Missionaries aren’t born missionaries. They are shaped: made by a combination of many factors impacting them over the course of their lives.Personally, I’ve found Rick Warren’s “SHAPE” acronym to be very useful in considering these factors: one’s Spiritual gifts, Heart (or passion), Abilities (skills formed by development), Personality (our temperament), and our Experiences over time. For example:
- my spiritual gifts seem to be in the ‘teaching’ arena.
- I have a passion for the unreached—I am far less passionate about American politics or pastoring believers here (while I honor those that have those passions, I just don’t share them).
- My abilities are in the area of data acquisition, compilation, analysis, and communication.
- My personality tends to be that of an explorer and a thinker; on the Myers-Briggs scale (which I know some disagree with, but I find useful), I test out as an INTP.
- My experiences through the years (writing, speaking, living overseas, interviewing sources, etc) have further developed these traits.
When I first got started in missions, I didn’t think I was headed for a career in it—I thought I was signing up for a short-term ‘temp’ job. When I first went to work for the World Christian Encyclopedia team, I didn’t think of myself as a researcher—I thought my wife and I were headed for a short-term project supporting the team by managing the databases. Encouragement from mentors, bosses and team members, the critique and development of my skills in writing and communication, and opportunities I was given led to the development of my missionary ‘career.’ My time in missions, especially my early days, would have probably been more effective (and my choices more intentionally made) if it were more organized, more thought out and mentored.
There are several choice points in a missionary’s career: where one decides to become a missionary, or one decides to transition into a new role as a missionary, or one decides to stay or leave the field. The work of mobilization is perhaps incorrectly thought of as ‘persuading someone to become a missionary’ and better thought of as ‘helping people discover and take the next shaping step on their path as a missionary.’
Having someone who helps you think through these decisions, articulate clear reasons for them, encourages you, connects you, mentors you, can help significantly when living out the decisions becomes difficult. You’ll know why you made the decision, and you’ll have people who help you.
Many mobilizers seem to be looking for people who are willing to sign a form of interest, and refer them to an agency. This role is basically a glorified headhunter or recruiter or placement office.
Churches who have an interest in sending more workers need to tilt away from discovering and placing missionaries (preaching a really good mission sermon, putting out response cards, and then following up with people who fill out the cards) and toward the idea of shaping leaders with an outward, missionary outlook (helping them develop the skills which will eventually lead them to a choice point). And I think the church needs to take responsibility for this, rather than ‘outsourcing’ all of it to others (although there are many good tools—like Perspectives—that can be used by churches in this process).
I have spoken with several churches which have intentional development programs for their members. These can be called discipleship or leadership development or what-have-you: they are practical programs that combine mentoring with outreach and specific opportunities to practice what is learned. People shaped through these programs go on to become ministry leaders. Some are small group or ministry leaders in the local church. Some are leaders of church plants. Some end up as missionaries, going to the ends of the earth. Some go with agencies, and some are sent out by the churches themselves. Having an intentional development program means you aren’t leaving the discovery to ‘chance’ (however you theologically define that). You aren’t swarming over the odd person who shows up having already, on their own, read all the missionary material. The possible response—take a short term trip! sign up with an agency! give your life away!-—can be terribly frightening in it suddenness without a few experimental baby steps.
Instead, an intentional development program is always expectantly looking for ‘new people.’ The ‘discovery’ of someone with interest becomes the gateway to encouragement, some first steps, and an easier and well-thought on-ramp to an organized program leading to greater development, experience opportunities, and eventual commissioning. (Note: the successful development of early leaders can inspire others connected to those leaders to think “I can do that too,” and apply, when they might not have been among the “first wave.”)
In the process, the church is building its depth of leadership, knowing that some will stay at home, some will minister nearby, and some will go far away. I think it’s always easier to send this year’s “best and brightest” to the ends of the Earth if you know that more “best and brightest” are being developed in the next cohort of people.
To do this, the best step a church can take is to have some kind of ‘core group’—whether a mission pastor, or a mission committee, or whatever—who connect with other churches doing this kind of thing, and who help the church develop a set of processes for mentoring disciplemakers. These processes can inspire Heart, impart knowledge and opportunities to build Abilities, mentor Spiritual Gifts and Personalities, and offer Experiences that encourage people to explore where God wants to use them. These repeatable processes will serve to develop the church’s leadership ability, enabling it to scale to larger impact, and to invest people locally and far off. It will help churches do more than just sprint with the occasional runner, and instead train for marathons and hand-offs.