Just to stop people making the obvious comments; God is ultimately in charge of mission. I know that! Please don’t write in or accuse me of heresy.
My question is to do with the accountability how missionaries and mission agencies are accountable to the wider church for what they do and say. (I went for the more dramatic title because a couple of people have told me recently that they don’t read my blog posts if the title doesn’t look exciting.)
This issue arises out of my own experience, but also out of studying the book of Acts for a conference later this year.
In Acts 8, Philip flees persecution and ends up in Samaria, where he starts to share the good news of Jesus and people responded to his message. At the time, this was rather shocking. The early church was confined to Jews and although the the Samaritans were related to the Jews culturally and ethnically, they were still not Jews. Philip was doing something extremely unorthodox and when word got back to the church in Jerusalem, they sent a couple of Apostles to check what he was doing.
Similarly, in Acts 11, some unknown Jewish Christians from Cyprus started to preach to people from a Gentile background in the city of Antioch. These Gentiles became Christians – which was highly irregular. So, the Church sent Barnabas out to Antioch to check what was going on.
Now the Church has always spread by people taking risks, crossing borders and doing things which a previous generation would have struggled with. It is also instructive to note that in both of the cases I’ve mentioned, the people sent out to check on the unorthodox activity gave it their full support and joined in. However, there was a system of accountability.
And I return to my question; how are missionaries and mission agencies accountable today?
We have to face up to the fact that we live in a far more complex world than those early disciples. We no longer have a single “mother church” in Jerusalem and a clear set of Apostles who oversee things. We have to work with what we have and in the Protestant, Evangelical world, this means a very fractured system. So if a mission agency steps out of line, who holds them responsible?
Perhaps the most obvious answer is that mission agencies are responsible to their boards of trustees or directors. Certainly, the trustees have to ensure that the organisations are well governed and keep within the scope of the law. This is a good thing. But what authority do trustees have to speak on behalf of the wider church? Also, as the charity world (in the UK, at least) becomes more complex, boards of trustees are looking for people with financial, legal and other professional skills to join them. What background do these people have to address the theological and missiological questions that missions face?
Another suggestion is that missionaries should be accountable to their supporters and sending churches. There is a lot of wisdom in this and I would argue that all missionaries should have a “sending church” who commissions them for work and who takes some responsibility for their care and overseas their work. I’m not sure how this could work for agencies as a whole, but when done well, it is a great way of supporting and providing accountability for individual missionaries. The problem is that many churches either feel unequipped or are simply unwilling to invest the time needed to stay in contact with their missionaries.
Another possibility is that mission agencies should be accountable to their donors. In a sense, this is already true; if people stop giving money, then the mission has to stop doing stuff. However, there are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, I’m not convinced that having money to give away (even if you have lots of money to give away) qualifies you to make sound judgements about mission strategy on the other side of the globe. Just because you have made a gazillion dollars manufacturing widgets, it doesn’t mean that you understand what it takes to plant a church in a Chinese megacity. Secondly, one of the areas where I believe mission agencies need to be held to account is in their publicity and fund-raising strategies. Some agencies pitch for donations in a way that would make my hair curl, if I had any. They do this because it works and because the donors are prepared to buy in to the (frankly dubious) promises that some agencies make. We can’t expect those same donors to hold the agency to account.
The early church knew that some sort of oversight and accountability was essential in mission work. That is just as true today as it was then, but I’m not entirely convinced that we have the systems in place.