On a Missions Mission
By Megan Fowler
Mission to the world

Mission to the World (MTW) recently asked its global field directors and team leaders a series of questions about their hopes and dreams for ministry: If you had unlimited resources, where could you expand your ministry? How many people would you need for a successful ministry expansion?

The MTW leaders responded with their dreams of where they would love to see new churches established and what it would take to make them a reality. Two things hold them back: money and manpower. Not only does MTW not have the missionaries it needs to expand; it lacks new missionaries to replace those who are retiring.

As a result MTW set an ambitious goal to plant 486 churches, including churches in 192 new cities and 63 new countries. Of those churches, it hopes to plant among 39 unreached or unengaged peoples. It also hopes to establish 29 new campus ministries. All in 10 years.

The person charged with bringing in the human capital needed is Mark Bates, who joined the MTW staff March 1 after years as senior pastor of Village Seven Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Bates is now MTW’s senior director of U.S. operations.

Having served for years on the Committee on Mission to the World, including as committee chairman, Bates has a deep passion for MTW’s work. When the former director of U.S. operations recently stepped down, MTW Coordinator Lloyd Kim developed a profile of the ideal candidate to oversee MTW’s mobilization efforts, marketing and communication, events, candidate departments, and regional hubs — essentially serving as the outward face of MTW to the denomination.

“As I thought about who had these unique characteristics, the first person who came to mind was Mark Bates,” Kim said.

Having served for years on the Committee on Mission to the World, including as committee chairman, Bates has a deep passion for MTW’s work.

At age 59, Bates understands both sides MTW’s problem. He’s a baby boomer whose peers are nearing the end of their full-time ministries. He also sees that MTW doesn’t have a deep bench. But Bates’ love for missions coupled with the extensive network he’s built during 33 years in ministry give him a platform and resources to help fill the ministry’s needs.

As of 2020, MTW had 619 long-term missionaries in 102 countries, 248 interns and short-term missionaries (almost one-tenth of the 2019 level due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and 822 indigenous church-planting partners. In the past 10 years, more than 100 MTW missionaries have retired. As of 2021, MTW had 91 long-term missionaries over age 60, meaning they will likely retire in the next 10-15 years.

“We do see a large group of older missionaries nearing retirement age, but it is difficult to know when they will decide to retire as retirement age keeps getting older,” Kim said.

At the same time that seasoned missionaries are thinking about retiring, fewer young missionaries are coming to the field to replace them. This gap stems, in part, from a de-emphasis on foreign missions setting in at seminaries and churches.

As younger generations become more ethnically diverse, they have different opinions on the history of missionary work. When Barna Group researchers asked engaged, churchgoing Christians about their feelings toward overseas mission work, 38% of Christians age 18-35 agreed that in the past mission work has been “unethical,” compared with 22% of adults over 35. Christians age 18-35 are also more likely than Christians over 35 to believe missionary work has been tainted by its association with colonialism (41% vs. 28%).

Other missionary experts believe the church has diluted the call of foreign missions by equating mission work with all of life. “Though well-intentioned, the view that everything is missions and every follower of Christ is a missionary comes with significant and unintended mission-impacting consequences,” Jeff Jackson wrote in a 2019 piece for Mission Frontiers. Jackson believes when churches talk about all of life as mission work, it can diminish the significance of the Great Commission and going to all the peoples on earth with the gospel.

International missions has always played a role in Bates’ pastoral ministry. When he was planting University Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida, his congregation included missionaries with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ in the U.S.) and Wycliffe Bible Translators. Later at Village Seven, Bates pastored missionaries with The Navigators. Because of his personal knowledge of missionaries within the PCA and without, Bates is particularly worried about the trends in world missions.

“We’re not seeing the younger generation as excited about world missions as the older generation,” he said. The lagging enthusiasm has Bates worried.

“One of the challenges we have is putting global missions back into the forefront of many seminaries, pastors, church leaders, and congregants’ minds. It seems there has been a slow de-emphasis in global missions in the last several years,” Kim said.

But getting opportunities to share MTW’s vision and exhort young Christians to step out in faith and join the mission field requires a depth of connections and access to the pulpit. As a pastor, Bates has both. Though he hasn’t formed a detailed strategy yet, he’s up to the task.

He’s ready to pass off senior pastor leadership, too. Though Bates has loved his years in pastoral ministry, he readily admits that serving as senior pastor of a 1,600-member church such as Village Seven is demanding. As he approaches 60, he no longer wishes to keep up that pace of life and welcomes the chance to hand off pastoral leadership to the next generation and embrace a different, though still active, ministry with MTW.

“There are a bunch of people who can do the job that I’m doing at Village Seven. “We’re blessed with excellent preachers in the PCA,” he said.

And so Bates will pass the baton to a younger leader at Village Seven and go seek younger leaders to whom MTW can pass the baton, too.  

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