August 16, 2017

The Missionary’s Task and Qualifications

David Shumate

As a young person I was an avid sports fan. Once I heard the wry observation that if the object of basketball were to get the ball into a hole in the floor, then the highest paid players would all be four feet tall. As humorous a mental picture as this may generate, the principle makes perfect sense. There is a reason that jockeys do not have the same physiques as power forwards, or that excellent accountants do not usually have the same personality as outstanding sales professionals. In any endeavor the nature of the mission determines the qualifications for those who will carry it out.

A failure to follow this principle can hinder the development of an effective missions strategy. Without a doubt the most crucial missions decision that a church can make concerns which missionary candidates it should support. Sadly, however, churches often make this determination in a subjective way, based largely upon the impression that the candidate makes during a single deputation meeting. A major cause of difficulty in determining appropriate missionary qualifications is our failure to articulate a clear idea of what missions is. As a result we have no objective basis for discerning what it will take for a missionary to be successful. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to identify some of the basic contours of the task of missions and the implications for missionary qualifications.

Missions and the Great Commission

Bible-based mission discussions must begin with the Great Commission. Christian missions must be about the Mission.[1] This basic truth protects the church from becoming simply another charitable social institution. It also helps us understand certain general requirements of a missionary, regardless of specific ministry function. For example, since making disciples is a spiritual endeavor, anyone who participates in it must be ministering in spiritual power.[2] In addition, a missionary should be a person who is passionate about and skilled in the presentation of Jesus Christ to the lost. As we will see below, missionaries can and should play different roles in the mission enterprise, but every missionary should be able to do the main thing. A missionary must also be a discipler. Matthew 28:19 commands us to teach (literally “disciple”) all the nations, assimilating them into the church and instructing them to know and practice all of Christ’s commandments. The end result is multiplication as those disciples make other disciples. A true leader does not merely make followers; he also turns them into leaders (2 Tim. 2:2).

The foregoing suggests that missionaries, regardless of their function on the field, should first have proven themselves in the context of the local church ministry, particularly in the areas of Spirit-filled witnessing and discipleship.[3] A person who will not reach others for Christ at home will not suddenly be transformed into a great soul winner by crossing an ocean. A person who does not know or care to lead believers to spiritual maturity here will not do so elsewhere. If God’s call of missions is really upon a believer, it should be readily apparent both to his pastor and the other members of his church. If it is not, then perhaps the candidate needs to spend further time in preparation, not only in language, culture, and theology, but also in the practical ministry.

Missions as Sending

Many churches have placed a commendable emphasis on the obligation of the entire church to fulfill the entire Commission. This emphasis may be reflected in signs above the exits of the church saying, “You are now entering your mission field,” or in the common motto, “Every member a missionary.” The difficulty, however, is that if every member is a missionary in the strict sense of the word, then why have a separate missions program at all? Whereas the mission of the church as a whole is the Great Commission, the program of missions helps fulfill that responsibility in a specific way.[4]

What, then, is the essence of missions as a distinct part of the mission of the church? The key Biblical concept is that of sending. There are several Greek word families in the New Testament that convey this idea. The two most important are pempo and apostello. Altogether these two word families appear in the New Testament approximately 250 times. In the context of the early church, the unmistakable picture one sees, particularly in Acts and the Pauline Epistles, is one of a church in constant motion—sending workers to all parts of the known world to fulfill different functions to carrying out of the Great Commission.[5]

There are at least two major implications of the foregoing. First, when someone is sent to another place, he is no longer subject to the same level or frequency of supervision as before. The missionary, therefore, must be someone in whom the senders have implicit confidence.[6] This confidence can only be borne out of a relationship in which someone can observe and evaluate the prospective missionary’s character and competence.[7] A missionary must be a person of initiative, not dependent on others to get or keep him moving in the Lord’s work.[8] The need for reliable leaders for missions says much about the obligation of pastors to make leadership development one of the highest priorities for their ministries.

