What I was and wasn’t saying about mission agencies

Yesterday, I posted an article on the primacy of churches in the work of mission and emphasised the role of the local church in the commissioning and sending of workers. I made the case that mission agencies should be facilitators in the work of mission, working on behalf of sending churches who are to support missionaries. I was clear that mission agencies should not be in the business of employing lots of missionaries but should help churches facilitate the sending of missionaries and, further, argued that those engaged in the work of facilitation should themselves be treated as home-working missionaries sent and commissioned by local churches. You can read that article here.

Anyway, a good friend decided to send me an email explaining why I was definitely wrong. They’re much nicer than me, so were terribly polite about it. Interestingly, they shared my core convictions about the primacy of the sending church but thought I had taken a few missteps. I was really grateful for it because, as it turned out, we weren’t really in much disagreement but I had been less clear than I could have been at certain points.

Nonetheless, some of the points raised in that email cropped up on Twitter in response to the things I had written. Whilst there were a few points of outright disagreement, there were quite a few misunderstandings. That’s not surprising given the post was only a few hundred words. But, inevitably, I wasn’t as clear as I could have been at various points. So, with that in mind, here are some things I wasn’t saying and then a few things that I was saying.

What I wasn’t saying

Agencies should not exist: I was not arguing that there should be no such thing as mission agencies. I was very specific that I believe agencies are valuable when they are facilitating the work of sending and supporting missionaries. The point was that we need to be clear about the primacy of the local church in both the commission and support of missionaries in the field.

Churches should directly facilitate the sending of missionaries: I quite accept that pastors and elders – whose primary role is to teach and preach the word and shepherd their flock –  are not going to have the skills, competencies and time to handle all the work of sending and supporting missionaries. There are all sorts of things that simply cannot be done by pastors and elders seeking to lead local churches well. There seemed to be some sense that I was suggesting churches should manage the entire work of every missionary sent into the field. Agencies are there to facilitate sending. I was not arguing for elders to be managing all aspects of mission work.

Agencies have no value: My church belongs to the FIEC. The FIEC are clear that they are not a denomination and do not want to undermine the independency of the local church. However, they still provide legal assistance and other forms of practical services which aid the work of the local church. This is valuable because many small churches simply do not have the means, skills or knowledge in-house for these things. In the same way, I was not arguing mission agencies have no value. Rather, I was arguing that their role is to supplement the knowledge and skills deficiencies of the local church without undermining the primacy of the local church in the sending/commissioning relationship.

What I was arguing

Churches are the ones called to send, not agencies: I am sceptical of agencies that both commission, send and support missionaries. This is simply not something we see in scripture. It is the role of the church to commission gospel workers and it is similarly their responsibility to support them. This does not mean a single church must carry the entire financial burden of sending people into the mission field, it does mean one church ought to be recognised as the sending church with primary pastoral oversight of the individual. It is the church who has the power to send and recall missionaries, not the agency. Similarly, it is the church who are called to support missionaries, it is not the role of the agency to ’employ’ them.

Mission agency workers should be considered missionaries: If the role of the local church is primary, it seems reasonable to consider those facilitating the work of missions to be the equivalent of home working missionaries. This means they also ought to be recognised by churches, sent to do that work and supported as those serving in mission at home. This is what I meant by the idea that the agency should employ nobody. All its workers – whether in the mission field or facilitating missions from home – should be considered missionaries sent and supported by local churches.

Mission agencies ought to be the servant of the church: As with all parachurch organisations, mission agencies ought to serve the church and not the other way round. They are there to facilitate the sending and support of missionaries, not to commission and offer pastoral oversight. If there is practical support that would be best offered by the agency, this should be done at the behest of the sending church and in conjunction with them.

My point was to be clear just who ought to be sending/commissioning and supporting the work of mission. The work of raising up missionaries and church leaders who will, in turn, continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ rests with God’s agent for the propagation of the gospel: the church. The work of mission and the role of theological education should not be divorced from the primacy of the local church. The church ought to send, support and have active involvement in the work of mission and theological training. This doesn’t mean other agencies should not exist to facilitate the work; it just means we should properly recognise God’s ordained means and give it its rightful place. Just as we commission missionaries to their task, so perhaps we ought to do the same to those we entrust to raise up the next generation of godly leaders and evangelists in the academy. God has appointed one mechanism for such a commission and it belongs to the church.