Missions Agencies and Local Churches

In The Nick of Time
by Kevin T. Bauder

The pastor who wants to lead his church wisely in the area of missions will find that he is confronted with a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, the work of missions grows out of the local church, and each missionary is ultimately accountable to his sending church. On the other hand, few local churches are in the position to closely supervise the work of any particular missionary on any particular field.

The New Testament resolves this conundrum by showing that church-planting missionaries organized to work together, even when they were sent out by different churches. While their ultimate accountability was to their sending churches, their pressing, operational decisions were made together. They had little or no direct supervision from their churches. Their immediate accountability was to their field organization and its leadership.

The New Testament pattern anticipates the missionary agency and particularly the field council. The question is not whether such organizations are biblically authorized, for they clearly are. The question is how to balance the authority and function of the agency with the authority and function of the church. How should the agency and the church support one another in the work of missions?

From a practical perspective, the agency is equipped to handle many issues with which most local churches are completely unfamiliar. Most churches do not know how to convert currency, transfer funds across international borders, or calculate a reasonable level of support for a missionary who lives in a foreign culture. They are not able to navigate the diplomatic problems related to securing permanent residency in a distant country. They are not prepared to render emergency help when it is urgently needed, especially evacuating missionaries when their lives depend upon it. They cannot mentor their missionaries through the process of enculturation, and they cannot advise their missionaries through economic and political instability.

The better mission agencies, however, are very experienced at addressing these and similar issues. By specializing in such knowledge, the agencies are in a position to offer valuable help and assistance to local churches and to their missionaries. More than that, the use of an agency’s name allows the missionary appointee to assure potential supporters that his theology and abilities have been thoroughly reviewed and approved by competent individuals, whereas the competence of individual local congregations varies widely.

For these and other reasons, most missionaries and churches do well to take advantage of the services of a mission agency. The services of the agency are not without cost, however. The agency must maintain a competent staff and an office, and that takes funding. Churches should make a point of supporting the agency of each missionary whom they support. Typically, if all churches would give ten percent to the agency beyond the support that they give to the missionary, the needs of the agency would be covered.

But back to the question—what should be the relationship between the mission agency and the local church while the missionary is on the field? If the pattern in the book of Acts is followed, then the missionary is ultimately accountable to his commissioning church, but he will answer immediately to the other missionaries with whom he is organized. In short, some entity like a field council must bear the responsibility for the immediate supervision of the missionary’s work.

Answering to a field council not only copies a New Testament practice, it is also eminently practical. With rare exceptions, the missionary’s sending church will not be well acquainted with the conditions and needs of the field. Nor will the sending church be in a position to evaluate a missionary’s adjustment to the field or to his co-workers. Missionaries who are far from home may find it difficult to communicate with their commissioning church about their personal struggles, but they cannot hide these from their fellow missionaries. Both biblical and practical considerations suggest that a missionary’s immediate accountability should be to his field council.

Field councils and mission agencies are sometimes viewed as usurpers. One popular perception is that the agencies always displace the authority of the local church. Frankly, that perception is correct some of the time and with some agencies. Other agencies, however, work hard to maintain their position as auxiliary organizations whose job is to assist the local church. The agencies that understand their function and that do not overreach their authority are a great blessing to local churches, and they do not deserve the hostility that they sometimes receive.

Answering to the field council—and, secondarily, to the mission agency—does not replace the missionary’s accountability to his local church. Nevertheless, the local church can only exercise its authority in proportion to its involvement with its missionaries and their ministries. The pastor of the sending church must do whatever it takes in order to know the realities that the missionary is facing, and the pastors of supporting churches should also take an active interest.

Communication between the church and the missionary is essential, but communication between the church and the mission agency (including the field council) is also important. The pastor should get to know the people in the office of the agency. He should also get to know something about the other missionaries who are on the field. The ongoing interest of the pastor and church will prevent misunderstandings with both the missionary and the agency. If a problem arises with a missionary, the church and the agency should be prepared to work through the problem together.

As a rule of thumb, the agency and field council are responsible to counsel the missionary about operational decisions, and for those decisions, the missionary is under their authority. The local church is responsible to help the missionary with strategic decisions, and it reserves the authority to pass judgment upon all decisions that affect the missionary. Still, the agency must have the liberty to maintain its own policies and procedures. If the church or the missionary does not wish to work under the agency’s policies, then he ought to find an agency whose policies are more agreeable—that, or send the missionary without the help of an agency.

Sometimes agencies do overstep the boundaries of their rightful authority. Sometimes churches and pastors do, too. If a church chooses an agency carefully, however, then the missionary can benefit greatly from the cooperation between the two.

Welcome Cross

William Cowper (1731-1800)

‘Tis my happiness below
Not to live without the cross,
But the Saviour’s power to know,
Sanctifying every loss;
Trials must and will befall;
But with humble faith to see
Love inscribed upon them all,
This is happiness to me.

God in Israel sows the seeds
Of affliction, pain, and toil;
These spring up and choke the weeds
Which would else o’erspread the soil:
Trials make the promise sweet,
Trials give new life to prayer;
Trials bring me to His feet,
Lay me low, and keep me there.

Did I meet no trials here,
No chastisement by the way,
Might I not with reason fear
I should prove a castaway?
Bastards may escape the rod,
Sunk in earthly vain delight;
But the true-born child of God
Must not—would not, if he might.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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