Put the Church in Charge

Christian ministry is fraught with issues requiring oversight and structure, but I don’t believe mission¹ organizations are the cure.

For several years now I have followed the personal blog of Eddie Arthur. While I don’t always agree with his views, I have grown to respect the thoughtful way he approaches issues of church and culture and his willingness to raise hard questions. At times he comes out in defense of the status-quo, at other times he advocates for controversial changes. Sometimes, as in the post I’ll be reviewing, he just stirs the pot. I particularly appreciate that he doesn’t try to sugar coat complex topics (such as Bible translation) to make them seem easy or palatable but instead points out the extra levels of nuance required to even discuss them profitably.

Two days ago he opened a hum-dingier can of worms. Few topics are as likely to pique my interest as much as the question, “Who Is In Charge of Mission?”¹ Now I know half of you just started to fade on me. “What’s the big deal?” you say, “Isn’t that all up to God anyway?” And of course it is, but that’s not the direction Eddie takes the discussion—so go read his post now!

Even having read the post, I imagine some of you still wonder why this is a big deal. Meanwhile a few of you who know me better are rolling your eyes and mumbling, “There goes Caleb on his hobby horse again!”. For the rest of you, humor me for a moment. Anytime you either a) don’t care about an issue or b) hold a view that’s in the majority, it becomes easy to let any discussion surrounding it roll past without a care. This can be a good filter mechanism, but it is also the mechanism by which enormous cultural blind spots form. The opposite is also true—and that’s the problem I struggle with. Since I am a) passionate about this specific issue and b) my views fly in the face of popular wisdom, it seems like the iceberg is always surfacing somewhere. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that few questions have reached into and shaped so many areas of my life. Where I am on planet earth, who I work with, what sort of connections I cultivate, and what occupies me on a daily basis are all informed, in large part, by my answer to this question—more so than political views, personalities, or even many other major points of theology.

Yet, as outspoken as I am, many people can’t find a box to put me in. The familiar story played out again just this Sunday when a pastor visiting town (and not primarily to visit me, we just happened to cross paths) asked me where I was from. 60 seconds into an informal conversation I sensed he was slightly at a loss because he couldn’t figure out what category to file me under: I am not affiliated with a missions organization or sending agency, yet here I am on the ground doing Christian ministry in a language and culture not mine by birth. I can almost hear his thought: “So is this guy a real missionary or what?”

And before anybody panics, allow me to slam the door on missions being a freelance affair. Lone-cowboy missionaries are the worst. Anybody calling all their own shots needs to saddle up and go home². Now that you know how I feel about that, lets get back to Eddie’s points.

My question is to do with the accountability how missionaries and mission agencies are accountable to the wider church for what they do and say.

This is a great question, but I would answer it by re-framing it: people should be accountable to their churches. End of story. Being a missionary doesn’t change that, if anything it should intensify it. We should be setting the example for what that looks like! This changes the framing of the question on two points:

  • It drops the ‘wider’ qualification. Missionaries aren’t responsible directly to the wider (little ‘c’ catholic) church, they should be responsible in fellowship with their local covenant community of believers to the leaders that God has placed over them in the local church context. That local church body and its leaders should, of course, be accountable to other church bodies and their leaders, and so on³. This distinction may seem trivial but I think that it’s crucial not to link up the chain anywhere else.
  • Agencies don’t factor in at all. The question at hand is about accountability for the things missionaries do and say, and I think the burden for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the church. Whatever role, if any, external agencies are to play, they should not distance the church from its responsibilities.

As simplistic as this view is, I believe it is the right answer.⁴ Pragmatically I think it heads off the major concerns that Eddie goes on to bring up. For example:

We have to face up to the fact that we live in a far more complex world than those early disciples. We no longer have a single “mother church” in Jerusalem and a clear set of Apostles who oversee things. We have to work with what we have and in the Protestant, Evangelical world, this means a very fractured system. So if a mission agency steps out of line, who holds them responsible?

Churches have—at least are supposed to have—built in mechanisms for dealing with members of the body (lay or otherwise) that step out of line, whether into doctrinal error or into sin. Shepherding the body to better reflect the glory of Christ is one of the primary roles of church leaders. If the mechanisms for keeping the bride pure are functioning, they will naturally extend to make this question a non-issue for any activity that is either wholly contained in or is an out-flowing of the church context. If the church is the base point for all mission then the question of accountability is answered in scripture. Only if it is divorced from the church do we have to hunt around for other mechanisms and start taking our clues from business or politics.

Eddie suggests several accountability scenarios. For example, “the most obvious answer is that mission agencies are responsible to their boards of trustees or directors.” Yet he rightly raises a red flag on that asking, “What background do these people have to address the theological and missiological questions that missions face?” My answer is that they don’t—unless of course they do, in which case they should be using those gifts in the service of the church!

