Are we entering a new phase of Christian missions that can best be described as a web of relationships with local churches as part of the mix? I think something new is developing that is changing the face of Christian missions.
I am thinking particularly about the ministry entrepreneurs who have a special sense of calling and act on it. These are individuals or couples who have a calling to a specific type of ministry, the gifts to do it, the passion to sustain their work, and a willingness to devote their lives to make it happen.
My wife and I support some people who are ministry entrepreneurs. In addition to our gifts to the local church, CBF Global Missions, Central Seminary and the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, we send monthly checks to three couples who are doing ministry with specific groups – two in the United States and one overseas. We do this for three reasons: we know the individuals involved, we value their ministry, and we affirm their ability to do it. This is Kingdom work, and we want to be part of it.
Some have suggested that this is a return to the old “society” approach to missions and have charged that this approach leads to splintering of support and rewards those with the most heart-rending stories. In reality, the society approach never really died in Baptist life in the south. Although churches have and do contribute to cooperative mission endeavors, both traditional and newer Baptist groups have supported special offerings for missions (Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, Global Missions, state missions), institutions (colleges, seminaries, adult and children’s homes) and organizations (American Bible Society, Gideons, Habitat for Humanity and so on).
What may be new are the methodologies involved. For one thing, all of the couples we support have some connection with a larger agency, but the agencies provide two primary things – administrative assistance and training. The agencies do not give financial support, and they only provide a broad ministry strategy, leaving the persons on the field the opportunity to exercise their gifts in local, tactical ministries.
Another new approach is the way that these couples communicate to their supporters. Reports and prayer requests come not only by snail mail but by digital means. We can know within a few minutes if there is a specific need, success or prayer concern. Supporters can have immediate, personal feedback from the field workers.
Another aspect is the post-denominational aspect of these ministries. Although these couples come out of specific faith communities, their support is found in churches and individuals from a number of faith traditions. These individuals and churches support the ministries because they are committed to Christian witness and not to a particular Christian witness.
Perhaps this also testifies that the locus of authority is moving from organizations to individual relationships. Trusting relationships are important when it comes to people making decisions about their investment of time, money and resources. Institutions are no longer trusted as they once were.
This way of doing missions can be a bit messy and may seem inefficient, but my friends who are doing it can testify to the ways that God is speaking through their work and changing the lives of individuals and communities. Not a bad way to measure success!
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.