and sending churches look at their investment in this failed effort and feel as if they have been burned, making them less interested in ever doing something similar again.

Instead of simply wringing our hands and bemoaning the current situation, MRN and LST sat down to pray and talk, asking God for wisdom to see a new path.  Why these two ministries?

Missions Resource Network was begun to help churches send missionaries and to help care for them better while on the field.  Because of that mandate, potential missionaries began coming to them for training which they then received from highly competent missions experts. In recent years, MRN has begun focusing also on training foreign churches to be sending churches and not just receiving churches.  Let’s Start Talking has always been focused on sending short-term workers (2-6 weeks) on evangelistic missions.  We also send a few interns each year on 6-12 month missions, usually following up an LST project.

So, after months of prayerful conversation and much collaboration between our two ministries, we would like to offer our churches and potential workers a new strategy– our Midterm Missions Initiative– that we believe will be better for the workers, better for the sending churches, better for the global church being served,  therefore better for the Kingdom!

Key components of this new initiative are

  • Planning to stay for 2-3 years. If this is how long people will stay, then let’s not pretend that they will stay longer; rather, let’s plan a work with goals that are reachable in this midterm timeframe.
  • Planning to avoid many of the upfront expenses of a long-term work, such as moving whole households, investing heavily in language study, start-up costs for new church plants (including buildings), etc.
  • Focused training for midterm work, not overtraining them for tasks they will not be there to do.
  • Working in English, taking advantage of the world-wide interest in English in both industrialized and developing countries allows workers to go where they are called and to begin working effectively the day after they arrive.
  • Through specific training in making disciples, they will be able to expand the vision and presence of the global church, working for multiplying growth, but not creating dependency on their presence.

Here is the path as we currently see it:

  • A global church requests help and is willing to invite a midterm missionary or couple.
  • Potential workers are identified or identify themselves and contact MRN or LST.
  • Workers make application and do some preliminary testing to determine readiness.
  • Workers then commit to an LST project, probably to the site where they will eventually be going. In conjunction with their project, they receive complete training in the LST approach.
  • After successfully completing their LST project, they are coached by MRN through specific tasks including finding a sponsoring church as well as preparing themselves to implement a disciple-making   This period may take 3-6 months.
  • When ready, they return to their mission site and begin working with the local church in two specific ways:
    1. First, they will follow up with people contacted through LST and will continue reading the Gospel story with them while helping them with their English.
    2. While doing this, they will begin looking among their Readers for those people who are seeking faith AND who are willing to share what they are finding with other people in their network. When they identify such a person, they approach them about beginning a Discovery Bible study—a very simple and intuitive approach to finding Jesus—in their home or at work.  One of the big differences is that it is not the American worker who leads this, but the person at the center of this network. He/She shares just as much as they have learned the week before from the American worker.  As they share with their friends, this first Person is also encouraged to look for seekers among them who will begin a new group in their home. That second person shares what they have learned from Person #1—and so it grows and multiplies.  As people become believers, then Christians, they are either integrated into the local congregation or they collect themselves into new churches.  Either way, the Lord has added to those who are being saved!  And when the American leaves in 2-3 years, the work has far outgrown him/her and is not dependent on their efforts to continue.

And our sending churches in the States will love this.  They will have shorter commitments with more reachable, tangible goals which can be achieved at much less expense. They can send their own members to do LST, thus helping their midterm worker. They will have the cooperation and partnership with MRN and with LST to walk beside them.  What is there not to like about this!!

And some of these midtermers will become long-termers—and  some lifers!  But the process of making these major decisions for both the workers and their sending churches will be much more tested and proven before those kinds of commitments to each other are made.  And that’s good too.

Let’s get started!  What global church wants to invite a midterm person or couple?  Who wants to go for 2-3 years?  The harvest is ripe!  Contact MRN or LST and we will be glad to help you get started.

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In my series on Rethinking Mission Work , I tried to take a few steps back and ask, “Are we as a fellowship really doing missions the best we can?”.  Based purely on my personal experiences with many churches and on anecdotal evidences, what I see is

  • General dissatisfaction among congregations with their experiences in supporting foreign missions.
  • Broad dissatisfaction among American missionaries with their experiences with supporting churches.
  • Trend toward replacing evangelistic work with humanitarian aid as the definition of mission work.
  • Greater emphasis on local evangelism as opposed to foreign evangelism.

