[Note: This is an article I wrote in 2001 which I recently came across on my hard drive. Amazing how much of it still holds true today!]
Top-of-the-food-chain carnivores are never popular with others in the food-chain.
Wolves, for example, used to roam North America in great numbers. Feared predators, they were able to sustain a large population in vast tracts of wild lands rich with prey. When European settlers moved in with their cattle the number of human predators (and their efficiency in killing) grew substantially. These new neighbors were threatened by the wolf and ultimately hunted them to near extinction. However, an echo sounded forth through the delicate ecosystem. The coyote became the new king. A rise in the coyote population was disastrous for the fox, badger, and marten – those that were competing for the small animals that make up their diet. Without the wolf, the number of elk rose substantially resulting in a loss of vegetation in the highlands. Scavengers were having a hard time finding the once abundant remains of the wolf’s dinner. One biologist calls the wolf a “keystone species” because of the unique role it plays in the ecosystem.
An ecosystem is defined as “…organisms living in a particular environment, such as a forest or a coral reef, and the physical parts of the environment that affect them.” It is a systems view of the interdependencies and relationships among not only things living together, but also their environment. Studying ecosystems has helped biologists to understand the ripple (sometimes tsunami) affect that their various components have on one another. Most of us learned way back in our first days of school about ecosystems.
This way of thinking can also be applied to the daunting task of missionary recruitment (which we in PIONEERS call “mobilization”). When I first arrived from the mission field to begin my work as a mobilizer. The numbers were down all across the board among missionary agencies with a few bright spots.
“Why is this happening?” I asked myself. My initial thought was, “it must be those Bible schools and seminaries.” Subsequent research did indicate that many schools were cutting back on missions programs. I began to discuss this with educators and found that they were only too willing to offer these types of courses but students were not interested in taking them. “Why would that be?” I asked. I was told to check with the churches because often the churches are the ones who recommend the schools. “Ahh,” I said to myself, “it’s those pastors! They’re not emphasizing missions in their churches.” I set my sights on a number of pastors and began to ask them about missions in their church. I soon discovered that most pastors have a genuine desire to see a more effective missionary effort happen, starting with their congregation. There was no lack of commitment to the great commission, and they were certainly encouraging any kind of ministry interest, including missions. Yet again, I asked, “Why, then, are we not seeing more candidates interested in overseas work?” One pastor shook his head and said, “It’s the pursuit of materialism. Mothers and fathers tell their children to go to college in order to get a job that pays well so that they will have a secure future. From an early age kids are encouraged to pursue those types of vocations that will bring them the greatest material gain.”
Why is mission mobilization so difficult? As is often the case, there is certainly more to this question than what lies on the surface. I have concluded that we must see missionary mobilization from a “systems standpoint.” Obviously, God has this “big picture” view! Capturing His perspective must be a part of our mobilization philosophy.
Mobilization happens in the context of “the eccliosystem” and missionary agencies are the predators at the top of the food chain. “Ekklesia” is a Greek word most often translated in “church.” The eccliosystem refers to the “people and relationships lived out in the church and the environment in which the church exists.” I am using the term to not simply describe the Christians (this is that theologians have called the “church universal”). Rather, it is the organized fellowships, organizations (both secular and non-secular), agencies, schools, families, and other associations that interact with each other.
Component pieces of the eccliosystem include local churches, associations, denominations, para-church ministries, Internet prayer groups, secular governments, families, and culture itself. All of these impact each other in an interdependent and dynamic system.
Missionary candidates live at “top of the food chain” within the eccliosystem. The mission agency is a “keystone species.” Missionary mobilization is predatory not because missionary agencies take an aggressive or vicious approach! No, it’s because they are recruiting the eccliosystem’s “highest impact” resource. They want to recruit people who are high in character qualities, have ministry experience, willing to sacrifice for the cause, know their Bible well, are humble learners, can teach and influence, are flexible, and are able to represent the Great Commission to churches. In short, they are looking for the best and brightest that the eccliosystem produces. Most often, mission agencies get the benefit from this “ultimate resource” after others in the eccliosystem have invested many years into these precious people. Thus, like the wolf, missionary mobilization requires health along the entire spectrum of the system.
Missionaries, as a “keystone” species, depend on the entire eccliosystem for survival. If we are seeing disease or sickness in missionary recruitment, chances are that it is an indication (and possibly causal factor) in a greater malady “down the food chain.” For example, if the eccliosystem doesn’t produce people willing to sacrifice for the gospel, mobilization will wane.
