“God’s plans aren’t always that pragmatic.”
I felt this way before I became a missionary. It seemed that language barriers, paying for language learning, moving expenses, and the like would make it much more cost-effective to pay a national than to send someone like me. But there are some interesting Kingdom principles at work:
1. Jesus told us to go. He commanded his followers to go throughout the world, not just to their own “Jerusalems or Judeas” but also crossing cultural barriers to the “Samarias” and uttermost parts of the earth.
2. Pragmatism is not always God’s plan. In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read, “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
We are often programmed to think as pure pragmatists and overlook the faith aspects. By raising support, a missionary allows many people to cooperate with the Lord in the expansion of his Kingdom beyond the scope of the local area. And he does it in a way that is counter to what culture would say in order to prove to the world that it is his mission and not that of the missionary or of the nationals.
3. Sometimes a missionary has the ability to communicate to people in a way a local cannot. In Chile we were able to communicate the Gospel to upper-class people. There were very few believers in that group, and culturally, they were unwilling and thus unable to hear the Gospel when it was presented by people from a “lower class.” We were given a hearing because, as foreigners, we were not from a set class.
4. Supporting nationals also has its problems. When nationals are selected and paid by a foreign group, the financial support can cause jealousy and forces the sending group to “play God” as they decide who gets and who does not get a subsidy. Often, the funded person can begin to feel like they are authorized to select all future leaders. It can lead to a rather authoritarian and “western” mentality because the funded person feels a great need to please the funding agency [even when that means not doing what is best] to reach his people. And the funding can build a greater dependence on outside help, more so than for sending a missionary who trains and facilitates a home-grown and home-funded ministry. Real Kingdom ministry must be reproducible.
So, what on the surface seems to be wise may not be the best method to reach the unreached.
Answer from Ken in Spain, who has served with the Canadian National Baptist Convention and Fellowship International in Chile and Spain for 16 years.
“Only God knows what is really needed; you may have a key contribution to make.”
The decision to go or not to go depends on God’s revealed will, not on logic. Only he knows what is really needed out there. We set up a Christian TV station in both India and the Philippines, which is something the locals did not have the funds or know-how to do. When they learned from us how to do it all, in six months to a year, they took over and we left. Previously they had no skills in TV or media. Many times God sends a foreigner to do something the locals can’t see, even if they do have the money.
They learned a lot of things from us and we learned from them. That’s why God sends intercultural missionaries. Sometimes they bring the one angle that the locals did not see, or they have the capacity to implement something they cannot do or don’t have the courage to do.
Many times in persecuted areas, the locals have a lot at stake, while a foreigner can go in, do something great and then leave.
Local people may also be encouraged when they see people willing to leave their homeland and comforts to come live in their country. They see your faith and sacrifices and are inspired to do the same, even if it is just going to the next village or town.
Answer from Marilena in Australia who served six years in India, Romania, and the Philippines.
Many times it does make more sense to teach and fund nationals rather than going yourself.
In the work we do, it is often better in every imaginable way to equip and send a national on a literacy campaign or to help them plant a church than it would be for me to do it. Especially since I’m not trained in literacy or church planting! 🙂
When a ministry is nationally run, it is more holistic, more locally driven, the staff aren’t dependent on an expat to keep running, and whatever the ministry is will reflect more of the local culture and less of the missionaries culture.
However, there are many places where people simply do not know who Jesus is and anyone who does know Jesus nearby are either unable to go or unwilling to go to their neighbors to share Jesus with them. This is an excellent time for a cross-cultural worker to step in.
Another reason for sending missionaries rather than simply funding nationals is that, in many places in the world, there may already be Christians there who are willing and able to go but don’t have the training or resources to do the work. In my field, for example, we train 5-15 nationals to do Bible translation work for every expat translator we send out. But it is still essential that these nationals have access to someone who has literally decades of training and a deep understanding of biblical languages. This person is often coming from the outside.
It may be more affordable to just fund nationals, but there are always circumstances where it will be necessary to send cross-cultural workers.
A final word of caution: take time to pray and meet with other Christians before deciding whether you should go based on the financial viability. As one of the other responses noted, God doesn’t always use the most financially viable solution. Often, when a missionary moves to a new land and takes time to build language skills and relationships, that can have an immeasurable impact on the nationals they work with. You never know the impact one life lived in a strange context can have.
Answer from Maclain in Papua New Guinea, who has served with Pioneer Bible Translators in Papua New Guinea for three years.