A few weeks back, I wrote a series of posts on what mission to the UK could learn from world mission, today I’m going to turn the tables. I don’t think this will turn into a new series as, to be honest, I don’t know enough about the reverse situation to write more than one post – we’ll see what happens. Anyway, this post can be summed up in one simple sentence.
It’s all about the church.
By and large, from our perspective, mission to the UK is carried out through churches and world mission through agencies. I know that there are exceptions to this rule, but as a generalisation it is true enough to work with.
As someone who has worked with an agency for over thirty years, I’m not about to say that they shouldn’t exist. I think there are good, practical and historical reasons for maintaining groups which can work in a specialised fashion in ways that local churches would struggle. That being said, I do have some sympathy with Bishop Stephen Neil’s statement that mission agencies are “theologically indefensible”.
There are two crucial differences between churches and mission agencies. The first is that that local churches are made up of all of the believers who participate in the life of the body, regardless of age, gender, abilities etc. Agencies on the other hand consist of a restricted body of Christians who typically have to pass through a rigorous selection procedure. The second point is that local churches, in one form or another, are permanent, whereas agencies come and go. I realise that churches do change over time; but where there are believers there is always a church (it may be Baptist, Anglican or some other grouping I’ve never heard of) but there are not always agencies.
This means that place of the agency is always in service of the church. I’m not convinced that you can equate Paul’s group of friends and colleagues with a modern mission agency as some do. However, even if you do adopt that position, it is clear that Paul and Barnabas were commissioned by a church and that their role was to plant churches, appoint local leadership and to encourage, teach and strengthen that leadership. On a practical level, mission starts and ends with the church.
Problems and tensions arise on the mission field when agencies do not respect the role of the church and either refuse to hand over to indigenous leadership or by appointing local leaders and then continually undermining them. For a seminary trained missionary with a collection of degrees in his pocket, it can be hard to hand over to local (comparatively untrained) leadership. But that’s exactly what Paul did and we need to learn to do it too. If humility and mutual submission were easy, then the Bible wouldn’t have to spend so much time telling us to do them!
Once a church is established, the role of the missionary must quickly shift to an advisory one and from there to a one of service. As soon as possible the local church should call the shots and they may even decide that they don’t want the missionary there anymore; that is their prerogative.
There is something wrong when missionaries hang around telling churches what they can and can’t do or even (dare I say it?) what constitutes an adequate translation of the Bible.