Mission Philosophy

What is Mission?

The word mission comes from the Greek verb “mittere”, meaning to send. Though the term is now popularly used in various ways, the original Scriptural meaning of mission is something like intentional sentness or the state of being purposefully sent. That pop culture has adopted and modified the word mission actually indicates its profound heritage in Christian history, but it also means that we must redefine the term, restoring its robust theological significance.

The original profundity of misson, or sentness, is that God, the personal Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is one who sends and goes. God sent himself in His son Jesus to be the Jewish messiah, He sends His Spirit to guide and enable His people, and perhaps most mysteriously of all, He sends us, His people, into the world to reflect His image and fulfill His purposes. He does all this sending for one glorious reason: For He so loves the world, not willing that any should perish, but instead have everlasting life (John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9). Yahweh is a moving God. He is missionary in nature, willing to travel vast distances to accomplish his purposes, because He loves us and wants to rescue us from sin, death, and the devil.

Therefore, the idea of mission has to do firstly with who God is and secondarily with who we are. Christians are sent people, on a cosmic scale. In identifying with the death and resurrection of Christ, we inherit God’s kingdom (Colossians 1:13, Daniel 7:18) and with it, his passions, purposes, and plans. We’re commissioned, as participating partners, to share in the redeeming, restoring, renewing work of God to “make all things new,” as promised (Revelation 21:5). To that end, Jesus prayed, saying of His followers, “They do not belong to this world any more than I do,” followed by, “Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world” (John 17:16,18 NLT). As God’s people, we’ve been purposefully sent here, every one of us, as entrusted ambassadors of his kingdom. In line with God’s original promise through Abraham, we are here to bless (not save) the world (Genesis 12:2-3) as vessels of otherworldly shalom (Hebrew for peace, or the good life).

In living out our mission into the world, we, the Church, also move about the world, traveling as salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16) with the good news of God to every nation (Matthew 28:19). Throughout Church history, most Christians have remained right where they are, working the same job in the same community, doing everything to the glory of God. This is no second-hand sentness. It is a perfectly glorious calling; mission doesn’t require geographic or vocational relocation. Rather, universally, it is simply a re-identification, or transferred citizenship, of the soul. But, for the Gospel of the kingdom to spread from Jerusalem to the entire world (Acts 1:8), some people simply have to travel. So, since the Holy Spirit’s commissioning at Pentecost, the Church has intentionally sent people to live in foreign, “unreached” communities. In the 16th century, European Jesuits dubbed these people missionaries, coining the term to distinguish their unique vocation as those literally sent away for the sake of the Gospel. Though these particular folks were ironically sent to convert Protestants back to Catholicism, God’s “missionary” heart for His Church has always been to go to the unreached people of the world, leaving the ninety-nine others to seek the one who is lost (Matt. 18:12-14). Mission, though cosmic in scope, is also utterly practical, for “how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent?” (Romans 10:14-15 NLT).

Grasping the Concept

This term mission is obscure and often misleading. We see three kinds of sentness all wrapped up in the same word. They are like layers of a cake, or more like sections of a baseball. We must try to understand how the three forms function together so that we can distinguish them.

Take the baseball analogy. At the center of a baseball is a cork sphere covered in rubber, similar to a bouncy ball. This core is wrapped in thousands of string threads, forming the middle layer. Around all that is the outer layer of leather and laces that we see and recognize as a baseball. But though this skin is all that’s visible, the actual ball consists of every layer, cork, string, and all. Similarly the activities and behaviors we typically call mission are just the outermost layer. They’re not the whole story. We have to become familiar with the hidden, inner anatomy of mission and make sure not to mistake its easily recognizable out-workings for the whole of the idea.

The core of mission is the self-sacrificing, far-reaching, radically loving character of God. It’s God’s love for us, seen in his eternal and mysterious plan for our redemption, which He carried out through Christ (Ephesians 3:3-11). Though visible only in the life of Jesus, it’s the central force from which all mission originates.

The second layer of mission, like thousands of threads wrapped tightly around this unchanging center, is the Spiritual identity of every Christian. It’s our inherited kingdom citizenship and kingdom calling. In being born again, we have actually exchanged citizenship, for God “raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6 NLT). We are supernaturally no longer true members of the world, but of God’s kingdom. We may wake up in the same bed, “but we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives” (Philippians 3:20 NLT), and therefore, now “temporary residents and foreigners” here (1 Peter 2:11 NLT). We’ve been sent with a calling, as emissaries, to deliver a foretaste of the coming kingdom.