Thinking is hard enough, but re-thinking borders on the impossible.  I know this because I taught Freshman Composition at Oklahoma Christian for twenty-four years.  Once a student  forces himself to sit down, to gather some ideas from somewhere on some topic, to write at least five paragraphs that in his/her mind relate to  a single topic, and then to check it for spelling—once a student has done that much work, she is finished! That’s it! What more could be required??  That first draft is perfection!

Virtually all great writers know that the first draft is trash, maybe even the tenth! Envisioning is certainly the first step in the process, but re-visioning may be the most important!

William Faulkner said about revision, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”   To add to our difficulty in re-thinking is our tendency to make “our darlings” into “our doctrines”   We put the stamp of biblical perfection on our assignment and turn it in!!  And we expect to get excellent marks in recognition of work well done!

As I read and re-read some of your comments during the series, both on my blog site and on other sites where the series was re-posted in some form,  I was continually reminded of how difficult it is to re-vision, i.e., to re-see something so familiar to us.

Some commented that their experience at their congregation was just great and that their congregation was doing a wonderful job!

In reply, let me say that describing general conditions always leaves one open to refutation by the Exception! Of course there are congregations doing a great job and great mission committees who have schooled themselves and love their missionaries.

I will say, however, based on my classroom experience that the writer is not necessarily the best judge of whether the writing is good.  Heeding the proverb to “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips,” (27:2), I would suggest a first step in rethinking is to have an outside evaluation—especially at those churches that have our best mission programs.

If I were coming to help your church look at its mission program, here are some of the questions I would want to ask:

  1. Why do you want to be involved at all in foreign missions?
  2. Where do foreign missions rank in your congregational priorities?
  3. Do you care more about whom you send or where you send them?
  4. What is “non-negotiable” or “untouchable” in your mission program?
  5. What is determining the full capacity of your mission efforts? Available workers? Available funds? Available time?
  6. Does your capacity match your goal?  And is there any room for God to expand any of your capacities?
  7. How do you determine if you are meeting your goals?
  8. How many people in the congregation are involved in the mission efforts in any way, including intentional prayer, private support, short-term missions to your mission sites? Are you happy with the percentage of involvement?
  9. How many are involved in missions outside of the congregation’s program? Are you happy/concerned about this? Is it a reflection on the church’s program in any way?
  10. Do you ask for honest feedback from those you send, and are you humble enough to receive fair criticism from them without it threatening their support?
  11. How long have your current mission strategies/policies been in place?  Do you have a planned periodical review of all policies?
  12. If you could wave a magic wand and change one piece of your mission program, what would you change? What keeps you from making this change without a magic wand?


Next, I’d like to look at how to start re-thinking at churches who already know they have some serious issues in their mission program. 

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All the money for missions is controlled by a very small group of men in churches of Christ.

These are all good, well-intentioned men—elders, deacons, mission committee members—but if churches of Christ have 200-300 congregations that oversee virtually all American missionaries , which typically includes managing the funds that are contributed by individuals and smaller congregations, then my best estimate is that a couple of thousand men control all of the mission work of churches of Christ.

Is this good?

Typically, most congregations have a small mission committee that receives requests, selects which works to support, determines the amount that they want to request, and passes that request on to the elders—an even smaller group, further removed from the request—who make the final decision.  Some churches do use variations on this standard approach.

I know of one large, outstanding congregation which has a long history of generous support for missions, a great track record in every way, where the entire mission program and the dispersal of all the mission funds is completely the decision of one brother.  Another one of our exemplary, mission-minded congregations has a model where small sub-committees funnel all financial requests for missions up to a small group of deacons. In practice, if the chairman of this oversight committee is personally unconvinced of the merits of a request, the likelihood of it being funded is very low. I know of another good congregation where the preaching minister must sign-off on all mission funding.

As I have repeatedly said, God uses us in our frailty and in our ignorance. Much good work has been done, so please don’t misunderstand me when I suggest that there must be a better way!

Here are what I see as the basic weaknesses of our standard model for supporting missionaries:

1)      Mission work becomes the responsibility of a small number of people rather than of the whole body of Christ.

2)      Mission information rarely gets out of committee, so congregations are ill-informed and uninspired about their missionaries.

3)      With decisive power in the hands of a few, any change in personnel creates the potential for radical restructuring of that church’s mission strategy. Every new mission committee chairman brings a new agenda. New preachers and new elders often create the same instability.

