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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  • Sherri

    Agreeing and disagreeing with this article. I feel that author should clarify more as not all missionaries focus on theological training of locals which seems to be the point of this article. Yes, I agree, if a missionary is coming with the focus of training and working with the local church, yes there should be theological training before the person comes.

    But there are many missionaries who have other focuses. Should a doctor who comes over as a missionary go to school longer for theological training when his/her focus is medical? I am a teacher. I do have a Bible College degree, but what if I did not? My focus is running a primary school in Africa. My husband has no college training. He is the maintenance man who keeps our compound running. In our over our ten plus years on the field, many other orgs have stated how they need more men like him to keep their compounds running as there is not always trained local labor to do proper repairs.

    So I feel we need ‘ordinary Christians’ who can oversee construction, maintenance, teachers, etc to come to the mission field. Not all of us are planting and cultivating the church directly.

    • Trish

      I started nodding in agreement with this, as I was reading the very first sentence. Reading on . . . I realized that I know you, LOL.

      But anyway, I absolutely agree with your comments, Sherri. Missionaries should absolutely be trained, educated, and suited for the job they are sent to do – ant that doesn’t necessarily mean theological training. I also think all missionaries should be well grounded in the Word, not babes who aren’t ready for “meat.”

      I grew up in the tradition that missionaries were “superstars,” and that title has never fit *me* – I would definitely have called myself a “regular, everyday Christian” . . . but I have now served for 17 years (in Honduras) and have come to see that not everyone is well suited or prepared to be a missionary, either.

      I see the amount of time, energy, and money spent getting individuals to the field who end up returning in a few months time, or worse, those who stay and create problems on the ground – and I do wish there were some better standards in place, for determining who should be sent.

      • Sherri

        Trish my dear friend! I think you are a superstar!

    • Anthony Sytsma

      Sherri, what you are saying makes a lot of sense. Thank you for the comment. One of my main points is that what we are doing in another country we should be prepared to do and have experience doing in our home country first. Taking your husband as an example. He knows how to do what I have no idea how to do. But he is prepared to do it, having that knowledge already when he came to the country you are serving in. He is not teaching theology, but he is an expert in his field of maintenance and very prepared to do that work. That is excellent.

      I do think though that for missionaries who are doctors or teachers or anything else, it’s still good to have some basic training (not seminary, not a Bible degree), in understanding the Bible, and knowing how to share the Gospel, since you will still be representing Christ and your home church even in capacities such as being a doctor or maintenance person, etc. I’m not saying you and your husband don’t have this. You probably do. This type of training could be done by local churches before sending their missionaries to another country.

  • A Learner

    I also find myself agreeing and disagreeing. I’m a professional working overseas in the secular marketplace. I didn’t have years of theological training, but I did do some intensive short-term training courses and over the past decade I’ve continued learning through reading, conferences, and interactions with the theologians and workers who have had decades of experience in the field. We make a mistake when we insist on a seminary degree for everyone, but we also make a mistake if we send people who go assuming that life there is essentially the same as life in their sending countries.

    • Anthony Sytsma

      Thank you for reading! Yes I would never insist on a seminary degree for everyone. What you described about yourself is exactly what I think more churches and missionaries should be doing. If a person isn’t teaching theology or planting churches, but doing other work, they can still get some basic training through reading and conferences. That’s great!

  • Rick

    Hey Anthony – Just some thoughts. First of all – I agree totally with those who say a lot of missions work has nothing to do with theological training. But, in addition to that, I notice a curious tendency with people and organizations.

    I call it the “once I’ve got mine I’m gonna make it harder on the next guy” syndrome. It works like this: Whatever was required of me when I got “in” I always see other things – good things – that we should add to the obstacle course before we let the next guy in. I mention that because it appears – and I can only go by what you say about yourself – that you perhaps would not be on the mission field yourself if you had to jump through all the hoops you suggest others should. You mentioned you were encouraged by the “anybody can do it” mentality and that you fail (“not fully get a passing grade”) on your own tough questions.

    And, please understand, none of your suggestions are bad. It’s just that we always see more things we should add to the obstacle course. “I got in but the next guy should be required to …” Seminary degree – good. Having planted churches already – good. Having a couple of years of pastoral experience – good. How about already having raised kids, since they will need to be able to counsel others (and it’s Biblical – husband of one wife, rules his house well with children in subjection) – good, has already lived outside the US (how else are we going to really know if they can adjust), know at least the basics of how to fix a car -very good, have a basic understanding of hygiene and primary first-aid – very helpful, CPR certified – sure can’t hurt, on and on the list could go.