Now, the problem is we often don’t act as if this is true. We don’t live like we’re all missionaries likely because it all seems either too intangible to understand or just too incredible to believe.

Imagine the following scene: You’re laying in bed and there’s a spool of string in your pocket, the end of which is tied to your bedpost. Suddenly, God reaches through your ceiling and carries you up toward heaven while the spool unwinds through the sky behind you. After a long, mystical journey through time and space, you see a marvelous city spread out before you. In the city is a house and in that house a room, which you’re shown. It was prepared specifically for you and feels more like home than anything you’ve ever experienced, but you’re told you cannot stay. This trip was just for a quick glimpse. So, before leaving, you loop the string around your new bedpost and are off again as quick as you came, trailing another strand of string back home where you started. There, a bit confused, you find yourself once again in the same ordinary bed in the same ordinary house. Nothing’s changed. You miss that great city already and wish you could’ve stayed, but sadly, you start to think it may have all just been a dream. Until, that is, you notice a tiny, but real string stretching up through the sky and you realize the journey was real and you’re actually still connected to this new home. Excited, you grab scissors and cut the knot on the bedpost next to you. Now only the strand to heaven remains, like a long leash reminding and connecting you to your new, true home. You are in the world, but no longer of it, certain now that your future is with God, but for a time back where you started. Your hope is tied to heaven, but remains off in the future and invisible, like a sort of echo or memory or dream. There is life and work for you here, so here you remain, a sojourner with ties to a distant land.

For the Christian, this imaginary bit of string theory represents cold, hard reality. There is a Spiritual string, or tie, that really does exist; it’s not just a dream after all. Something really happened. We’ve seen the Lord and we’ve been changed, and somehow too we’ve been sent back. Our job now is to tug on the string, bringing heaven just a little bit closer until Christ returns with the whole thing. In this way, God’s already-but-not-yet kingdom breaks forth through our seemingly mundane lives. This is the incredible missionary reality that is universal to all Christians and there’s nothing for us to do about it but believe. We must choose to trust in this inconceivable proposition and receive the identity of sent one. It is through this dreamlike work of grace that God bestows His missionary character unto His people, the Church. This Spiritual re-identification and relocation makes us all missionaries. It weaves the people of God, like millions of intertwined threads, into one great big ball of life and purpose and blessing and this becomes the everyday incarnation of God’s mission to the world.

Now, how are God’s missionary character and our missionary identity related to the work and actions we typically call mission (or missions)?

The recognizable, outermost layer that we usually dub mission is the intentional, physical relocation of some Christians. It’s what a portion of us do in practical response to who we all are and why we’re all here, as God’s sent people; it consists of practical, vocational decisions and tangible, geographic movements that mimic the missionary Spirit in all of us. Though God’s character is universal and all Christ-followers are missionaries, just a fraction of the Church is sent geographically or culturally. Most of us don’t need to go anywhere, as there is plenty of renewal to be done right where we are.

In a sense, physical relocation for the sake of the kingdom is a practical embodiment of the ethereal concept of mission. It’s an incarnation of the idea in everyday actions. When the Church sends individuals to new contexts to live as kingdom-ambassadors, our corporate passion for redemption takes physical form and becomes visible. In a sense, those who go are doublysent, both in Spirit and in action. The glory of this missionary activity is that it tangibly demonstrates God’s pursuing character. Therefore, these vocational missionaries have a wonderful calling, devoting their residence and/or career to manifesting the mission of God and the Church. In turn, the greater body is able to echo God’s character by sending and supporting those who go. However, as good and necessary as physical missionary movement is, we must be careful not to overestimate or confuse this kind of work.

This is often where we get caught up, though, watching people quit their jobs and move into the inner city or overseas to Africa. Their sentness is obvious; you can see it everyday in their work. But, for the rest of us, ours is subtle and often indistinguishable. Because of this, we often develop a sense of mission envy, frustrated with the parody between our own invisible sense of sentness and the “missionary’s” more obvious calling. Many experience a Spiritual identity crisis, doubting their all-important missionary identity and elevating the importance of the traveling Christian. Sadly, much of our short-term mission culture has developed from this misled frustration. So, importantly, we have to learn to reconcile the two truths: Every Christian is a missionary and only some Christians are vocational “missionaries”.

