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

“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 seventh of eight posts reviewing Ellison and Spitters’ timely volume. In this post, we examine Chapter 6: “So what”? (chapter written by Matthew Ellison)

To this point, the authors have been compelling in their assertion that, unless we extremely dilute Jesus’ Great Commission mandate, not everything can be missions, and not everyone can be a missionary. While they previously have given a few practical examples to show how this wrong thinking leads to negative outcomes, in this chapter Ellison puts poor thinking about missions “in his crosshairs” (p. 92).

As Matthew squints through his rifle sight, he spots his prey: “We had been talking for a few years to explain why churches weren’t doing missions well and felt that one of the primary reasons was that they were not thinking about missions well” (p. 91). Go ahead. Read that quote again. His one sentence salvo goes for the jugular. We are not thinking well about missions, and the consequences for the Church and missions are staggering (as his practical examples will illustrate).

For Ellison, sloppy thinking about missions has led to the “broadening of the definition of missions, which has inevitably led to a philosophy that says that every follower of Christ is a missionary” (p. 92; Spitters tackles that same issue in chapter 4). For Matthew, a Chinese proverb highlights the dilemma: “When two men own a horse, it will starve; when two men own a boat, it will leak” (p. 99). We marginalize the cross-cultural task of taking of the gospel to the nations when we lump it in with every other good thing followers of Jesus are called to do.

If you have read the book or followed these reviews (or both), you may have noted a recurring theme that challenges a popular missions tune. The well-known lyrics suggest that all of the church’s good works and evangelistic efforts can be construed as misssions. While not denying the importance of deeds of mercy and works of justice, Ellison (and Spitters) contends that our faulty thinking must be replaced by a perspective that sees the entire Bible as requiring the church to view missions as cross-cultural.

As hinted above, Ellison helpfully supports his argument by discussing several examples of mission organizations, mission leaders, and church philosophies that illustrate his concern.

With his first example, he takes on the whole native missionary movement most commonly associated with “Gospel for Asia” (p. 93-94). Ellison sees this organization, led by K. P. Yohanan, as plagued by “faulty missiology.” Because of this, it serves as a classic illustration of how “poor thinking about missions can lead to problematic results.”

As an aside, we must point out that just a few years ago financial scandal (not missiological flaws) forced Yohanan to resign as CEO of Gospel for Asia. But was the financial crisis actually due to faulty missiological thinking? Not necessarily. Ellison may not be blaming the financial crisis at Gospel for Asia on faulty missiology, but the wording of the first paragraph on p. 93 seems to leave the door open to allow for that possibility.

At any rate, undergirding Ellison’s comments is the idea that, to be biblical, missions must be cross-cultural. Yohanan became well-known by touting the economic and logical pragmatics of westerners funding “native missionaries” rather than sending western missionaries eastward. While Ellison makes it clear that he is not opposed to indigenous ministries expanding the church within their own culture, he also sees that the glaring problem with Yohanan’s approach is that these “native missionaries” are actually “indigenous and local” (p. 93), typically not cross-cultural.

Financial matters aside, Matthew is spot on with his assertion that it cannot be assumed that indigenous, local, native pastors are necessarily doing the work of cross-cultural missions.

The second example is “Christian Aid Missions” led by Bob Finley (p. 94). Finley went far beyond Yohanan in “arguing that there was no biblical case for sending foreign, cross-cultural missionaries at all.”
Finley is quoted as defining the rationale behind this movement: “It makes no sense to spend $60,000 of God’s money annually sending an American with his family to live as a missionary in a poor country where hundreds of local citizens have been called of God to reach their own people and have no personal support. Any one of them, already knowing the local languages, would be ten times more effective than the foreigner…In many countries the support package of one American could supply the support and ministry needs of 50 native missionaries” (p. 94).

Finley makes a pretty strong case for “native missions.” Joe and his wife have even supported some themselves, only to discover that native missionaries were not, in many cases, breaking new ground for the spread of the gospel among India’s thousands of unreached people groups as the literature suggested (p. 94).

Ellison sees a two-fold negative outcome to Finley’s way of thinking: (1) Donors who redirected their giving away from sending Western missionaries were not told that “these so-called native missionaries were not missionaries, sent-out ones, at all. Rather, they were local workers (more precisely “local pastors) subsidized to work among their own (reached) peoples.”

(2) Large numbers of churches in the West, convinced that they could better fulfill the Great Commission by supporting non-Western workers, were “manipulated to buy missions ‘on sale’ and write checks rather than send their own sons and daughters. The multi-million dollar native missionary empire was born” (p. 95).

Many of us may have served on a church missions leadership team. We have been awakened to the need for every people group in the world to have a witness. We look at our small part in seeing that happen and reason that we can get to the target much faster if we just send our funds to these organizations and they will make it happen. Everybody wins right? The gospel gets preached faster and more effectively AND we get to spend those funds on other things.

