Illustration by Doug Chayka
Those who lead the foreign missions program in the local church must address three questions from Scripture:
What should we do?
Whom should we send?
How should we provide care?
These questions help us define our task and inspire the congregation to be engaged in a well-defined, concrete work. But before we even get to the “what” let’s clarify the “why.”
Why do healthy churches so often have a growing burden to be involved in the advancement of the Gospel globally? Simply put, it is because they love their Bridegroom-King. This love mobilizes the church because (1) the church is not yet fully gathered nor completely perfected, and until she is, we cannot rest. We must be zealously engaged in a concerted effort to that end (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3). And, (2) we can’t complete this work on our own. The success of this effort depends on mutuality in the whole church (knowing Christ “together with all the saints” — Ephesians 3:18; cf. 1:22-23). It is through foreign missions that the church’s growing unity toward perfection is actualized globally.
Love in our hearts will put steel in our backs and wings on our feet. We won’t be waiting for our marching orders; we’ll be pleading for them.
What to Do?
Just as God calls each individual to a particular service at a particular time, so too he calls each church. Just as discerning God’s call is a sanctifying struggle for each individual believer, so too discerning God’s call is a sanctifying struggle for each body of believers.
Love in our hearts will put steel in our backs and wings on our feet. We won’t be waiting for our marching orders; we’ll be pleading for them.
If we were to have asked this question two centuries ago, the answer would have been simpler: Either work among Native Americans or in India (in 1819, Palestine and Hawaii were added as new mission fields). Today, our church has the opportunity to go just about anywhere in the world!
Discerning God’s call, then, is challenging work. There is no blueprint. The work is personal. There is only the Master to follow with our whole heart, searching the Scriptures together and praying. And the work is unending. Our Master may lead us down one path today and down a fork in the road tomorrow. We will make mistakes and false starts, some of them painful and costly, but the Master is the redeemer of our failings because He is Redeemer of His people.
The calling of the church occurs on distinct levels. The General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America decided in 1976 that God has called this body, the PCA, through its Mission to the World (MTW), to focus on “planting and strengthening Presbyterian churches.” Yet the GA also recognizes that the other PCA bodies (churches and presbyteries) are not confined to this calling. They are free to support other kinds of mission work and other agencies. In other words, the GA has intentionally not done all the work. Each presbytery and church must define a focus for its mission work and a strategy to maintain it. The GA has provided a model for this work by beginning the mandate for MTW with a “Reformed Theology of Missions” followed by a “Reformed Practice of Missions.” We can follow the model without resorting to copy-and-paste.
It is tempting to mimic someone else’s work. When a church we respect has discerned a particular calling, our first inclination may be to copy. But that’s not just a shortcut; it may be a short circuit. We would be denying Christ’s immediate claim of authority over our church.
I’m not saying that each body is left to do this work in isolation. Churches ought to struggle together in this magnificent work of discernment. And out of this struggle, some may be called to labor together.
When, as a young person, I was tasked to start a missions committee for our small urban church, my first inclination was to attend some missions conferences and read some popular books. I even stumbled across a manual. I would have been far better off if I had pursued guidance from some seasoned pastors. This is not rocket science, and the more we pretend it is, the more likely we are to get off course.
So what are the tools we have been given for this work of discernment? Christ guides us personally by His presence with us in His Word and Spirit. In conjunction, He also arranges circumstances to guide us. Such personal guidance, of course, is not isolated guidance. The fact is we have the entire historic church alongside us in our efforts.
Who does the discerning? The entire congregation is involved, but the session is responsible. No pastor or elder has such authority on his own. And while a missions committee may suggest or recommend, it is the session that represents Christ’s leadership and conveys His command.
Jesus commands by His Word; therefore, the session must be able to demonstrate from the Word how the particular calling has been discerned. An articulation of the church’s calling may legitimately contain references to history or opportunity: “Our church has been involved in this mission work (or these missionaries) for years.” “Our church has a particular affinity with this people (or this place).” “God seems to be calling this church member to this work.” But these references cannot stand on their own. Whether history or any other circumstance, each must be examined through the lens of Scripture. For example, a biblical basis for maintaining continuity would be the personal nature of ministry. Satan models impersonal, quid-pro-quo relationships: You do that for me, and I do this for you, as in Job 1:9-11. We follow the model of our personal triune God in covenantal relationships (Colossians 2:1-2; Philippians 1:8; Galatians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
Jesus commands by His Spirit illuminating the Word. Therefore, the session — and indeed the entire congregation — must devote itself in this process to the means of grace (Word/preaching, sacraments, and prayer). We cannot expect to know the will of God without knowing God together in worship. More specifically, we cannot expect to be able to follow our Master without investing time in prayer.
Discernment of call is seldom final; often it is an iterative process. Some things about the call seem clear while other aspects continue to be uncertain. For example, we may be quite certain that God is calling our church to be involved in Reformed ministry. And we may consider that He is probably calling us to do this in a predominantly Muslim context. And yet we may have no idea which country or what shape that involvement will take. It is important to hold onto the distinction between clear and less clear, certain and less than certain. By doing so, we demonstrate careful attention to God’s direction, not getting out ahead of Him. It is God’s prerogative to lead, making known His will, according to His timing.
Once we have done the work of discerning, we are in a much better position to answer the question, “Whom will we send?”
Whom to Send?
