November 25, 2020

The Missionary Headache: Why Evangelicals Need To Support The Missionaries Among Us

coffeeshop.jpgIt goes without saying that new ways of thinking rarely bring out the best in evangelicalism. Those dreaded “paradigm shifts” usually elicit lots of sermons on topics like “The Christian Worldview” and “The Threat of Relativistic New Age Contemplative Prayer.” No doubt, there are many times that the evangelical response to a new way of thinking is on target. But not always. Sometimes we’re just wrong. Sincere and God-loving, but wrong.

Maybe we are wrong in ways that can be corrected. There was a reformation, after all, and evangelicalism isn’t without a reverse gear or the ability to do a mid-course correction. (Check the SBC on racism.) On the other hand, sometimes our resistance to new ways of thinking is a resistance to the Spirit of God himself because we are simply loyal to and invested in the familiar more than we are sensitive to the Spirit. If the familiar is made up of what we’ve built with our own efforts, then we’re highly likely to polish it, dress it up and see no flaws in it. Our kids are always above average, good-looking and better than your kids at sports. Right?

I have a new way of thinking that evangelicals are confronting even as I type. This new way of thinking is going on all around us, and one need only look and listen to sense the trouble evangelicals are having as a result. With what you ask?

With the fact that there are now missionaries in America.

***Eye Roll*** ***Repeat***

There are supposed to be churches in America. We’re doing church. We train pastors and youth ministers and music guys to staff those churches. People come to church to worship. We have church. We grow church. We’re the church. You can drive by and see our building. You can read our ad. Our program is on television.

Apparently, there are some problems with this. Apparently there are large segments of America- and considerable sections of the population everywhere- that don’t “do church,” and if the Gospel is restricted to churches, the average church-going-type Christian or church culture in general, it’s not going to be heard by tens of millions of people. Soon, it will be hundreds of millions.

Want to know the saddest, worst part? I don’t think a lot of us really care. If this culture isn’t coming to church to hear the Gospel, then they can just do without. ***I’m offended*** Sorry.

Enter a lot of people who see themselves as missionaries to America. They are in truck stops, coffeeshops, campus ministries, new churches with weird names, creating art and music, filtering into secular callings, finding a place to do something they call “missional” ministry without doing traditional church.

They are, quite simply, missionaries to America and its secular, post-Christian culture.

Now in my home church, we used to have “Missions Week.” Missionaries would come in and talk about what they were doing. They would show slides. Some were starting churches, while some were working with existing churches that couldn’t afford help. We had “home” missionaries in those days. Some worked at race tracks. Some worked with the poor and homeless. And, of course, there were always foreign missionaries, starting a church in a hut, making do with what they had, teaching English or whatever, in order to make a foothold for the Gospel in new and difficult settings.

We always liked those people. I mean, we loved them. We listened, asked questions, took up money, prayed for them, wrote them letters, sent them packages of whatever they needed, and talked about out church’s connection to missions.

When I was a youth specialist, we did inner-city mission trips. We worked with a church that was built in a former dog kennel next door to a chop shop. We worked with a church that the City of Chicago utilized to work with the homeless, mentally ill and addict population downtown. This church was innovative. In fact, I’m not sure they always knew what they were doing, but they were definitely not trying to do church like we did back here in Kentucky. They seemed to wrap everything into the shape of their neighborhood and the people in it. It was our job, as “missionaries” for a week, to become like the community, to think new ways and do new things so the Gospel could be heard.

This church wanted to be a presence in the community, and they did a hundred things a month to make that happen. AA and NA meetings. SUpport groups. Meals. Alternative worship services for ethnic and language groups. MOPS for young moms. Distribution of medication. Offices for social workers. All kinds of programs, ministries and ways to be present in the form of a servant. All done with Jesus Christ at the center of worship, ministry and service.

Back in Kentucky, our church talked about being a “lighthouse” in our community, but we didn’t do any of those things. We didn’t have a meal for the homeless. We had a meal for the suburbanites, and we charged four bucks. We had a youth program to entertain- and evangelize- the teenagers of the church. But if I had suggested going to the projects or the hood and evangelizing down there, the excuses- “it’s dangerous!”- would have been forthcoming.

