The Middlemen

Over the years, I’ve spoken with a number of American pastors who told me that their church’s guideline in overseas missions is to help the people in their church be active in overseas ministry.  What that means in plain English is: Don’t ask us for money for missions because we only give money to “our” people.

Are “Your” People Ready?

Do “your” people speak a language other than English?  Are they bicultural or tricultural because of their experience in crossing back and forth between cultures?  Or are they only conversant in one culture?  How high is their cultural intelligence (CQ)?  Are “your” people, say, capable of giving a lecture at a community college on the nuances of another culture?  Do they have abundant knowledge of the history, arts, food, mores, humor, landscape, pains of another ethnic group?

Chances are, if your people represent a mainstream American church, they will not score very highly on this pop quiz.  That’s not a putdown.  But it is a reality.  Mainstream Americans are monolingual, have a low CQ, are rarely required to become bicultural and are many years away from being an expert or even an amateur concerning another ethnic group.  But America is a diverse place.  If your people come from a minority culture in America, chances are they would score higher.  Europeans, by and large, would also score higher.

But if “your” people score so low, how do you expect them to be effective in overseas missions?  Overseas missions, we remember, is cross-cultural missions.  Cross-cultural missions means you are effectively ministering Christ in another language and in another culture.  It doesn’t mean sending Christians to places where people talk and act funny.  It doesn’t mean raising money and buying an expensive plane ticket.  Going isn’t the fulfillment of Christ’s call make disciples of all ethnic groups.  You have to go in a particular way.

One of the things people typically don’t know when their CQ is quite low is that being conversant in another culture takes a lot of time.  There are years of training involved in becoming effective at ministering Christ in an otherwise foreign culture.  Missionaries who have served for a decade in Poland cannot simply pick up and move to Indonesia and be equally effective.  And “your” people who have no experience to speak of as cross-cultural workers cannot simply pick up and be effective overseas.

Add on top of all the cross-cultural aptitude that missionary is a sub-class of pastor.  And being a pastor is something which you can’t just do.  Even lay ministry isn’t something you can just do.  I know some traditions disagree but I believe that pastors are most effective when they have had a long period of training to be what they are.  It is not an accident that the medieval universities largely grew up around the intent to train pastors and the first graduate schools in America were started in order to train pastors.

So how many of “your” people have this training?  How many have been on the long road to ordination in a church which strives to have an “educated ministry,” which is to say, a ministry which really knows what they’re doing?  Probably only a handful.  And even if you intend to use “your” people as lay ministers, just calling them that and reading a few Scriptures about the priesthood of all believers over them won’t make them that.

See, what we are dealing with in cross-cultural missions is a work which could reasonably qualify as a profession.  The professions like medicine, law or engineering are such because average people can’t simply decide one morning that they want to do it next week or even next year.  This is because there is a complex body of knowledge attached to these tasks which you need years of training to master.  This can be disconcerting for the rest of us because we must trust professionals (doctors, lawyers or engineers) in order to benefit from what they do.  We cannot know if a doctor knows what they are doing, nor can we do it ourselves.  With a barber or hairdresser, we actually can check up on the work and, if necessary, do it ourselves.  But with the professions, this is impossible for us.  This is why the professions often have organizations which certify, check up on and protect those who have supposedly mastered the complex body of knowledge.  But even this step will not alleviate the need for trust.  Who is going to check up on the professional organization?  Well, no one but God and the professionals themselves.

Can We Cut Out the Middleman?

I must assume the best intentions for those churches who intend to help only their own be missionaries.  I must assume that they know that cross-cultural ministry is difficult and that, ideally, they will find in their fellowship a few individuals who get trained and devote their lives to it.  I assume, therefore, that their reasoning behind their self-imposed limitation is that it reduces the amount of uncertainty necessary in joining God in cross-cultural missions.

And I understand that there is a intuitive simplicity to the vision that we ourselves will go to all ethnic groups and fulfill the great commission.  If we take a group to Asia or Africa, we can watch what they can do.  We can know if our money was well spent, if our prayers were heard, if our services were well received.  Going ourselves seems to cut down on the bureaucracy of sending people — the slowness, the paperwork, the middle management, the dependence on others.  Who wouldn’t want to cut out the middleman if possible?

What’s more, “our” people are people we know.  They are possibly even people we can control.  Thus, we can be in charge of the global operation or at least supervise it and pull the plug if necessary.  We can make sure that our missionaries have the “right theology” (our theology) and that they don’t change their mind because of the experiences they are having, the Scriptures and books they are reading or the people they are working with.  We can make sure that our missionaries do the “right thing” and that they don’t change their goals in light of their discipleship to Jesus or the conditions they find on the ground.  We all know there is so much craziness done in the world with money that is supposed to help people it doesn’t.  Only working with “our” people potentially cuts down on that craziness. It cuts out the middleman and puts us directly in touch with the souls we wish to benefit.