In refuting this kind of thinking, Ellison quotes Robertson McQuilkin: “God never called us to send others in our place. He called us to go!” Of course, while recognizing that this has a strong ring of truth, it must be held in tension with an example like the Antiochean Church in Acts 13. There the majority sent others in their place while staying home to support them. The history of missions, from the first century to the present, has been about “sending others in our place” while not allowing our sending to simply be a substitute for our going.

Ellison should not be construed as rejecting the concept of “missions sending,” however. We know that Matthew recognizes our caveats to McQuilkin’s theorem: (1) While Ellison gives the quote in the context of a discussion of paying “foreign native workers” by proxy, McQuilkin was not speaking to that point; and (2) like us, Matthew and Denny are also primarily mobilizing senders. In fact, the bulk of their (and our) lives have been devoted to sending and mobilizing, not primarily going.

Ellison goes on to say: “I am coming to believe that when we sponsor proxy soldiers to advance the global cause of our King, we forfeit one of the highest privileges of following Christ and we ourselves are among the casualties. No local church should miss out on the encouragement and nourishment that will come to it by sending its best people” [p. 95]. This is something that church missions leaders urgently need to consider. What is the cost to our own soul when we buy missions on sale and have others we don’t know, will never know, do the work? What great joy do we miss when we don’t encourage our own sons and daughters to be part of God’s plan to make disciples of all nations?

A third surprising example is the former (now-defunct) Mars Hill Church, once led by Mark Driscoll (p. 97). Mars Hill (mega-church in Seattle) solicited monies for their global fund but actually diverted those resources to domestic ministry.

While a mushy definition of missions may have played a part in this issue, it seems to us that the bigger problem is just outright deceit. If there is a “global fund” that is being mostly spent locally for same-culture ministry, one doesn’t need Nathan the prophet to call this dishonest. Having said that, though, in these times with our failure to biblically define missions, Mars Hill could have just as easily called it their “missions fund,” thus freeing that money for absolutely anything they wanted to do, and thereby avoiding dealing with lawsuits.

A fourth example is “College Scholarships as Missions” (p. 99). Ellison mentions that he once worked with a church that was using its missions budget to pay for college scholarships for students attending their denomination’s university. It’s easy to see how this can happen when everything is missions.

We have run into the same problem in coaching church missions committees. For many churches “missions” is just another name for “miscellaneous.” In other words, if there is an expenditure that doesn’t naturally fit a specific category, it just gets labeled as “missions.” David Mays used to say, “it’s really hard to get a congregation excited about ‘miscellaneous.” Many of us grew up in traditions which viewed missions as “doing something good for someone who is somewhere other than where we are right now.” Ergo, everything is missions.

The fifth example is the generic approach endemic to many churches of viewing “Children’s Ministry as Missions” (p. 100). While Ellison is not disputing the importance of ministering to children, he contends that there is no credible definition of missions that allows for the labeling of children in an evangelical church in America as “unreached.”

A sixth example is the evangelical penchant for seeing “Christian radio in the US as missions” (p. 101). However, while Matthew is right in saying that the reputation and history of American Christian radio is primarily as an outreach to Christians, we recognize that those trends are changing as more and more Christian stations are doing less overt Bible preaching and beginning to play Christian music that is palatable to the ear of unbelievers. Nevertheless, that it is doubtful that most Christian radio stations in America are crossing cultural barriers to reach the unreached is a point well taken.

More disturbing are the statistics given about what percentage of our declining workforce of missionaries are working with the world’s 2.7 billion unreached individuals (less than 10%), and how much church spending is focused on the unreached (.5%). These figures seem to take the air out of the argument that calling every Christian a missionary will elevate the spread of the gospel. Global outreach among the unreached seems to be the primary casualty of our failure to be biblically rigorous in positing a clear definition of missions.

So, to circle back to the original purpose of this chapter: “So What?” Ellison’s paragraph really says it all: “I contend that one of the key misunderstandings that brought us to this point is the teaching that every follower of Christ is a missionary. Poor missions thinking led us to poor missions practice. If everyone is a missionary, then local Christians ministering to their own communities overseas are missionaries. In fact, all of us in America are native missionaries. In fact, you’re a native missionary, I’m a native missionary – absolutely every follower of Christ is a native missionary” (p. 95).

Definitions really do matter. While the “everyone is a missionary” thinking may not be the only reason we are seeing a decline in the number of missionaries sent from the west, it is definitely a contributor.

Matthew closes the chapter in the same way he opened it (with Rev. 7:9). Here is a picture of heaven where a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, stands before the throne and before the Lamb. This is where the whole Christian enterprise is headed… to see “every nation” before the throne and in large numbers.

We concur with Ellison’s contention that prevailing thinking and definitions about missions isn’t going to get us to Rev. 7:9 unless something changes. Definitions matter. Does calling every Christian a missionary “lead to more missions work being accomplished or less? The answers to these questions matter. They matter in significant, serious and eternal ways” (p. 106). We couldn’t agree more.