During the brief months since we returned from our mission trip to Liberia, West Africa, we have been blessed with the places we have visited and the people we have met. Each church has been more than generous even though we have never asked for a single penny in any of them, and the bulk of the gifts given have been sent directly to the work in Liberia. The Lord continues to meet our every need even going above and beyond what we ask for. This has been a great encouragement not only to us, but also the national pastors and teachers we have been seeking to help in Liberia.
In each church, we simply seek to share the desperate condition of the lost in West Africa. We do not show pretty pictures of lakes, rivers, and pristine white beaches for this is not what missionary work is ever about. Our goal is not to raise money to build “American” churches. It is not to raise awareness of needed vaccinations or mosquito nets, nor even of better food and water supplies. As we have written before, those things have their place, but without the gospel of Jesus Christ being preached boldly, these dear people will die and go straight to hell if they do not hear the gospel of the Savior.
However, there is one aspect of missionary ministry that still amazes me. In fact, it more than amazes me. It actually saddens me that after all the years of missionary work around the world, sometimes we seem to have learned very little. This is not for the purposes of those who are already convinced in their minds, but for those who may be considering work in the future. It also may be for some who struggle with what they see as a current trend in our American style of missionary endeavors.
More times than not, we have been questioned about our connection with a local church and the answer is always the same. We are part of a fellowship of Christians in Monrovia, Liberia – the Maranatha Baptist Church. The teaching pastor is James Togba and it is to this work that we hold ourselves accountable. Having seen and heard the problems on the ground in Liberia and even throughout many different parts of the world, we prayed that we might be able to have an impact where the Lord called us to serve. Part of the problem is that very few missionaries ever have direct accountability on their respective fields. Few pastors ever visit the field to see what their missionaries are doing, and for the most part, it seems that much of the national leadership is simply ignored.
I have had some question me with statements like, “Do you speak regularly with the leadership of your church?” “Will they be willing to initiate discipline should the need arise?” “What if I need to contact the leadership of your church?” Or, the one that takes the cake is, “How can you be accountable to a Liberian church?”
All things being equal, these are almost all valid questions. The problem is that things are not equal because of the patterns we have sought to follow which are far from biblical. For years, some mission boards had problems with a national pastor or church planter wanting to be a part of their board. Even today, there are some boards who will not permit a national to be part of their organization. Then the rules changed and some mission boards amended their perspective to allow for national pastors with one main caveat – they had to be a member of an American church located in America being pastored by an American pastor.
When we began the process of considering mission work in Liberia, I contacted a number of boards and read a number of different sites to see what they required and the majority of them made it clear that the way forward was “an American one.” So, the bottom line is this – if you are called to be a missionary church-planter, then we expect you to go over to your respective field, you will be expected to teach them what the Bible says, you must have a goal to train pastors and elders (which is a goal actually lacking in many circles) to lead their people, but everything must be from an American perspective. Then when one of the men who is called to minister the gospel desires to be supported, often they are sent to the West, go to Bible College, get their degree and are then able to raise support to go back to their home country. However, in order to do that, they are required to be a member of an American church.
How in the world have we come to the point that American churches have all the answers? How have mission boards come to accept guidelines whereby they dictate to the missionary and to the local church what is or is not acceptable on the mission field? But is there an even bigger issue?
When we doubt that a national church has the ability to lead their own people, when we doubt that the best person to pastor a national church is a national pastor, when we begin to think that an American must remain in charge, and when we think that the only good missionary endeavor is one based out of the West then we have seriously undermined the biblical principles of indigenous church planting. The goal of every missionary should be to facilitate training until the Lord raises up leaders in each assembly of believers and then turn the work over to them.
Many countries, particularly in Africa, struggle today in the realm of spiritual matters because mission boards and, in turn, missionaries have failed to relinquish the work into the hands of fully trained men. They either hang on too long, or they think that the national is not capable of leading his own people to the level of the American missionary.
While I do not have all the answers, I am fully confident in the inerrant, infallible Word of God and the answers that it provides. 2 Peter 1:3 assures us that, “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness.”
If a national church is not able to stand on its own indefinitely without the missionary, then the missionary has failed in his responsibility. If a national man is never qualified to take on the role of a biblical elder in his own local assembly, then again the missionary must be held accountable for failing to teach. Further, if a national church is not “qualified” or “good enough” to assume the role of sending out missionaries to her own people or even to other countries, then the question must be asked – “Is it because the church has not been trained?” Actually, maybe the heart should be prepared to give an answer in the negative because this is not always the case.
Many times the question should be more forthright, “Why are we in the West so arrogant as to think that the national church and the national leaders are inferior in the work of the Lord?” Why must a national pastor be a member of a church in the West? Why must a missionary be held accountable only by churches and leadership in the west? When we make statements like this, we are in essence making it clear to the Christians in other lands that they are not good enough. Their churches are not good enough to lead. Their pastors and elders are not strong enough to make hard decisions. Their missionaries and church-planters are only good enough if they do things “our way!”
The only way churches will grow and become what they should be is when we who give them aid allow them to make mistakes, take credit where credit is due, sometimes take the hard knocks when they come, bathe them in prayer, and overall, allow them to grow and become what the Lord Jesus Christ would have them to be – namely a local church of chosen believers who are being molded into the image of the Savior. Christ did not die for His “American” bride, but for all those who will place their faith in Him. Surely, if He did the choosing, He can make them what He wants. Too often we forget that the standard must be a biblical standard, not an American one.
Often the missionary can learn a great deal from the national church and its leadership. Many of them have suffered great hardships and tribulations. They know how to endure suffering for the name of Christ. They have learned to truly live by faith when there is no possibility of anybody in the world knowing who they are or where they are. These men are not inferior to us in anyway. Their churches are not inferior. They may need more teaching and direction, but they will grow through the exposition of the Scriptures. They will take their own place within the realms of Christianity and they will do in a style that is truly Asian, African, European, South American, etc. Praises will be sung but it might not sound like anything we are familiar with. Services will be conducted but they might not look like our hymn-jam sandwich style so common in churches in the West. Preaching will sound different as well, but it will probably last 1-2 hours longer than what we are comfortable with in our normal circles.
This brings us full-circle back to our case. Our home church is in Liberia. We are accountable to them. Our pastor has worked with us on our mission trips. The leadership will be visiting the works and seeing first-hand what we claim to be doing. We will not have to worry about whether “spiced-up” prayer letters will make the work look better than it really is. Our goal is just to please the Savior and to be in subjection to those who rule over us.
Our pastor is a godly man and we respect him greatly for the work he is doing. Our church stands as a lighthouse in a very dark land and stands with us as we seek to be one more extension of the ministry of Maranatha Baptist Church. These men are counted as brothers and friends and family in Christ. A missionary could not truly ask for any more than that from a national pastor and a national church.
In fact, a missionary has no right to ask more than is expected from the Word of God or even more than what is expected from an American church. The quicker we learn these truths, the more help we will be to those who are every much our equals in Christ Jesus.