All this would be a great strategy if being a cross-cultural missions was, like cutting and grooming hair, something so simple that you could almost do it yourself.  But you can’t.  You can be trained to do it.  But you can’t just “up and do it.”  God has ordained it that the Great Commission is something which can only be fully accomplished with middlemen. Here’s a description of such a person that I came across — in this case a middlewoman, Mary Slessor:

Part British, part African, she functioned as a bridge between cultures, yet never belonged to either one. . . . She had changed too much to return to her homeland; yet she could never adapt enough to become truly African.  Besides, her purpose was to change Africa, not conform to it, which required her to accommodate just enough to introduce Christian faith and values. (Jerry Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 272)

Mary SlessorHere is a weird type of person which the church needs, a person without which Jesus’ commission to his church would not be accomplished.  Chances are, you will not find such people sitting around in a mainstream American church. For such person are like the apostle Paul. They are conversant in multiple cultures but truly at home in none. That particular oddity is why Paul was chosen by the Spirit to be the apostle (missionary) to the Gentiles and Peter wasn’t.  Paul by virtue of his history was ready to be a middleman.  Peter was not.  Hence, it would be unwise and wrong for the Jerusalem church to say, “We’ll send Peter, not Paul, to do overseas missions because he’s in ‘our’ church.”

Because, really, the nations don’t need people from “your” church sent to them; they need people who can effectively minister Christ to them.  The nations don’t need to meet your “homeboys”; they need competent cross-cultural ministers like Mary Slessor who can actually “reach” them.  Wouldn’t it be immoral, if you had the choice between sending a cross-cultural professional to Venezuela or sending a two-week team who have next to no knowledge of Venezuela and even no preparation as lay ministers, to in fact send the team?  It is as if Venezuela is asking for a doctor and you decide to send a hodgepodge group of wellness volunteers because they, at least, are from “your” church.

Who to Help?

But how do we know that these “missionaries” asking for our help are competent?  Well, if they are 22-years-old (as I was when I first told my church and others that I wanted their help to be a missionary), they probably aren’t.  You probably need to send them with the expectation that they will need years of training in seminary or on the field before they are competent missionaries.  The local church that says we only help our own people must face the fact that it is impossible for them to provide this preparation for their currently incompetent missionary.  It wouldn’t be foreign missions if they could.  Done in part with other missionaries, in part on the field and in part individually, the would-be missionary will need a course of training entirely outside the local church’s umbrella and out of their control.  When such a person is done and becomes, like Mary Slessor above, a kind of cyborg who isn’t British or African, is such a person still an organic member of “your” church?  If they haven’t been darkening the doors of “your” church for five or eight years how much claim do you have on them as “one of your own”?  Rather, like parents leaving their children at college, you must release these 22-year-olds to become something which is largely out of your hands and entirely in God’s.

But let’s say a “missionary” asking for help has a history of preparation that they can point to.  Can you know that this “missionary” knows what they are doing?  Well, in a way you just can’t.  Doctors must check up on doctors.  Missionaries must check up on missionaries.  How can the British friends of Mary Slessor know how well she belongs to Africa?  They can’t, not without joining her in being weird.  Hence, your best resource for knowing about a person are other missionaries, especially missionary societies through which the missionaries must apply and under whom they work.  Though sometimes these societies/agencies will let anybody do anything so long as they raise their own money, there are many reputable, experienced societies.  There are also professors of missions who have a good overview of what missionary competence is.  So there are ways of finding out as a non-missionary.

So here you have a credible missionary asking for help from “your” church.  What to do?

It’s worth remembering at this juncture that, on a very basic level, your church is not your church.  It is Christ’s church.  And Christ’s church does not stop at the walls of your building, is not limited to those who darken the door of that building.  Those who ask for your help to be sent to other ethnic groups are members of Christ’s church, i.e. your church.  Hence, there is no room in Christ’s church for a rule which has no more in support for it than old school tribalism.  After all, cross-cultural missionaries are the front-line soldiers in breaking down our fallen world’s tribalisms.

However, I completely understand the need to be good stewards of one’s resources.  A local church of 100 members cannot send out 1,000 missionaries.  One must pick and choose.  Put in this situation, I agree that there is something natural about choosing those missionaries or would-be missionaries that have been significant parts of your fellowship.  But the overriding question should be, Can they do this? and not, Are they one of us?  I can imagine a church which has been blessed with so many competent missionaries that they, without making a rule about it, only can help those who were part of their fellowship at some time.  The church in which I first caught the fire for cross-cultural work (a church where I was a children’s minister and junior high youth leader) was, not surprisingly, a church which strove to send as many people as possible on the field.  They were doing such a good job, really overextending themselves, that they had to direct their resources to those who had been in their community for three years or more.  I’d only been there for 1 1/2 years.  I get that.

But the bottom line is: a rule of only helping the people in “your” church be active in overseas ministry is potentially an immoral practice.  It might be putting the emphasis on you, your own experience with foreign cultures and your own legacy and not on effectively ministering Christ in a foreign culture to the glory of God.  One day Christ may ask us why we did so much to send amateurs and under-trained workers to the nations when we could have sent them professionals, i.e. true middlemen (like Mary Slessor) who know what they’re doing.

For this is a case where the middleman can’t be cut out, a case where God has wisely chosen for middlemen to emerge and exist.  In our releasing of these professionals through our prayers and giving, we have to, as the church in Antioch did with Paul and Barnabas, trust the Holy Spirit (i.e. God) to control and supervise the fulfillment of those parts of the Great Commission which we are incapable of.  That’s what sending means, releasing something and trusting others to get it to the goal.