The relocated Christian is doubly sent, but not more sent than all the rest. Though distinct, vocational missionaries aren’t supreme in the kingdom like some kind of super-sent elite. Their sentness is no better or more valuable than the invisible sentness of every Christian. Physical relocation is an embodiment, not an upgrade. Those who relocate for the kingdom and those who stay put for the kingdom are equally sent, equally called, equally honorable. The vocation of missionary is not the perfect job, or even a better job than the rest. Rather, like cooking food or building roads or flying planes, it’s one of many great and glorious callings. The missionary Spirit of the Church demands physical spread and relocation, but this movement doesn’t alter the sentness of those who stay put. To rightly live into our own unique missionary callings then, we have to appreciate the complementary glory of the sent but stationary Church and the ambassadors that it sends. It’s paramount that we can celebrate the vocation of staying as well as going, seeing mission as both.

So, in sum, God is a natural and eternal missionary. Every Christian is a Spiritual missionary. And some Christians become vocational missionaries.

Language Problems

We often misunderstand our mission because, as we saw above, it can be a complicated concept to grasp. However, we also have a second issue: Our language. The word we use to describe it has become very misleading.

The word mission is one of the most popular idioms of our time, and yet it now proves derisory, meaning too many things to mean much at all. It’s letting us down because its been hijacked and altered one too many times. It’s lost its meaning.

Comparably, our culture redefines love all the time because our word love has a variety of meanings. Does it mean like or lust or affection? Do you love your wife as you do your dog and your job? No. In Hebrew, there are a whole handful of words to communicate the many varieties of love, but English is too pragmatic, and thus desperately short on words. We just use love as a one-size-fits-all phrase and in the process, we’ve actually managed to lose any agreed upon definition of love. Mission also means many very different things and so, similarly, it doesn’t mean nearly as much as it should.

To communicate the significance of all the sentness we’ve discussed, we need another word or two. Most importantly, we need to distinguish between the second and third layer of mission, rightly identifying and labeling vocational missionaries (as we’ve called them) without wrongly insinuating some upper class of mission that is somehow endowed with a surplus of Spiritual sentness. Again, Spiritually, we are all equally called and sent. The gospel minister heading to Malawi is no more fully sent by God than the Sales Exec at Google or the full-time mom. The gravity of our divine election and commission should diminish any sense of hierarchy in mission. Unfortunately though, our words confuse us. Every time we dub one person a missionary, for example, we imply that everyone else is not a missionary. We’re all sent, but the label suggests otherwise.

This etymological ambiguity confuses the role of the vocational missionary and dampers every Christian’s commission. It can be dangerously misleading, especially when it gives people the false notion that only those with the vocation of missionary are sent by God to do His will. Essentially, we need a new job description for the cross-cultural vocational minister; we need to invent a new word even that isn’t misguiding.

However, changing one of the world’s most prominent languages isn’t easy. So, instead of trying to change the language itself, we hope to at least change how we use it. We want to communicate in a way that develops a robust theology of mission. For now, we will continue to use the term vocational missionary to describe those who have relocated to minister in a particular place.

The following guidelines are intended to clarify our language:

  • We don’t use the term “missions.” No sentness, neither God’s nature, nor our ambassadorship, nor the act of sending people to live somewhere, is plural.
  • We sparingly use the term missionary by itself, without an adjective, because of the ambiguity discussed above. If we use it on its own to describe our vocational missionaries, we tend to confuse or outcast everyone else. While if we use it to describe every Christian, then we just don’t know how to identify those with unique vocational roles. We should try to communicate in a way that distinguishes between the unique missionary vocation and the universal missionary identity in order to battle the false notion that you have to go somewhere else to be commissioned to do God’s work. Until someone creates a new word altogether, we tend to use the qualifying adjectives vocational and Spiritual to create two distinct labels.
  • We don’t use the phrase “short term mission” (STM, to be short) as we believe it describes an unmerited notion. Neither God’s nature nor our identity is short-term and true vocational mission cannot be brief. God is an eternal sender while we are sent here until Christ’s return or our death. And, as the next few pages state, effective sending demands significant duration and lasting commitment. To us, a short time of mission means one or two years. Popular culture, though, applies the STM term predominantly to trips less than a month long, so we shy from using these words altogether.
  • We don’t talk about “doing mission” because we view mission not as an action to be done, but a way of being. While sending and going are certainly things we do, the nature of being a sent people isn’t something we will go out and check off our to-do list today. When it comes to the actions and behaviors in line with mission, we prefer to use the word ministry, which means service. We do ministry; it’s the activity we’ve been sent to do. Mission is our being sent to do it.
  • Similarly, we seldom use the recently popularized word “missional. In the last ten years, this adjectival version of mission has been all the rage in Christian culture. It’s the new cool. Primarily, it’s been used to indicate intentionality and devotion to God’s purposes. Those individuals or churches who “get it,” meaning they are working faithfully for the kingdom, are dubbed missional, while the rest, presumably nominal in their faith, are not. But while the language was created with mostly good intentions, it belittles the profundity of our missionary identities, seemingly limiting our mission to a list of behaviors. Mission is never a badge we earn. The exhortation to live in line with our sentness is greatly needed, but let’s not mistake sentness for a list of activities.