The second important implication is the cross-cultural nature of much mission activity. As the gospel spread in the first century, it crossed the most significant cultural boundary that has ever existed, that between Jew and Gentile. Certain chosen and prepared men, such as Peter, Barnabas, and Paul, were selected to lead this delicate process.[9] Throughout the history of modern missions, one of the central challenges has been working through cultural differences as they affect the communication of the gospel, the development of standards of conduct among new converts, and the relationship between the missionary and indigenous leadership. A missionary must be someone who is firmly grounded theologically with a thoroughly Biblical philosophy of the ministry; however, he must also be objective and flexible on matters of cultural preferences and perspectives. It is, therefore, highly advisable that a prospective missionary first prove himself in some kind of cross-cultural ministry setting, if possible under the supervision of his sending pastor,[10] and also that he study, and even serve an internship in, the culture to which he will be sent.

Missions as a Team Endeavor

Among believers today one often finds a view of missionary call and service that is highly subjective and individualistic. For many, the paradigmatic missionary is one who in the solitude of his prayer closet discerns God’s call to an unreached people group in a remote place and undertakes by himself to evangelize them, plant a church, and train future leaders.[11] According to this way of thinking, if a candidate is earnest enough about His call and is willing to live and serve in an unpleasant place, then he is worthy of support regardless of his ministry experience, proven character, or the confirmation of his calling and proposed strategy in the minds of ministry leaders. For the most part, however, the Bible presents a different picture of missionary calling and ministry. Although one does indeed find accounts of the dramatic personal call and the solo missionary endeavor, the most common pattern is of a group activity, where missionaries are either recruited by churches or other missionary leaders or where the missionary call is confirmed by them.[12]

Not only the missionary call but also the missionary work is usually a collaborative enterprise. Paul, whose missionary work is recorded in the most detail in the New Testament, became the leader of an extensive missionary team. Beginning with Barnabas and John Mark (later replaced by Silas and Timothy), Paul’s group gradually grew into an extensive network of laborers.[13] In addition the churches played an active role in endorsing, supporting, and providing accountability for the mission work. Paul as the team leader often appealed to the churches to receive and support his helpers in the fulfillment of their mission responsibilities.[14]

This Biblical pattern demands four things. First, missionaries must be effective team members. It is often noted that conflict among missionaries or between missionaries and indigenous church leadership is a major cause of missionary failure. The missionary should have demonstrated a servant’s heart and a willingness to work under authority and in partnership with others in his own local church before going on deputation. Second, the team concept also means that a church must have confidence in the entire team to which the missionary is a part.[15] Before supporting a missionary, a church should make sure that it is fully behind the ministry team and particularly the de facto missionary leader with whom that missionary will be working. The church should also work to gain a good understanding of the overall mission strategy for a given location or ministry.[16] Third, churches should consider the overall personnel needs of a particular field or ministry and be willing to throw their support behind the entire team. It makes no more sense to support a missionary and be unwilling to fund the necessary support personnel than it does for a church to pay its pastor a generous salary but refuse to authorize funds for him to hire a secretary.[17] Finally, missionary candidates should have demonstrated a clear understanding of and capacity to fulfill their anticipated ministry roles on the field. The specific ministry skills required, will vary depending upon the responsibilities within the mission team.

Conclusion

The foregoing implies that churches, particularly sending churches, must be much more proactive and diligent in thinking through the needs, personnel, and strategy of a proposed missions effort. It also means that they must be much more involved in the overall responsibility of preparing prospective missionaries for service. In return for this investment, however, we gain more confidence in the missionaries that we do support, and we increase their effectiveness on the field.


