I ran into a friend at Starbucks this morning. When I asked about his family, he told me about the work that his son and daughter-in-law are doing in Africa with an independent mission board. They are enjoying their ministry with local church leaders, but they are having to raise their own support.
Remember the "old days" when we used to proclaim proudly, "Our missionaries don't have to go out and raise their own support because we have a unified program of missions giving"? My, how times have changed. You can still support missionaries through a unified program (such as Global Missions of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), but have you noticed how many "freelance" missionaries there are out there these days? Some of these folks are part of established organizations but a number have set up their own ministries that are incorporated, have their own boards of directors, and have carved out their own missions niche.
I don't necessarily see this as a negative thing. In fact, my wife and I support three missionary couples through monthly contributions--one couple is with a national organization that works with International students, one is with a campus evangelism ministry, another works overseas to reach out to youth and young adults. We also contribute to an NGO that helps with agricultural missions overseas.
The most interesting development is the individual or couple who have launched their own missions organization. They have perceived a need, have a real passion for fulfill that need, and invite others to join them in the effort.
Why has this happened? I can think of some reasons and you may come up with some of your own. First, there are many needs in the world and the individual may have come to the conclusion that no one else is doing this and God has called me to help meet this need. Second, there is an increasing distrust of large missions-sending agencies. Third, people have a tendency to support an individual or a need with which they personally identify. Fourth, we have a new generation that is very entrepreneurial; they are ready and willing to take the initiative to get the job done, and they want as few people as possible looking over their shoulders!
In some ways this is not so different from the missionary societies founded in the US and England during the nineteenth century. These started outside the churches, they were funded primarily by individuals, and the initial missionaries were often motivated lay people. In fact, the opportunities for women to do ministry were greater through these organizations than in the traditional church settings.
Of course, this presents some practical problems. As an individual how many of these folks can I support? For pastors, this raises the question, How many of these folks should have access to our congregation to ask for support? There are also issues of accountability and doctrinal fidelity.
Here again, I am not saying that this movement should be squelched, but how do we deal with it wisely, as good stewards of God's blessings?