Stop Sending Missionaries: Why More Isn’t Always Better
“Here am I, send me.” Isaiah 6:8
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray for the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest.” Matt. 9:37-38
These passages of Scripture have been slapped on the prayer cards of many hopeful missionaries getting ready to enter the field. They’ve been burned on the hearts of many churches and people who recognize that we Christians have been given a task: to make disciples of all nations.
These nations were sadly neglected by the church for generations, so it is praiseworthy that, in recent generations, we have corrected our “mission drift” and pursued with vigor its task to make known to a watching world the wisdom of God (Eph 3:10).
But, in my admittedly few years working among the nations—square in the middle of the 10/40 window, surrounded by Unreached People Groups—I cannot help but wonder if the corrective has corrected too much. It appears the pendulum has swung too far the other way and needs a few nudges itself.
The Great Commission is immense, and just like any immense task it requires vision, dedication, and a lot of manpower. That being said, there are many times when I want to stop and say to the Western church: “Stop sending them! Stop sending under-qualified missionaries!”
To be sure, the workers are few, and the harvest is great. But that does not mean that more workers are necessarily better. It seems that the impatience that so marks the current generation has infiltrated the missionary movement under the guise of “urgency.” This impatience, rather than being curbed by church leaders, is often fostered and even encouraged.
And the result?
A lot of people are going to the nations who, frankly, shouldn’t be going—at least not yet.
Here’s the question I wish more churches would consider: Why would you send someone to plant churches abroad who you would never hire as a pastor or nominate as a lay elder? Why does it seem that “passion” rather than proven faithfulness is the main criterion for sending men and women to support those church planters? Why on earth is the bar set lower for the frontlines than it is for the local church?
The challenges of frontier ministry, its stresses and temptations, are very real, and time and again people are sent to face those challenges who have much zeal but lack understanding. So the wise man rightly said by the Holy Spirit,
“Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way” (Prov. 19:2 ESV).
This proverb sums up the state of missions among some missions enterprises very well: desire without knowledge. And desire without knowledge in the business of missions is dangerous, even spiritually deadly.
This field that is white for harvest is being filled with laborers who destroy the crop, those who misuse or disuse the tools God has given them. Imagine a field full of people swinging a scythe in the wrong direction and sometimes from the wrong end. And too often—if I dare drag out the metaphor a bit further—they are not using the scythe at all. Their hands are empty—not a pretty picture.
It seems to me that many churches and sending agencies don’t spend enough time teaching people to discern between wheat and weeds. So, lacking discernment, these missionaries sheave weeds and write home about their sowing successes. Again, we as the church have been given a mission, a way in which we are to walk, but many feet that set out to proclaim the gospel of peace miss their way because they have desire without knowledge.
Indeed, the workers are few, but our impatience has become our undoing. When churches have initiatives to send a certain number of people by a certain time, their desire to meet that goal can short circuit discipleship and thus propel people into the field that will both be harmed and cause harm.
Instead, we should look to Paul as an example of zealous patience. From the moment of his conversion, he was told his purpose. But you’ll see in Acts that it was more than ten years before his first missionary journey. In the interim, he spent three formative years in Arabia, time in his home city of Tarsus, and finally a season at the church in Antioch until he was sent out with Barnabas. This is Paul, mind you, who at conversion already had an immense knowledge of the Scriptures. It appears Paul did not begin his mission in earnest until he was sent by his “home” church of Antioch at the Holy Spirit’s leading through the elders and congregation.
If you speak to an older generation of missionaries, you’ll find that in by-gone days Bible college was a requirement. If you read the biographies of guys like Adoniram Judson, you’ll find that ordination was required. But these days, once a church gives approval, folks can pass a few evaluations and attend a two-week boot-camp and be rather quickly approved for the field. Such a convenient and streamlined system is meant to enable more and more people to go to the unreached.
But more is not always better.
The challenges people will face as they take the gospel to hard places will require character that is mature and proven. The questions missionaries will be asked by those whom they evangelize will often require a theological knowledge that is deep and wide. And the raging enemy that is encountered requires a faith that is dug down deep.
Pragmatism is rampant in overseas ministries because too often ministers don’t really know how to talk about their God. Heresy proliferates because they don’t really know their message. Worldly living prevails because so many missionaries are spiritually immature and practically unaccountable. Church, stop sending people who don’t know their God, don’t know their message, and don’t know what it is like to submit to authority. Please, for the sake of God’s glory, stop.
Desire is commendable, but desire comes and goes. It is calling that should be required and celebrated. Not just any “calling,” mind you, but a calling rooted in truth and affirmed by others, particularly those who know you well and have for a long time, one that has accompanied years’ worth of fruitfulness, that has as its chief aims the glory of God and the sure promises of the gospel as revealed in Scripture.
Local churches should take the long view in their missions work, faithfully making many disciples who are able to go out and persevere in faithful gospel ministry. They should labor for quantity without sacrificing quality by a single degree.
It should be no wonder that the attrition rate among missionaries is so high, that doctrinal ambiguity is so pervasive, and that missionaries falling into gross sin is so common. People are sent that should not be sent because churches are sending people too soon.
So, at this point I want to leave behind a few suggestions on how to prepare people to go to the nations:
1) Teach them well so that they will be able to teach others well; don’t send them until they have shown they can do the same. (2 Tim. 2:2)
2) Make sure that they are able to articulate sound doctrine and refute false doctrine. An inability to answer objections and correct falsehood is a recipe for disaster when encountering other religions or worse—other errant missionaries. (Titus 1:9, Eph. 4:14)
3) Make sure they are able to submit to biblical authority. Are they mavericks who have never really had their autonomy challenged? If this is the case, they need to spend some time with gladly submitting to accountability before they can be sent with confidence. (Heb. 13:17-18)
4) Connected to #3 is the need for proven godly character. This is something that can only be ascertained over an extended period of close interaction and persistent discipleship, not a session with a counselor and a personality profile. Unchecked sins get worse on the frontlines, not better. (Heb. 12:1)
5) If you would not make a man an elder in your church, then don’t send him to plant churches anywhere, much less overseas. If you are sending someone who isn’t elder material or isn’t quite there yet, then I would suggest sending them somewhere with an established church where you know their spiritual development and ministry will be seen by faithful shepherds. (Heb. 10:24-25)
6) The aim of every pioneer worker you send should be one of two things: joining an existing church or gathering believers to start a new church as soon as possible. If there is no church, then I would suggest moving with a core of people as opposed to individually. No Christians were meant to be alone. Ecclesiology and missiology should be inseparably intertwined. Churches plant churches. Para-church organizations should serve the valuable and specialized role of helping churches do this job, not overtake them. (Acts 20:28, 16:13)
7) Finally, let there be consensus in the sending church that these people being sent are called and ready. This will safeguard the ones being sent and give them an amazing boost of encouragement that they are part of something bigger than their own ambition, which can easily fade or redirect quickly. (Acts 13:3)
I write this not out of a desire to dampen a church’s missional drive, but to encourage a long view with enduring faithfulness as the aim. We run a marathon, not a sprint. Ministry is the same way. Godly urgency embraces careful preparation for ministry. This truth becomes unclear if the main aim of our sending is an always-growing number of converts. Instead, the main aim of our sending should be the glory of God—and it is for that we must prepare and be prepared.
So let’s feel the urgency, but not at the expense of wisdom. The glory of God is at stake.