Should we send “ordinary Christians” as missionaries? What I’ve learned from the Ugandan church.

by Editor on September 11, 2017

By Anthony Sytsma

Should churches send out “ordinary Christians” as missionaries? That is the question that came to my mind when I read an intriguing tweet from Chuck Swindoll:

Missions aren’t just for superstars. A missionary is just like you. Ordinary folks through whom God does the extraordinary.”

On the one hand, I agree with this statement. I, as a missionary, know my own sins and weaknesses.  I am regularly astounded at how God has used me. It is his grace at work in me, an ordinary person. A major biblical theme is that God likes to use weak people, sinful people, and people who we would not expect for his Kingdom work.

But on the other hand, Swindoll’s comment brought to mind what Ugandan church leaders have told me about missionaries during my discussions with them in When Helping Hurts trainings. I think Ugandans are frustrated with “ordinary missionaries.” Ugandan leaders told me to tell the North American church that we should stop sending missionaries who aren’t prepared. And above all, they want missionaries who are theologically trained and strong in faith and character.

One Ugandan asked, “Are the donors back home actually strong in faith but they are just sending us middle-men?” Another said, “If they are not trained and not able to teach, then why are they sent to work here?” They are confused when North American churches and mission organizations emphasize the importance of Bible college and seminary education, and yet some of the missionaries they send, who are trying to teach pastors, have not had these types of education themselves.

How do we synthesize both Swindoll’s comment and the quotes from the Ugandan leaders? Both perspectives seem to be true and important. Should we send ordinary Christians as missionaries? My answer is a qualified “yes.” Missionaries are indeed ordinary Christians in one sense, but they should be trained and well-prepared ordinary Christians. God can use anybody for his work, even if they are not prepared or even sinful. But we should never use this as an excuse to be unprepared or irresponsible in our mission work.

I think a historical shift has taken place in the North American Church. In the recent past, I’m sure that emphasizing this theme of Swindoll’s was helpful. It was a corrective to churches that idealized missionaries too much, making them out to be abnormal super Christians, the examples of whom we could not possibly hope to live up to. But it seems the pendulum has shifted to the other extreme side. Now we view missionaries as a little bit too ordinary. In the rest of this post, I’d like to analyze this historical shift.

The consequences of this historical shift

Some very good things have resulted from this historical shift. People like me were encouraged that despite our weaknesses God could use even us. Our fears were largely taken away. This shift has also helped church members in sending churches to better relate to, understand, befriend, and be more patient with missionaries because they realize that we are actually not extraordinary people, but just regular ordinary folks.

But there have been some negative consequences from this historical shift as well:

  • While before some people felt too inadequate to become a missionary, now it seems that people do not have enough feelings of humble inadequacy.
  • Some missionaries are not being adequately prepared and trained before going to other countries. They are told God can use them just as they are, in their weaknesses. So they rush off to try to change the world with scant theological and mission education, very little reading of theology and mission books, and little practical ministry experience in their home country.
  • Perhaps some people are becoming missionaries because they are told repeatedly, “anyone can be a missionary” but they are not truly called by God to do it. Sending churches may not be testing the personal callings of missionaries enough today.
  • Many missionaries have had to go home because of falling into sin, having mental breakdowns, or having unfruitful ministries. These tragic missionary stories are common. We need to show compassion and mercy to such missionaries, but some of these tragedies could have been avoided had the missionaries been adequately prepared and received counseling before going overseas.
  • Many missionaries in developing countries are doing as much harm as good as they try to reach out to the poor (see the book When Helping Hurts). Many missionaries jump in the airplane and go without ever having read any books on poverty alleviation. If all you have is a compassionate heart and you haven’t been taught about how to effectively help the poor, or how to counsel alcoholics, or how to work with the homeless, or how to work against corruption, (you name the issue), then you can’t really expect to make much of a positive impact.
  • Since the message is that “any ordinary person can be a missionary overseas,” churches have severely downplayed some biblical passages:
    • Passages about each person having different gifts and abilities, and therefore different roles. Not everyone is supposed to be a missionary in another country just like not everyone is supposed to be a pastor or elder.
    • Passages about the importance of teaching, being taught, and training up new leaders. We need to be prepared.  1 Peter 3:15 – But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
    • Passages about special qualifications and ordination to positions such as Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3, and the powerful James 3:1 – “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others.” Logically and biblically, those we ordain as leaders, such as elders, deacons, or pastors, should be people of excellent character, knowledge, and leadership skills. They should be more spiritually mature than other Christians.  In other words, though this is a bit crass, they should be “the best of the best.” Why do we think it should be any different for those we ordain as missionaries? If we are to choose “the best” as elders and overseers of the church, why wouldn’t we also choose “the best” to be sent out to new cultures to start new churches, as representatives of the churches that send them? I don’t understand why American Christians still look up to pastors as being more spiritually mature leaders of God’s people, but then they say we should not look up to missionaries as spiritually mature Christian leaders because they are just ordinary Christians?

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

I admit that these are not easy issues, and I don’t want to be legalistic about the following items. I can apply these tough questions as easily to myself as to other missionaries and not fully get a passing grade. But we should try to make sure our missionaries are as spiritually mature and prepared as they can be.

  • Why do some denominations have vigorous standards for ordination to pastoral ministry, but not for missionaries? In my denomination, for a person to become ordained as a pastor, it takes years of education, training, psychological evaluations, internships, difficult exams, and a local church affirming your calling. I think this is good and fitting for the difficult calling that being a pastor is. Why don’t mission agencies and denominations have as vigorous standards for people to become missionaries? Especially consider that they are also doing difficult ministry, but with the added challenge of doing it in a foreign culture.
  • Why is it that we send people to start new churches, who have not pastored a church in their passport country first?
  • Why is it that we send missionaries to preach who have never preached in their passport country?
  • Why do we send people overseas to help the poor if they have not done any poverty alleviation work in their passport country first?
  • Why do we send people to evangelize who have never led someone to Christ in their passport country?
  • Why is it that we send people to teach others theology who have not had theological education themselves first?
  • If you would not be comfortable with your missionary as an elder or pastor of your church in your own country, then should you really be comfortable with them representing your church to a new culture in another country?

Let’s make sure whatever missionaries we send are thoroughly prepared, experienced, counseled, discipled, and trained before they go.  Let’s embrace humility, remembering that missionaries are ordinary people, and it is God who works in and through us.  But remember, we are dealing with the Great Commission, the Good News, the Gospel.  It is important.  Let us take the missionary calling seriously.

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Rev. Anthony Sytsma works in Kenya and Uganda with World Renew, a Christian development organization affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA).  He is passionate about equipping local churches, and his main work is to teach and encourage church leaders. He is married to Sara who works with farmers in agricultural development and other livelihood projects. They blog jointly at Word and Seed in Kenya.

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