Visit most campus ministries in the US and you will find new believers being discipled by ministry staff, students growing in their faith, attending Bible studies and worship services through the week. Almost none of them will be part of a church - including staff.
Many of these Christians have then hit the mission field, getting support from friends or the churches that their uncle, cousin or friend from 2nd grade attends who want to designate some money in their budget for missionaries. Steve Shadrach, who does the primary support-raising seminars for support-based positions (campus ministries, missionaries, etc.), recommends not approaching churches when looking for support. They are too slow! These missionaries, having raised support head overseas with a team, an autonomous group that partners with local ministries. None of them will get involved in the ministry of a local church. Most will not attend a church at all!
When Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck wrote Why We Love the Church, it was not just about combating the emergent church movement and "progressive evangelicals." It spoke to a bigger problem. Not only were people at ease in frequently criticizing Christ's bride, there seemed to be a lot of people doing "ministry" without any connection to a local church. Do a little research of your own: Go to a local Christian school and see how many faculty members are plugged into a local church. Then head to the closest college campus ministry and see if their staff have a church to call home and whether they encourage any students to attend any church. Really - go to any type of para-church ministry. Most likely, what you will find is the majority of people see no need. They emphasize the global church and their personal relationship with Jesus.
This is why it does not shock me when I travel overseas and find that the majority of missionaries and their families do not have a church to call home. Pioneer church planters might get a pass here because there is no church, but everyone else - seminary professors, teachers, evangelists, linguists, social workers, you name it, have a hard time plugging in. This past year I spent time in three eastern european countries. The overwhelming majority of missionaries there did not have a church they called home or attended on a regular basis.
Some readers might see no problem with churchless Christianity. I’m not going to spend time critiquing that here. I’m just assuming there should be no such thing as a churchless Christian. Some might also criticize me for painting too broad a brush here. I will be the first to admit that some situations make it difficult for missionaries to find a church to be a part of where they are serving. Just to give an example - I have friends who served in west Africa who wanted to be part of a local church, but every time they went the pastor and church members inundated them with financial requests. It became so stressful for them it almost caused them to come home. So there - I admit it. Hard for sure. But is this the case for everyone? It can not be so!
With this in mind, I offer three suggestions for getting back to church-based missions. It seems bizarre that we even need a category for this, but it’s necessary based on where we are today.
1.I think it would be best to drop the “sending organization” paradigm. I’m not against missions organizations (TLI is one!). However, no organization should be sending out missionaries. The local church is who prepares, commissions and sends. I have had to think through this as it relates to TLI. Will TLI open our hiring up to anyone on staff, or should we require that each staff member have a sending church that claims them as their own and sends them in a manner worthy of the gospel? We chose the latter, believing that TLI coordinates the sending. We don’t send anyone. The church does.
2. Missions organizations would be wise to put the heavy lifting of missionary care on the local church and make sure that it is communicated up front to the church. Should mission organizations, with certain expertise, step in and help missionaries? Absolutely! But the primary care, especially if there is a long-term need, must be accepted by the local church. Is there some co-laboring in care? Yes! Should a missionary find a home church where they serve? Ideally! But again, the local sending church should bear the responsibility.
3. No church or individual should support a missionary unless they have a primary sending church that has trained, commissioned and committed to sending them out. I know for smaller churches it is harder to be the primary sender, but they could still withhold support unless there was a primary sending church standing with the missionaries. Similar to individuals not giving to a non-profit unless audits are done, so individuals should not give unless a local church in behind those requesting support.
More could be said, but maybe we can start here. Let's love the church while reaching the nations.