Language isn’t everything, but it matters. Our goal isn’t to perfect our speech, but to make sense of our 21st century “Christianese” and clarify our incredible calling.


Incarnation as our Model

In the next couple pages, we outline and explain a dozen values that we believe are integral to healthy and effective ministry. We promote these values and expect them in ministry we support. However, there is one concept, more a paradigm than a value, that actually incorporates them all. It’s incarnation. Our focus on incarnational ministry stems from a belief that not only is Jesus our model missionary, but his incarnation is our model approach to mission.

Incarnation means embodiment in the flesh of an abstract quality, spirit, or being. Jesus is the Word, or Logos, become flesh; He perfectly embodied the very wisdom, power, and glorious nature of God. For us, incarnational ministry means, firstly, embodying God’s qualities, becoming holy as He is holy and loving like He first loved us. Aside from anything we do, it entails becoming the kind of people God wants us to be, as followers and imitators of Christ. This is what it means to be saints and it is fundamental to mission. We must be good in order to do good.

There is another component of Christ’s incarnation, though, that epitomizes our mission. Jesus didn’t appear as a caricature or generalization of humanity. Instead, He came as a unique individual, specifically a Jewish man, who lived and worked as a Nazarene carpenter amongst the Roman-ruled Jews of ancient Israel. He lived an actual life, within the very human confines of this particular place, time and culture. He tied himself to the dismal backdrop of Jewish desperation under Roman oppression and identified completely with his Jewish brethren. He sang their songs and joined their feasts, even though they pointed to Himself, serving the world at large only by first becoming a neighbor. As Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Similarly, incarnational ministry means serving the world by living amongst a particular community as a participating member of the culture for considerable time. Incarnational ministry is living in a community for the community, serving not as an outsider but as a wholly identified member. Remember, God isn’t a Jew. The wonder of Christ’s incarnation is the lengths He went in identifying himself with his sinful and adulteress people, living and dying as King of the Jews, though it was they who helped kill him. Christ’s Spirit now sends us to “move into the neighborhood,” identifying ourselves with whatever part of the broken world we’re called to.

Though we’re all sent like Christ into the world, none of us is responsible for the whole thing. Mission is small and specific. We’re sent to people and neighborhoods and communities. There, we are to embody Christ’s character and knit ourselves into the fabric of communal life, contextualizing the gospel and ourselves. Though technology now grants us real-time info and access to the vast global village, real ministry remains local, dependent upon real life connections and relationships. Christ’s incarnational model demands that we relearn the intrinsic value of long, local, servant living. We can’t be super Christians and save the world; we’re limited to the confines of normal, human life and vocation. But if the One who could indeed save the world because He created it embraced such a humble life of ministry, how much more ought we to accept our own minor post in the kingdom? We embrace Christ’s model for mission through incarnational living in a community, identifying and working with its people, for their flourishing.

Ministry Values

Others-focused. Though it is indeed fulfilling and edifying to serve, because it’s better to give than receive, mission is about others, not us. True service doesn’t aim to receive the blessings of service, but rather focuses on the good of the recipient. Any blessing to be received is a side-affect, not the goal. The popular trend of serving cross-culturally in order to “grow together through mission” puts the cart before the horse. Serving others must be an overflow of our formation in Christ, not the vehicle to achieving it. Though ministry is edifying, we must never use the needy to edify ourselves. That is simply another form of exploitation, emphasizing us over them, and it leads to selfish, unloving and ineffective engagement. And ironically, the edification we seek is growth in our ability to focus on others more and ourselves less, which we forego by focusing on our edification in the first place. Simply, if the primary reason for going somewhere to serve is your own experience or benefit, then perhaps you ought not go, at least not under the guise of mission.

