9 Marks of Healthy Missions
“Well, Mack, what can we do for you?”
So came the good hearted question after a—dare I say it?—powerful presentation I had just made about our mission work in a difficult area of Guatemala.
If you know me, and you ask that question, you better hang on to your wallet. Years ago I learned that I rarely have enough funds for the vision set before me. And this man knew me; he was not so much asking what I needed but how much.
My answer surprised him.
“The best thing that you can do for me,” I said, “is to make sure you keep your church healthy. I can’t do the work there if churches are unhealthy here.”
I really believe that. And here are the reasons why:
1. Healthy churches cling to the gospel as the center of missions. Unhealthy churches are swept away with the latest fads in missions.
A healthy church will carefully and gently direct support toward gospel-centered missions, and they are careful to understand and teach about the limits and temptations of cultural sensitivity and contextualization.
There is such pressure and temptation to try and make ourselves “relevant” to a culture that it becomes dangerously easy to make the mistake of changing the message of the gospel. I’ve come to believe that the quickest route to heresy is relevant and over-contextualized missions. We should never forget that Paul’s hardest words are reserved for those who preach another gospel (Gal 1:8).
Cultural context is always a challenge, but it is not a trump card. Put another way: Anthropology never trumps theology. It’s above our pay-grade to change the message of the gospel to fit context.
2. Healthy churches are generous. Unhealthy churches merely tip missionaries.
Just as you call your church members to be generous and cheerful in their giving, so the church as a community has a chance to model what it preaches. Don’t tip missionaries; really get behind them. Pick good people and support them for the long haul—and support them generously.
I remember visiting a small church where I was told that the sun never set on their missions empire. This was signified by the pins in a map in the foyer. But as I probed, their map seemed more to be about the desire to look as if they were an expansive missions church than actually advancing the gospel in a significant way. That church did support dozens of missionaries, but it was with small $25/month gifts. Don’t tip missionaries. It’s better if you get behind just one than spread it all over the map.
3. Healthy churches support the right missionaries. Unhealthy churches support the wrong missionaries: a double problem.
When churches are unhealthy they tend to be confused about who should go and who should be supported.
I call it the 747 principle. That is: Getting on a 747 won’t make you holy. Sin here will follow you there. I wish it could be so easy as to develop holiness by simply buying a plane ticket, but there is no transformation by aviation.
Churches need to affirm the calling of the individual by a record of deeds done where they live. If the person isn’t fruitful in ministry where they live, they generally won’t be overseas.
And can you believe this? Some church leaders have even confessed to me they got rid of a difficult person to overseas work.
Friends, please don’t send us people unless they can do ministry where they are. Send us people you would hire on staff or put on your elder board. In Acts 13, the church at Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas. What a sacrifice! God will honor you and your church if you do the same.
The reason it’s a double problem is that good missionaries have to undo the work of bad missionaries, especially when it comes to church planting. It is so hard to undo what has been done badly.
4. Healthy churches have helpful and supportive mission policies. Unhealthy churches tend to have selfish mission policies.
The litmus test to healthy missions policy is to check if your support is field driven or home driven. This is not about you and your church; this is about them, there.
Perhaps the trip to Mexico for the youth is a good thing; at least in that it helps the youth. But let’s not think that it’s making disciples of the nations; it is support for the church youth program. And I have no problem with that, but let’s call it what it is. That same mentality easily bleeds over to more important areas of missions.
For example, a number of years ago I was forced to turn down significant missions support since the church required us to host their short-term teams. I’ve written a book on short terms; I like short terms. But in that context I didn’t know how I could host a short term without doing damage to the fragile work, but the policy was inflexible and work in a very urgent place was hindered because of it.
5. Healthy churches support solid, gospel-centered teaching. Unhealthy churches export heresy and bad teaching.
Have you heard the saying: “misty in the pulpit is foggy in the pews”? Overseas it becomes Stygian darkness.
Programmatic, methodological, and results-driven glitz and glam seem to have greater traction overseas, perhaps because it comes with the authority of a missionary. Regardless, it destroys healthy churches.
The health and wealth gospel is a great example. What tends to be merely annoying to many in the US becomes a scourge overseas.
And whether we want to admit it or not, the prosperity gospel is an American export. Of course, in one sense it is only the gods of Molech and Baal repackaged in shiny modern garb. But it’s destroying the true gospel in the worst possible places. The lands that need a robust theology of suffering and perseverance though trials—Africa, the Middle East and India—are riven with the yeast of the health-wealth gospel.
My friend Joanna was talking with a Muslim student and discovered to her surprise that this student watched Joel Osteen. “But,” this bright young woman said, “you can tell that his message is not for people who really suffer.” We were touched with her insight, sobered by the reach of TV preachers, and saddened that a Muslim sees what Christian-background people can’t.
6. Healthy churches reproduce missionaries after their own kind. Unhealthy churches reproduce missionaries after their own kind.
Programmatic churches produce programmatic Christians who become programmatic missionaries. Inculturated churches produce inculturated missionaries. Sentimental churches produce sentimental missionaries. Christ-less churches produce Christ-less missionaries. And so on.
Healthy churches produce healthy Christians who become healthy missionaries. We need people over there who come from healthy churches and have seen them in operation here.
7. Healthy churches know what the church is. Unhealthy churches are fuzzy on church.
When I say “healthy churches” what I mean is churches that are established on solid and clear biblical principles. Missionaries who come from a healthy church have seen it in operation, and know what to shoot for.
For example, few would deny that church is central to mission. Yet when I talk with missionaries who are committed to church planting they are often fuzzy about church. And these are the very same people who are attempting to establish churches! I’ve even had discussions with people who were in high levels of their mission organizations who argued with me that there is no distinction between church and para-church. This is nonsense—and I’m a para-church guy.
So, as a para-church guy, let me affirm that the church is Christ’s primary strategy for missions and it is absolutely essential for missionaries to know basic principles of what a church is, and how to establish one biblically. Knowing what the church is will help missionaries keep their eye on the ball, as it were, whereas unhealthy understandings of the church will often direct missionaries to other work.
For example, I had a guy who raises money from foundations tell me, “You guys shouldn’t just raise money to build a church, you should build a hospital, too! We could get a lot more money.”
I’m serious, he really said that. And I suspect what he said was true. And since he and so many like him don’t really have a gospel center they chase after things that seem right to a man. But remember where Proverbs 14:12 says that ends up.
Avoid the temptation to get off the clear path that Jesus set before the church to make disciples. Am I opposed to building hospitals? Not at all. If it’s part of a thoughtful long-term strategy to advance the gospel in a difficult place, go for it. Just make sure you’re advancing the gospel not just chasing money or any other possible rabbit trail that gets us off making disciples of all nations.
The Great Commission is not just to go and do stuff. It’s to go and make disciples.
8. Healthy churches produce a lot of missionaries. Unhealthy churches, not so much.
There’s not much to say here; I’ve just noticed over time how many missionaries come from healthy churches, per capita. I just wish there were more healthy churches.
9. Healthy churches pray and back their missionaries. Unhealthy churches are missing in action.
A couple arrested for being Christians in Iran were suddenly released from jail in Tehran and hounded out of the country. They were on the run, they didn’t know where to go, they were frightened and alone, and they showed up at our house. I made five phone calls to five churches, healthy churches that back missionaries. They each prayed—and in one hour the money needed was there for this couple to rent a place, and begin ministry to Iranians in the city in which we lived. This ministry lasted for years. I knew that those churches had my back. There was a trusting relationship that was critical to the mission, so I knew I could count on them.
Suddenly, I knew the answer to “Mack, what can we do for you?”