Before Leaving for the Field, Should Missionaries Do Support Raising…or Support Emptying?

David Fitch just did a post that has me thinking.

The post, entitled STOP FUNDING CHURCH PLANTS and Start Funding Missionaries: A Plea to Denominations, is fairly self-explanatory and certainly worth a read in its own right. But one particular paragraph captured my attention (and the attention of more than a few of the responders in the comments section of the post). Fitch writes:

Fund these leader/leader couples for two years instead of three. Fund them only with health insurance (in the States) and a reasonable stipend for housing. This gives them space to get a job on the ground floor of a company, at the bottom of the pay scale, learning a skill, proving themselves. They can do this because they have certain benefits and a place to live for two years.

The goal here is NOT (I REPEAT NOT) to have self-sustaining church organization in three years. It is to have three to four leader/leader couples working together with jobs each that can offer 15 hours of labor to work together to organize and form a gospel expression way in their context.  They will be self sustaining in that they all have jobs. They will be committed to this context/neighborhood for ten years.

These leaders will have time and space to then a.) get to know and listen to the neighborhood and the neighbors b.) establish rhythms of life together which include worship, prayer, community, discipleship and presence among the neighbors, c.) discern God working in and among the neighbors and neighborhood, d.)bring the gospel to these places wherever God is working. This includes reconciliation, peace, forgiveness, healing, righteousness, and new creation. D.) develop a way of bringing those coming into faith in Christ into a way of growth and discipleship.

I believe that you put three or more quality leaders together in one place for ten years you will have a new expression of the gospel i.e. a church in each context. Gospel as a way of life will take root. Many will brought into the Kingdom. Imagine what could happen if we funded 100’s of such teams.

If you scan down through the comments on the page in response to the post, you’ll see a respondent named Bob launched a vigorous discussion with the following comment:

I don’t understand this at all. The things you describe these funded missionaries doing is *exactly* what EVERY SINGLE MEMBER of the church congregation should already be doing.

The people who are sitting in the seats every Sunday are already living in the context of their jobs and neighborhoods.

I really don’t get this idea of people needing to be paid to “free up the time” to live as Christian salt and light. But I guess our tendency is to pay someone else for something we know how to do (as if we can’t learn) or don’t want to do (as if that is an option God extends).

Bob talks about each Christian seeing his or her present life setting as a mission field–fair comment. And yet as I was teaching Luke 10 to our North Korean Underground University students this past weekend, we couldn’t help but note together that Jesus called Christian missionaries to do something even more radical than Bob suggests. Before leaving for the field, Jesus coached his missionaries to do support emptying rather than support raising:

3Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.

Lest this seem like a one-off oddity (modern readers are invariably quick to conclude that “times have changed and circumstances are different today”), it’s interesting to note that Jesus gives similar advice to a certain rich young ruler who was contemplating his own role and standing in the Kingdom of God:

“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Never one to dispense advice that he hasn’t already lived and embodied himself, Jesus’ own preparation for missionary service is worth considering:

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself…

David Fitch suggests that missionaries get a job but receive free housing and insurance. Commentator Bob counters that missionaries should pay for their own housing and insurance. But Lord and Savior Jesus suggests something even more extreme, which is that we prepare for missionary service by self-emptying: selling everything we have, but not to raise support for our missionary journey–the proceeds from the garage sale are to be given to the poor, he says–but rather to put ourselves in a position of absolute dependence upon those to whom he sends us.

“But surely there is a support baseline below which a missionary preparing to head to the field should not fall, and if the missionary fails to reach that threshold, he or she should not be released to the field.”

Jesus suggests a support baseline that a missionary should not rise above rather than fall below. And he seems to see real value in being placed in a position of dependence upon those to whom one ministers.

So imagine someone declaring for missionary service and entering a support emptying phase rather than a support raising one. Instead of traveling around to churches to raise support, the missionary travels around to churches divesting himself or herself of all earthly possessions. One is declared field ready when the bank account balance hits zero.

So my vote for the most radical and Jesus-like missionary post is not the one from David Fitch (though I liked the piece and the thought behind it), nor the comment on Fitch’s post from Commentator Bob. The one I like the best is a post from 1981 from Tom and Elizabeth Brewster challenging missionaries to hit the field without knowing a word of the language of the people to whom they’re being sent. Why?

In order to be completely dependent to learn the language from the people, of course.

The self-sufficient independence of North Americans is of little help for the one who would communicate positively, have an incarnational ministry, or learn the language. Far more is communicated by being in a state of dependency upon the people. A principle here (as pointed out by Dwight Gradin) is that people help people who are in need. As a Learner, then, one must be willing to demonstrate dependency. Jesus Himself (who, of course, could have been more independent than even the most well healed among us) modeled dependency for us. In childhood He was dependent on a poor family, and in adulthood He conducted His ministry as One who could say He had no place to call His own where He could lay His head (Luke 9:58).

