This article is about the place of the church in missions, corporate missionary support, and faith support for missions.

Source: The Outlook, 1994. 3 pages.

How should missionaries be supported?

Every overseas mission agency I know, denominational or non-de­nominational, is finding it harder to raise missionary support. Part of this is due to the recession. The recession provoked a crisis that all churches and mission organizations now feel.

Besides the recession, other fac­tors make missionary support more difficult. People who traditionally supported missions are getting older, and some have already gone to glory. Not enough Christians of the "boomer" generation are taking their place. On top of this, there is a trend toward supporting only local programs to the neglect of overseas work.

In the scramble for funds it is tempting for church mission agen­cies to abandon a basic principle regarding mission support and go for whatever system appeals to donors. This is apparent in the shift toward the "faith mission" approach by which missionaries are expected to raise all or much of their own sup­port.

The purpose of this article is to examine the principle of corporate responsibility for missionary support that Reformed churches have stood for, and to explain why I op­pose any shift toward the "faith mis­sion" approach that is so popular in American churches.

The basic Reformed principle of missionary support🔗

The basic principle of corporate missionary support rests upon the Reformed understanding of the na­ture of the church and its mission. It is our position as Reformed be­lievers that responsibility for carry­ing out the missionary mandate is not an individual affair but resides first and foremost with organized churches.

While not ignoring the place of para-ecclesiastical mission agencies for specialized ministries and their great importance in certain circum­stances, Reformed people have un­derstood that the responsibility to call, commission and support mis­sionaries rests primarily with churches.

Recognition of the missionary na­ture of the church is deeply rooted in Christian history. The Nicene Creed identifies apostolicity as one of the essential marks of the church. An apostolic church confesses what the apostles taught and carries on the mission the apostles engaged in.

Though not always articulated well, this principle nevertheless shaped the way Reformed missions were supported. As the CRC Church Order makes plain, respon­sibility for the promotion and support of missions rests with the churches (Article 73).

This principle has many practical implications. If churches are by na­ture apostolic, and the carrying out of Christ's Great Commission is a primary duty, churches cannot legitimately treat missionary support differently than they treat, for ex­ample, the support of pastors. If pastors do not have to go around asking people to contribute to their support, neither should missionar­ies.

Nor can churches legitimately turn over responsibility for mission­ary support to certain members, or even worse, expect missionaries themselves to come up with the needed funds. Instead, the calling, sending and supporting of mission­aries has to be seen as a corporate responsibility of churches as churches, and for churches to side­step this responsibility is a serious mistake.

The principle of the mission be­longing to the church is clearly ex­pressed in the manner by which missionaries are called and sup­ported. If missions is the corporate responsibility of churches and not simply the private burden of cer­tain individuals, churches accept responsibility for raising their sup­port. Churches can organize their fundraising in a number of ways, but the basic principle remains the same.

But if churches do not view them­selves as God's missionary people, missions becomes something that churches can engage in to whatever degree they feel right. They can let the major responsibility rest with "mission-minded" individuals and independent societies. Then the "faith support" system begins to make sense, because this system is based on the assumption that responsibility for fundraising rests primarily on the missionaries and secondarily on their church mem­bers who feel a special burden for missions.

Why not adopt the "faith support" system?🔗

The "faith support" system is popular among North American evangelicals. It succeeds in raising millions of dollars every year for missions. Its promoters claim that it is more "spiritual," that it makes for stronger relations between mis­sionaries and Christians at home, and inspires more prayer. But few of its promoters stop to consider the missiological implications behind the "faith support" system.

Thousands of North American churches promote missions by pro­viding opportunities for missionar­ies to make their financial appeals to members. Some churches have become famous for the number of "faith" missionaries they assist in supporting. But when it comes right down to it, the responsibility for raising support rests mainly with the missionaries.

Most "faith-supported" mission­aries work under mission agencies that lend them a hand in raising money. When new missionaries are appointed by these agencies, they generally receive some training in fundraising. Then they begin ap­proaching potential supporters — friends, relatives and as many churches as will let them make a presentation. New missionaries generally need up to two years to raise their initial support, and they cannot leave for the field until the required support level is reached.