    I appreciate your concerns but friend, it’s kind of like marriage. Sure, take all the classes, read all the books, but nothing can really prepare you for it until you are in the middle of it and living it. Some less than fully prepared missionaries will fail and go home early – they always have (John Mark). Some will get into disagreements and shame the cause of Christ because they can’t get along with other missionaries (Paul and Barnabas). Some will be underfunded, misunderstood and perhaps even upset the local customs – Paul. But somehow, despite us, some will see God do amazing things that honor HIS name.

    If we are to send professional missionaries I agree totally with your standards. But I’m not sure “professional” is where it’s at Biblically. For another perspective: http://amzn.to/2h02O2k

    • Anthony Sytsma

      Thanks Rick for the very thoughtful comment. I agree with what you are saying about not making it harder for others than for ourselves. I really don’t want to be “that” guy! I don’t want to overburden people and make it so they are never allowed to leave. You give a good caution and I’m not going to forget it. I don’t want to make it harder for others. For me it took years and years and years of preparation because of life events and other things for us that we had to do to prepare to finally be able to go to another country. I don’t think the process should be so long for everyone as it was for me. My obstacle course was long. I don’t want it to be so long for others, yet I’m also really grateful for all God did to prepare us.

      However, the list of questions I made would not all apply to every person. I think my main point is this – the main thing you are going to be doing overseas, you should be equipped and prepared to do first, and hopefully have some experience of it already in your home country. If you have never shared your faith in your home country, why are you going to another country to do so? If you are going to be a doctor in another country, hopefully you have some experience as a doctor or nurse in your home country.

      So I agree we should not add so many things to the obstacle course! But at least we should each ask ourselves – what is the main thing I will be doing in my ministry? Am I prepared to do that one thing?

      And I think for missionaries who are not doing church planting or theological teaching, it’s still good to have some basic theological and biblical training (not seminary). They should know how to understand the Bible, and know how to share the Gospel, since they will still be representing Christ and their home church even if they are a missionary doctor, development worker, etc. One of my supporting churches equips people like this by going through various trainings with them before they go, giving them mentors, and having them read several books. It doesn’t have to be a huge obstacle course, but there should be some simple preparation.

      I agree with you that God uses us despite our weaknesses, and we don’t want to get caught up in professionalism. But it depends on how we define professionalism. I don’t really like the word. I’d rather just say we need to be taught and prepared before going. Even when we look at the fishermen of the New Testament, they spent years with Jesus being taught, shaped, and trained before he sent them out. We look at Paul and Paul was the most professionally missionary of any of us, having spent years studying the Scriptures under Gamaliel even before he was saved, and even after knowing Jesus, spent another many many years being discipled before starting his mission.

  • Sahia

    I appreciate this article, and as a missionary doctor in my 4th year in a mslm country, when I have people emailing me saying how can they prepare to come as doctors on the mission field, I always encourage theological training and investment in their personal relationship with God. This is an incredibly difficult place to work, and there are so many opportunities for the gospel, and the need is great, but I would prefer to wait for well prepared people. Many doctors have done many years of training, and due to the intensity of their training programs some have had little time to invest in their spiritual growth and relationship with their Father. They have been taught to work in teams and face complex medical or surgical challenges with intellectual rigour, but they haven’t been taught or had the opportunity to think through evangelism and discipleship in the context of a person’s deepest suffering and the ethical complexities of this. They often haven’t thought through what it means for the local community and church to view them as missionary and not just doctor, and the position of spiritual authority that this can give. They often haven’t had to deal with walking through the valley of death as they see children die in front of them every day that could have survived if they had been brought in 2 days earlier. They often haven’t learnt how to deal with a crisis of faith and their own limitations. Seminary, or other in depth theological training, gives time to wrestle with the theory of some of these things. For me, my 3 years in theological training were the hardest in my life, but these years also provided me with a Christian community to wrestle with my doubts and friends that have the theological depth to give me more than platitudes when I see the extent of the brokenness of this world.
    Yes to theological training, even if it is to overwhelm us with a sense of the complexity of our faith, and cause us to re-embrace it in simplicity as a child.

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