Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Should We Send "Ordinary Christians" as Missionaries?

By Anthony:

Should we send "ordinary Christians" as missionaries?  That is the question that came to my mind when I recently read an intriguing tweet from Chuck Swindoll:
Missions aren’t just for superstars. A missionary is just like you.  Ordinary folks through whom God does the extraordinary.”

On the one hand, I agree with this statement.  I know my own sins and weaknesses.  I am regularly astounded at how God has used me.  It is his grace at work in me, an ordinary person.  A major biblical theme is that God likes to use weak people, sinful people, and people who we would not expect for his Kingdom work.   

But on the other hand, Swindoll's comment brought to mind what Ugandan church leaders have told me about missionaries during my When Helping Hurts discussions with them.  I get the feeling that Ugandans are frustrated with "ordinary missionaries."  Ugandan leaders told me to tell the North American church that we should stop sending missionaries who aren't prepared.  And above all, they want missionaries who are theologically trained and strong in faith and character.  One Ugandan asked, "are the donors back home actually strong in faith but they are just sending us middle-men?"  Another said, "if they are not trained and not able to teach, then why are they sent to work here?"  They are confused when North American churches and mission organizations emphasize the importance of Bible college and seminary education, and yet some of the missionaries they send, who are trying to teach pastors, have not had these types of education themselves.

This reminds me of a quote I read in a book.  It's from a conference in 1926 in Le Zoute, Belgium - Surely the day has gone when the best men could be picked out for India and China and the rest sent to Africa, as if any man or woman were good enough for Africa.  The time for amateurs has passed – if it ever existed.  Nothing is too good for Africa.”

How do we synthesize all of these comments, from Swindoll and from the Ugandan leaders?  They all seem to be true and important.  Should we send ordinary Christians as missionaries?  My answer is a qualified "yes."  Missionaries are indeed ordinary people, but they should be trained and well-prepared ordinary people.  God can use anybody for his work, even if they are ordinary, and in fact even if they are not prepared or if they are weak or sinful.  But we should never use this as an excuse to be unprepared, weak, or sinful.  

I'd like to elaborate in this post about the Ugandans' perspective for two reasons: 

1.  It's important for you to hear about the point of view of the people we are actually sending missionaries to, and I think there are surely similarities between the Ugandans' perspectives on missionaries and the national people of many other countries as well.   

2.  I think a historical shift has taken place in the North American Church.  I'm referring broadly to different evangelical denominations in North America, not just the Christian Reformed Church of which I am a part.  In the recent past, I'm sure that emphasizing this theme of Swindoll's was helpful, in that it was a corrective to churches that idealized missionaries too much.  At times in the longer ago past, missionaries were not really looked at as ordinary people, but more as abnormal super spiritual Christians.  They were the legendary Christian heroes.  People could not possibly hope to live up to their examples.  I am truly glad that this attitude has changed in accordance with quotes like Swindoll's above.  The attitude change helps people to get over their fears of inadequacy, and trust God to use them despite their weaknesses.  But it seems the pendulum has shifted to the other extreme side.  I'm troubled that the North American Church might be emphasizing this idea too much today in regards to mission work, or at least not emphasizing it with enough nuance.  We don't view missionaries as elite Christians anymore, but now we view them as a little bit too ordinary.  This is causing some people to regard the missionary calling less seriously.  I'd like to further explain this in what follows, and at the same time I hope my explanation will help you to understand what the Ugandan leaders were getting at.

The consequences of this historical shift
Some very good things have resulted from this historical shift.  People like me were encouraged that despite our weaknesses God could use even us.  Our fears were largely taken away.  This shift has also helped church members in sending countries to better relate to, understand, and befriend missionaries because they realize that we are actually not extraordinary people, but just regular ordinary folks.  

