Thoughts on missions and the local church
(This article written for local congregations)
By Rev. Bill Green
One thing my father taught me as a young man growing up in the Midwest (USA), was when to use a shotgun and when to use a rifle. Each one had its particular use – although even a shotgun didn’t help me when I first hunted doves! After shooting up two boxes of ammo with no success, my father threatened me, saying that if I didn’t hit something soon I would have to pack up the gun. Soon after that I downed my first dove!
Shotguns are good for birds on the wing, and small game like rabbits and squirrels. But for deer, elk or bigger, you’d better have a pretty good rifle. The bigger the game and the further away, the better the rifle you need.
In missions, churches can choose between both types of approaches – the shotgun approach or the rifle approach. For many years some Reformed churches have practiced what we might term “shotgun missions”. That is, you load your church budget with many small pellets and scatter shoot them all over the world. While I fully support a broad interest in missions, and the more mission endeavors we can support the better, there are drawbacks to this approach for small to medium sized churches with limited budgets.
I would like to ask us to think about the “shotgun” approach, because many congregations continue this practice. And I would like to briefly analyze missions from both a biblical perspective, as well as from my own experience in missions. Overall, I believe this issue has to do with stewardship. Our resources are limited, and God would have us be the best stewards possible with what He has given us.
How did the practice arise
In the mission under which I served for 13 years, more and more money was needed for projects as overhead costs rose, and as more and more benefits were provided for the missionaries. Not all of this was bad, and I am grateful to God for the good care that our family received, and for the work accomplished. The increasing need for money, however, prompted the mission agency to solicit funds from more and varied sources, and it was common for a missionary to have anywhere from 10 to 15 supporting churches! Local churches also contributed to the situation by asking the mission agency to recommend a missionary to support. And so missionaries got used to making the rounds, reporting to many churches. But what was the practical outcome? The local churches felt content that they supported so many mission causes, but often there was little real ownership for the projects or the missionaries. The responsibility for missions was pawned off on the “mission board”.
What were the practical effects of the “shotgun approach” on the field? Speaking for Central America, I believe that they were negative for the most part. Since the local churches were not aiming at “big game”, but rather content to scatter shoot, no big game was bagged. “Mission” endeavors were begun and closed, this and that was tried, missionaries came and went – and hardly anyone in the local churches back home expressed an informed concern over what was happening. In Central America, for example, there were signs of problems many years ago. And there were several causes. One of the most serious was the uncertainty as to what a “Reformed” church should look like. On several occasions there were conferences to discuss just what kind of a church we should be planting.(!) But this was not the only problem. The shotgun approach is content to start a few small groups here or there, raise up a few half-trained leaders – and call it a day. In my travels to other parts of Latin America, I marvel at the kind of work that the Presbyterians did during the last part of the 1800’s and during the early part of the 1900’s. In Mexico and Brazil they went in with the rifles, and they aimed at nothing less than a full fledged church. Not only were congregations planted, but seminaries were erected and staffed, Christian schools were founded, universities too, hospitals and homes for the elderly. Today these churches continue to grow on the solid base they received – Mexico with over a million members, and Brazil over 350,000. While later years have brought internal problems – some practical and some theological – the point of this article is the way the mission effort was carried out. It was not done with a shotgun approach. There was an intentional missionary effort focused on nothing less than “big game”. And the sending churches were willing to dedicate the effort, personnel and financial resources in order to obtain the prize.
In Central America there were efforts in Honduras to build a seminary – but in the other countries such efforts were weak and half hearted. Christian schools were begun, but without any support from a Christian university for the teachers. The result has been schools with the name “Christian” but little understanding of what a biblical, Christ centered education is. We must not disregard the fact that Central America has been a very difficult field – in Costa Rica the entire evangelical church has shrunk in the last 10 years, and this is probably true for the other countries. But the shotgun approach did not allow solid works to develop. (Please forgive the following personal examples, but they illustrate my point well) After I worked for 4 years in the troubled community of Los Cuadros, the work was closed (against my recommendation); the reason given was that there were only 3 baptized adults. (Today we continue to work in this community and there is now a small but solid congregation ministering to the needs of the people here). Later I continued to receive pressure to leave the church work we had in progress – Tepeyac – because there was a national pastor in place – never mind the other projects in process – a Christian school, a daughter church, other deaconal projects, etc. This lack of vision was disastrous, and the results in Central America have now been seen. After more than a decade of work in El Salvador, the work is all but extinguished. The churches in Honduras have divided and many are very deficient in an adequate understanding of Reformed doctrine and practice. The seminary building in Honduras has been lost. The work in Nicaragua limps along with small, weak congregations for the most part. In Costa Rica many churches were closed never to be reopened. Lack of theological and ecclesiastical clarity, combined with a “shotgun strategy” has contributed basically to 30 years work with little solid fruit. It can hardly be said that there is a vital Reformed witness being carried on in Central America to any large degree.