4)       Centralized money creates centralized power! And power corrupts! Mission committees are notorious for establishing small fiefdoms. Because missions is central to the agenda of most congregations, those who control the funds for missions—elders, preacher, or committees—control that agenda!  Unfortunately, the more experienced they become and bigger the budget, the more indispensable they consider themselves and their own personal missions agenda—sometimes even to the detriment of the overall health of the congregation.

5)      Decisions about financial support are easier than decisions about spiritual needs, so the financial decisions direct our strategies for world missions.

6)      Financial decisions can be very far removed from relationships with those we are supporting.  Nothing good can come from the missionary becoming primarily an employee of the church.

I talked with a missionary once who reported his own conversation with a local preacher who, completely frustrated in a great church using a standard model, said he would just like to blow up the mission committee at his congregation!  Now why do you think he said that??

Twice during the Pepperdine Bible Lectures this year, I sat with great non-American missionaries who said that they were desperately trying to figure out how to survive if they gave up their American support.  Although both have been supported by some of our largest churches for many years, their experiences with our congregational power structure for funding missions had been bitter!  They talked of how often they were confronted and confounded with personal agendas, pettiness, over-control, micro-management—all power-mongering.  It broke my heart to hear them talk, but I could not offer any rebuttal.

My conclusion is that we need a model that separates power and money!  That is where we will go with the next few posts, so stay with me!


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When our team went to Germany in 1971, we carried with us a written twenty-year plan, describing what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, and when we would accomplish it. This strategic plan was the product of our coursework at Harding, input from our guiding professor, and the impressions that we gathered from our four-day visit to Germany—before we had even selected Germany as our future mission site!

Our plan was not ill-conceived, it was prematurely conceived! We did not yet know the language, so we did not know the people. We had met two or three workers in Germany, but we did know who was wise  or whose work was effective. We did not even know if we were visiting growing or dying congregations there.

I know missionaries who strategically planned on getting jobs in their new country, only to discover when they arrived that local law would not allow them as foreigners to obtain work permits. I know of missionaries who planned on doing house churches, only to learn that apartments are too small and large gatherings are not allowed in private buildings. I know missionaries who have selected a site for a new church plant without even knowing that there was another congregation already there!

And churches have sent all of these missionaries! With support and oversight! What’s wrong with this picture??

I’d like to suggest that the problem is not with making a plan! No, I believe in strategic planning—well, with flexible strategic planning!  But I suspect that most mission plans are done prematurely, that is, before enough experience and information has been gathered to even produce a written draft, much less a concrete plan.

And yet, I would suggest that the vast majority of those wanting to be missionaries have a plan in their hands that is premature.  Why is this?

The answer to this question begins to touch on the core of many problems:  Anyone wanting to be a missionary has to have a concrete plan in order to convince one or more congregations to agree to support their work!  (I think they might get oversight without a plan, but not support—which says what about this process????)

So just think about the preposterousness of creating a mission plan based on what will sell to our congregations!  Imagine with me some of the more “critical” bases that would need to be covered:

  • Plan for a field that is popular right now. (In the 90s, you could get support to any country of the former Soviet bloc, but now the results are not as exciting, so better try China!
  • Plan for a field where the cost of living is low. You can forget getting support to a country where the cost of living is higher than the U.S.
  • Plan for a field where you can establish a self-supporting congregation within five years. Churches do not want long strategic plans.
  • Plan for a field that is accessible to the supporting church. Plane rides should neither be expensive or overnight!  Churches should be able to send their teenagers in the summer.
  • Plans should include some kind of humanitarian effort or community involvement because these are always successful and are great emotional touch points for future reporting.
  • Don’t project building projects or home purchases for long-term works. You don’t know which American mission committees are for them or against them.
  • Try to have something new in your plan that other missionaries in your field are not doing! Mission committees have heard all the old ideas before. (Think about that for a moment!)
  • Plan to use the latest method that is currently being promoted, Use current buzz words! This will let potential supporters know that you have done your homework.


Good plans are essential, but good plans will be made with the integrity and efficacy of the mission work itself in mind, not for the promotional benefits!

I’ve said twice already that most plans are made prematurely.  I want to suggest in the next post that planning belongs to the time of preparation and is, in fact, part of the preparation—and that one of the biggest, most radical changes that we need to make in churches of Christ is in how future missionaries are prepared.

