On Supporting Local over Foreign Ministers

“No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”

– Jesus

I am a foreigner. But a well-adapted one. Indeed I live a double life, a confused life. But only on the inside. I am what anthropologists call bicultural. I grew up in America but lived most of my adult life in Europe, married to a German wife and raising two even more confused kids. I have accepted this life, not out of necessity (as my kids have), but as a part of my vocation as a cross-cultural missionary.

My experience is typical for long-term missionaries today. While the first generations of missionaries were hesitant to mingle with the natives, preferring to minister without losing their first cultural identity, the latest generations overturned that wisdom and accepted, where possible, the customs, the social structures and even the history of those to whom they had been sent. No doubt there are ways in which I could become more German, could cling less to my American past. I haven’t for example read a German work of fiction for a while. But then I don’t need to give up my American ways entirely. When I return or while I’m here, if I so chose, I can take them up again. I may forget them, I may never have learned them, but becoming bicultural means becoming amphibious. One can move in both environments.

Recently I was asked about what I thought of a particular missions strategy, that is, the guidelines by which churches of one culture or nation seek to support God’s work in another culture or nation. This strategy consisted of engaging with another culture or nation by exclusively supporting (either with money or with some sort of training or coaching) indigenous church planters who then start church plants which start church plants. The person who asked asked for my opinion, so I gave it. I tried to be quick but the question evoked more in me than I had time to express. Here is what I would have said had I had the time to say it.

Missionary work is about more than just evangelism

I know that it is customary to use “evangelism” and “mission” interchangeably. I often encounter people (even missionaries and even missiologists) who assume that the main and only reason why cross-cultural missions exist is because there are people who still need to hear the gospel for the first time. This assumption obviously has an effect on how we develop strategy. The exclusive focus on church planting comes out of the belief that foreign missions is primarily about evangelism and that church planting is the most effective (contemporary) method of evangelizing.

But I think a more historical picture of foreign missions, not to mention a more biblical picture, is to see missionaries as doing gospel ministry on foreign soil. Think of it this way. Your pastor is not primarily an evangelist. Even if that is a strength or a priority for her, her ministry does not reduce to evangelism. We all believe that Jesus commissioned pastors (church leaders) to a more holistic ministry, which includes teaching, counseling, leading, empowering, comforting and shepherding. All of this is what I call gospel ministry. Missionaries receive the same training to do this work. And, though evangelism is a high concern on the field, if that were all we did (as some missions strategies suggest), we would be leaving a great amount of God’s work undone. For example, we would be leaving the Great Commission, which is by the way not a verse about evangelism, undone.

A missions strategy must know and adapt to the conditions on the ground

Before you think I have equated being a pastor and being a missionary, I will add that missionaries are gap people. The reason why missionaries exist is because God intended that his global church grow up together. This is a New Testament theme, I will remind you. But we have heard some very persuasive arguments in the last century which suggest that an individual indigenous church has all that it needs to grow and flourish. But I will tell you that that isn’t even true on a denominational or national level. It is possible, and if you don’t believe me, just look back at church history, for a national/cultural expression of church to become stagnant and to start to wither and even die. God did not implant in the congregation everything it needs for its development. God set up the church to be a global entity which only grows and flourishes through a transfer of spiritual resources from one part to another.

For this reason, I believe that missionaries are those God calls to cross national and cultural borders and to identify and work in the gaps – the areas where a church within those borders is lacking. That gap may very well be evangelism. But it may be something else (in Western Europe it is probably is). A missionary is, by definition, a specialist who brings in an expertise and goes to work in places where the church is missing or failing. It is not wise to adopt a one-size-fits-all strategy whereby missionaries everywhere do the exact same thing (like church planting). National/cultural expressions of church struggle in different ways. And none of them have within themselves the resources to help themselves. This is not the way that Christ set up his global “body” to work.

Bridge persons are essential to a successful cross-cultural endeavor

It is a rule in the practice of medicine that you should not be your own doctor. For we are blind to our own strengths and weaknesses. It takes an outside eye to see them. The same applies to ministry across cultures. If you ask a pastor in another culture, what do you need, they will give you an answer. But don’t assume that it is the best one or even an accurate one! Cultures are not naturally gifted at self-reflection. They can be unique windows onto the world but they can also be unique curtains, hiding things that to others are in plain sight. And nothing can be more hidden to a culture than itself.

