The Future of Church and Agency Partnership
Now I can’t unsee Star Wars. It started when my wife observed how the futuristic films manage to be simultaneously primitive and advanced. I used to have no thought of a hologram suddenly appearing in the midst of scrap-seeking, desert-dwelling Jawas. But now, it’s all juxtaposition.
Perhaps it’s also because I grew up in rural Kentucky. There I made mud pies for entertainment and presented them to my family when they finished planting a row of tobacco. But if I were a kid there today—if I mud-pied at all—I would probably just Instagram them.
Or maybe it also began when I was serving as a missionary in east Africa. I remember walking through the marketplace and seeing a group of farmers awkwardly clustered around a generator. They had walked hours to town from their villages—just so they could finally recharge their smartphones.
See, it’s everywhere!
What does this have to do with local churches and missions agencies? Well, it relates in two ways. First, 21st century missions means entering a strange juxtaposition of the primitive and the advanced. It is an ancient commission with timeless practices, but carried out in a strange context of swelling population, globalization, migration, and technologicalization. It demands that we remain faithful in our aim, but innovative in our approach.
Second, the relationship between local churches and missions agencies is itself a strange juxtaposition of the primitive and the advanced. Originally, the local church held centrality in missions sending. But eventually that became the “old way” of doing things. Over the centuries missions agencies rose and took centerstage. They were a picture of the innovative approach amidst a changing world.
How and why did this happen? And is it the best paradigm moving forward?
History of Missions Agencies
Let’s begin answering those questions by taking a brief look at the history of missions agencies.
Unfortunately, the account doesn’t begin with a clear Scriptural example. The church at Antioch in Acts 13 gives us the first glimpse of a sending entity, but it would be a hermeneutical stretch to give them the label of “missions agency.” This pattern of local churches sending missionaries continued throughout the first centuries of Christianity.
The shift came, and came quickly, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion and began forming monastic and sometimes military orders for advancing the faith. During European imperialism, God’s mission was often equated with colonization, and missionaries took their orders as much from the king as they did from the church. The Protestant Reformation would later rock the world, but, ultimately, it did more to redefine the church gathered than the church sent.
Leading up to the modern missions movement, it was commonly accepted that churches could not and should not send (insert Dr. Ryland’s reply to William Carey, “Young man, sit down; when God is pleased to convert the heathen world, he will do it without your help or mine”). When the passion of the modern missions movement converged with the idea that churches would not facilitate sending, missions agencies as we understand them today were born. By the 1920s, denominational organizations operated like American corporations and could function almost completely separate from churches. The churches, in turn, largely outsourced their commission to them.
Yet vast changes after World War II rearranged missions and missions agencies. Influential missiological voices like those of Roland Allen and Lesslie Newbigin recaptured the belief that the church is the missionary of God and called for its centrality in mission. Spurred on by globalization and denominational discontent, many churches began bypassing missions agencies to initiate and manage their own endeavors. Indeed, there is a growing “sending church” movement that seems to be reorienting churches as central in missions sending. Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss, who provided this helpful history, note that “from 1900 to 2000 the percentage of North American missionaries sent by mainline mission organizations dropped from 80 percent to only 6 percent” (202-208).
In light of this swinging pendulum, we must ask ourselves, is the day of the missions agency coming to an end?
Posture of Agencies
I do not think the missions agency has run its course. As missionary Harry Boer writes, “The missionary society is, scripturally speaking, an abnormality. But it is a blessed abnormality” (Beals, 137). Missions organizations have been uniquely used by God to lead in missions at times when the church was simply unwilling to do so. They remain a unique gift to the church, and what they bring to the table does not have to be (and often cannot be) reproduced by every local church. To “deny the validity of [them] is to seriously hamper the fulfillment of the missionary mandate” (Beals, 222).
Thus, I do not question their validity. But I do question their posture.
The missionary mandate was given to the universal church expressed as local churches. Agencies, regardless of how well they have represented or continue to represent local churches, are not local churches. When agencies seek to take the lead in making disciples and planting churches by “sending” missionaries apart from the centrality of the local church, it reveals an expropriating posture, even if unintended.
However, the New Testament seems to communicate that God’s mission must be tethered to God’s church. Acknowledging that leads to a posture not just toward the urgency of the task (reaching lost people), but also toward the means by which the task is to be carried out (building God’s people).
For partnerships between churches and organizations to flourish as they should, there must be a shared presupposition: local churches “are the hub of the missions wheel, while mission organizations are spokes in the wheel helping churches extend their work” (Beals, 133). That makes for a very different posture.
Perspective of Churches
Inevitably, however, some churches will end up overcorrecting. In self-sufficient zeal they may commandeer the relationship with missions agencies or just bypass them altogether. This would be just as unfortunate. Although the Scriptures offer no precedent for missions agencies, they do communicate a measure of autonomy among the apostolic teams during their missionary journeys. Make no mistake, Paul and his teams were profoundly attached to the local churches that sent and supported them, churches of whom they were an extension. But many of their everyday and strategic decisions appear to have come from their dependence on the Holy Spirit and one another rather than the micromanagement of the local church.