Once they get to the field, "faith-supported" missionaries must de­vote a great deal of time writing letters to their supporters to keep the funds coming in. Furloughs need to be at least a year in length to raise support for the next term overseas. Overall, "faith-supported" missionaries need to dedicate twenty-five percent of their total time to raising support.

If in the course of their term over­seas, support falls off, as happened recently to many missionaries, they must drop their work and return home to raise money. From church to church they go, competing with other missionaries for available dol­lars, sometimes the same day on the same platform. If they fail to give as winsome an appeal as other missionaries present, their future is in jeopardy.

The key issue🔗

It is not my intent to disparage "faith-supported" missionaries, or discourage anyone from assisting in their support. My wife and I help support some of them, and we do so with gratitude for their unselfish service. But in my judgment the "faith support" system is flawed in a fundamental way, and on the prac­tical level it is unfair and demean­ing to missionaries.

The key issue is ownership of mis­sions. Is missions the corporate re­sponsibility of churches that by defi­nition are apostolic institutions? Or is missions an enterprise belonging mainly to Christians who feel a spe­cial burden for it, and who by this token bear the responsibility for supporting it?

Pragmatists will push the ques­tion aside, saying: "What's the difference? Let's raise the needed money by whatever means we can, and get on with the job of evange­lizing the world!" While I share their enthusiasm for world evangeliza­tion, I believe the issue at stake is serious enough to be worth careful consideration, especially by churches that are on the verge of abandoning a principle they once adhered to.

The issue is exposed by looking closely at the manner by which mis­sionary support is raised. In the "faith support" system, the primary responsibility for conducting mis­sions does not lie with churches cor­porately but with individuals, and most of all with the missionaries who bear final responsibility for raising their support. Whether they realize it or not, churches and de­nominations that adopt the "faith support" system make a statement as to how they understand them­selves and the nature of the church.

Don't treat missionaries as "second class"🔗

The basic principle that missions is a corporate responsibility belonging to the whole church makes me very uneasy about recent moves in CRC circles to­ward adopting the "faith mission" sys­tem of raising financial support. It may have short-term benefits by raising more mission dollars, but it is a step in the wrong direction. The "faith support" system is the mis­sionary version of American individualism and entrepreneurship. It succeeds in raising money because it appeals to the spirit of our soci­ety. But in principle it is flawed.

Moreover, support systems that reduce or tamper with the basic re­sponsibility of the sending churches to support their missionaries under­mine the dignity of the missionar­ies' calling and makes them, to all effects, "second class" Christian workers.

Teaching at Calvin Seminary as I do, I have already seen the negative effects of the trend toward turning missionaries into fundraisers and attaching financial conditions to their appointment.

How do you think seminarians and their spouses feel when, after struggling through tough economic years to get their education, they face the options of pastoring a church with a guaranteed salary, taking an assignment in home mis­sions with full financial support, or answering a call to overseas mis­sions that carries with it the respon­sibility of raising much of their own support?

How do I think missionaries should be supported? They should be supported in the same way as other persons whom churches employ in po­sitions they believe are important — pas­tors, professors, administrators, school teachers and so forth. Anything less is demeaning and unjust.

Why should missionaries be ex­ploited in a way that takes the cor­porate body off the hook, so to speak, by making missionaries re­sponsible to raise the support needed to carry on a ministry that by definition belongs to the churches' very nature?

Without question, the times we live in demand creative new ap­proaches to missionary support. The good news is that there are ways to build and reorganize support sys­tems so as to achieve the goals which some people claim only the "faith system" provides: more prayer, more personalized giving and more intimate contact between mission­aries and supporters.

These goals can be achieved with­out turning missionaries into beg­gars or compromising the basic principle of the corporate responsi­bility of churches for missionary support. That is the direction to take. In the long run, it will pay off.

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