Engaged with the Mission or Just the Missionary? Why and How One Church Shifted Its Approach
By John Kless, Pastor of Glenside Bible Church
My church is, in many ways, a very typical American evangelical church. We're a small church, averaging about 160 in attendance (counting kids and all!) with traditional roots that go back to the 1920s.
We've historically been involved in missions and, as in most churches, that has meant that we've supported missionaries. In fact, at one point we supported 28 missionary units around the world. I knew and loved every one of our missionaries, corresponded with them occasionally, and spent time with them personally when they were in town. As a member of our church's missions committee, I helped plan how to increase the percentage of our budget given to missionaries and helped bring in missionary speakers four or five times a year. I would have called our church very "mission minded."
Caring about Those They Serve
Then something revolutionized my thinking. Back in 1995 one of my church members, a retired missionary, gave me a copy of Mission Frontiers, and I began to read things that ultimately changed my life. One article I read was authored by Stan Yoder, a missionary whose family had served among the Yalunka people of Sierra Leone. The Yoders' church supported and prayed for them faithfully, but after 10 years, the Yoders came home for health reasons and joined the staff of the US Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California. A year or so later, Stan asked his church's missions committee members if they were still praying for the Yalunka people. Their reply was, "No, we are praying for you and your family in Pasadena." And it occurred to him: "Our church had adopted us, not the Yalunkas, yet the Yalunkas are the ones in desperate need of prayer and release from Islam and animism."
That statement turned on a very bright lightbulb for me. Our church had sent out a couple to serve among the unreached peoples of Papua New Guinea, but they had recently returned home to a ministry in New Mexico, and our church was doing the same thing as Stan Yoder's home church. We had forgotten all about the unreached of Papua New Guinea! It dawned on me that I loved missionaries but I couldn't care less about the lost people they were sent to reach! Our church was more focused on its missionaries than its mission.
Since that time we have committed to several courses of action that changed the entire nature of our missions ministry in several ways.
Finding a Focus
We committed to substantial involvement among one unreached people group. Our church couldn't reach all the unreached peoples, of course, but we could focus on one of them in such a way that it would impact those people and involve our whole church body.
After research, prayer, and our leaders' approval, we formally adopted the Kyrgyz of Central Asia in late 1996. We deliberately chose to set our love upon them (see Deuteronomy 7:7) - to learn to actually love a people.
Within two weeks of our commitment to adopt the Kyrgyz, I received an invitation to be part of a team that was going to Kyrgyzstan for 10 days the next May - all expenses paid! I couldn't say no; it was obviously a God thing. Nearly every year since then, at least one person or a team from our congregation has been in Kyrgyzstan. We have had numerous Kyrgyz leaders and musicians visit our own congregation as well.
Finding Ways to Serve
We purposefully steered away from simply sending money to a missionary among this people group; in fact, at the time we couldn't afford to add any new missions work to our budget. We made a vow to God to do everything within our power to foster a church-planting effort among that people. God has shown us specific roles to play in that process.
1. Mobilizing prayer: We have found practical, nonfinancial ways to support the community of missionaries working among the Kyrgyz. As an example, we started a monthly newsletter called The Kyrgyz Chronicle, a compilation of news and prayer items gleaned from the field missionaries (and, later on, national partners) whom we've come to know. We put it in the bulletin for our own people and then send it to a secure list of email addresses from around the world, which has grown to about 300. This has helped create a "virtual team" that is praying for the key needs among the Kyrgyz in a common fashion each month. Field workers continually tell me they learn more about work in their country from our little letter than they ever find out locally! It is now in its 191st issue.
We have involved our entire congregation in a variety of other projects as well - from signing them up with email pen pals to providing children's Bibles to supplying books for the only Christian bookstore in the country (or all of Central Asia at the time!) during a period of several months when they had no other source.
2. Sending our own: We have also sent our own teams to advance the work. We've sent groups to serve alongside expat workers and national churches. We have ministered to the handicapped, done VBS, held a day camp for street children, participated in village clinics, and much more.
For 10 years we prayed that God would call people out from among our own church to serve in Kyrgyzstan. Finally a 58-year-old nurse sensed God's call to go full time to Kyrgyzstan and served there more than three years. Our church provided 20 percent of her support, and our short-term visits were done in partnership with her.
3. Partnering with others: By God's grace, we have seen partnerships develop with other churches, and have helped in the effort to build and sustain a North American Kyrgyzstan Partnership. An annual meeting and constant email communication throughout the year (which we volunteer to moderate and maintain) helps keep North American churches and agencies engaged. Our vision is a mature, reproducing church movement, capable of reaching its own people and prepared to reach other unreached peoples. Now even this is beginning to happen.
4. Supporting the national church: As the church in Kyrgyzstan has developed and grown (to perhaps some 50,000 evangelicals!), we have come to know and encourage local pastors there. Over the last four years I've been able to make regular Skype-to-cell-phone calls to about a dozen Kyrgyz pastors and leaders (using a translator) to pray with and encourage them as an older brother in the Lord as they continue the task of reaching their own people.
A New View
This mission-driven approach to our church's mission ministry has spurred us on to reshape our entire missions program in this fashion. We still support 21 long-term missionary partners around the world. We didn't drop anyone's support or stop loving them; we simply now view our church as working alongside them more personally, towards the goal of evangelizing the people whom they serve. Thus, instead of saying, "GBC supports John and Jane Doe in France," we began to say, "GBC is reaching the people of France through our partnership with John and Jane Doe."
We did that with each of our ministries. We placed the focus on the people we were reaching and began to talk and pray that way, even if the work did not target a specific ethnic group. We set out to learn to love the people we were already touching through each of our existing missionary partnerships and over the years have added new ones.
Responding to New Opportunities
To increase our involvement specifically among the unreached, we have extended our efforts to include partnering with nationals who are reaching their own or other unreached peoples. We have now developed seven of these national partnerships, including a partnership with the first mission sending organization now developing in Kyrgyzstan. We serve as a funding channel and prayer partner with someone reaching the Kyrgyz people in China. We also partner with ministries in West Africa, Indonesia, and India.
Our most recent partnership is with Hebron Believers Assembly, a small church in South India with a vision to reach the Yenadi people, an unreached tribal group considered lower than the "untouchables." After several years of ministry, God has raised up 23 Yenadi evangelists who are now reaching more than 75 villages with the gospel. They receive a tiny monthly stipend which is just enough to allow them to continue to live in their villages without seeking better-paying work in the city. Already 28 small church groups are meeting and several hundred believers are being discipled. Not only are we able to give a small monthly amount to help these workers, last summer we were also able to send a team to visit the evangelists and do gospel work in the villages with them. We encourage them and maintain regular personal contact by phone and Skype with the pastor who directs the work.
We're only a small church that doesn't have a lot of resources. There are many things we can't do. But we've read the story of David and know how God can use a willing kid with only a sling and a stone to defeat a whole army. We've discovered that you don't need a lot of money or people to make a difference. As God has led us step-by-step on our mission journey, we have come to see and believe that - as we choose to make ourselves available and genuinely desire to see the nations reached - even a small church like ours can have a global impact!
>> Learn more about missions at Glenside Bible Church.
>> Editor's note: Interested in developing a focused strategy in your church? One of the best resources to guide you through the process is Your FOCUS on the World (Catalyst Services).