To take the wolf analogy further, the eccliosystem is also dependent on its “keystone” predator, the missionary agency. Although it may not be evident to the casual observer, missionaries enforce and enrich the entire eccliosystem. The expansion of the kingdom’s borders is a Biblical core value that missionaries reinforce. Failure to recognize the call to “kingdom expansion” is abject rejection of at least one of God’s purposes for the church. Even environmental components of the eccliosystem that are hostile to evangelistic endeavors, such as secular or Islamic governments, benefit from the presence of a healthy missionary community. Hospitals and literacy rates are examples of these often overlooked blessings from an expanding church.
The implications of this way of thinking for day-to-day ministry are significant. The decline in biblical literacy as well as a rise in divorce have a direct impact on missionary mobilization and cannot be ignored by mobilization leadership. We need to recognize that mission agencies (whether they are organizationally distinct or an integral part of a local church) are among the most vulnerable parts of the eccliosystem.
First and foremost we need to check our personal involvement in the eccliosystem. We should not only regularly attend a local church – how are we investing personally in its ministry? Are we professional ministers or are we in fact part of the grassroots movement of the Spirit of God in our communities? Are our children a part of the youth group? Keep in mind that youth groups are producing many who will be the next crop of missionary candidates. Are we using our leadership skills in ministry education to further the cause of Christ in our own home churches?
I recently had a conversation with a pastor whose church sits in the shadows of a very large para-church ministry. “I don’t like it when they come to our church,” he said, “I know that if they’re here they’ll have plenty of great ideas but their schedules are too busy to contribute to the realization of those ideas. They’re often full of criticism for what we’re doing but short on any kind of real assistance.”
Mission agencies reap the benefit of many years of investment on the part of other people in the eccliosystem. When a new candidate joins a mission agency, they often represent strong families, healthy churches and strong educational institutions. Again, we need to look at how we are improving that system of preparation. One way I’ve heard missionary agencies described by educators is that the agencies are predominantly “takers.” We come looking for people and money.
How can a mission agency become a giver? We need to apply the kind of creativity and strategizing that we use overseas to this context. One area of great concern for many mission agency leaders is the rising number of students with substantial outstanding student debt upon graduation. While it would be easy to criticize the educational institutions for this problem, perhaps a better alternative would be to consider scholarship programs or alternative means of education in order to alleviate that pressure. Are we actually ministering to the students on campus or do we view them as potential job applicants? Educational institutions have a desire to produce the next generation of missionary candidates. There is much that we in the mission community can do to assist them.
In less than one or two generations, we have lost the background teaching and training of Scripture in most households. This will certainly be felt in the mission community for generations to come. What can be done about it? In addition to participating in churches and encouraging educational initiatives, mission agencies can use their skills in teaching to assist the church in this area. We should be just as excited about a church growing deeper in its relationship to the Lord as we are about reaching people groups with the gospel. Too often I personally have been guilty of elevating the needs of the unreached above the needs of those who sit in our pews from week to week. This is a shortsighted understanding of the environment in which we live and work.
One final application regards cooperation. As a “keystone species” we should together work for the health of the eccliosystem. Benjamin Franklin, upon signing the Declaration of Independence, said, “If we do not hang together we will all hang separately.” Why is it that mission agencies can work hand-in-hand overseas while the average church attendee continues to ask, “Why don’t you agencies work together?” We are somehow being seen as not cooperating with each other. Experience indicates to me that this is more than an uninformed opinion and the problem starts with senior leadership positions in our mobilization organizations. I have little patience for the “church” versus “agency” arguments being waged in our books, periodicals, and conferences. To waste our energies in this way indicates a lack of understanding about the basic need the lost have for the gospel. It focuses on our man-made institutions rather than the task at hand.
As we seek to reach the lost for Christ we need to continue to build up and make the eccliosystem a healthy place for all ministries. We need to invest in our local communities as well as our local churches. We must spend money on families as well as advertising, educational institutions as well as trade show displays, and cooperate rather than compete. The often-quoted phrase “a rising tide raises all ships” is worth considering.
Many organizations have adopted ever shrinking planning horizons, substituting three-year plans for ten and twenty year plans (which were much more common a generation or two ago). We fool ourselves by saying that there is too much change for longer planning horizons. Leaders are to be the architects of change. I recently saw an Internet forum devoted to the question, “Where are the missionary leaders needed to mobilize the next generation?” Leaders with compelling vision will answer that question. Instead we are fed a steady stream of books observing the latest “paradigm shifts” to which we must react.
The wolf that once teetered on the edge of extinction is now making a comeback in North America. This has happened at least in part through the careful and deliberate planning of ecologists. Some have already written the obituary for the North American missionary movement. It’s time for us “ecclio-ologists” to fall prostrate in front of God, beseeching Him for the wisdom needed to navigate the turbulent waters ahead.