This series is generating lots of comments. Many current and former missionaries are jumping into the conversation—which is just great!  Be sure and take time to read what these people with firsthand experience are saying! 

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After making most of the first decisions, the potential missionary still lacks two very essential components before he/she can go to the mission field: financial support and oversight.  Historically, Churches of Christ have opposed missionary societies  and/or sending agencies, primarily because of a belief that the New Testament pattern requires congregational autonomy, especially in the area ultimate accountability for both the mission funds and the missionary.

Just a quick tangential comment:  in spite of a strong belief in congregational oversight, the major decisions about the mission work, such as the place and type of work, team members, training needs, and date of departure, are usually made independent of and prior to acquiring funding or oversight.  This is probably because these first decisions can be made independently, while the potential missionary is totally dependent on others for financial support and oversight. In addition, these first decisions  are part of the mission package that must be created  to sell  to congregations that might assume support and/or oversight. I wonder whether the “promotional” aspect of this package doesn’t have the potential to skew the strategic possibilities of the mission plans??

Current models for securing support and oversight among Churches of Christ

  1. Single congregation model – The potential missionary meets with a larger congregation (500+ members) and convinces either the elders and/or the mission committee that he/she is worthy of their support and that the mission project is worthy. The local congregation then provides all of the personal funding as well as working fund and assumes complete oversight of the work.  This model is usually viewed as the ideal arrangement for missionaries in Churches of Christ.
  2. Multiple congregations model – The potential missionary finds one larger congregation (500+ members) who accepts oversight of the mission project, but only provides partial funding. The potential missionary then solicits funding from other congregations until full personal and working funds are secured. The number of additional churches needed may vary from few (2-5) to many (20+). These contributing churches then funnel their funds through the “overseeing” congregation. They have no oversight responsibilities.  This model dominates Churches of Christ.
  3. Church/individual model – Same as the multiple congregations model except that in the place of multiple congregations, the potential missionary also finds individuals who wish to support them independently.  These individuals may or may not funnel their funds through the overseeing church.  This model has become much more common in recent years.
  4. Individual model – Occasionally, wealthier Christians are bypassing local churches and themselves sponsoring missionaries. The funds may be funneled through a local church for tax purposes only, but the local congregation is otherwise disengaged from the mission work.


Common Assumptions About Oversight and Support

  1. One must usually first find oversight before support is secured. This is because churches and some individuals want assurances that the funds are properly managed and that the potential missionary is accountable to someone before they are willing to make any financial commitment.  The expectation is also that the overseeing church will be a major contributor to the worker. Other potential contributors see themselves as only supplementing the overseeing churches contribution.
  2. The overseeing church must also be a major contributor. .  If the worker happens to have grown up in a larger church or is a relatively long-term member of a larger church, then that is where their hopes lie. However, since only a handful of these churches are actually expanding their mission program in any given year, it is not uncommon that the desire of the potential missionary for funding and oversight and the schedule of the home church for expansion of their mission budget do not coincide.

If the potential missionary’s most familiar congregation cannot or will not accept  oversight, then there remain only two options for obtaining oversight and support:

  1. They can start looking for another large church—all of which are overrun with solicitations–or find a small church who will give them “temporary oversight” so they can solicit funds from other small churches and individuals until such time that they can find a larger church to assume oversight. The assumption is that if enough financial support can be found to reduce the financial demands on a larger church, it will be more willing to assume oversight.
  2. They can accept oversight from a smaller church—probably one that knows them well–and spend weeks, months, and sometimes years visiting other small churches  and individuals, trying to collect enough commitments to realize their mission plans and go.

As you can readily see, neither of these latter options is promising! But many, many potential missionaries find themselves left with only these options.  The most ambitious for God are sometimes even successful, but most potential missionaries are lost to the mission field, giving up on their call   because they

a) have only a small number of congregations who know them personally and none of those is willing or in a position to offer oversight and/or support, or

b) they personally do not have the resources to fund weeks, if not months, of cross-country travel for full-time fund raising, or

c) they simply do not have the skills for fund raising. Their desire and training, perhaps their giftedness, is being a missionary, not a fundraiser.

In the next installment, I will expand on the problems and challenges caused by bundling oversight and support—which is where I see that our current paradigm creates the greatest barriers to mission work.

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