It doesn’t seem to be the author’s intent—at least not in that one post—to stop and propose a solution; instead he moves on to another scenario. “Another suggestion is that missionaries should be accountable to their supporters and sending churches.” Again he sees a flaw. “The problem is that many churches either feel unequipped or are simply unwilling to invest the time needed to stay in contact with their missionaries.” Eddie goes on in the next paragraph to describe things that make his hair curl, but my beard goes all crinkly starting here. Yes of course this is a flaw, but this is a flaw that needs to be fixed, not circumvented in the name of pragmatism! A church not equipped to serve or unwilling to invest in ministers of the Gospel describes a church that has not grown into—or has abdicated—one of its primary callings. Lets address that scenario for what it is and see that our local church bodies are fed on and properly equipped to minister the Gospel at home before we trot them off to save the rest of the world. Any church for which this is a defining concern should deal with the log in its own eye first.

I’m going to quote the third scenario in full and note only that I think his objections are spot on!

Another possibility is that mission agencies should be accountable to their donors. In a sense, this is already true; if people stop giving money, then the mission has to stop doing stuff. However, there are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, I’m not convinced that having money to give away (even if you have lots of money to give away) qualifies you to make sound judgements about mission strategy on the other side of the globe. Just because you have made a gazillion dollars manufacturing widgets, it doesn’t mean that you understand what it takes to plant a church in a Chinese megacity. Secondly, one of the areas where I believe mission agencies need to be held to account is in their publicity and fund-raising strategies. Some agencies pitch for donations in a way that would make my hair curl, if I had any. They do this because it works and because the donors are prepared to buy in to the (frankly dubious) promises that some agencies make. We can’t expect those same donors to hold the agency to account.

As soon as mission strategies are decided and put in motion outside the local church the door is opened to all manor of abuses.⁵ Sadly, these are not just theoretical issues but very pragmatic ones that end up hurting the very cause they wish to support.

The early church knew that some sort of oversight and accountability was essential in mission work. That is just as true today as it was then, but I’m not entirely convinced that we have the systems in place.

I’m not convinced the systems are in place either, but I am convinced the church is where the systems need to be placed. Likewise I’m convinced that the source for them is the same as the church’s every other need, its one head and His Word. Besides the much talked about issue of inerrancy, I also believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. Of course it’s not a play-by-play handbook for every twist and turn in our lives. It doesn’t tell me whether to cook the Mantı or the Spaghetti for dinner; but the great commission and the coming of God’s kingdom being one of the great themes of the Bible, I cannot imagine it not giving us the tools we need for mission. Would God seriously not have foreseen how great a task it was going to be? If some structure other than those given the church in general was necessary to make it all come together I would expect to find some hints at least.

Which brings me to the context in which this issue surfaced for me last month.⁶ I was at an Acts 29 conference and having a great time fellowshiping with like minded brothers—yet at the same time I was ill at ease. As much as Acts 29 gets right, I still feel like it gets this equation wrong. Lets start with what it gets right.

Why are we so single-minded? Because we believe that the church is God’s primary mission strategy, and so the means by which Jesus is made more famous as communities of light are scattered throughout the world to dispel the darkness.

Preach it brothers! I’m with you there.

That being said, I have no intention of joining the network and, at least in many cases, would try to dissuade other pastors from doing so. So what gives?

The break for me comes in this twist of logic. Acts 29 specifically claims not to take the place of the local church. So far so good. It also claims not to be a denomination. As well it shouldn’t because it doesn’t do most of what a denomination should. But then it steps in to fill a handful of roles that churches and denominations ought to have taken care of anyway. I can’t get it out of my head that if our churches and denominations were functioning and doing their jobs in the first place, the scope Acts 29 maps out for itself would be entirely redundant. If it’s not redundant, then the former is broken. So lets fix it at the core rather than patch on something from the outside.

Ergo, as far as I can see, the only churches that really have a need for what Acts 29 provides are ones with non-functional local church or denominational relations. In that event I would advocate getting those fixed before substituting something that does part of the job but doesn’t also shoulder the other responsibilities that go with those roles.

Am I missing the boat?