But there have been some serious negative consequences from this historical shift as well:
  • While before some people were too afraid to go to the mission field out of fear and feelings of inadequacy, now it seems that people do not have enough fear and enough feelings of humble inadequacy.
  • Some missionaries are not being adequately prepared and trained before going to other countries.  They are told God can use them just as they are, in their weaknesses.  So they rush off to try to change the world with scant theological and mission education, very little reading of theology and mission books, and little practical ministry experience.
  • Perhaps some people are becoming missionaries because they are told repeatedly, "anyone can be a missionary" but they are not truly called by God to do it.  In some cases, perhaps their callings are not adequately tested and confirmed by sending churches.
  • Many missionaries have had to go home because of falling into sin, having mental breakdowns, or having unfruitful ministries.  Stories are common of such tragic missionary stories from many different denominations and mission organizations and in countries all over the world.  Many of these unfortunate stories resulted because missionaries were not adequately prepared or counseled before going overseas.
  • Many missionaries in developing countries are doing as much harm as good as they try to reach out to the poor (see the book “When Helping Hurts”).  Many missionaries jump in the airplane and go without ever having read any books on poverty alleviation.  If all you have is a compassionate heart and you haven't been taught about how to effectively help the poor, or how to counsel alcoholics, or how to work with the homeless, or how to work against corruption, (you name the issue), then you can't really expect to make much of a positive impact. 
  • Since the message is that "any ordinary person can be a missionary overseas," churches have severely downplayed some biblical passages:
    • Passages about each person having different gifts and abilities, and therefore different roles.  Not everyone is supposed to be a missionary in another country just like not everyone is supposed to be a pastor or elder (or doctor or businessperson).
    • Passages about the importance of teaching, being taught, and training up new leaders.  We need to be prepared.  1 Peter 3:15 - But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
    • Passages about special qualifications and ordination to positions such as Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3, and the powerful James 3:1 - "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." 1 Timothy 5:22 - "Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others."
              Logically and biblically, those we ordain as leaders, such as elders, deacons, or pastors, should be people of excellent character, knowledge, and leadership skills.  They should be the best of the best.  Why would we think it would be any different for those we ordain as missionaries?  Wouldn't we send our best?  I think about the army.  Those we send first are the marines, "The few, the proud, the Marines."  They are the best of the best. If we are to choose "the best" as elders and overseers of the church, why wouldn't we also choose "the best" to be sent out to new cultures to start new churches, as representatives of the churches that send them?
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
I admit that these are not easy issues, and I don't want to be legalistic about the following items.  I can apply these tough questions as easily to myself as to other missionaries and not fully get a passing grade.  But it's good for us to be thoughtful and at least consider these tough questions.  We should try to get prepared as we can be, even if we cannot get perfect preparation.
  • Why do some denominations have vigorous standards for ordination to pastoral ministry, but not for missionaries?  In the Christian Reformed Church, for a person to become ordained as a pastor, it takes years of education, training, psychological evaluations, internships, difficult exams, and a local church affirming your calling.  I think this is good and fitting for the difficult calling that being a pastor is.  Why don't mission agencies and denominations have vigorous standards for people to become missionaries, as they do similar work but in a foreign culture? 
  • Why is it that we send people to start new churches, who have not pastored a church in the US first?
  • Why is it that we send missionaries to preach who have never preached in the US?
  • Why do we send people overseas to help the poor if they have not done any poverty alleviation work in the US first?
  • Why do we send people to evangelize who have never led someone to Christ in the US?
  • Why is it that we send people to teach others theology who have not had theological education themselves first?
  • If you would not be comfortable with your missionary leading at your own church as an elder or pastor, then should you really be comfortable with them representing your church to a new culture in another country?
My Story
I believe my own testimony brings together a good synthesis of these two themes, being ordinary yet being prepared (though as I mentioned I also could have used even more preparation).  Besides the sins I have struggled with like everyone else, I grew up being very shy and socially awkward.  I could hardly speak to relatives, let alone evangelize to non-Christians.  I was sheltered due to my own shyness.  I wasn't particularly spiritually mature.  Yet for some reason, God called me to overseas mission work when I was only in tenth grade.  Because of the great encouragements and positive affirmations about how God can use anyone as a missionary, even ordinary people like me, I was ready to rush off for a quick 1 or 2 year missions training program after high school and then go overseas and change the world.  It is only God's grace, wisdom, and direction that kept me from doing this.  Over the years, at times I was really frustrated that I could not get overseas sooner, and at times I resented having to do more things in the US first.

