Go Ahead and Criticize Missions (Constructively)

When raising children, we know that it’s only God who can draw their hearts to himself. But that doesn’t stop us from reading the best books and looking for the best advice. We search for the church with the best youth group and spend way too much money on the best camps.

When we’re sick, we know that ultimately it’s God who heals. But that doesn’t stop us from buying insurance, looking for the best hospital, and researching the best methods.

When we travel, we know that God is the one who protects us. But that doesn’t stop us from finding the safest car seats, getting our brakes serviced, and using only reputable airlines.

When we do evangelism and missions, we know that God is ultimately the one who saves souls. But why then are we supposed to check our brains at the door?

I am a firm believer in the Sovereignty of God–that God is in control of all situations and all hearts. I also have no doubt that God can take our worst failures, our biggest sins, or even downright evil, and use it for his will and his glory.

Of course, God can take the most abusive parent and bring forth the most kind-hearted child. God can take the most run-down hospital or ill-equipped doctor and bring healing. He can preserve and protect us despite a rickety vehicle or failing brakes.

But that doesn’t mean we stop thinking. We don’t go recklessly running after failure if a better option is right in front of us. So why then, when it comes to evangelism and missions, are discussions about best practices considered taboo?

I keep hearing things like this:

If God called her, then who are we to judge if she is qualified or equipped?

If God led them to do that, then what right do we have to criticize?

If just one person is reached with the gospel, then it’s worth any expense of time, energy, and money. It doesn’t matter if there could be a better way to steward those resources.

Whether or not his evangelism method was effective, that’s between him and God. We should just keep our mouths shut.

If she says God called her, then she must be doing the right thing. Whether she was a success or not is between her and God.

If their intentions were good, then that’s all that really matters. God only cares about the heart, not the end result.

We wouldn’t say that about anything else. If 90% of the people who entered a hospital ended up dead, we wouldn’t say, “Well, as long as one life is saved, why try to improve it?” If a car seat got terrible safety reviews, we wouldn’t buy it anyway and say, “Well, ultimately it’s God who will protect my child.”

Of course, there is a balance to keep here. For example, as missionaries, sometimes we do choose to live in places where medical care or road conditions aren’t exactly stellar. And in those times, it absolutely is our comfort and confidence to rest in God’s sovereignty. Similarly, when we’ve laboured hard on the mission field and seen very little (if any) fruit, we can lean heavily on the promise that ultimately it is God who saves souls.

But that shouldn’t shut down conversation on how we could do it better next time!

Remember, saying “God called me” can be dangerous. So yeah, you do have a right to ask the hard questions of the under-equipped young person who wants to go out and change the world. We do have the responsibility of evaluating the fruit of evangelism methods of the past. It’s okay to delve into the potentially harmful impact of the short-term team. It’s important to question the methods of a ministry strategy that may actually be hindering the gospel. Robust discussion, constructive criticism, and listening with humility are all ways God uses to provide checks and balances for what could be sinful inclinations or just plain foolishness.

So for all of us involved in local evangelism or overseas missions–whether that be as a short or long-term missionary, financial supporter, trainer, recruiter, or partner–we must ask ourselves:  Are we willing to humbly listen to our biblically-based critics? In light of that criticism, are we willing to honestly evaluate our motives and methods? As iron sharpens iron, let us make each other better.  

Looking for Mic-Drop Methods in Missions


I don’t much trust stories that end with “And they all lived happily ever after.” That’s because experience has taught me that princes often turn out to be less than charming and fairy-tale princesses turn out to be, well, only in fairy tales. Of course, we don’t hear “happily ever after” a lot any more, not because we no longer hope for happy endings, but because our vocabulary has changed. Now, we’re more apt to end our stories with something more modern, more definitive, more in your face . . . something more like a mic drop. You know, that’s where you extend your arm and let your live microphone fall to the floor. It’s an exclamation mark with attitude. It’s the walk-off home run of speech making and story telling. It’s “Game over.” It’s “‘Nuf said.” It’s . . . “Boom!”

When it comes to mission work, are you looking for a method that will produce a mic-drop moment? Are you in search of a fool-proof plan that is the perfect answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” Are you hoping for a newsletter story that emphatically tells how you’ve unlocked the secret to soul-winning?

