“There is a certain bias and perception that the mission outreach strategy of the American church is always the best and right for every country and culture,” says Erik Lai, a missionary to his native country of Malaysia.
Churches across America have built a ministry paradigm around numbers and innovation. Each week, they prominently display attendance and highlight monthly giving. They devote manpower and massive budgets to new programs, and they exhaust resources competing with the entertainment sector.
This focus on numbers and novelty has also dictated their view of global missions. American churches often demand numbers to justify their investment: How many missionaries are we sending? How many churches have been planted? How many people have come to Christ?
But effective global work can’t be reduced to plottable points alone.
“Mission work is always contextual work,” says Chad Lakies, who studies the intersection of the North Atlantic church and culture. “And it’s always relational.” Data simply can’t tell the stories of lives changed through the redemptive power of the gospel. And if people continue to measure global missions by the American church's standards, they inevitably minimize the invaluable perspectives of other cultures.
Perhaps Americans have made the Great Commission far more complicated than it needs to be.
Leaning Toward Local
“Many churchgoers are well-intentioned with a general desire to share their faith and care for and connect with the world,” reports Barna in their latest research study on missions. “But [people] misinterpret what the Great Commission means for their lives (if they know the Great Commission at all) and view missions as not-so-urgent work that only a select group of Christians are called to do.”
Despite Jesus’ call to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), global missions work is often not a priority for the average American, and traditionally only the work of full-time foreign missionaries or short-term trips is widely supported.
But these approaches have been rightly scrutinized. The logistics of sending long-termers is expensive, with mounting costs from language schools, relocation, travel documents, and furlough. In addition, the ministry of foreign missionaries can be challenging or even damaging because of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. Younger churchgoers also question if continuing to support these kinds of endeavors is the best way to address some of the problems of the past.
Short-term trips are marketed as an effective way to engage with global missions work. Whether it’s painting an orphanage in Haiti or hosting a soccer camp in Mexico, this cross-cultural experience can be fulfilling and eye-opening for those who travel abroad.
But what happens when the team flies home? The participants broaden their perspectives, but very little is changed about the lives on the other end of this ministry. In some instances, these teams can have a negative impact on the economy and the mental health of the people who host them. If the goal is to make disciples, we have to ask ourselves if this approach fulfills the call of the Great Commission.
Arguably, the most effective missionaries are the local pastors and Christians working day in and day out to minister to their communities. These local missionaries have organic relationships with the people in their care and a built-in knowledge of language and culture that allows them to convey the love of Christ effectually. We can praise the mission efforts of previous generations that have resulted in a world where local Christians can be found in the majority of the world.
Local missionaries are positioned to serve their communities in ways that outsiders cannot. Not only do they understand language and culture, but they also don’t face the same hurdles of visas, paperwork, and approvals that foreign missionaries do. This allows them more time and financial resources to devote to their communities–places where they are already known and respected.
“The strong majority of U.S. pastors believe equipping indigenous leaders is more important than short-term efforts,” reports Barna. But this knowledge hasn’t resulted in native missionaries being flooded with support. While pastors may understand this, the truth isn’t trickling down to the average congregant, and many are still clinging to those traditional models and hard success metrics to measure impact and influence.
What’s Mine to Do?
If we are not committing to long-term placements or short-term trips, it can be hard to discern how to engage in global missions as Americans. We don’t want to grow apathetic or ignore Jesus’ call to go and make disciples of all nations. So how do we support local mission work that’s already being done?
With a posture of humility, we can listen and learn from local leaders who have the skills and knowledge to reach the people in their community. This means we seek out cross-cultural partnerships. We don’t assume we know what’s needed, but instead, we defer to those who are actively reaching their communities. We strategically give and pray as we recognize the immensity of the world, the importance of the Great Commission, and the need for our own contributions.
And we look for organizations that are already on the ground working through local leaders. We seek out trusted organizations that value transparency and accountability in their ministry model while also trusting their local partners with the work of contextualizing the gospel in culturally sensitive ways.
Over the last century, Lutheran Hour Ministries has been faithfully engaging in the Great Commission in this way, amplifying the work of those already ministering within their local contexts. With 34 centers across six continents, each led and staffed by only indigenous leaders, Lutheran Hour Ministries’ reach is vast, touching the lives of people more than 150 million times every week with free resources that include daily devotions and online courses.
For those eager to learn more about how best to support local leaders around the world who are fulfilling the Great Commission, sign up for the Lutheran Hour Ministries newsletter to receive regular updates.