Sending churches are responsible to send their missionaries toward healthy ministries that are informed by the Scriptures and empowered by the Holy Spirit. They may choose to forego the wisdom and experience of missions agencies in the process, but they will likely repeat many unnecessary mistakes and carry a weight that may at times be “too heavy [to] handle alone” (Exodus 18:18). Researcher Patrick Johnstone sums it all up this way:
Possibly the most defective partnership is that between the mission agencies and local churches . . . it is the result of two centuries of mission agencies acting as if local churches were just a source of finance and people, and local churches acting irresponsibly in their roles of sending and supporting. The centrality of the local church in missions needs to be emphasized, and agencies must be more accountable to their supporting churches for their ministries and use of workers. However, both are vital components of the Church—and must work together (234).
Healthy partnerships between churches and missions agencies lead to so much more than what could be accomplished by either entity on its own. As churches take the primary responsibility of sending their people into God’s mission, they are wise to take advantage of agencies’ experience and support.
The Road Ahead
With the above posture of agencies and perspective of churches in place, there is hope for the strange juxtaposition to become sweet complementarity. Churches that haven’t given up on agencies are looking to partner with agencies that haven’t given up on churches. But such a road begins at this junction: relationships.
Instead of relating to one another simply through the exchange of goods and services, there must be a basic common denominator: at least one church leader and one agency leader who actually have a relationship and want to maintain it throughout the course of sending a missionary unit (pre-field, a-field, post-field). Better yet, if the relationship could grow into more than two people—say, one staff team working with another staff team—the possibility for a thriving partnership would multiply. Perhaps that is too small, slow, and grassroots for our Western approach to partnership, but the global church’s relational virtues would teach us otherwise.
The reason why relationships are so necessary to the future of church-agency partnership is because of the currency of missions sending: people. Far more than the static exchange of goods and services, agencies are helping churches to send people. They need more than the chutes of the field personnel manual—they need to be shepherded as unique and dynamic sheep. That can happen most naturally from the foundation of unique and dynamic relationships between church and agency leaders.
This emphasis on interpersonal relationships will only grow as denominational loyalties fragment and church networks continue to rise. Agencies will likely have to relate to a wider diversity of traditions, and reckon with helping those traditions to partner together. Churches may not be able to find so large a tribe as in the past.
The only way partnership will not also fragment will be through interdependence: the missionary, the sending church, the receiving field, and the missions agency all connected and doing their part. The future will depend on the church and agency’s willingness to draw the net of relationships. Perhaps this could be the most complementary role of the agency: drawing and/or maintaining the net of relationships around the sending church.
Missions agencies have not been known historically for flexibility and creativity in missions sending. The vision, strategy, locations, qualifications, etc. have been predetermined and the church must provide candidates to match. Indeed, many have been turned away from foreign fields because they did not meet certain criteria, some having been led to believe that no other agency would consider them. The road has been ruled by the agency. And yet the “board” is not the Lord.
The road ahead runs through the local church and the vision and strategy they have put in place (which demands that they do so!). What if they want to send marketplace workers in addition to vocational missionaries? What if they want to send their people to serve directly under a national partner? Missions agencies with a posture of support will seek to be more flexible when relating to these churches.
Up till now local churches involved in missions sending have experienced missions agencies as networks unto themselves. In many cases the agency provided an internally developed infrastructure that missionaries entered as they arrived on the field. Their leadership, care, and logistical support were all conveniently nearby and aligned. This insulated world rendered the local church almost unnecessary (apart from financial support).
Yet if the centrality of local churches rises, and the size of missions agencies correlatively decreases, then the ability to supply such an all-inclusive vehicle is unrealistic. Instead, helping local churches to explore and forge their own directly-connected networks would provide great mileage on the road of missions sending.
Perhaps this approach to church and agency partnership is far too futuristic to be realistic. But I am inspired by one initiative that seems aimed at these very things. A collective of sending churches have banded together to “build a new type of sending organization, one that intentionally takes a back seat so that local churches can lead the way in sending their people to the nations.” They are calling this agency Upstream Sending, and a number of their distinctives align with what I have shared above as part of the road ahead in church-agency partnership. Such a hybrid entity may not be able to thrive after decades of agencies providing solely back-end services or an all-inclusive vehicle.
Or it could open the door to the future.
The relationship between local churches and missions agencies has been a strange juxtaposition of the primitive and the advanced. Yes, the local church originally held centrality in missions sending, but that became old hat long ago. Could we see a “back to the future,” a reorientation of missions agencies in the face of a rapidly changing world? Is this what it would look like to be faithful in our aim yet innovative in our approach?
Call it a hologram in the desert, an instagram in the tobacco field, or a smartphone in the middle of timbuktu, but I think there’s something happening here that we can’t unsee.
This article was originally featured in the Missionary Mobilization Journal.