Stop Sending Them! Why More Is Not 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 card of many a hopeful missionary getting ready to head into the field. These and others verses have burned in the hearts of many churches and people who have recognized that we Christians have been given a task – to make disciples of all nations.
The nations, those groups of people that have yet to hear the Gospel, were sadly neglected by the church for generations, therefore, it is only right as the church reforms and conforms to the authority of Scripture that the church would correct “mission drift” and would pursue the task for which it was born – to be the mechanism for God saving his elect from every corner of the earth.
But like every corrective in life even the corrective must often be corrected. The pendulum always swings both ways before it settles and in my admittedly short years working among the nations, square in the middle of the 10/40 window, surrounded by UPGs, it has become clear that the missional corrective needs a few nudges itself.
The task that we affectionately call “The Great Commission” is immense. (Matt. 28:19) An immense task that requires vision, dedication, and a lot of manpower. But that being said, there are some times when to the western church I want to say,
“Stop sending them!”
The workers are few and the harvest is great, but that does not mean that more workers is always 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.
A lot of people going to the nations that shouldn’t be going – at least not yet.
The question that has more and more come to my mind that I wish churches would consider is this: Why would you send someone to plant churches that you would not 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 – the standard – set lower for the frontlines than it is for the local church?
The stories of the challenges of frontier ministry, the stresses, the temptations, are very real, and time and again people are sent to face those challenges who have zeal but a lack of understanding. And 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.” (Proverbs 19:2 ESV)
That proverbs sums up the state of missions in many ways very well. Desire without knowledge. And desire without knowledge in the business of missions is dangerous – even spiritually deadly.
The field white for harvest is filled with laborers destroying the crop and themselves with a misuse or disuse of the tools God has given them for the labor. It seems to this observer, at times, that no one thought to make sure these people can swing the scythe of God’s word before they sent them into the field. 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 analogy a bit further – they are not using the scythe at all. Not a pretty picture.
No one thought to spend some time testing this person’s ability to discern between wheat and weeds. Lacking discernment they sheave weeds and write home about how successful they have been.
As a church we have been given a mission, a way we are to walk in, but many feet that set out to proclaim the gospel of peace miss their way – because they have desire without knowledge.
The workers are few, but our impatience is 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 propel people into the field that will be harmed and cause harm.
Paul is a great example to us of patience. From the moment of his conversion he was told what his purpose was to be, yet it was more than ten years that passed before the beginning of his first missionary journey. In the interim he spent three formative years in Arabia, time in his home city of Tarsus, and then served at the church in Antioch until he was finally sent with Barnabas by the church of Antioch on his first missionary journey. This is Paul, mind you, who already at the point of conversion had immense knowledge of the Scriptures. And even though he had been told by Christ himself what his mission was to be he did not really begin in earnest until he was sent by his “home” church of Antioch at the Holy Spirit’s leading through the elders and congregants.
If you speak to an older generation of missionaries you will find that in by-gone days Bible college was a requirement to be sent. If you read the biographies of guys like Adoniram Judson you will find that ordination was required! These days if a church gives approval, a few evaluations and a two-week bootcamp later people can be 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 taking the Gospel to hard places will face require a character that is mature and proven. The questions missionaries will be asked require a theological knowledge that is deep and wide. And the raging enemy that is encountered requires a faith that is dug down deep.
Many missionaries slide into pragmatism in ministry because they do not really know their God. They slide into heresy because they do not really know their message. Many slide into sin because they are immature and unaccountable. Church, stop sending these 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. Calling is required, calling rooted in truth and affirmed by those in authority – a calling that has as its sole aim the glory of God and has as its bedrock the sure promises of the Gospel revealed in Scripture.
More is not always better, but with the right reformation more can be better. There is a word for when you try to find a midpoint between quantity and quality – it is called mediocrity. Local churches should have the long view in missions, faithfully making many disciples who will be able to go out and persevere in faithful Gospel ministry. 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.
If anyone reads this, whether you are a pastor or someone looking to go to the field, 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 and 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 – errant missionaries. (Titus 1:9, Eph. 4:14)
3) Make sure they are able to submit to biblical authority in their lives. Are they mavericks who have never really had the level of accountability that challenged their autonomy? If this is the case they need to spend some time with that kind of 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 in a pioneer situation. If you are sending someone who isn’t elder material or isn’t quite there yet, or sending unmarried women, then I would suggest sending them someplace with an established church where you know their spiritual development and ministry could continue under the watchful eye of faithful shepherds. (Heb. 10:24-25)
6) The aim of every pioneer worker you send should be to join an existing church or to gather believers and start a church ASAP. If there is no church then I would suggest moving with a core of people to plant a church or do outreach into new areas from a place where there are enough expat believers to have a church. No Christians were meant to be alone and Paul set an example to seek out believers when he entered a new city. Ecclesiology and missiology should be inseparably intertwined. Churches plant churches, yet many churches contract out the mission that God has given them to para-church organizations that don’t have the authority that a church does. An occasional email, a questionnaire, and a field visit every half-decade hardly applies as Biblical oversight. Para-chruch organizations should serve the valuable and specialized role of helping churches do their job, while not taking over their job. Provide active, authoritative oversight until a church is planted or those you send are plugged into a relatively healthy, existing fellowship. (Acts 20:28, 16:13)
7) Finally (for now) let there be consensus in the sending church that these people being sent are called and ready before you send them. 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 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 faithfulness as the aim in that missional drive. John Piper says that the Christian walk is coronary, not adrenal. We run a marathon, not a sprint. Ministry is the same way. Godly urgency embraces careful preparation for ministry. This truth becomes unclear if our main aim in missions is converts. The main aim of our sending must be the glory of God and it is for that we must prepare and be prepared.
So if necessary, for now, stop sending them. The glory of God is at stake.