Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Missions Is Broken

In just ten years time (ca 47-57 AD) the apostle Paul was able to establish a thriving expression of the kingdom of God in five different provinces of the Roman Empire: Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, Asia Minor and Illyricum. After that he had nothing more to do in those places and was looking for other places further west. Today, with modern missionary practices we do not see even one people group reached in the same amount of time.  Why is that? Are the people of the world more lost? Does our gospel  have less power? Are we somehow at a disadvantage with missions that Paul did not suffer? 

I actually think the opposite may be true. We may have more advantages than Paul did. We have air travel, mobile phones, the internet, rapid transit, computers, Bible aids, mass communication and an abundance of publications, none of which were available to Paul. At the same time, we also have the same God, the same empowering presence of the Holy Spirit and the same powerful good news that he had. Nevertheless we are struggling to see even a fraction of the fruitfulness he saw and it is taking us a whole lot longer for what little fruit we see. Surely we are doing something wrong. 

I am convinced that we can save billions of dollars and accomplish 10 times the results if we have the courage to do missions differently. Mission agency dysfunction has been a well-known secret that can no longer be denied or contained, yet is unpopular to speak about. We are sending too many people, the wrong kind of people, who are staying too long, costing too much, and not leaving behind a healthy, well-rounded and indigenous movement that is strong enough to endure let alone send missionaries to other places. This must change.

We simply cannot expect current mission agencies to correct a problem that they are contributing to and not designed to fix…and one that they actually benefit from maintaining. More of the same will only produce more of the same. So I, and a few others, feel called to start something new, something more organic, movemental and indigenously empowering. And we need to start something that does not produce a dependence upon US dollars, leadership and models of ministry. This is why we are starting Starling Initiatives. In the coming days I will explain a bit more about this new endeavor.


Unknown said...

I've read it, like three times!

Out Loud!

with a chuckle!

Dru Dodson said...

Two words. Roland. Allen.

Unknown said...


I work at one of these “dysfunctional agencies” that you write about.

So sorry to have to disagree with you, brother, but on this topic I am afraid I don't believe you know what you are talking about.

What you write is simply repeating the ignorant claims I have heard repeated by many Western church leaders who should take off their blinders and check the facts before critiquing the global missions movement.

Approximately 100 years ago, 80% of the world’s Christians lived in the West, predominately the US and Europe. Today, probably more than 80% of the world’s Christians live outside the West. In some cultures where missionaries have shed their blood there are literally tens of millions of Christians. Although some have tried, one cannot reasonably argue that missionaries weren’t a significant part of the advance of the gospel outside of the West.

During this same period, how has the US church fared? We have lost credibility in our culture, numbers in our churches, and certainly discipleship in many churches is lacking. So now you state you have come up with something new that will fix the difficult problems that face cross cultural church planters. Is that not a little bit arrogant?

Another disheartening charge is that billions is being wasted on missions. Would that it be so! Missionary effort aimed at the least reached receives a small fraction of what Christians give. Most of this money is spent on buildings, church staffs and programs. Precious little reaches actual church planting effort among those with no Christian witness.

I personally have walked among tribes numbering in the tens of thousands, Muslims, who were not reached just 10 to 15 years ago. but are now worshipping Christ fervently and often in the face of persecution.

The very people you attack in your blog post are planting more organic churches than we have in the USA. I know. I have been a part of training hundreds of organic church planters in many cities around the world, most of them non-Western. I have worshipped in the churches.

More than half of the senior leadership in our organization are involved in organic churches in Orlando. We love receiving new staff that have house church planting in their background because it’s what most of our staff do globally.

In this blog post you are taking a potshot at the very people who are closest to you in ministry philosophy and practice. The “well known secret” of mission agency dysfunction is a serious charge that plays well to US pastors who often like to armchair quarterback global missions. Please don’t contribute to it.

I am aware of the meeting you will be attending to discuss global church planting. That’s a good thing. I would only ask that as you get involved globally you do so knowing that you are talking about brothers and sisters in Christ.

Are all agencies alike? Please don't paint them all with the same brush. Are they doing a great job? Of course not. But the blanket critique is too much. I have sat under your teaching and know you can do better than that!

I am afraid that “Starling Initiatives” may be getting off on the wrong foot. Our agencies begs for those who understand organic ministry to sign up. If we get them we don't have to "retrain" them! Tearing down the work of others in order to make your new venture sound sexy is not a great strategy.

Sorry for the harsh tone of this comment. I do call on you to reconsider your post with a bit more of Kingdom mindset and at least a passing nod to the saints who are out there sacrificing right now.

- Ted Esler

Scott Cheatham said...

Bro. Ted,
I've never ministered in an International context but was once a part of a denominational church planting agency. I think the larger issue that Neil is addressing here is the money we spend on systems and departments to plant churches to see little impact for our dollar. Perhaps you are being a bit more broad based in how you are addressing this and I get it. The issue we are dealing with is not only the way the dollar is spent but also the percentage of the dollar given to missions be it church planting in the U.S. or overseas. This is more to the heart of what Neil is addressing. Perhaps there's a better way? That's all..

Blessings to you!

Unknown said...


I think Neal is addressing more than money here. He is claiming that the way we do mission is dysfunctional at its core. I actually agree that there are broad and systemic problems. However, Neal is not the first guy to consider these issues and I highly doubt there is a silver bullet that will solve them.

