I recently spoke with a family that was considering devoting their life to missions. Among many questions, one of them asked, “How do we choose where to go, who to go with, and what type of ministry to do when we are there?”
These are obviously important questions for a prospective missionary to ask. They are also important questions for a church to consider when thinking about how to be involved in missions. Additionally, any individual who desires to financially support missions should be asking similar questions. In short, how do we choose among all of the missions agencies, missions activities, missions locations, and missionaries that are available?
This can be a complex question that requires diligent prayer and thought. The following suggestions can help in narrowing down the multitude of options.
1. Know the Great Commission
Some of Jesus’ last words were, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
These are well-known words, yet you might be surprised how many groups call what they are doing “missions,” when they are actually disconnected from the Great Commission. So, a place to start is to consider if your potential missions opportunity is truly seeking to be obedient to the words of Christ. Are they faithfully sharing the gospel? Are they making disciples? Are they baptizing converts? Are they seeking to move new believers into the church? Are they raising up new leaders by teaching them the commands of Christ? If they are not directly doing these things, are the activities they are doing somehow supporting these Great Commission purposes?
Christ has given us a clear mission statement. We should personally pursue it with passion and seek to support works that do so as well.
2. Prioritize the Local Church
This flows from the first point and Jesus’ words in the Great Commission. If we are going to make disciples, baptize, and teach, we must be establishing and growing churches. The local church is God’s primary plan for displaying His glory and evangelizing the world. To be involved in evangelism and missions means being involved in planting, strengthening, and sustaining the local church around the world.
This point is crucial, if your potential missions opportunity is not establishing, strengthening, or somehow supporting the local church, go no further! This evaluation may not be immediately obvious either. I have seen ministries involved in evangelism, but they care little for the local church. Their goal is to get as many “responses” as possible and leave. This does not help the local church or the future planting of a church and may actually hinder that process.
On the other hand, groups that work in orphanages or dig water wells may not immediately strike us as prioritizing the local church. Yet, if these activities are opening doors for church planting or are done as an extension of the ministry of a local church, they may very well be centered on the local church.
In your evaluation, ask your potential missions agency or missionary what they believe about the local church and how their ministry relates to it, and you will quickly discover if they are prioritizing the local church.
3. Support Long-Term Work
The picture the Bible paints of Christian ministry is that of slow, faithful, and persevering service. Some look to the example of the Apostle Paul and note how he moved from town to town and region to region and say that we should mimic this in our day. Maybe, they say, the best way to reach the world with the gospel is to travel from town to town sharing the gospel and then moving on to the next one. However, if we look closer, we see that Paul also planted churches that remained, he appointed elders to sustain the work, and he regularly edified the church through his letters. The point is, Paul was committed to long-term missions and ministry, and so should we.
Adoniram Judson, missionary to Burma in the 19th century, once wrote, “The motto for every missionary, whether preacher, printer, or schoolmaster, ought to be ‘Devoted for Life.’” Judson and his family labored for seven years before they saw fruit. The legacy of his lifetime of missionary service is still evident even today, and there would be a great void had he given up early on.
Search for ministries and missionaries that are committed for the long-haul. The work of missions is often slow and takes time. Certainly, there are valid reasons why missionaries must come home before they want to or only commit to a short or mid-term time on the field. Nevertheless, the work they do can be in support of longer term goals.
Short-term ministry trips are also valuable when they support long-term work. Mission work that is disconnected from long-term endeavors is much like the seed that falls on shallow ground in Jesus’ parable of the sower. It might appear to grow quickly and look impressive in the moment, but if there is no one to continue the work once the missionary leaves, it withers away.
4. Consider the Need/Unreached
There are many ways we could talk about the gospel needs of the world today. More than three billion people live in areas of the world considered unreached. Unreached means that outside missionary efforts are necessary for the gospel to be spread and churches to be planted. Many people in this category live in parts of the world where they will likely never hear the gospel or even meet a Christian.
Searching out opportunities for partnership in areas of the world where the needs are greatest can be a helpful starting point. But don’t necessarily mark off the list places in the world considered reached. These terms and numbers only help us quantify the needs that remain for gospel proclamation. They don’t tell us the quality of work happening and other kinds of needs that exist. Consider the needs of pastoral training, the kind that Reaching & Teaching is committed to addressing. 85% of the world’s pastors have little to no access to theological training. In the USA, there is 1 trained Christian worker for every 235 people. Yet outside of the USA, there is only 1 trained Christian worker for every 450,000 people.
Is biblically faithful and missiologically sound work already happening in the location you are considering? If so, consider supporting that existing work, or support the starting of a new work in a location where little or nothing is currently happening. Reaching & Teaching and other like-minded organizations regularly receive messages from people pleading for us to come and minister in their area of the world. The needs of the world are great and there are few places you could point to on a map where work is not needed.
5. Remember Practical Matters
Finally, don’t forget matters of oversight, accountability, and stewardship. If it is an organization that you are considering, how do they handle their finances? Is the organization operating according to all of the appropriate legal and financial procedures required by state and federal governments? Organizations like ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) provide a layer of assurance that the organization you are getting involved with is adhering to certain financial and organizational standards.
If it’s an individual missionary you are considering partnering with, ask about what authority they are under. If they are not serving with an organization, ask how they relate to a sending church. Be sure there is a measure of accountability built into their ministries.
God has called us all to be involved in His global purpose of making His name known among all peoples. Let us do so carefully and prayerfully.