We had music programs so choirs could sing in our big sanctuary and the older people would be proud. We had huge holiday pageants so that the folks at church would have a meaningful Christmas. We gave lots of money to missionaries, and we had missions study groups for every age, but we didn’t do missions anything like the missionary church we visited in Chicago.

That church in Chicago really messed with the way I thought about church. They were being “missional” before anyone knew the word. They were the “new way of thinking” that is now going on all around us.

The difference is that we aren’t applauding or helping or praying for these new missionaries in America. A lot of evangelicals are scared to death of what they are doing and the thinking behind it. Some evangelicals believe these missionaries are the enemy. They are fisking their web sites, negatively reviewing their books and giving the snarky head-shake to their successes.

Increasingly, we are living, not in a country of churches, but in a country in need of missionaries. While evangelicals build their megachurches, the missionaries to America and the west are going a different direction. The critics may make fun of or denounce these missionary Christians, but they are not going away.

You see, the fields are white unto harvest, and the churches aren’t harvesting, or sending out enough workers. So someone has prayed, and the Lord of the Harvest- Bless His Name!- has sent out workers into the field.

They are missionaries to America. They are all around you. And there are more coming. God is sending them, because God isn’t invested in church culture, church staff or church buildings. The church of Jesus is a cross-cultural movement of church planting. It is a missional movement. For many of us, that is, sadly, new and unknown territory. We want to have our coffeehouse ministry in the church basement, where we know where everything is and everyone that will come in the door. That’s not going to do it anymore.

Let’s welcome these missionaries, encourage them, pray for them and become their allies. Adopt them. Be generous with them. Stop criticizing them because they aren’t like your “favorite pastors.” They are like Peter, Paul, Phillip, Barnabas, Apollos, Priscilla, Aquilla and Titus. They are missionary church planters. May God send them everywhere and give them the success we in our churches are not going to have with most of this culture.


  1. BurntHombre says

    My wife’s grandparents were missionaries with Baptist Mid-Missions back in the ’50s. I recently came across one of their old support flyers, which described them as “Missionaries to West Virginia appalachia.” I thought that was pretty cool. 🙂

  2. Bravo! Here’s the catch: while missionaries overseas are evaluating epistemologies and ecclesiologies and communication and incarnation, they most likely only communicate to the North American church only what is palatable to these North Americans. For example, I know of missionaries who send a general newsletter and then another newsletter, more revealing of the ministry, to closer trusted friends. Here, while “doing missions” in the States, everything is wide open for criticism.

  3. On one level, I couldn’t agree with this post more. We badly need to learn to contextualize the gospel and the church in a way that makes them comprehensible and relevant to these new subcultures. It is absolutely common sense. It is, to me, part of the job description of a Christian to be able to understand the seed of the gospel well enough to plant it in entirely new soil. Yes. Absolutely. However, I also feel that the term “missionary” is becoming cheapened–not *necessarily* by domestic missionaries, and certainly not only by them. It seems like churches reflexively call any evangelistic activity “missions” if it involves driving more than a few miles! There are plenty of infractions the other way, too, calling homeland missions evangelism, even if it’s a Muslim exchange student who has no idea who Jesus is! Both ways muddy the waters.

    I think this is an important distinction, but at the same time, I’m becoming less willing to emphasize it, because people seem to grant a lot more leeway to foreign missionaries than someone more nearby. I’m hoping that by calling people like Driscoll “missionaries”, it’ll keep from setting off that autoimmune-response-style “discernment” mechanism that makes some choke out the sufficiently different. If we’re going to call dropping cultural baggage to get the gospel across accurately the job description of missionaries, let’s all be missionaries.

  4. steve yates says


    Why does there have to be a distinction between evangelism and missions?

    I think we have shrunken evangelism down to mean “saving people” when in reality evangelism is simply spreading the news of Jesus and advancing the kingdom, which is missions.

  5. Steve,
    Not meaning to answer for Derek, here are my thoughts: while I agree that evangelism should be more than getting butts into heaven (not to downplay the significance and importance of eternal life on God’s grace), and I have stopped objecting to the expanded use of the word “missions” to apply it to same country, I believe it is important to understand the cross-cultural element with which overseas missionaries have to deal. They are learning a new language and a new way of thinking. They deal with culture shock and a different type of loneliness. While they have joys and learning opportunities that we miss out on and struggles we don’t have, it is unfair to think that it is all the same.