The disciples, too, experienced dependency. Bonnie Miedema says it well:

When Jesus sent out the Twelve to preach and heal the sick, He instructed them, “Take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic” (Luke 9:3). I’m finally beginning to understand why Jesus said that. He wanted the disciples to experience the hospitality of the local people and to be dependent upon them. He knew that identifying with the people and staying in their homes would open doors for their ministry.

Unfortunately, we have a cultural perception that causes us to believe that dependence and vulnerability are weaknesses. On the contrary, the one who authenticates his life-message is the one whose strength lies in his willingness to be vulnerable. (Vulnerability is the willingness to put oneself in a position where one could be taken advantage of by others, or where one’s shortcomings and weaknesses may be exposed.)

In conclusion, it’s worth noting that at least one of the books of the Bible owes its existence to a certain apostle’s lack of health insurance:

13You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.

When it comes to serving as a missionary, there’s no substitute for being genuinely–and acutely–in need of others. Such a one might even describe themselves quite accurately as a debtor to Greeks and Barbarians

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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6 Responses to Before Leaving for the Field, Should Missionaries Do Support Raising…or Support Emptying?

  1. Todd says:

    As a donor/champion of missionaries, would this mean I lose the privilege of giving? God has more than once thrilled my heart when I have given to a missionary. It is part of my spiritual journey and an act of faith in God. If the missionary stops seeking support, I would feel left out in what has been a key partnership for me and my role in the Great Commission. Just wondering

    • EFoley says:

      Great to hear from you, my man Todd!

      A few thoughts:

      Giving is so key…and yet I wouldn’t list it as a Great Commission command. The GC seems to have a series of commands (Go…Teach…Baptize) and does not appear to admit of specialization; that is to say, Jesus does not appear to be saying, “You can either give or go.” That’s the way missions agencies have read it and taught it for a long time and, I fear, they have persuaded people that Jesus is offering an option here that does not appear in the text, a kind of “No Go Tax,” where we can buy our way out of personal participation in going. As Loren Cunningham used to say, The command for all Christians is to GO, unless God specifically tells you not to!

      Second, the rich young ruler does not lose the privilege of giving. Jesus invites him to sell all he has and give it to the poor. So imagine missionaries traveling around giving all they have and encouraging others to do the same. “I haven’t come to ask for your support,” they’d tell a puzzled church. “Instead, I have come to invite you to do what I am doing.” I think Christians would be very surprised.

      Further, are there ways people can give to missions beyond supporting the missionary-in-training to maintain or approximate the standard of living they have in the US when they go overseas? I think yes. My own preference is for field-based matching gift programs where national churches receive as much as they give. In this way there is genuine partnership but not a financial largesse that makes the field so dependent on outsider dollars.

      Just some things to think about, Todd. And there are few people whose thinking I value more in this regard than your own.

      Warmly in Christ,
      EF

  2. Julius says:

    I just caught on to your website and really enjoy your insight. I am in a phase of trying to figure out my Christian identity and your teaching is pretty formative. I am concerned, though, that the conclusion made on this one doesn’t seem to take into consideration that when Jesus sent out his disciples He knew that he was sending out Jews to share the gospel with other Jews. Not that that changes everything about the conclusion but it seems like that would be contextually important. Missionaries don’t lose their dependence because they are being supported by other Christians. That isn’t a logical statement. As missionaries can testify support levels/number of supporters is always changing. So I think missionaries going out to share the gospel with nothing to sustain them but the generosity of other Christians is a great testimony on following the example of Christ and his disciples. (How missionary sending organizations function is a different matter) During Paul’s journey in almost every city he sought out brothers to help him. Which also reminds me of Paul in Acts 20:33-35 speaking to the elders. This passage would support Fitch and Bob’s ideas of getting a job in the field. So maybe Fitch came up with a fairly reasonable compromise. We don’t want our brothers to be lacking but we also want them to be a good testimony to those who they are sharing the gospel with and not coveting their silver, gold or clothing, but willing to work essentially three jobs: support raising, a secular job and ministering. Yikes, I am exhausted just thinking about it.

  3. Julius says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. Btw, following is an excerpt from one of your previous posts where the truth and simplicity really hit a chord with me and I hope to find myself more and more, hearing the word and doing the word:
    “It does mean that, like Jesus in John 5:19, we turn the world upside down without ever looking at it, because our eyes are riveted on him:

    So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.

    Hear the Word. Do the Word. Hear the Word. Do the Word. Never look around to consider whether we’re impacting the world or not. We’re called to be faithful, after all–not radical or impactful.”

    Thanks again for the encouragement

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