Churches and Mission Agencies

One of the questions which concerns me in my ‘day job’ is how should churches and mission agencies work together. This is obviously extremely important to an organisation such as Wycliffe Bible Translators which can only exist as long as churches continue to provide resources for the agency. There is no way that a blog post can adequately deal with this question, but I thought that I’d set out what I see as some of the key issues and then ask for comments.

  1. The local church is God’s primary strategy for mission. I don’t think you can demonstrate this by proof texting, but I would argue that the overall narrative of the New Testament does support this concept.
  2. The Church (universal) is commanded to bear witness to Christ in at home, across the home country and around the world (Acts 1:8). This means that local churches have a call to world wide mission.
  3. Mission agencies have spent decades building up a huge bank of expertise in cross-cultural mission and other technical skills.
  4. Mission agencies have had a tendency towards an individualist approach to the Christian community; seeking to recruit people from churches as recruits or donors. It should be said in mitigation, that most agencies, my own included, try hard to involve churches in many of their processes, but nevertheless the general remark still stands.
  5. Increasingly, churches are bypassing mission agencies in their international mission work. Churches organise their own short-term trips and set up partnerships with churches and Christian communities in other parts of the world.  In general, I would see this as a positive tendency. However, there are three obvious problems.
  6. Churches who work without mission agencies are likely to find themselves repeating all of the mistakes that the agencies made and learned from generations ago.
  7. Churches who work without mission agencies tend to concentrate their mission in areas of the world that are relatively easy for them to reach. I am forever coming across British churches which have partnerships in Anglophone East-Africa, but I have never come across a British Church who are running their own mission in, say, Central African Republic. I don’t have serious research to back this up, but it seems to me that the work of reaching unreached, hard-to-contact peoples is still largely left to the agencies.
  8. There are some mission activities, Bible Translation being one, which require specialised knowledge and skills. Churches, for the most part cannot realistically take on these activities, whereas there are a number of specialist agencies which are are well equipped to do them.

If these observations are correct, what should the way forward be? How can churches and mission agencies work together in God’s mission without side-lining the Church and while making best use of the experience and skills of the agencies? As always, your thoughts and comments are appreciated

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2 replies on “Churches and Mission Agencies”

Hi Eddie, an interesting post and a very interesting question – it seems to me there are no simple, all effective “answers” on this one. I completely agree with the points you make, and like the way you’ve deliberately made the factual points but left open for debate what the significance of these points is / what conclusions should be drawn.

In my opinion it’s helpful to differentiate the theological importance of your first two points from the practical and operational issues raised by your subsequent points. Any conclusions drawn on the practical points should be firmly founded in a commitment to pursuing the fulfilling of the theological points.

In that sense surely we must affirm the increasingly direct involvement that members of the local church are seeking in mission, both home and abroad, as positive on the theological points. The fact that there is a bypassing of mission agencies is a practical issue, though of course, practical issues can have theological ramifications – as you point out!

In terms of the relationship between church and mission agency, I would want to raise a challenge: given your first two points, the starting point must surely be that any mission agency, as far as it is differentiated from “the church”, is a servant of “the church”, local, national, global. There is the classic, ‘Rule One of Hermeneutics’: Always suspect self. I think such a principle is important in such a discussion – naturally it is people most directly involved in mission agencies that will engage most in such a discussion. While this brings a wealth of important specialised skills and experience, that past experience, the perspective, and the future expectations cultivated by it will all influence the conclusions drawn. For example, there is always the temptation when in a particular organisation or structure to preserve it, even if it should have changed or even ceased in order to allow an alternative to flourish. The same is true of particular techniques or programmes within an organisation.

In terms of effectiveness and efficiency on engagement that is not long term / full time, is it not more effective for English speaking churches to focus on Anglophone Africa while more French speaking churches focus more on Francophone Africa? In that regard, is there a sense in which the horizon of particular need for the specialised agency naturally keeps moving further away as the overall ship advances. What I mean is that 100 years ago Kenya would have been considered a frontier destination for only long-term / full time engagement, whereas now it is highly accessible. Over time the same might become true for CAR?

Will there perhaps be an increasing role for mission agencies to work alongside churches in supplying the specialised skills required to maximise the effectiveness of their individual partnerships? This would be a different weighting between agency and church in the activity.

On the flip side, clearly there are many in the local church with specialised skills of a different nature that may be of great benefit in building the work of mission agencies – for example, someone specialising in languages is likely to have less specialism in areas such as business processes that may help at the organisational level, or perhaps in other practical areas like health, that could help to extend the holistic work being done on the ground. Are there ways in which mission agencies can flex to encourage and facilitate more such links.

A question that I guess mission agencies must ask is this: what is it that churches don’t “get”, or perceive to “get”, from mission agencies when they choose to bypass them to do something direct? This is particularly interesting when concerning churches that are very supportive of those mission agencies and yet also bypass for other activities.

Just some thoughts, I hope they’re helpful…

One of my favourite Bosch quotes:

“It has in recent years become customary to devoate an enormous amount of energy to theological discussions about whether missionary societies are legitimate agents of mission. Is mission not rather to be regarded as an expression of the church?

Without denying the merit there is in such a discussion I would like to suggest that, within the framework of the paradigm spawned by the Enlightenment, there was not much to choose between the organized church as a bearer of mission and the mission societies. The point is that, in Western Protestantism, the church was increasingly fractured into a great variety of denominations which, phenomenologically speaking, were not decisively different from missionary and other religious societies. Denominations, too, were organized on the voluntary principle of like-minded individuals banding together. They were, in a sense, para-church organizations.”

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