  6. Michael, this essay is stunning. You’ve connected dots that I’ve not heard connected before. I’ve been so puzzled by the rancor I’ve seen out in the blogosphere towards people who are BEING the church in ways that most of us lack the courage to be….but I think that some of the answers (or the beginnings of answers) are here in this essay. Thank you.

  7. steve yates says


    I definitely agree with you, mostly (as if that strain of thought made any sense). Missionaries overseas do have a huge “learning curve” which sets them apart from my mother witnessing to her hairdresser. However, I hesitate to go as far as saying that such cross-cultural elements do not exist in America. For example, in my city, the very places the church needs to go (colleges and poverty-stricken areas) are where they are avoiding. These places require a huge cultural leap for many of the Christians in the area – yet they are where God is leading the city to go.

    You said ‘It’s not all the same.’ I think your statement is true not because of geography and language/cultural barriers, but because Christians overseas (indigenous and missionary alike) are willing to overcome whatever it takes to lead people to Christ, and sadly, we’re not willing to overcome cultural barriers in our own city.

  8. lingamish says

    Speaking as an old-fashioned missionary, I can affirm that there has been a big change in definitions in the last several years. It is unclear anymore where the fabled “mission field” is. Also, the concept of “missionary” is far from clear. I fit into the traditional category of missionary, a Westerner traveling to the third-world to engage in Christian development activity. But as you have noted, there are many that have recognized the West as a mission field and are actively trying to reach it. In some cases it is a convenient excuse for ignoring the greater needs of the third-world: “Our neighborhood is the mission field!” But the truth remains that every generation must be reached with the gospel and so in essence the mission never ends.

    Increasingly, there is a recognition of the globalization of “mission work.” The third-world is reaching out to the West with Christian values that have been abandoned in the intervening years since the golden age of “Christian colonialism.” I see myself consistently partnering in the great commission with Christians from all over the world, all of united by one Head and dedicated to serving his cause.

    I’m happy to see that Christians in America are broadening the definition of “mission field” and “missionary” and recognizing that America can and should be reached.

    The churches of Mozambique, are ambitious, and actively evangelistic. Many traditional missionary activities are no longer necessary in that country because the indigenous church has taken up the Great Commission. I continue to be bothered by the materialism and shallowness of the American church in the face of such clear evidence that our brothers and sisters in Africa and other parts of the world are in such need of support. There are no easy answers to resolving that imbalance.

  9. That sound I hear is the sound of a hammer hitting a nail.

  10. Moreover, we should welcome them with hospitality and send them in a manner worthy of their calling. 3 John 5-8.

  11. I was so happy to see your Blog on Missionary Headache.

    My daughter has been asked by her church to become a local missionary for one year,in her community, but there is no salary. As a Christian I am thrilled that she is truly thinking about this. Her love and trust in Jesus is more that I can explain. She keeps assuring me that God will provide. But the Mom in me is very scared, who will pay her car payments, her student loans, her rent, food, insurance, medical, etc. Is there anything you can tell me that will help me be able to support her decision. Are most missionary not paid or is her church taking advantaged of her? This has cause a number of sleepless night for me and I know she feels I have failed her, because I don’t agree. I am just afraid that she will quit her job and take on this challenge, with no financial fall back. She lives in another state and I am not in a financial position to help her out anymore. Please I could use all the help you can give.

  12. I certainly can understand your stress. If your daughter is an adult, she is entitled to make this decision without interference. I have seen many parents be very disturbed by their young person’s short term missions adventure. I can’t advise you. If it were my daughter, I would have a lot of questions about the church’s attitude toward her existing financial commitments. I would also have a lot of questions about exactly what they mean by “local missionary” and why she needs to forego support. Missionaries are either paid by the church, raise their own support or have ways to delay their commitments while on the field. I would want to know if the church was supporting your daughter in any way, and especially how they viewed her Biblical requirements to pay her commitments.

  13. Thank you so much for getting back to me. Yes, she is an adult and as for support, they want to go out and get sponsors. Other an that I know of no other financial support. And her answer to me is always, “God will provide” My answer is “Yes, but its my credit card that was being provided, and I can’t do it any more.”
    I really appreciate knowing that I am not a bad Christian for questioning. God Bless. And Thank you again.