But looking back, I am extremely grateful that God made me get more preparation and training first.  I seriously cannot imagine how I could do any of the ministry that I do if not for how God prepared me.  I would have been a disaster and a train-wreck waiting to happen if I had rushed off right after high school.  But I ended up getting 9 years of emotional preparation between my calling and the first time I went to another country for ministry.  In that time, I grew so much in my social awareness, emotional maturity, character, confidence, wisdom, and spiritual life.  I faced the hardest questions against the Christian faith during my college years, and nearly surrendered to my doubts, but came out much stronger for having faced those hard issues.  I was able to experience many types of practical ministry, from counseling college students, to jail ministry, to church internships, to leading Bible studies.  I was able to have many diverse experiences of sharing my faith with non-Christians.  I had the privilege (largely due to scholarships from generous Christians) to get 7 years of formal theological education.  I was able to meet my wife Sara, who is a great partner to me as we both build each other up and complement each other in so many ways.  I was able to get training through missions programs, was able to read many theology and missions books, practice living simply, and get personal counseling and marriage counseling.  I was blessed to be able to pastor a church for two years and I don't know how I would have been able to teach pastors were it not for that crucial experience.

I am so blessed and grateful for these experiences.  It is knowing how extremely important all of these types of preparation were for me, that causes me to want to speak more and more about this topic so that others can also get the preparation they need before going to the mission field.  I want more ordinary people to become missionaries, but as ordinary prepared missionaries.

Let’s make sure whatever missionaries we send are thoroughly prepared, experienced, counseled, discipled, and trained before they go.  Let's embrace humility, remembering that missionaries are ordinary people, and it is God who works in and through us.  But remember, we are dealing with the Great Commission, the Good News, the Gospel.  It is important.  Let us take the missionary calling seriously.  


  1. So thought provoking, Anthony! Peggy has challenged our mission team at MEFC to read this & consider it carefully. She is wise. I so appreciate you always being willing to share your personal experiences in humility, brother. Perhaps this conviction will lead you to teaching/preaching on this topic. I will save this post in a file! Know your willingness to take time to write this out is being used to bolster our global missions work in Midland! God bless you & Sara as you work diligently for His coming kingdom!

    1. Thank you Carol! As you discuss together, let me know if you have any follow up comments, criticisms, or ideas to share back to me :)

  2. Thanks for this, Anthony. Something I've felt is often missing when it comes to sending missionaries overseas is a strong, and even long, discernment process (this is alluded to in your post, particularly in the testimony part). Prior to being sent to Ethiopia, I went through a year long discernment process that aimed to affirm God's call to that particular position as well as my training and gifts for such a setting. However, this discernment process was not done in isolation between myself and the sending agency; it was done in community involving family, friends, other missionaries, several churches (some known to me some not) and even the partner church (probably the most vital piece, in my mind). In some cases, I sense this process is ignored or downplayed; after all, they might say, who are we to question God's call on someone's life. But Scripture clearly tells us to be discerning of the Spirit. I value those agencies that have a deep commitment to the discernment process. Sometimes it might be clear that someone is called and ready; other times it might not be so clear. In either case, though, a community is needed to participate in and guide the discernment process, a community that extends beyond the agency and the person(s) being sent. And, I think, this process needs to be implemented for short-term missions, too.

    1. Amen to that Than, that's a good supplement for my post!

  3. Anthony, thanks for writing this piece. I share your views.

  4. I should have said that the 'anonymous" was Pastor David from MEFC.

    1. Thanks David for clarifying! I was wondering who it was :) God bless you in your ministry and thank you for leading MEFC in passion for missions. We really appreciate you and how you take the time to read our updates and encourage us in the midst of your busy ministry!

