Repositioning Mission Agencies for the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

Since the steady crescendo of expansion after World War II, American mission agencies have been awash in an environment of change. Most mission agencies have experienced one or more rise-and-fall cycles of available candidates, funds, and deployment opportunities. There are general patterns and similarities from one organization to another, although far more often the ebb and flow must be explained by the particulars of local churches' motivations, denominational policies, characteristics of given overseas fields, and the vagaries of sociopolitical climate, natural climate and disasters, and the increasingly turbulent patterns of intertribal tension and ethnic warfare. Some mission work is stimulated by disaster and wanes during periods of relative calm. One missionary organization will be inspired into creative ventures by the very same political circumstances that will drive another organization into withdrawal or diversion.

In an attempt to draw some useful generalizations, this essay reflects on the purposes most commonly undertaken by missionary organizations, especially those historically described as sending agencies; describe the ways in which these purposes relate to current situations in our shrinking world; and examine the changing characteristics of the sociocultural contexts of missions. These issues will then be submitted to at least three tests:

1. Do our organizational patterns, management styles, and strategies of mission reflect the lessons learned from colonial and postcolonial experiences?

2. Are the church's global scope, its international partnerships in mission, and the necessity for a serving posture adequately reflected in the managerial decisions about missionary deployment?

3. Are our organizations taking adequate account of the upsurge of local-church participation and ad hoc missionary initiatives?

Since very early in the modern missionary movement, the mission agency has taken on the role of the business and communications secretary for the missionary, representing and advocating for the best interests of the mission of the church, the missionary, and the agency itself. Following is a list of the tasks and the needs commonly fulfilled by the mission agency. The items are sequentially listed, in general, from the earliest and most common tasks up to the more recently identified roles and needs that have been added to the mission agency's work list.

Sending

The sending of missionaries is not a single process. It involves at least three tasks.

Recruiting. Perhaps the most important part of the recruitment task is determining what sources will be emphasized. At first, local churches and denominational councils were the primary arena for the recruitment of missionary candidates. Having moved away during this century from the local approach because of the need for large-scale coordination, the pendulum is now swinging back as local churches, especially larger ones, take a more direct hand (sometimes unilaterally).

Selecting. The steadily more assertive posture of mission agencies has centered on the issue of appropriateness for given sorts of missionary service. Across the past 200 years, and especially as mission agencies have come to be seen more in their managerial and technological functions, screening of potential personnel has become much more pervasive. The difficulty of assessing spiritual gifts and the pressure to deploy younger missionaries have caused a shift from literal biblical criteria in favor of measurable competencies and traits.

Deploying. Formal corporate decision making about locations and situations wherein missionaries may be productive, over against the more open approach ("wherever God calls"), has long been a tension in mission management. To a greater extent than many missionaries are prepared to accept, the mission agency usually has a determinative role in the decisions about where missionaries will be stationed, what work is to be done, and how project funds and technical support will be allocated. …