Scripturally, we are called to “disciple” the nations. Jesus sent his disciples out with the purpose of not only converting people to Him, but to “teach” them all the things He had left them. In the light of Scripture, we understand this task to be nothing less than the establishment of covenant communities, which worship in churches that are well ordered, and which carry out all the tasks of a Christian community – deaconal, educational, evangelistic, etc. This is the fundamental task that our congregations at home should be very concerned for. And this task cannot be carried out by a “shotgun” approach. The task is difficult, and merits a good rifle. We must focus our efforts, focus our thoughts, focus our prayers – and then role up our sleeves and get to work.
I believe that many local congregations still have a long ways to go in re-learning what missions are. Many of the churches would rather “delegate” missions to an agency, but the result is a forfeiture of personal interest and commitment in the mission effort. Consequently we lose touch with the mission field, and we lose touch with missions as a practice. There are many good signs today that local congregations wish to recover their mandate, and we praise God for this. But desiring something and obtaining it are still two different things. We have a lot to learn – and it will probably have to be the hard way. Missions at home will help us understand the complexities of church planting, and will drive us to our knees anew as we seek God’s wisdom and strength. And as we think of our foreign mission work, I want to encourage churches to adopt the “rifle” approach. It is the only one that will leave lasting fruit. Many local congregations receive request upon request for financial help. Undoubtedly there are many, many worthy kingdom causes. The question we have to answer is: What are we responsible for? One of the most basic functions of the church is to multiply itself. This is what deserves our foremost attention. It might make a congregation “feel good” to be supporting so many worthy causes, but such motivations are irrelevant when it comes to setting priorities. God has already set our priority: “Disciple the nations”. As Reformed believers we understand this to mean the planting of viable, Christian communities – churches with trained pastors, elders and deacons, possibly Christian schools, and other forms of kingdom endeavors. God has put the sights on our task. When you shoot a shotgun, a lot of little pellets fly in many different directions. The most you can bring down are light game. I believe that we need to pick up our rifles, aim high – and expect nothing less than what God has promised to give to those who are faithful in the task of the Church.
An important facet of setting our priorities has to do with the stewardly use of our limited resources. It is well known – or should be – that some causes which our churches give to are already well funded. When we compare what $500 will do for an organization that already has millions, or what $500 will do for a daughter church in Nicaragua that has nothing, there is no comparison. We need to measure our giving and general mission support by the ruler of stewardship. It would be nice to fund every good cause there is. Unfortunately we can’t. As we set about prioritizing our task, we must ask ourselves how we can be the best stewards of our resources. Causes which already have a sufficient financial base should be given lesser importance.
Aiming at Central America and beyond
By God’s grace my family and I still find ourselves immersed in the work of church planting. My work with the CLIR has given me the opportunity to support local church efforts throughout all of Latin America, and I have been truly blessed as I witness God’s goodness in raising up faithful leaders across this continent. It has been a humbling experience to find myself amidst many servants of God who carry forward the work of Christ in the midst of poverty or political unrest. And I rejoice at the progress that has been made in the formation of a network of Reformed believers – united by a common faith and now joining forces for a common task. Our theological bulletin is now serving 1000 Reformed pastors and leaders from North America to Chile. And we continue to receive requests for leadership conferences. I believe that the Latin American Reformed churches will be a very important force for the gospel in the near future. Missionaries are already being prepared and sent by these churches, and theologians are being trained. Nevertheless, the needs continue to be great, and cooperative efforts will be the most effective.
God still has us living in Central America, however, and our heart continues to beat for this region with so many needs and such a small Reformed witness. I would like to transmit to my brethren the burden I feel! There is a base of solid leaders in several countries to build on – but we need to focus our efforts. Our goal should be not just a few small, weak churches, but well ordered Christian communities. The need is urgent for good Christian schools, a Reformed university and seminary – even a radio station! And of course we need a dynamic church planting effort. It is frustrating for everyone when things are done half heartedly – or worse, poorly. I wish to make a call to the church of Christ to consider Central America as a region in need of a vibrant Reformed witness, and worthy of our best efforts. Let us prayerfully consider our priorities for church activities and budgets. Are we using the “shotgun” approach, or are we aiming with the precision of a rifle.
May God help us be faithful to our task.