I still have the newspaper clipping inviting readers to come to a local Baptist church and hear “a real live missionary.” Some of my earliest heroes were missionaries. I grew up with a high regard for them, whether they served in the United States or overseas. I can remember when I was a college student and had the opportunity to actually host a missionary who had served in Africa and to take her to dinner. I bombarded her with questions about the country where she served and the work she did, and she graciously responded with information and insights about the people she served and loved. To many in my generation, being a “real, live missionary” was the highest calling a Christian could attain.
Times have changed and the way that we do missions is certainly changing. Although we have been encouraged by leaders in recent years to “keep your mission gifts coming or we will have to bring the missionaries home,” the truth is that most denominations can no longer sustain the missionary enterprises they once supported. This is certainly not the end of world missions, but the way we do missions must be reconsidered. There are any number of options available.
Some believe that missions is now the responsibility of the local congregation. The “golden age” of world missions actually began with mission societies and fellowships that were not part of the churches but sought their support to put missionaries on the field. After a time, denominations took the lead in missions and simply asked the churches to provide the people, money, and prayers to keep the endeavor going. In the 21st century, churches—especially larger congregations—can actually “do” missions themselves. They do not want someone far away making the decision about where they mission dollars will go and where their mission projects will be done. Although they sometimes seek denominational support, many churches are taking the initiative to put missionaries or even entire missionary teams on the field. Some congregations are, in reality, becoming mission boards in their own right.
Of course, some individuals who feel a call to a particular mission develop their own mission boards or organizations to respond to the need. They are entrepreneurs who discover the place of need, develop the strategies to respond to that need, and then mobilize the resources to accomplish the mission. A hybrid of this approach is the individual or couple who discern a calling to a particular ministry, find a missions organization that does that type of work, then raises their own support from family and friends to become part of the organization’s work.
Perhaps one of the more radical approaches (but by no means unusual in this day) is adopted by those who take seriously the idea that every Christian has a missionary calling and seek to insert themselves in places where they can live, work, and be the presence of Christ in that situation. Like the Apostle Paul, they are tentmakers who pursue their secular vocation in a place where they can also follow their vocation of being a believer. In a global economy, this approach is becoming even more attractive and feasible.
What other options are out there for those who recognize not only the barriers but the opportunities in our world? I have no doubt that God continues to call men and women to go to places where the Gospel has not been heard, but the way that they go about it is certainly changing. What is the spirit of God saying to us?