Why Some Missionaries Don't Plant Churches

Little ChurchAndrew Walls states that “one of the few things that are predictable about third-millennium Christianity is that it will be more culturally diverse than Christianity has ever been before” (Walls, p. 68). If Walls’ assessment is correct, then greater attention must be given to preparing cross-cultural workers for the complex challenges they face in effectively crossing cultural boundaries with the gospel. The divine dimension of missionary preparation can never be objectively studied and measured. The human dimensions can and must be examined in order to ensure that churches do not enter into the Great Commission task haphazardly.

I hold in high esteem those who have left hearth and home to brave the obstacles encountered in cross-cultural ministry. Far from me to discourage God’s servants from taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. We need more missionaries, not fewer! Yet over the years as I have traveled, taught, and lived overseas, I have reflected on the dearth of church planting that takes place in many regions of the world where missionaries have labored for years. Of course, there are exceptions where churches have multiplied. In some places there is a greater openness both to the gospel and to the Americans who bring it. In some regions missionaries cannot engage directly in church planting due to government restrictions. Yet in many countries where freedom to evangelize and disciple new believers is available, missionaries often have little fruit to show for their labor.

As already mentioned, a divine component to this discussion must not be ignored. Ultimately God as the Author of salvation must do a regenerative work through the Holy Spirit. Faithful preaching of the Word does not guarantee fruit. Thus we applaud faithful missionaries who have persevered in the face of meager results. However, I feel that we often neglect the human component and ignore biblical models in choosing and sending missionaries. We too easily accept at face value someone’s subjective call to cross-cultural church planting without giving due weight to the objective giftedness and effectiveness of the individual.

To put it bluntly, churches and mission agencies send out many missionaries who are not equipped or qualified to plant churches. They may be good, godly men, but they are not gifted for the work of planting churches. They have not been discipled in a church planting atmosphere, and they come from churches that have never planted another church. They have never proven themselves in effective ministry before leaving for a foreign field. They have insufficient training and experience in organizing a church in their own culture, much less a foreign culture with added complexity and complications. They have little idea of the challenges of learning a language and adjusting to life in conditions they never imagined. They are with mission agencies that control rather than coach in order to reproduce clones of North American churches.

I have lost count of the missionaries who have said to me, “Why didn’t anyone tell me what it would be like?” or “I wish I had received more theological training before I left for the field. I am in way over my head” or “I didn’t know it would be so hard to learn a language.” Yes, many missionaries never plant churches, but part of that responsibility lies at the door of churches and mission agencies that sent them unprepared. The problem is compounded when churches count on mission agencies for candidate evaluations but the evaluators do not have cross-cultural experience themselves.

What happens to these missionaries? Some will last a term and find a reason to leave the field. They may find legitimate reasons to leave the field after one term, especially if some determine (or have determined for them) that they were mistaken to have undertaken the endeavor. We call that situation “desirable attrition.” Yet many others will remain on the field for years, struggling to do ministry with insufficient language skills, with little accountability for how they use their time and resources, with few ideas for outreach and organization, and with no entrance and exit strategy. They may become a missionary-pastor who followed a missionary-pastor, and they will be followed by yet another missionary-pastor. A small group of believers may finally gather. But since the American is there (and they have little or no responsibility for him), they may depend on the American missionary and be oblivious to the need for a national pastor.

Is there a better way? The life and ministry of the apostle Paul have long served as an example par excellence of a missionary church planter. Some may debate whether Paul confronted the same cross-cultural challenges in the first century that many face in the twenty-first century. We must exercise great care not to force the apostolic model in all of its details. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul provides an example of undergoing a lengthy period of training in spite of his pre-conversion educational achievements. And though he did not plant a church everywhere he preached, he usually left churches in his wake after a relatively short period.

