Mission agencies: do we need them?

Rattling around in my mind for the last few months have been the questions, “what are mission agencies for” and “do we really need them”?

I have some nagging worries.

  • The first is theological. Mission is about us (the church) joining in with the mission of God. Going and sending so that others might become disciples of Jesus and be gathered in church communities. There are many dimensions to this but ecclesiology matters and is an integral part of this. My concern is that pan evangelical agencies downplay ecclesiology (because it divides evangelicals) which ultimately harms the mission of God.
  • The second is the viability of organisations with decreasing numbers of long (5 years plus) and mid-term (1-5 years) term missionaries, an ageing supporter base and a financial reliance on legacies.
  • The third is whether mission agencies are able to help us face the challenges of tomorrow rather than give us the solutions of yesterday.

The backdrop to this is the world and church are changing.

  • Globalisation and the rapid spread of technology have transformed life on every continent. In Europe we are seeing huge migrations of people, as the result of war, poverty and instability in the Middle East and Africa; with millions now living as refugees. The threat of terrorism grows, particularly connected with ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and others. And the centre of Christianity has shifted from the north to the ‘global south’ changing the church landscape as well.
  • Increasingly it is the northern countries, particularly in Europe which need re-evangelising. Yet as the number of Christians declines (with consequences for the financial health of churches and Christian organisations) the churches which are growing understand themselves to be part of a missional movement. Denominational structures are becoming more flexible and new networks are emerging to encourage mission and discipleship.
  • So what of the mission agency? Are they to be consigned to history; relics from the 19th century whose role of taking the gospel from Europe to foreign lands is now over; well-meaning societies from the 20th Century who either never quite got to grips with the rise of Pentecostalism and impact of charismatic renewal or whose roots in youth ministry valued excitement over transformation?

The positive thing is there is good work being done. I’ve seen first-hand some excellent mission activity and I’ve met people, on the field and in organisational leadership, who are godly women and men with a commitment to the cause of Christ and the kingdom of God. I’ve benefited from their wisdom, experience and advice. Nevertheless there are issues of mobilisation, funding and reciprocal mission which need to be addressed. From the perspective of local church ministry, I think there are three questions which need to be considered if we are to build strong links between churches and mission agencies.

  1. With whom and for whom does the agency work? I expect almost everyone to answer, we work for the kingdom of God, but my point is more about the people the agencies work with, both in the UK and overseas, and what they are seeking to do by working with them. The answer reveals the ethos and culture of the agency as well as how they handle issues of privilege, power and paternalism (either yours or theirs). Churches need agencies who embody best practice, who connect Churches into world mission in its myriad forms and who enable us to see with a global perspective not just a western one.
  2. What does the agency do for / with those people who go with them? As a church we’ve had a policy for a decade or so that we only support people who go with a mission agency, because we believe that those going overseas need a structure of support and accountability, they need to be part of a network of people with skills and experience in similar situations to those they face. But my experience is that while some are really good at all this, there are others where, frankly, we would have done a better job overseeing the missionaries ourselves.
  • How does the agency work with the local church? Do they form partnerships or are they just fishing to build links with keen individuals who might become regular givers? Do they want to help churches engage in global mission or do they want the churches to support the agency in the work it does? In my experience partnering with churches overseas, working with the mission agency adds a layer of complexity and, for all the benefits, can be hard work: it is much easier to default to a ‘let’s support the agency to do mission on our behalf’ mode or engage in mission without using a mission agency.

At the risk of being a bit provocative (and filling the comments which show up gaps in my knowledge and understanding) I think the mission agencies of the future will be:

  • Facilitators not organisers. That is to say they help the global church engage in mission which is ‘from everywhere to everywhere’, but where the agency acts as networker rather than organiser: connecting churches, people and openings.
  • Mobilisers not recruiters. Working with churches to help them engage in mission (which might mean helping bring missionaries to UK to help here) where the emphasis is on engaging God’s people in God’s mission and not recruiting people to our agency.
  • Prophetic visionaries and advocates. Who open people’s eyes to what God is doing, to the needs around the world and who call us to respond to the challenges; avoiding the temptation to focus their communications on ‘good news stories’ to encourage their core supporters. Sometimes this will require a wide view of justice, environment and poverty; at other times it will be the challenge to focus on those areas least reached, to be strategic and committed to the long haul.
  • Specialist advisors and supporters. Using their experience and expertise to help churches and missionary partnerships to flourish; to equip UK churches to respond to the opportunities here and work with missionaries to the UK. There will also be a role for some specialist agencies who provide support to world missions and who bring together people with technical skills to benefit long term opportunities (for example Bible Translation).

What do you think? If you work for a mission agency do you think I’m being unfair about what you do now, or what I think the future will be?

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