There is a quiet but very important debate taking place regarding the place of western missionaries in today’s expensive world. There are some who argue that the day of long term missionaries from the west is over and that we should simply support indigenous missionaries across the globe at a much lesser cost. The implications of how we answer that question are significant.
Let me say up front that I lead ReachGlobal, an international missions organization of the EFCA. Let me also say that I believe that the vision for reaching the world does not lie with organizations but with the local church. The best missions, in my view, are those who exist to serve the missions vision of the local church and provide structure, long term strategic help and best practices.
Let’s talk about money for a moment. It costs around $100,000 per mission family to be on the field in our and similar organizations. That sounds like a lot – but it is not that much different than the cost of pastoral staff for a local church – if you add in the hidden costs above salary such as health insurance, retirement, staff administrative help and perhaps the most expensive cost of all – the expensive church facilities that staff work in. The difference between missionaries and local church staff is very small when you consider the hidden costs that churches must cover in order to staff their ministry.
It is true that missionaries who are not productive do not belong on the field. It is equally true that this applies to church staff in the United States as well. The fact that some ministries don't deal with unproductive staff in both arenas does not negate the need for staff. It makes the case for the right staff who are engaged in the right work.
The question of value for that money is an important one. If missionaries are simply doing what local believers could do one may have an argument for funding locals rather than western missionaries. However, that misses a massive shift that is taking place within the mission world today where missionaries are increasingly not the hands on doers but the mentors, equippers and releasers of indigenous workers. In fact, in ReachGlobal (RG), the central job of our staff is to develop, empower and release. This is something that local believers are not as capable of doing: they need and ask for help in raising up equipped workers for the harvest and increasingly that is the role of personnel from the west.
In addition, simply sending money rather than personnel raises another very important question: dependencies on western money that fosters dependence rather than independence and control (through our dollars) rather than the development of equal ministry partners. A book every church in the west should read is “When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself.” Indiscriminate financial help is often a terrible gift with unintended consequences that the west does not understand. One of my colleagues at the Lausanne Conference in South Africa is a leader from Liberia. His observation is that money has done more to ruin ministry in countries like his than almost anything else.
In years past the west often had a paternalistic attitude toward missions. We had the money, we had the education and we were the experts. Too often we carried that attitude with us rather than developing, empowering and releasing indigenous personnel. Now, some would compound that error with an equal error. Western missionaries are not needed so we will just fund local ministries globally. Neither of these answers is Biblical and it is not an either or dichotomy but a both and. The missions mandate Christ left the church will only be met when all believers, those from the majority world and those from the minority world join hands to share the gospel with over five billion people who don’t know Christ.
From the inception of the church, it has been a mission sending church. Paul and Barnabas were simply the first in the hundreds of thousands of missionaries who have gone from one culture to another with the good news of Jesus. My parental family was in that line of faithful missionaries. The day we stop sending people and simply send our dollars is the day that we have abandoned the call of the church to “go and make disciples of all nations” and the inevitable result will be a quick decline even in giving for missions. What we tell our partners internationally applies to us: No church group is mature until they are intentionally reaching across ethnic, economic, political and culture lines to share the gospel.
The question of whether western missionaries are needed is really the wrong question because the New Testament does not give us the option of sending missionaries. The real question is what should long term missionaries in today’s world be doing? One thing we know they should be doing is raising up workers for the harvest in all parts of the world, doing formal and informal theological training, training church planters and pastors and doing everything we can to see multiplication take place where the gospel is not well known. In many places this means the hard work of evangelism and the making of disciples because there are none present. There are still vast tracts of our globe where the church is small, struggling or non-existent.
Ironically, just as some in the west believe that long term workers are no longer needed, believers in other parts of the world are increasingly sending their own missionaries. Missions has become all people reaching all people and many of our own teams are made up of personnel from different parts of the world. The question will be whether the western church loses out on the blessing of being a player in the world wide missions efforts in the years to come.
Missions does not win when missionaries do not partner with indigenous believers. Missions does not win when western missionaries are left on the sidelines. Missions wins when there is a synergistic relationship between missionaries from wherever they come and local believers wherever they are.