What tools does the missions committee have at its disposal to evaluate the candidate for support? The principal tool is the work of discernment that has already been done. That allows us to evaluate the candidate against the criteria that have been established. Better yet, we can proactively look for candidates who align with our criteria and urge them to consider serving. We can even go one step further; we can disciple children in the church with a view to preparing them for such a calling.
We may be inclined to weigh the urgency of the missions task against the careful deliberation advocated here. However, it is precisely the urgency of the task that demands the deliberation
What a coordination effort that would be — directed by the session, parents, Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, campus ministries, seminaries, and mission agencies — all aligning to catapult candidates from the local church into the foreign field.
The alternative is what we have been experiencing for generations: missionaries sending themselves (with the aid of agencies) instead of being sent by their church.
Christ alone, of course, possesses the authority to send workers into His harvest. Even so, the administration of Christ’s authority is the church. And because candidates have no authority to send themselves, sooner or later their churches must address the question of whether the candidate is called by Christ to a particular ministry.
Who is responsible to make that determination? The sending body — the church or presbytery where the candidate is a member. Local churches are accustomed to making similar decisions when they call a pastor. Presbyteries are likewise familiar with the process when they ordain a pastor or RUF campus minister. It is typically a lengthy process involving careful examination, evaluation of character, and building a relationship (PCA Book of Church Order Chapter 16, Section 1).
Our tendency, though, is to be more cautious about calling a pastor to serve us — our families and our congregation — than calling a missionary to serve others. But if there is any imbalance, it should be the reverse. If the missionary’s work is an extension of us, how much greater should be our concern that they are indeed called to the work. To send someone far away and “behind enemy lines,” we ought to have confidence in their calling.
Sadly, we are generally content to leave this entire business in the hands of a mission agency. And while it’s true that an agency may have a role in discerning the call, that responsibility is properly with the sending body — the candidate’s home church or presbytery.
Here are the 11 questions they should have in mind: Is the candidate suitable for the particular ministry under consideration? Does the candidate desire this ministry? Has there been adequate preparation? Have the candidate’s gifts been tested and affirmed? Has the candidate proven to have a Christlike character under pressure? Does the candidate possess a servant’s heart, willing to listen, learn, and change? Is there a clear track record of faithfulness in church and family? Have underlying motives been probed? Is the candidate’s confidence solidly grounded in Scripture? If the candidate is married, is his wife fully with him? Is there a legitimate invitation from the foreign church (or para-church with which they will serve?
These questions have direct biblical grounds, and while there may be others to add, it is critical that questions concerning the call not emerge from our preferences or intuitions. Remember, it is Christ who calls; we have no say in the matter other than what He tells us in His Word.
We may be inclined to weigh the urgency of the missions task against the careful deliberation advocated here. However, it is precisely the urgency of the task that demands the deliberation. Sending the wrong candidate into the field could have devastating consequences. The worst tragedies in the field, while often attributed to external enemies, are frequently due to our well-meaning haste or carelessness.
There’s one more question we must consider: Can we care for this candidate?
How to Care?
Finances and prayer are the most fundamental elements of missionary care. But if they’re the extent of our care, we may be doing more harm than good. Autonomous missionaries are a plague on the church. If we send such missionaries, whether knowingly or unknowingly, are we not also guilty?
Does the candidate know that he needs care beyond finances and prayer? It is impossible to care for a missionary who doesn’t want to be cared for. If the candidate has not regularly sought pastoral care from the shepherds of the church, it is unlikely he’ll pursue such care after he leaves on assignment.
MTW holds the missionary responsible to maintain a “vital connection” with his or her sending body. Such a connection is only possible if a bond already exists. And it can be maintained over the long haul only if there is a principled commitment to do so.
The implication for our side is clear: We should not be the sending body for the candidate if we lack the capacity or means to provide care.
What sort of care are we talking about? MTW’s Policy Manual states that, “The session or presbytery will maintain basic oversight for his doctrine and morals and will seek ways of effectively carrying out this responsibility while the missionary is overseas.” And, “The session or presbytery should … evaluate his work and seek to offer advice and encouragement.” These are implications of what the PCA understands the Scriptures to teach concerning church membership.
Obviously, sending a missionary is nothing like sending a parcel. We don’t package up the candidate and send them off to MTW! Commissioning a missionary entails the obligation to continue (or even enhance) the benefits of membership, from a distance, for the duration of the commission. In other words, “sending” is continuous and active.
Here’s one more set of questions to consider: Are the field leadership and the agency going to encourage or obstruct our efforts to provide care and oversight? Do we have sufficient capacity to devote at least one of our elders to lead a team devoted to the care of this missionary? Do we have the capacity to understand the missionary’s work well enough to evaluate it and offer advice? How many missionaries are we able to do this for?
If we are not the candidate’s sending body, then we will have a separate set of questions: Do we have confidence that the sending body and the field leadership have worked out a way to provide the necessary care? Do we have a relationship with the sending body such that will bring us into the loop if there is an issue? Does the sending body understand that we, as a supporting church, have a responsibility to ensure that the missionary is consistently receiving appropriate care?
The cost of failing to address these questions has been enormous. Mission agencies around the world are desperately pulling together “member care” resources to do what the church has failed to do for her members, and studies concerning the effects on missionary attrition are ominous. However, Christ has covenantally engaged the church to administer His personal care for each of His sheep.
What? Whom? How?
Only three questions. What to do? Follow the Master. Whom to send? Those He has called. How to care? As members of our flock.
Our Master does not call us to do that for which He has not also provided. Our faith. His harvest. His glory. His church gathered and perfected.