  1. Because the focus of ministry is the wellbeing of others, the effects of our actions matter. Acting on good intentions and serving for the sake of service may soothe our souls, but it won’t cut it with those we serve. By definition, to love at all, we must aim to love well. Effective ministry is that which doesn’t just feel loving, but is loving. For example, the goal of proclaiming the gospel is not to have proclaimed the gospel, but for someone to hear it. The aim of ministry is to, in genuine effect, love others well. Though this doesn’t mean we can control the outcomes of our service, we can and must make sure our service actually serves. True ministry demands a commitment to effectiveness.

Competent. Commitment to effectiveness subsequently demands commitment to competence. Love, by nature, requires a certain level of aptitude; it seeks to be better, more truly loving. Service that doesn’t desire to be good and always better doesn’t love. God, like any good father, doesn’t give just to be a giver; he does so to give good gifts (Matt 7:11). There’s a difference. It matters whether our actions are good or merely feel good. If the goal of proclaiming the gospel is for it to be heard, for instance, then we must try to speak clearly and competently to make it as understandable as possible. This doesn’t mean we must be perfect or even have reached some level of expertise before participating in ministry; it simply means our devotion to others must cause us to desire the ability to love them well.

One of the complaints from global churches and missionary organizations is that American churches tend to send their least competent missionaries overseas, as if to a training camp or practice run. This is the opposite of generosity. Instead, we should send our best while working right here to equip the rest in competent local ministry.

People-focused. Though the systems and structures we live in need renewing, something the Church has never forgotten is that those things ultimately rise and fall as do the people that make them up. All of society ultimately depends upon the flourishing of every human being. Therefore, all ministry must keep at its core a commitment to people. Even if our goal is macro in scope, aimed at massive causes like fighting human trafficking, we must remember that the world’s problems as well as its potential are rooted in unique individuals, not stereotypes or statistics. This also means that programs aren’t the solution. There’s no idea, strategy or system that will ever fix the brokenness of the world because us people are the problem and we can’t be fixed or cured by anything manmade. Though these structures are good and helpful, they must never take the focus away from the care of individual human beings.

Discipleship-focused. Because human flourishing is the focus of ministry, we must always consider what actually causes people to thrive. Our primary problems are not material or circumstantial. The fundamental problem with the world is every individual’s separation from God, caused by sin. This catastrophic wound in our principal creature-Creator relationship is the root cause of all other brokenness. We aren’t at peace with ourselves or our work or the world or one another because we’re at enmity with God. This is why Christ died, to reconcile us to God and make us ministers of reconciliation to the world (Col 1:22, 2 Cor 5:18). Therefore, ministry must make this reconciliation central. This doesn’t mean all ministries must be primarily evangelistic, nor does it suggest focusing merely on whether people go to heaven or hell when they die. Instead, no service should focus entirely on synthetic solutions to periphery problems. Apart from personal reconciliation to God through Christ and abandonment to his will, flourishing is impossible. Whether directly or indirectly, ministry must focus on discipleship, helping people grow as disciples of Jesus.

Relationship-focused. It’s impossible to effectively love those we don’t know. Service doesn’t exist apart from relationships. It can’t happen from afar, either geographically or spiritually. Tim Keller says, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything.” The greatest gift we can offer the world is our self to others. What we do to and for other people is far less important than our residing with them, sharing in their pains, joys, and burdens. Unfortunately, we’re often so busy with all the projects, task lists, and events that we forget about the people they’re for. We can’t let activities distract us from relationship. Sadly, we also often try to serve people we don’t know at all, forcing us to make assumptions about who they are and what they need. Love demands that we break down this “us and them” divide by committing to relationships over undertakings, giving ourselves more than gifts, and learning who people are before trying to do anything for them.

Process-focused. Anything that depends upon people is slow. Discipleship, transformation, and relationships are tedious processes. Therefore, ministry must maintain a patient approach, focusing more on the goals of movement and momentum than destination. We love reaching goals and checking items off lists, but ministry requires humble perseverance and endurance and a routine recognition that we’re inherently incapable of total success. Our ultimate goals should be those things that won’t be truly accomplished until Christ returns, like individual and societal flourishing. We aren’t utopia builders; no generation will alleviate all poverty or eliminate all disease. We must wait for the coming kingdom to see perfection. In the meantime, we must devote ourselves to the slow and impartial work of restoration and renewal, measuring success not wholly on immediate results or surface-level outcomes, but focusing on the slow and gradual process of personal transformation.