What we need are people who are reflective and bicultural. Bicultural people can see the world in multiple ways because being from one culture, they have learned to see things as another culture sees them. If we are going to help others in the places of weakness, we must rely on the only people who can spot them. And those people, frankly, are not indigenous pastors. Nor are they the people living at home theorizing about missions.

This is why a local church’s support of indigenous ministers, a fundamental principle of cross-cultural work, cannot be direct. A local church needs people who truly stand in the middle, who see things two ways and whom we simply have to trust. We have trust them because we cannot see what they see. And they can’t just show us. Because having this kind of sight takes time. It takes a long time to understand the culture well enough to be able to know what exactly they need in terms of spiritual resources for their development. A bicultural bridge person’s experience is too complex to simply pass it on to someone who hasn’t given their life to it.

Hence, it is the bicultural missionary’s job to support indigenous ministers. As a local church, it is enough that we support the bicultural missionaries.

Being “a homeboy” is not necessarily a ministry advantage

This is perhaps the most sensitive of my theses. A lot of trees have been cut down to right the wrongs of colonialism and especially the hesitation to pass on control of the church to indigenous Christians. For the record, I’m for giving authority to those who are ministering in their home culture. I happen to minister outside of my home culture and I’m content to be in support roles.

But if I returned to my home culture, to Ohio where I grew up, I do not think that my native cultural identity would give me a gross advantage. In fact, it might be a disadvantage. Jesus said that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. Perhaps it is not an accident that many of the great apostles of church history – Paul, Patrick, Boniface, Cyril and Methodius to name a few – were not from the place where they had their greatest successes.

Let’s say you are an American and are having serious physical trouble and need medical attention. You have the option between a doctor with great experience but who has lived her entire life in Japan and only speaks broken English and a young nurse who has never left the country but is so American that we could write folk songs about her. Which would you choose? The doctor, I’m sure, even though she is culturally foreign and may make some social mistakes. Why? Because you believe that doctors share a complex body of knowledge that extends beyond linguistic, cultural and national boundaries.

The reason why we assume that an indigenous minister of any ability (!) would be better than a foreign minister of proven ability is that we are not sure that the ministry works, as medicine does, from a complex body of knowledge that extends beyond linguistic, cultural and national boundaries. I didn’t grow up with a German childhood: no German television, kids birthdays or schooling. Some of it I can learn, some of it I can’t learn and some of it I don’t want to learn. But I wouldn’t trade familiarity with all that for all of my knowledge and experience as a minister of the gospel. As a vocational missionary or minister, it is the latter that I need more than the former.

So the idea of supporting indigenous ministers must be tempered with the idea of supporting educated ministers. If we must choose, remember the Japanese doctor and choose the minister with knowledge.

We are called to minister to those in front of us

Ministry takes time. It takes time to work with people, to meet them where they’re at, earn the right to be heard and walk with them over the years. In their lifetime, a typical vocational minister affects no more than 500 people deeply. The true number may be more around 50 or 100. Of course, we affect many people tangentially and that’s part of the job too.

But some theorists have taught us to be dissatisfied with this. They have suggested to us that we should not give our undivided attention to the real people God brings into our life. We should think bigger and bigger. We should start multiplication movements and have a vision for impacting thousands. How? What’s the trick? By not ministering to the people in front of us but to the people in front of the people in front of us. In other words, we concern ourselves with the future existence of our grandkids and not with our real kids. Of course, we need our kids to have our grandkids. And this means we treat our kids (those in front of us) as if reproduction is the most important part of their identity. Hence, our kids become our surrogates who in our minds have only become adults when they give us the grandkids we have set our hopes on.

But I think that the calling as a minister, even if it is to the supervision of other ministers, is a calling to minister holistically to the real people that God brings into our life. We are not in charge of their vocation and certainly not the effects of their work. God is. For that reason, I am an additionalist, not a multiplicationist. I am for one more church being planted when the time is right. Because that church will employ a minister and engage laymen who will minister one-on-one and holistically to real people.

That is what I have to say, probably more than you wanted to hear, about that mission strategy.