In my opinion, I see a disproportionate number of candidates with insufficient theological training, little experience in church planting, and a lack of awareness of the challenges of cross-cultural ministry. Van Rheenen’s observation aptly describes many missionaries: “Missionaries without cultural training tend to conclude that people all over the world are exactly alike” (Van Rheenen 1996, 81). It has been reported that “one in six missionaries already on the field is being totally lost to missionary service in the first term, for preventable reasons.” Among the factors given for attrition is “inadequate preparation” (Platt 1997, 196).

Taylor states:



We will never eliminate attrition, whether the expected varieties of retirement, medical return, or the more painful and perhaps preventable varieties. But we attempt to do as much as possible to prevent it, and also are convinced that we can address the issues and process that looks primarily at the pre-field phases of missionary preparation and training. (Taylor 2002, 69)

Perhaps the nature and work of the missionary need to be clarified. This writer, with others, would identify the work of present-day church planters more closely with a combined understanding of the evangelist and apostle. Faircloth states that “the express purpose of evangelists and apostles during the apostolic age was to see local churches planted in ever increasing numbers all over the known world” (Faircloth 1991, 19). Campbell, in treating the three occurrences of “evangelist” in the New Testament (Eph 4:11; Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5), suggests that originally the evangelist, although not an apostle, “went about preaching that message and by means of it bringing new communities of believers into being” (Campbell 1992, 121-22). Concerning Ephesians 4:11, he maintains that “the apostles and prophets have passed on and their work is now performed by the evangelists and pastor-teachers” (Campbell 1992, 125). Combs argues that “the NT evangelist was primarily a church planter” and “any ministry of itinerant evangelism that does not lead to new converts being formed into local congregations is foreign to the NT” (Combs 2002, 28). He further asserts the probability that “the placing of evangelists in Ephesians 4:11 after apostles and prophets and before pastors and teachers is because of their function in the church,” that is, “they carried on this foundational work by taking the gospel to new groups of people and ‘extended the work of the apostles’” (Combs 2002, 38).

Once the task is identified, we must give serious attention to the preparation of these ambassadors. The preparation will involve formal, informal, and non-formal training. There should be an evaluation of church planting competencies using tools that are readily available. There should be language acquisition testing in order that the candidate might have a better idea of his inherent abilities, help him understand his learning style, and more realistically set expectations. Of course, there is no single tailor-made model for missionary preparation. Different fields and different giftedness of individuals must be taken into consideration when establishing pre-field parameters of preparation. No pre-field training, however adequate and appropriate, can in itself account for the success or failure of mission endeavors. Effective ministry may be viewed differently by God and by humans. The Lord of the Harvest alone can ultimately and decisively pronounce, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

However churches and mission agencies must assume more responsibility for those whom they send. Often I have asked missionary candidates the following questions: How has God prepared you in your training and experience for this task? What evidence do you have in your ministry to date that demonstrates the likelihood of effectiveness in church planting in another culture? What entrance and exit strategy do you have for planting a contextualized church? How much have you studied the history and culture of your place of calling? After a few uncomfortable moments and a glazed-over stare, I am assured of God’s call upon them and that they are going by faith, but receive no answers to the questions. A semi-mystical call answers all. Many of these missionaries will never plant a church, and that is not always their fault. Churches and mission agencies in partnership must become more intentional in the selection process and in filling in the gaps in candidates’ preparation. Candidates cannot be prepared for all they will face. But they can be better prepared and be assured that by God’s grace they have done all they can to be equipped for the Master’s service and ready to engage in effective ministry for the glory of God.

References:

Alastair Campbell, “Do the Work of an Evangelist,” The Evangelical Quarterly (64:2), 1992, 117-29.

William W. Combs, “The Biblical Role of the Evangelist,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, 7, Fall 2002, 23-48.

Samuel D. Faircloth, Church Planting for Reproduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991).

Daryl Platt, “A Call to Partnership in the Missionary Selection Process” in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, ed. William D. Taylor, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1997), 195-206.

William David Taylor, “Revisiting a Provocative Theme: The Attrition of Longer-Term Missionaries,” Missiology 30:1 (January 2002): 67-80.

Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations & Contemporary Strategies, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).

Andrea Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 68.

Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.
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