  5. I appreciate how deeply you think through difficult issues and always learn from what you take the time to share. Thank you for this post.

  6. Thank you for sharing these insights, Anthony. Many of the same problems are evident in people going into pastoral ministry often with similar consequences - burn out, moral failures, etc. Thanks for prodding us to think more about both calling and training.

    1. Calvin Seminary's process has been long and frustrating for many. But I'm glad that we take ordination so seriously in our denomination.

  7. Chick Swindoll is wrong, if he means to send out untrained missionaries. Could he have possibly meant that "instead of sending a trained missionary by himself, we should send some ordinary Christians along too, to accompany the trained missionary in his mission." That might make some sense so that folks could learn what ordinary North American Christians are like and what they believe. But it makes absolutely no sense to send ordinary Christians by themselves.

  8. I wanted to better understand the quote from Chuck Swindoll you shared. I downloaded the mp3 from Insight for Living. The quote was part of a podcast series he did in January of 2014 (same time of tweet). I think you would find it insightful: Sometimes it is hard to fully understand the meaning behind a single tweet. I thought it was well worth my time to dive deeper behind the intended meaning. Along with listening to the podcast, I read this message from John Piper on training pastors and missionaries: I especially appreciate the concluding exhortations. To quote Piper, "Knowing (God) and being (sold out to Him) comes before doing and shapes doing." I would add saturate everything in prayer to your thoughts, "Let’s make sure whatever missionaries we send are thoroughly prepared, experienced, counseled, discipled, and trained before they go." Blessings to you, Michelle

  9. Thank you Rob and Michelle for that thoughtful comment. It is always good to get the original content, in context. But I don't disagree with the tweet anyway, I just want people to make sure they don't take a wrong message from it through misunderstanding. I like Chuck Swindoll a lot. I thoroughly agree with you about saturating everything in prayer too! If I get time sometime soon, I'll have to check those out.

    1. Thank you Anthony for your reply! I whole heartily agree on the importance of making sure one does not get the wrong message from a single tweet. On a separate note, I wonder if you could expound upon the phrase, "best of the best?" In the podcast, I believe one of the messages Pastor Swindoll was trying to convey was our perception and/or words we choose to describe missionaries, elders, and pastors often conjure up super hero characteristics, skills and abilities. Is it possible to emphasize the importance of all that you shared while substituting a different phrase or descriptor for best of the best? Or do you believe this is a necessary part of our overall understanding of the types of individuals needed for the task? I've linked a blog post on this topic (the comments section is worth reading too): I don't know if there is a right or wrong answer here. Thank you for your insights! I always appreciate it :) Blessings, Michelle

  10. I just read the post. Many good thoughts there. Ultimately it's about balance, between the two pendulum swings - don't make missionaries into superChristians, but don't act like they are just humdrum run of the mill Christians either.

    I take issue with a few points of that post. Contrary to the post, missionaries ARE set apart. That's a very biblical idea. The apostles sent missionaries, laid hands on them, set them apart, and sent them off. (Acts 13:2)

    I don't think of myself as special forces, but I do think of myself as a Christian leader capable of leading God's people. For missionaries who don't feel that way and get depressed (thinking about the first point in the post you sent), perhaps they have not prepared enough, and maybe aren't called to be leader of God's people. That sounds harsh. It's not about being perfect, or being infallible, it's about knowing you are set aside and prepared to do a task that other Christians aren't called to do. Take their arguments and apply them to pastors, and you see how silly some of this reasoning is. Don't we want our pastors to be more spiritually mature and knowledgeable than us? Of course! Shouldn't missionaries be mature Christians too? Of course, pastors are sinful and imperfect and we need to remember not to idolize them as well. But we do expect them to be spiritually mature enough to lead us. So why expect any less of missionaries? That's starting to get at what I mean by best of the best.

