One of the most profound and healthiest shifts in the mission world today is the shift from western missionaries being the leader to being a partner. This shift comes in part from the changing nature of missions with potential local partners being found almost everywhere in the world. But it also signals a shift toward greater kingdom thinking and maturity away from the model of colonial power and paternalism to fellow colleagues in ministry.
There is a good reason that many traditional mission agencies have changed their names. Ours went from the Evangelical Free Church of America International Mission to ReachGlobal. Now our friends and partners are not joining an American mission but a family of ReachGlobal partners. The name change sent a powerful message to our global friends that it was “us together” and in some cases they formed their own local brand to cooperate with the larger brand. So, ReachAfrica was born as an indigenous sending agency to cooperate with ReachGlobal. Many mission name changes actually reflect more profound philosophical shifts from leader to partner.
As partners, western missionaries no longer unilaterally make ministry decisions but seek to build a local team that together decides strategy. Their team may be made up of themselves and local believers and it also may include missionaries from other parts of the world so that it is “all people” reaching “all people.” The emphasis though is on working with local believers (partners) to determine the needs and the specific role that missionaries from the west can fulfill in helping their partners multiply healthy churches, do evangelism and leadership training. In many places, our role today is equipping, coaching, mentoring and training of partners and true “co laborers” for the harvest.
Another key role is one that we have had significant experience in – the sending of missionaries. This is one of the amazing legacies of the church in the west over the past several hundred years and that passion for reaching the world needs to be passed on to every Christian movement everywhere. It is thrilling to see movements in the majority world taking up the mantle of missions themselves and it is an indication of their growing maturity because no movement is mature without sending their own. Because we have long experience in sending, we can encourage, mentor, train and facilitate the sending missionaries by our global partners. True leverage takes place when those we serve become mission sending movements themselves.
This new role also entails a new skill set for missionaries. They are no longer primarily individual producers “doing” things but are now increasingly coaches of others, developers of others, and focusing on developing, empowering and releasing healthy, missional local leaders who can in the end do what they do better than we can. This is moving from the front to the back in the sense that we are not the leaders but those who raise up local leaders, stand behind them and partner with them. This role is no different than the role spelled out in Ephesians 4:12 where God gave leaders to the church to equip the people for works of ministry. Nor is it different than what we want from staff in the local church – not to do ministry for us but to raise up people who are also passionate about that ministry, build teams and multiply ourselves.
This requires a new posture of humility on the part of those who go today. We go to serve. We go as partners. We go to raise others up. We go to serve in many ways behind the scenes. Our job is truly to develop, empower and release others and to cheer them on. It is to raise up other leaders who will take ownership for missions in their city, region, country and continent. It is in the spirit of Christ who came, poured himself into the disciples and then at His ascension gave his ministry away to those whom he had trained. He multiplied himself through others as a servant leader.
A profound shift is taking place today in missions. Those agencies who understand and embrace this shift will see their influence broaden even as they move from leaders to partners.There have always been western missionaries who modeled this attitude but it has not always been the ethos of missions in the colonial or post colonial era. Agencies that take this ethos seriously will be the leading mission influencers in the future and will make the deepest impact.