¹ Sadly the word ‘Mission’ has come to mean a host of different things to Christians around the world. Additionally, where I live ‘Missionary’ is commonly considered a bad word to use because of the images it conjures up of subversive behavior, hidden agendas, and cultural indiscretion. However I’m going to leave those debates for another time, and for this post will just use the terms in as generic a way as possible for lack of more meaningful substitutes.
² Ironically, for most of them this means pointing their horses west.
³ For my geek friends, picture an ad-hoc network in a fully connected mesh topology. Once it outgrows a meaningful number of links, it can morph into a hybrid ring & bus topology. The tree and star topology should be reserved for our Catholic cousins. For my nerd friends, see Presbyterian church governance.
⁴ A round Scriptural defense of the view is probably something I should work on writing up. I’ve read several before, but, if this is something you want to hear, poking me to work on it would be good for my own clarity of thought if nothing else.
⁵ You Unix hackers know that some things work nicely in user-space, others are rightly reserved for the kernel. Conflating the two would be horribly misguided. Also please stop me before I compare your favorite sending agency to systemd and start babbling on about the apocalypse or paint it as an “all-devouring octopus monster about crawl out of the sea and eat Tokyo and spit it out as a giant binary logfile.”
⁶ I’m skipping from this week to last month, not because this didn’t come up for a whole month but because it’s easier to pick on public statements than personal situations!


5 thoughts on “Put the Church in Charge”

  1. Thanks for interacting with my post and taking things a step further. I’d love to find something to disagree with in what you say, so that we could have a proper internet argument, but I can’t

    I agree wholeheartedly with this sentence:

    “I’m not convinced the systems are in place either, but I am convinced the church is where the systems need to be placed. ”

    The reason that I didn’t go so far as to say this, is that I know that it would alienate a few people who read my blog and I want to keep them on board and thinking and not heading a away in frustration.

    Thanks again, I’m more than a little flattered to have elicited such and excellent and thoughtful response.

    What do you mean you don’t agree with everything I write? :-)

    1. Well, that is anticlimactic! Don’t worry, I’m sure we can find something to have a proper internet argument over eventually.

  2. Eddie posed this question:

    How are missionaries and mission agencies accountable today?

    Which question Caleb re-scoped, including this claim:

    Agencies don’t factor in at all.

    Which resonated with my own reaction on seeing Eddie’s original question: the “and” joins together incommensurate objects. “Agencies” are institutional organizations; “missionaries” are people–more specifically, in this context, Christians.

    I’m not exactly sure what all follows from this observation, except that it inclines the discussion down the route that Caleb takes it. It also brings to the surface some incoherence in Eddie’s three original suggestions: his ##1 and 3 relate to institutions/”agencies”; #2 to missionaries themselves.

    Acts 13 (adding a passage Eddie might have included, but didn’t) (and avoiding “ch. 29” for the moment [grin/]) suggests that the church *is* the body that sends missionaries, and to whom they are thus in some sense “accountable”. Probably someone, somewhere has already said: “Mission organizations exist because churches [mostly] aren’t [sending]” (cf. Acts 13:3). Eddie concluded with this:

    The early church knew that some sort of oversight and accountability was essential in mission work. That is just as true today as it was then, but I’m not entirely convinced that we have the systems in place.

    And I think Caleb’s solution is essentially correct: the only “system” the NT knows is the church. Where, then, does that leave “agencies”?

    Here’s my tweak on Caleb’s musings. I was at an event Saturday in which one *denominational* church planter explained as one of his “top tips” how helpful he had found the Acts 29 network. They had provided the sorts of resources and expertise that his denominational (“home mission”) structures were not able to. One supplemented the other. There was no doubt, however, about where “accountability” lay.

    Does this suggest a different way of thinking about missionaries and agencies? What if “secondment” was a more prominent model for the relationship? It is a term very familiar in our “far more complex world” (E. Arthur), but one well suited to the relationship. Missionaries “belong” to their church; the church “sends”; the “agency” provides a structure and expertise framing the work of the missionary. And it–the agency–is governed by its proper legal (and moral) ties.

    Maybe this is just obvious. Or maybe it’s just a fancy way of describing what is already the situation. But it seems to me it clarifies the lines of “accountability” along biblical lines in a way that reflects the complexities of the world we live in.

    1. Thanks yor your additional feedback on this David. Unfortunately, your rephrasing of things sort of works on paper but my experience is that where the rubber meets the road it ends up looking quite different. That’s part of why I don’t think it’s helpful to re-frame the status quo: it doesn’t help people already familiar with the terms wake up to the issue.

      That being said, there is also a pretty big non-sequitur in my own post. I probably should have saved A29 for another post because my issue with it as an organization is actually fundamentally different than either what Eddie was raising or where this post was aimed. It wasn’t really fair of me to lump them in here. I might work on a follow up to sort that out.

      1. My comment also had an incubation period of approximately the length of time it took to read your two posts. :)

        Interesting that it struck you as a reframing of the status quo. My thought was that it [could] pretty radically push the agencies aside. The “secondment model” (it seemed to me) prioritizes relationship between the church and its missionaries. “Agencies” are outside that relationship (they are not “middle’men'” or intermediaries of any kind) but can provide a specialist context suited to the work carried out.

        But even as I type, I’m sensing gaps and weaknesses there … which is a helpful outcome of trying to participate in a conversation! I’ll keep pondering, and hope the conversation continues.

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