    In many ways I think the post gets it right, but too late. The pendulum has already been pushed too far in the other direction. We are no longer in the culture that idolizes missionaries. We have moved now too far in to the other direction of not preparing missionaries enough.

    It's not about being "better" or "more important" than other Christians. It's about being prepared for the difficult and unique work. When I talk about "best of the best" I'm just saying that is a logical idea. Of course we know that all Christians, including missionaries, are sinful and imperfect. But it only makes sense that we would send Christians who are mature in faith, knowledgable and ready to preach, rather than young immature Christians who aren't ready. That's all I mean by best of the best. Leveling the playing field completely and saying all Christians are exactly the same, is not biblical, nor helpful. You can say that Christians are at different levels of maturity and preparedness without being arrogant.

    In full agreement with that post, I would say that the mission field is not where all the serious Christians need to go. We are all called to different things and we need Christians in all fields of God's kingdom work, including medicine, politics, engineering, you name it. And being a Christian politician, for 1 example, sounds a lot more difficult to me than being a missionary. We are all called to different things and we all sacrifice in different ways. You will see that I don't think I'm really sacrificing much compared to many in the US -

  11. This is challenging and helpful as we continue to recruit, train and send missionaries. Thanks for this post - - I've shared it with some of my colleagues and we'll talk about this during our meeting next week as we think strategically about the way we want to on-board and send out effective, Christian, cross-cultural workers. Grateful! :-)

    1. Thanks Nalini! I'm not advocating for perfection, or preventing people from going as missionaries by a long list of rules. But it's good to help people realize what they personally need to feel prepared. Let me know how your meeting goes :) Thanks for the good work you do!

  12. Thank you, Anthony. I read this when it first hit my inbox (thanks to a friend) and twice since then. Your cautions are most fitting, your thoughts no way demeaning Swindoll's point nor proposing a new "elite." Rather, your emphasis on "set apart" and preparation are crucial. Always as part of the preparation, it is crucial, I think for deep spiritual introspection, accompanied by mature, judicious, critical directors/mentors. In our years overseas we saw many who were prepared academically, though ignorant in cross-cultural society. Getting back into the missionary culture deeply after many years only dipping into it a few times a year as a pastor, retreat leader or on sabbatical, I continue to see a fair bit of naivete, which can be perceived as arrogance. Much of this still occurs because North American missionaries have such a difficult time getting out of the dominant culture and its interpretation and presentation of the Gospel and Gospel values. As well--and this is perhaps most worrisome--I've seen in the last several years more and more missionaries who for hosts of reasons (overwork, demands and expectations from supervisors and supporters) are finding it every more difficult to deeply acculturate. Many work in English almost exclusively, hang out w/ English-speaking friends in off-times, fly back to North America at least annually or more. That and many other things more related to our incredibly mobile and unconsciously affluent lives inhibit deep rootage in the country/culture of ministry and, in fact, often promote a sense of dissatisfaction (envy even?) among national colleagues. As well, of course, there's the ubiquitous internet which puts missionaries in instant contact w/ support groups and family at home, reducing possibility of intimate mentors in the place of service. Perhaps as part of training and preparation it would be good to sign covenants of limitations of internet time, of communication w/ familY (I'm not kidding)..... Still and always, thanks so much for your thoughts and discernment.

  13. Hi Jim, I remember your name, but I'm trying to remember how I know you. Can you remind me? I feel bad I don't remember.

    Thank you for the comment. It's a struggle for all missionaries, including me, to get off the internet and keep spending time with the people. One advantage we've always had is being basically the only foreigners in our area. So all of our friends are local people instead of other foreigners. We are also working hard on learning Swahili, it's time that really limits us, but we are going to try to become fluent!

    Your idea of covenants of limiting time would be really interesting. Let me know if you ever hear of people actually doing that, and how it works for them :) I feel like you'll get a lot of pushback to that idea, but it's not a bad one

  14. Sort of related -

    He says - "I would take that one qualified and trained man over a thousand partially trained men."