I’ve already written about how to get an IMB missionary to come to your church; basically it boils down to requesting someone to come. Today, I’d like to examine what might possibly have led churches to stop requesting missionaries and why missionaries, for their part, don’t seem to aggressively pursue venues in which to speak.
A disclaimer: please, no blame-game discussions. We can seek causes without vilifying those attached to them. The goal behind a search for causes should always be to ameliorate the effects. As well, I’m painting with broad strokes here and as such there will be exceptions, permutations, mitigating circumstances galore.
Another disclaimer: this post should probably be split into two to address everything in detail; however, attention spans. To avoid writing a 2,000 word manifesto, I’m going to race through these causes with the briefest of explanations. I imagine our body of commenters will be able to flesh out the skeletal treatment I’m offering.
Right off the bat, money makes an appearance. Churches send funds to the IMB through various means and often, it seems, assume the organization will pay for missionary travel. That’s not the case: when I’m in the US I travel as far as churches and organizers can afford to send me because the IMB does not cover those costs. Churches everywhere struggle financially, and one can understand the reluctance to spend on airfare, hotel, food, and gas, even if missions is the ultimate goal.
At times, the reluctance feels less like financial limitations and more like apathy. I blame a certain creeping tribalism in our culture which focuses on ourselves and those who are like us. Spending funds on someone we don’t know to talk about people we’ll never meet in places we’ve never heard about…meh. We could discuss the impact of perspectives on immigration in the US, but that’s a new trend and I’m uncertain how to proceed.
Even in churches possessing funds and a proper focus, members are less aware of the work of the IMB. Girls in Action (GAs for you old timers) previously channeled ladies into the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU), a group famous for its unflagging support for international missions. Fewer GA groups and the lower profile of the WMU lead to less awareness among churches and fewer projects focusing on support for international missionaries; care packages, letters to missionary kids, etc.
As the new generation of SBCers matured in the absence of a strong missions emphasis, generational distrust of institutions rose as well. Godly young men and women therefore possess less information and trust in traditional SBC structures. This lack of loyalty, if you will, to the SBC and the IMB frees churches to support other mission endeavors, often at the expense of the support for the IMB. Often, this shift to a new direction hinges on relationships, not institutions. Smaller mission groups competing for a finite pool of financial and personal support sometimes outperform the IMB which still relies on the inertia of institutional support.
The IMB perhaps unwittingly contributed to this shift. The rise of the non-professional missionary – candidates from a variety of non-pastoral, non-seminary backgrounds – swelled the missionary force and brought valuable insight and skills to the organization. Side-effects, as others mentioned, include those who are ill-equipped for the American pulpit,* resulting in poor preaching during the church’s main event, the Sunday morning sermon. Pastors protect their pulpits – rightfully so – and unsurprisingly respond by inviting fewer missionaries.**
*Of course, not all missionaries in churches preach; some present the details of their work quite clearly. As well, teaching styles are culturally influenced, meaning a missionary who preaches poorly by SBC standards is often guilty of nothing more than preaching in ways most effective for his usual audience on the field.
**Full disclosure: I am chief among the offenders, especially early in my career. When I preached, and I use that word loosely, the angels averted their eyes while those in Abraham’s Bosom stirred uneasily, as if someone had run a cheap, rented Craftsman tiller across their graves.
Missionaries themselves sometimes fail to pursue churches as they should. Field fatigue saps their passion and energy; upon returning to the US, they check off the first 5 events on a list and content themselves with the bare minimum. When they travel, they often attend events coordinated by associations of too many pastors who fill their dance card by contacting the IMB directly. In other words, the large events discourage the personal relationships necessary for involvement. The remedy for the large event is for individual churches to host missionaries, the very thing whose death we’re investigating.
The relationship between pastors, churches, and the IMB does not function as it once did. SBC members examine organizational decisions (financial, personnel, policy) in greater detail. Gone are the days of blind trust in the institution; this is the day of open dissension, polite disagreement, vehement castigation, cautious advice, warranted or not. Wars (Rankin, private prayer language), rumors of wars (Platt, Calvinism’s invasion), and disasters (financial woes, VRI, HRO) free churches from feeling obligated to support a single organization, and so their money, support, and pulpit time go to others.
Without the institutional knowledge, without the loyalty to the convention, without groups to promote missions year-round, the onus of maintaining a relationship with the IMB shifts from the church as a whole to the office of the pastor. Pastors’ plates usually carry more than they can chew; besides, the programmatic structure many churches utilize lacks flexibility for a guest speaker; simultaneously, reserving a single weekend a year in advance for your preferred missionary speaker remains out of reach.
“Why would any church,” says the cliche, “invite the missionary to encourage participation? Aren’t missions the responsibility of the IMB, and not the church?” This pernicious mindset has created an “out of mind” approach to missions for some; the impact is easy to predict.
We could go on, I suppose, but let’s not.
Obviously, the complex, overlapping factors flow in multiple directions and find their source in vague movements and subtle shifts in culture. We’re not likely to resolve most of these, but I believe a shift in approach can help restore the presence of missionaries in the halls and pulpits of the churches who sent them.
But that’s the next post.