Different kinds of mission structures

When I was younger, most missionaries went out through a traditional sending agency (parachurch or denominational). However, there were a small handful who “didn’t fit the traditional agency board” and went a different route. They were tentmakers or missionaries who had enough resources to form their own “501c3 charitable organizations.” They were few and far between.

Today, their number is vastly increasing.

With the plummeting costs of vision-sharing (email, websites, blogs, social media), connection (sms, Internet chat, social media, email groups, VOIP, phone, meetups), collaboration (message boards, agreed upon action, flashmobs, cheap donations, etc), it has become easier and easier to form “mission structures” of one kind or another to send people on mission.

  • Tentmakers go on their own or with a placement agency overseas, to work a job, and thus need little/no fundraising.
  • Business as Mission is being increasingly dominated by true entrepreneurs who need little agency or church backing–and who are often in places where they don’t want the ties to traditional sending structures.
  • Large churches are able to send their own workers, fully funded, to the field, without any intervening mission structure.
  • Smaller churches are banding together and using services like Kinnexxus to send workers, some of whose support is spread over multiple structures.
  • Traditional agencies and denominational sending boards are having to rethink their relationship with churches – to make sure the proper attitudes are maintained! – and to build partnerships with lots of other folks on the ground in order to get a sizable enough team to do something.

I don’t think any of these sending structures are inherently bad. I’ve written quite a lot about swarms and decentralized structures, partly from a desire to help these new forms become more effective.

However, I do think these structures face one significant challenge, which larger and historical agencies do not possess: they are new and cheap. These two factors–a lack of history (legacy, longevity, desire to sustain) and a lack of cost (=cheapness, easy-in/easy-out)–can lead to a “testing of the waters” or a short-term mentality. It can lead to evaluations based on cost-effectiveness, profitability, return on investment, or even a “project of the month” idea.

Many mission efforts require a very long time in order to see a sustainable, indigenous, reproduce church planting effort start. Yes, you can go in, “plant seed” with widespread evangelism (some of which can be risky or even downright dangerous), and you can even make some converts. But doing the hard work of language learning, cultural adaptation, inculturation, finding people-of-peace, translation, cross-cultural discipling of disciples who make disciples–all of this takes time.

A recent study quoted to me showed many agencies are seeing significant turnover at the 4-to-8 year mark–which is unfortunate, because as Stan P., VP of Global Ministries for MUP noted, it’s at the 8-year-mark that most missionaries start to be really effective. Sustaining workers in the field until they become really qualified and effective is a very big challenge.

Unfortunately it seems to me that most of the nontraditional sending structures do not think in terms of placing people on the field and doing the hard work of keeping them there for up to 10 years. I think this longevity is something strategic which we need to encourage.

I am reminded of the line in the old movie, “Hello, Dolly”: “A man is not worth a cent until he’s forty.  We just pay him wages until then, to make mistakes.” There’s some wisdom in that.

Edit: as one reader noted, this does not address “boutique missions” or “mom-and-pops” – the very small 501(c)(3)s set up largely to cover one person’s individual ministry. They face another challenge, which I’ll address in a later post.

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