Long-term. Because the process of genuine change happens slowly, quality ministry simply takes time. Our engagement must be patient and long-suffering. Though technology now allows us to travel all over for short periods of time, and to do so lovingly and winsomely, not even Jesus could do the will of God in a week. He had to stick around awhile, spending 33 years as the Supreme Stranger. But ours is a society of quick fixes, so we need to be careful not to mistake short stints of activity for successful participation in ministry. It takes a couple years to really know a person, and several more to understand their culture. We simply cannot expedite lasting change. Therefore, long-term commitment to a single place and people is the most effective approach to ministry.

  1. Every community and culture is different. Effective ministry requires contextualization to meet the community where it is, as it is. It has to speak their language, sing their songs, and dance their dances. Christ is the answer to what every culture in history has been looking for. However, if you don’t know the language and lens through which a community has been seeking and thinking and living, then you cannot build a bridge. There is homework to do, not through books, but incarnation. We must become like those we wish to serve, discovering what’s good and true and beautiful in their culture. We have to ask good questions and listen, learning to walk in their shoes and feel their burdens, even taking them as our own. Contextualization means giving the culture the time that it’s worth, recognizing that culture itself is good and God is for it. For most Americans, this demands a commitment to increasing our cultural intelligence and sensitivity.
  2. The good life is one in which we are able to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We’re made to connect with God and each other through all of our faculties. Therefore, every part of human life matters. Serving well then means serving holistically, caring for all aspects of brokenness while holding to the primacy of Spiritual health and connection to God. For example, physical health alone doesn’t lead to happiness, because our bodies will forsake us, but physical wellbeing is part of God’s plan and shouldn’t be abandoned in the name of the soul. Effective ministry requires eliminating blind spots of apathy to rightly see those around us as hurting, whole persons.

Empowering. The goal of ministry is not to save others, but to serve them, to will and work toward their wellbeing. As humans made in the image of God, an integral part of our welfare involves dignity, responsibility, and self-respect. As C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, “There are no ordinary people.” Therefore, effective ministry aims to empower and equip. It’s never loving to create or perpetuate unnecessary dependency. Therefore, we must resist doing unto others what they ought to do for themselves. However, this is hard. Partnership, though drastically better than commonly imperialistic charity, requires more love, patience, humility, and time. In return, it creates the possibility that those being served may grow in their capacity to better themselves and even to serve others. This is why we ought never to press upon a person or community some plan or project which they do not take ownership for themselves. We must work with people instead of simply doing things to or for them. We don’t want to build recipients, but able participants.

We must minister through empowering relationship dynamics, but we must also simply do empowering work, making sure our solutions match the problem. In long-term development, aid usually isn’t the answer. In fact, when issues are chronic, basic charity can be crippling. Chronic poverty and brokenness ends only when those involved become whole and can care for themselves and their neighbors. We cannot save the poor. Our attempts often only further damage their dignity and self-worth. We can only serve needy individuals and communities by working ourselves out of roles and blessing them with the gift of empowerment. We mustn’t just give people fish, but teach them to fish, even as fishers of men.

  1. Empowerment seeks to take the power out of our hands, releasing it to the community we’re apart of. We must also go one step further to ensure that the communal wellbeing doesn’t depend on us. The health of our ministry is contingent upon its ability to handle our disappearance. If we go, does it all fall to pieces? If so, we’ve only created reliant followers, not leaders. This kind of ministry cannot last. If Jesus operated this way, his eleven-man church would’ve been extinct around AD50. It takes humility to choose not to be needed, a choice that many American Christians find desperately hard to make. However, it is absolutely necessary that you make yourself unnecessary. You cannot be the glue. Therefore, developing local leaders and empowering the local community to be and do the ministry is absolutely crucial to its success. We must invest ourselves in a way that can withstand our exit, relinquishing power early and often.

A Few Strict Rules

  • Do no harm.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Never do for others what they can and should do for themselves.

Our Focuses for Partner Organizations

Local. We love the nations and want to see humanity redeemed and God glorified all around the globe. However, we’re here in San Francisco and as long as God has us here, we want to grow in our love for this city. This is where we’ve been called to embody the kingdom of God, so we put an emphasis on partnering with local ministries.

