Yesterday, I posted this on Twitter:
Do mission agencies recruiting at forum represent a huge devaluation of the role of the local church in mission and discipleship? Discuss.
— Eddie Arthur (@kouya) August 28, 2018
Let me give a little context for the tweet before I consider some of the responses that I received. Forum is a large, event organised by UCCF to encourage those who are in leadership in University Christian Unions.
Forum is essential training for every student who is taking a lead in their Christian Union.
Let me quickly say that I have nothing whatsoever against Forum, to be honest, I know next to nothing about it – they didn’t have it in my day! My interest was raised when I saw a number of mission agencies tweeting that they were heading to forum to set up stands with the aim of recruiting students to get involved in their agency programs. Given the responsibility of the local church in discipleship and sending missionaries, I am uneasy with a situation where agencies are recruiting in the absence of church leaders. This concern could be extended to other events and is not just reserved for Forum.
Anyway, my tweet elicited a good number of responses and I thought I’d post a few below before giving my thoughts on the issue.
Some tweets suggested that the whole idea of mission agencies was illegitimate in the first place:
The only mission agency found in the Scriptures is the local church.
— Andrew Mathieson (@Math1eson) August 28, 2018
Who assigned that responsibilty to mission agencies. It wasn’t Jesus.
— Brian Jose (@brianjose) August 29, 2018
Others didn’t see a problem, as long as the local church was brought into the loop at an appropriate time:
Depends how they recruit, the same could be said for their appearance at any para-church event. If they inform, pique interest, then say "great, go talk to your church then get in touch again" or "who at your church should we speak to?" then they're doing their job right.
— Phil Tinker (@phil_tinker) August 28, 2018
However, the idea of involving one’s local church in decisions about involvement in mission doesn’t seem to be as obvious to some people as you might expect:
We're not at Forum this year, but no.1 on our suggestions for enquirers at any events is 'Talk to your church'. It's interesting, however, that many haven't thought of doing this as they think going on mission is between them and the organisation they end up with.
— OSCAR (@oscaruk) August 28, 2018
Disagree. This formula still puts the individual at the centre. Better “go talk to your local church and have them get in touch”. Then the parachurch agency has to talk with church leaders about the church sending (or not). This shifts the agency toward servant instead of driver.
— Brian Jose (@brianjose) August 29, 2018
It was also pointed out by a number of people that local churches don’t always step up to the plate and encourage their members to get involved in mission:
Is there much evidence of church leaders contacting mission agencies to explore opportunities for partnership in existing kingdom activities? Having a responsibility does not equate to fulfilling it.
— John Bagg (@johnbagg) August 28, 2018
However, this was countered by the suggestion that churches are disempowered in their mission by the way in which the agencies dominate the conversation:
Of course many local churches are unsure how or where to start and so passively retreat to “mission by proxy”.
— Brian Jose (@brianjose) August 29, 2018
It’s no wonder that churches that are empowered to engage in mission do so with little reference to the mission orgs as it has happened the other way round for years in many cases.
— OSCAR (@oscaruk) August 29, 2018
Leaving the church/agency discussion to one side for the moment, John Risbridger who has worked with UCCF and is now pastor of a large church added the following to the discussion:
Forum was massive for me as a student and I love the mission emphasis there. Key is to be sure local churches are encouraged into the conversation as early as possible and not left playing catch up.
— John Risbridger (@JohnRisbridger) August 28, 2018
It’s hard to argue with this. UCCF has a unique role in training and encouraging Christian students and including a focus on international/cross-cultural mission at their flagship event is a good thing. With that in mind, let’s consider some of the issues raised in the tweets.
Firstly, I don’t agree with those who suggest that mission agencies are not legitimate organisations (I wouldn’t, I work for one). I would agree that there is nothing akin to modern mission agencies in the book of Acts. Some people draw an equivalence between Paul and his companions and today’s agencies, but I just don’t see it. However, I don’t believe that Acts sets out to define how we should structure ourselves for mission, that’s not what the book does. Mission agencies are a contextualised response to a particular situation (the danger is that they are unable/unwilling to adapt as the situation changes – but that is another question). However, the key to Biblical Christian life (which includes mission) is always the local church. They should never be an afterthought or brought in late to a conversation about the life of one of their members.
The problem is that, all too often, the way that agencies act sidelines and devalues the local church. I wrote the following a month or so back which touches on this question:
The way in which agencies draw people into involvement with them completely circumvents the local church. God’s primary engine for mission in this world is the local gathered congregation of believers and we should not subvert this. However, that is exactly what agencies do in their publicity and recruitment. I’ve said things like this before and met a degree of resistance from some (but not all) agency leaders. I am told that agencies respect the local church and value their partnerships with churches. However, when I look at agency magazines, websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds, I find them to be full of attractive appeals for individuals to be involved with the agency and virtually no reference to the role of the church in this.
Certainly, if people apply to join an agency, their local church will get involved in the candidacy process, but that often comes a few steps down the line after the agency and individual have already spoken. However, if an individual wants to get involved in praying for an agency or supporting them financially, no reference will be made to the local church at all. It is next to impossible for a local congregation to have a thought through and coherent approach to mission support, when agencies are working hard to get individuals from that congregation to support them.
On Twitter this week, I’ve seen numerous examples from different agencies of this sort of approach. They are working hard to get students interested in and signed up to their programmes and the local church will be brought into the conversation at a later point. Is there an alternative?
It seems to me that if the aim is to educate and enthuse students about mission, then a cross-agency/church approach might be much more effective. If agencies and some church leaders worked together to produce materials and presentations that attempt to give an overall picture of what God is doing around the world this could be far more powerful than atomised presentations from individual agencies. It would be a better representation of the reality of mission on the field and it would illustrate partnership rather than competition. The whole recuritment bit, could then be pushed a stage down the road. However, I realise that there are problems with this sort of approach:
- It is incredibly hard and very time consuming to pull off cross-agency presentations.
- If agencies are going to spend time and money at an event like Forum, they will want to see some tangible results for their investment. A vague sense that students are more informed and enthused about mission may not be enough.
- I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that UCCF recoups some of the cost of the event by charging agencies a fee for having a stand (this is normal practice elsewhere, but I’m open to correction if I’m wrong). A shift from advertising/recruitment to mission education would probably mean that this income would dry up.
All of the data that I have seen suggests that British Christians are less interested in overseas mission than they once were. I would also suggest that the relationship between agencies and churches has become unhealthy (there are many exceptions, but I believe that the generalisation stands). I would argue that the current way that we (and by that I mean both agencies and churches) work together may well be making things worse, rather than better. My comments about Forum are just one symptom of an issue that runs much deeper, but perhaps if we start to address the symptoms, we may find a cure for the problem.
There were far more tweets in response to my original one than I have included above. Some of them raised interesting questions that I haven’t addressed here. If you want to follow them up, then clicking on the link to my tweet at the top of this page should help.