Dr. David Shumate is the General Director of Mission Gospel Ministries, International (formerly Mexican Gospel Mission) in Phoenix, Arizona.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September / October 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. In fact it is fair to say that the Great Commission is the purpose of the entire church, not simply of the mission program. Every ministry should make some discernable contribution toward the fulfillment of Christ’s command to make disciples and bring them to maturity in His likeness (Matt. 28:18–20). []
  2. “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit: so shall ye be my disciples” (John 15:8). []
  3. I am indebted to Dr. Earl Nutz for this insight concerning the need for missionaries to learn practical ministry skills in their own culture before attempting to minister cross-culturally. []
  4. Thanks go to Mr. Mark Vowels, Director of the Office of Missions at Bob Jones University, for articulating and developing the distinction between missions in the general and specific senses. []
  5. The Jerusalem church sent Peter and John to investigate the revival in Samaria (Acts 8:14) and Barnabas to confirm the salvation of the Gentiles as far as Antioch (Acts 11:22); the Jerusalem Council sent Judas and Silas with Paul and Barnabas to the Gentile churches to communicate the council’s decision (Acts 15:22); Paul sent Timothy to Corinth (1 Cor. 4:17), to Philippi (Phil. 2:19), and to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 3:2), and he left him behind to minister in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3); Paul also sent Titus to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 8:6, 16, 17; 12:18), and to Crete (Titus 1:4). Once he sent another brother along with Titus to Corinth (2 Cor. 12:18). Paul also sent on missions Erastus (Acts 19:22), Phebe (Rom. 16:1, 2), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21, 22; Col. 4:7; 2 Tim. 4:12), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25), and others (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:18, 22; 12:18; Titus 3:12). []
  6. “As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: for he refresheth the soul of his masters” (Prov. 25:13). []
  7. The comments that Paul makes commending several of his messengers are instructive in this regard. Both Timothy and Titus had demonstrated the same spirit as Paul (Phil. 2:20–22; 2 Cor. 8:16; 12:18), and Timothy was Paul’s “beloved son, and faithful in the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:17). One brother had a good reputation in the gospel among the churches (2 Cor. 8:18, 19); Paul had many times “proved [another brother] diligent in many things” (2 Cor. 8:22). Tychicus was a “faithful minister in the Lord” (Eph. 6:21). Epaphroditus was Paul’s “companion in labour, and fellowsoldier” (Phil. 2:25). Both Tychicus and Onesimus were faithful and beloved (Col. 4:7–9). []
  8. “As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to them that send him” (Prov. 10:26). []
  9. The Lord especially prepared Peter for his encounter with Cornelius (Acts 10:9–20). Barnabas, himself a Cypriot (Acts 4:36), was well suited to investigate the ministry among the Gentiles of certain brethren from Cyprus (Acts 11:20–22). When Barnabas himself needed help for the work in Antioch, he went to Tarsus to find Saul (Acts 11:25, 26), whom the Lord had called to go to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21), and who exhibited a keen insight into Greek religion and culture (see Acts 17:16–31). []
  10. This opportunity is becoming increasingly widespread as America experiences a continuing influx and geographic dispersion of large numbers of immigrants. []
  11. When it is presented this way, one wonders whether the typical, experienced American pastor could fulfill all of these responsibilities without the help of a ministry team. How much more should we be cautious about sending young people, fresh out of Bible college and lacking pastoral experience, to make the attempt alone? []
  12. Jesus Christ called Paul in a dramatic way, and the Holy Spirit sent Philip alone to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch. On the other hand, the decision to send a missionary was often made by a leader or leaders (see verses cited in n. 5 above). This is not to deny the validity of the personal call and leading of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps one could say that the subjective sense of calling is necessary, but that it is neither sufficient nor always first in time. []
  13. For example, at one point in Paul’s ministry we see that his traveling team consisted of Sopater, Aristarchus Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus, Trophimus, Luke, and at least one other (Acts 20:4, 5). Different people helped Paul in a ways as varied as going in his place to strengthen the believers (1 Cor. 4:16, 17) and taking dictation (Rom. 16:22). []
  14. See n. 7 above. []
  15. This concept of a mission “team” is more practical than official. Such a team might consist of a group of missionaries working in collaboration in a location or in a common ministry. Smaller or specialized mission agencies might be thought of as a mission team if their representatives have a tight philosophical focus and if they work together in significant ways. []
  16. A pastor should ask himself concerning a missionary who is in a position of leadership, “Is this man someone that I would trust to lead my church if something happened to me?” At the least, the missionary should be sufficiently qualified to lead a stateside ministry of comparable size and complexity to that of his ministry overseas. When it comes to support personnel, the pastor should ask himself whether he would eagerly hire the candidate to serve on his church or school staff. We should be ashamed of ourselves if we would send to the mission field those who we believe could not make it in the American church. []
  17. It is notoriously difficult for mission agencies to raise funds for office staff because office work does not seem like “missions” to many people. However, the administrative support required for maintaining a ministry overseas is even greater and more sensitive than that required to operate a ministry in the States, and the consequences of administrative failure can be even graver. []


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