Long-term. Our plan is to linger long as a church in this city, remaining here for decades. As tempting as it is to hop on the hot new bandwagon project, we want to run a marathon rather than a sprint. Therefore, we focus on building quality, long-term partnerships aimed at serving together for years. This means we partner with enduring organizations and try to partner in a lasting manner, practicing patience and loyalty.

Relational. We put an emphasis on rich relationship in partnerships. Often this means our members work in the ministry and sometimes the ministries are established within the church, but we always desire unity and connection between leadership that is mutually edifying. The idea isn’t to demand an experience in return for our support. We don’t need a self-serving return on investment; we just hope partner where we’ll do the greatest good. There is a sort of ecumenical synergy in ministry, where collaborative work is more fruitful than the sum of individual efforts. Therefore, we partner with ministries with whom we are closely threaded in order to form a strong, durable bond (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

Quality. We hope to set a high barin partnership. With all the incredible ministries out there, the opportunity cost is too high to justify investing in mediocre organizations. Excellence, integrity, transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness all matter. Therefore, we don’t treat partnership lightly and we don’t invest as a form of encouragement. In a sense, we want to invest in the best. This means we practice due diligence and aim to hold our partners accountable in their work and finances.

A Final Note on Short-term Mission

To be clear, we hold a pretty hard stance with short-term mission trips (STM). There are a couple reasons why: First, as typically done, these trips actually run the risk of doing damage to host communities and ministries. Second, even when done well, they simply aren’t the best investment. As the values above suggest, committed, long-term ministry will always be more effective than short-term travel. But, unfortunately, American church culture tends to treat it the opposite way around.

Most research suggests that 2-3 million American Christians will participate in international STM this year (Robert Priest, “Short-Term Missions as a New Paradigm”). These trips will cost a few billion dollars, likely surpassing our total investment in long-term mission work. Think about that. We spend more money on mission tours than on mission itself. Clearly, we love our trips. Indeed, we may even be addicted to them. But there are many problems with this trend, including the reality that many of these temporary “missionaries” don’t see their daily life and work as mission and have no idea how to serve in their neighborhood. They are, in other words, those least prepared for effective cross-cultural ministry. Additionally, we often just assume these trips are a blessing, regardless of reality, and we gravely overestimate their value.

There are two primary ways we can improve our approach to STM and we want to do both. However, STM reform, like any other, can be difficult, divisive and demoralizing. As a church with members on every side of the fence, we have to work together as we pursue wisdom in our ministry.

The first step is to invest less in STM, simply by going on fewer trips, and to reinvest in quality, long-term ministry. STM started sixty years ago in order to supplement and support long-term mission, but our priorities have since been skewed. We need to return to that missiology, prioritizing enduring, incarnational work over sporadic short-term travel, no matter how exciting the latter may be. As a church, therefore, we will focus our funds and energy on long-term mission work, away from STM. What this means, simply, is that we have to sacrifice much of the participation experience we get through STM. We’ll have to be content supporting ministry that happens without our involvement, and we’ll have to find purpose here at home, in our vocations.

Beside taking fewer trips, we can also improve the way we do travel. This means first changing the purpose of STM. We can’t see it as a good in and of itself simply because we Americans are going to do good things for the poor. This sounds innocent enough, but it’s subtly arrogant and even triumphalist. Instead, we need a more humble perspective, considering that STM isn’t necessarily to do anything for anyone, but simply to spend encouraging and educational time with the global church. Good STM is more about learning than doing, and any service offered shouldn’t derive from your ideas or ingenuity, but from the needs and desires of the community. Again, what you offer most is yourself, not your deeds. We must visit others as we’d have them visit us.

The bottom line, though, is we ought to drastically reduce our involvement in STM and radically increase our generosity in global giving and local, vocational service. Most of us who want to participate in STM would do better simply to devote ourselves here in San Francisco and go overseas for vacation. We just can’t make mission happen in two weeks. Or, consider relocating for a few years, making incarnation your model for mission.

As a church, we’ll always focus on long-term ministry. We’re pushing back against the massive wave of STM zeal. For many, this kind of pushback may come as a shock; for others, it may be downright offensive. Our challenge is this: Dwell on what we’re for. Reflect on the idea of incarnation and re-read our ministry values, considering how you can love people more effectively and exploring what unique work God has commissioned you to partake in.

“These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Colossians 2:17