“When Everything is Missions” – A Review (Part VI)

“When Everything is Missions”
by Matthew Ellison and Denny Spitters
Copyright 2017 Pioneers-USA & Sixteen:Fifteen
(A review by Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz)

This is the sixth of eight posts reviewing the contents of Ellison and Spitters timely volume. In this sixth contributioin, we examine Chapter 5: “How are missionaries sent?” (chapter written by Denny Spitters)

The chapter opens with a real life example of two young men who went on missions trips to different remote locations and document, all for a video documentary series. They went to an area, shared the gospel through a translator, and then moved on. Who knows if anyone genuinely came to Christ through this short adventure, and if so, what happened to them afterward?

Spitters uses this (admittedly extreme) example to contrast the difference between evangelism/conversion-counting (p. 83) and the real making of disciples. Certainly this is a problem today in the missions world and we’re glad it is being tackled here. However, the title of this chapter is “How are missionaries sent?” Our curiosity has been piqued as to how this example ties in. We’ll report our exciting findings at the end of this review.

The vital issue of calling and how missionaries are raised up is on the table in this chapter. Is a calling to do missions just a transaction between God and missionary? Or does the church have a role in the process beyond the familiar riposte “pay, pray and get out of the way?”

Spitters backs up his assertion “If missionaries are sent-ones, they don’t just go to the lost and unreached, they are sent to the lost and unreached,” (p. 83) by pointing out that Acts 13:1-4 clearly demonstrates that the leaders of the Antioch church, after prayer and direction from the Holy Spirit, set apart Paul and Barnabas for missionary service. Whether this is prescriptive (as Spitters maintains, p. 83) that churches at all times are expected to follow this example in sending missionaries, or illustrative (a good pattern to model one’s sending activities after), clearly Acts 13 worked and has much to commend itself as a “model” (Spitters term, p. 83) for 21st century churches.

In the first paragraph on p. 83, Spitters appears to blur the lines between two important issues. The first is the importance of discipleship and establishing new disciples into local churches (which is the apparent emphasis of the paragraph). The second is this matter of “ecclesial centrality” in the process of discerning a call and sending missionaries (which is the apparent emphasis of the chapter). These are two different and crucial themes, but it seems to us that introducing the first muddies the waters in this chapter. It should be made clear that the second is the focus of this chapter, not the first.

Partnering with a church is clearly fundamental. Many entering missions service see this as a transaction between them and the Holy Spirit, with the church being little more than cheerleader and a source of funding. This shouldn’t surprise us since America is a highly individualized culture and thinking of calling as a group activity is counter-cultural.

Just yesterday Joe met with a young man who, though he hadn’t graduated from high school, had already decided to be a missionary and had figured out where he should serve. On the one hand, we rejoice that missions service is on his heart. On the other hand, it is clear that the church did not play a very important role in this most crucial decision.

On p. 87, Spitters comments: “The home or sending church and the community are to play a crucial role in the identification and confirmation of missionaries and pursuit of viable cross-cultural ministry. The partnership between candidates and the sending church described in Acts 13:1-4 is brief but sufficient to provide an accurate and adequately defined process for a robust sending relationship.”

We agree with the authors regarding the vital role of the church in the sending of missionaries. We also appreciate their treatment of Acts 13. Too often, when we think of Paul’s calling, his more dramatic Damascus road experience gets more mileage than a church leadership meeting in Antioch as recorded in Acts 13.

After reading the helpful analysis of the role of the church of Antioch in the sending of Paul and his team, we began to wonder whether this chapter might have been strengthened by including a brief analysis of Paul’s partnership with the Philippian church as detailed in his epistle to the Philippians. We do get the sense that the “sending process” should involve more than just “sending” (Antioch) by a local church to also include “partnering” (Philippi) with churches along the way.

It certainly seems that Antioch played a vital role for Paul in sending him on all three of his missionary journeys. However, by the second and third journeys, the partnership he cultivated with churches that he had planted seem to be playing a more significant role in his ministry efforts than was Antioch. Rather than contradicting Spitters’ thesis, this two-fold sending/partnering concept serves to further buttress the idea that calling and missions is truly church-centered.

Spitters elaborates on how partnership between church and agency and missionary should work at its healthiest (p. 88-90). Figuring out how the biblical missionary/sending church/partnering church triadic relationship works in harmony with the extra-biblical mission agency requires the wisdom of Solomon, or at least the genius of Einstein. There are no easy answers, but we’re glad the subject was broached.

After reading the entire chapter, we concluded that the example of sending missionaries captured in the opening paragraphs (p. 81) does fit the chapter title, though we might wish for a more specific example, one more clearly related to the difficult problem of finding churches that truly send and missionaries that are genuinely sent.

The chapter closes with the following paragraph: “When local churches, regardless of size or capacity, embrace an intentional vision of discipleship that promotes the affirmation and confirmation of those whom the Holy Spirit is raising up to be sent ones while they engage with trustworthy partners to help facilitate that vision, both agencies and churches can discover the joy of making disciples of all nations and experience what it means to be ‘blessed to be a blessing.’” (p. 90)

Though this is a wonderful conclusion to the chapter, there is, of course the other side of the coin: the situation of the missionary candidate who wishes to be sent by the church, but who is part of a congregation that does not appreciate its responsibility in raising up and sending “sent-ones” to the unreached. We hope that, at some point in this book, the authors address this incredibly important and common problem.