I don’t much trust those stories either.

And that’s because when it comes to mission strategies, after the boom of the microphone hitting the floor, you can expect some kind of a bounce and a clatter and a roll. Those are simply the sounds of real life.

If you’ve been in missions for any time at all, you’ve seen an array of new models for planting churches, presenting the gospel cross culturally, meeting physical needs, engaging people groups, and the like. Some are tweaks to what’s been done before, some are overhauls, some are complete changes of priorities. Some are touted as the new way, some as the purely biblical way, some as the best way, some as the only way.

You and your group may be on the cutting edge of the next big thing, or you may feel as if you’re playing catch up, always late to the party (or conference workshop, as it were). And what about you individually? Did you welcome the last big thing with open arms, or did it leave you saying, “Here we go again”?

In the field of marketing, there’s a lot of talk about the difference between trends and fads. Simply put, trends last, fads don’t. Trends are fads that have staying power. Fads are trends that fizzle out. The trouble is, it’s hard to predict which is which. It’s only in hindsight that we can know for sure. The field of missions isn’t marketing—though following marketing models has become something of a trend lately. (Or is it a fad?) But we, too, want to be able to discern between what will make a long-term impact and what will turn out to be a flavor of the day.

I remember sitting in a meeting several years ago, discussing with coworkers the direction we wanted to go in. Our main topic was a popular book that was making waves in the waters of church planting. I asked if what the book was presenting was a fad. The consensus was no, but with an air of (possibly too much) contrariness, I answered my own question with a yes; I thought it would indeed be a fad. It wasn’t because I thought the principles in the book would be short lived—I actually believed in what it was saying, and still do. It’s because I thought that if we weren’t careful, we, as part of the larger missionary community, would make it into a fad. We’d soon be moving on to a new book and a new method, with a catchy new title and new acronym. We’d soon be chasing something that we hoped would bring quicker and better results.

And that brings me back to that mic-drop thing.

If you are expecting to find the ultimate, never-fail, one-size-fits-all strategy, you are bound to be disappointed.

All of our efforts will not end with us dropping the microphone and walking dramatically away. So we need to be ready when the mic rattles into a heating vent and our feet get tangled in the cord. (Shouldn’t we be using cordless mics by now?) But all is not lost. Of course, all is not lost. That’s just the nature of ministry. When that happens, we shouldn’t throw up our hands in defeat because our version is messier than the case studies we’ve read. There are so many factors at play when it comes to effective ministry: prayer and God’s response to it, our own strengths and weaknesses, political situations, the uniqueness of our target cultures and the individual people in them. It’s simply too much to expect one plan to have all the answers.

Now I may sound as if I’m against change, saying stick with what you’re doing, no matter what. But that’s not my message. If what you’re doing isn’t right and true for you where you are, then you should change course. But if it is right and true, then don’t jump to something else just because the results haven’t matched your expectations. Keep moving forward as best you can, prayerfully evaluating and adjusting as you go.

If I could stretch this metaphor further, I think that we’re misusing the microphone if we just use it to announce our victories before we walk off the stage. Instead, we should pass the mic around. We need to share honestly and openly with each other about the full range of our experiences, our ministry successes and failures. There’s much to be learned from both. If we only report the highs without the lows, the two steps forward without the one or two or three steps back, then we contribute to other’s discouragement, and we miss opportunities to get the input and help that is so necessary.

We need to hear from the researchers and strategists and from the people who are putting ideas into practice. We need to listen to the fresh perspectives of new workers as well as the viewpoints of those with years of experience on the ground. Wisdom comes from many sources.

And, oh yeah, we need to listen to the nationals around us, with whom we’re sharing life day to day. Their viewpoints are invaluable as we shape and reshape our methods. They are the ones who might take the mic with unsteady hands and speak in soft, unscripted voices. But we need to hear their truths. They are where the plans come alive, in ways that can be messy and complicated and unpredictable . . . and glorious. Such is life. Such is ministry.

[photo: “Mic,” by Robert Bejil, used under a Creative Commons license]