It reminds me a bit of Warren's PEACE plan: big ideas, everybody else is mucking things up, time for new thinking, get out the way you tired old missionary agencies. Did Rick say that? Almost but not quite yet the message was clear. I don't fault Warren's heart in any way - I love the guy and at least he's showing some leadership on the issue. But, if you want to talk about wasted money, look at how much cash the PEACE plan has burned through since its inception (millions, brother). The latest PEACE plan revision is much more reasonable and do-able than the original ideas and they are church-scoped. I think a little input from us dysfunctional agency leaders could have gotten us far quicker but he wasn't asking.

There are incredibly empowering and motivational ways to reform missions that are positive. Neal's emphasis on organic churches is exactly the same emphasis that about 95% of the church planters in our organization have. We are kindred spirits. So why the brick throwing at agencies? I suggest that we work together rather than at odds with each other. Again so sorry I am coming across negative myself. Neal, know that the first book I recommend to people looking to join our house church (if they are Christians) is Organic Church.

- Ted

Neil Cole said...


Not every organization is the same. Some are more screwed up than others. Granted. I have been associated with some that are extremely healthy, and others that constantly shoot themselves in the foot and send the hospital bill back home while screaming "Persecution!" Without getting too specific and naming organizations or people, please allow me to paint with broad strokes what is actually a problem even though it may not reflect everything going on.

I agree that God is doing something special in the world at this time as well. In fact the real advancement of God's kingdom is seen outside of the Western world, I know and am excited about that. I want to be part of it, and feel that in some ways I am.

However, for every good work being done there are several that are consuming large amounts of money and not producing the sort of fruit that reproduces. It also costs lives with people often returning broken and scarred. It is not just me, Rick Warren, or pastors of selfish churches that are saying this...Rolland Allen said it 100 years ago.

The US church blaming the mission agencies for taking too much money is rediculous, but so is the mission agencies claiming that the US church is too self-centered. Both are right and both are wrong. Statistics about how much is spent here, verses there is a propaganda device the mission agencies have used many times over and rarely does it reflect what is truly the problem. In most cases, spending more money on a field will not help it but hurt it. That's actually a big part of my own thinking...not more money but less.

Both inflamatory statements (pastors and missionaries) are sometimes right and often times ignorant, so lets make some changes. I have already spoken clearly, emphatically and hopefully reasonably to the Western Church, saying a few things to the mission agencies is not unreasonable now, is it?

[Part one]

Neil Cole said...

[Part Two]

It is not just the money being spent that troubles me, in fact, that is the least of my concerns. I am not wanting to claim some of that money for myself here. It is the dependency upon US dollars, leaders and models that is being cultivated among people groups that concerns me most. When a people group is dependent like that they are incapable of maturing to be self-sufficient in Christ and able to reproduce and even catalyze works in other people groups.

If all we did was send people who have planted churches in their own culture and language before we send them overseas we would save a lot of heartache and money. That alone would fix much. If we sent those who are apostolic and prophetic instead of shepherds and teachers we would also see some huge changes. If we waited and sent proven and mature apostolic leaders who are capable of working through others rather than doing the work themselves we would catalyze a whole lot of fruitfulness in much shorter periods of time. Movements would be spurred rather than dependence. Do not think it is just a correction of methodology or organization. A better model of mission or church may be preferable but it is not the solution. Better management is not what I am suggesting.

The other thing to consider is that the mission enterprise has been at work for over 100 years and has had time to adjust its standard of success in that time to better reflect what it is doing. Global evangelization is not sufficient. Even more church planting is less than the entire goal. We must make stronger disciples not just converts meeting in churches. There are many nations where the majority is now "Christian" but the society is still plagued with AIDS, warfare, human trafficking and even genocide. That is not successful at all. We need to make better quality disciples, that can stand on their own and make other disciples and bring kingdom influence into their society and beyond. This requires a better approach, does it not?

There are some field's success' that I believe are being propped up unnaturally by the influx of US dollars that are hiring local church planters. If/when the dollars stop coming in we will see what the real success is in those places, but for now, I am not impressed with all the incredible numbers (though there are always some that is real).

There is no doubt that in people groups where there is intense persecution the church is healthier, the disciples are healthier and the kingdom is expanding. This is always the case. I would be less enthusiastic to give all the credit to mission agencies for that fruit. Where there are some that are catalyzing healthy and reproductive works I applaud.

I can take the harsh words, Ted, I hope you can as well. Not sure how you know of my meeting next month, but I do hope and pray that things do not start off on the wrong foot as you say. Will you pray with me for this?

Pressing on,


Susan S. said...

One of the main problems, as I see it, in the US and elsewhere there has come to be such a heavy emphasis on social justice to the near exclusion of the verbal proclamation of the gospel. Many pastors and even some missions organization have come to put most of their time, energy and money into deed ministry and see that as the key way to win people to Christ, but are failing to preach the gospel. It seems that many underestimate the power of the gospel, the spoken words of truth about our helpless sinful condition before a holy God who will ultimately punish sinners in hell...IF, they do not come through the narrow door that leads to eternal life. Jesus. People need to understand their need and how Jesus meets it, or they will never be indwelt by God's Spirit and thus will not be transformed into people who live as God intended. True transformation only occurs once a person has heard and responded to the gospel in humble repentance.

Good deeds can open doors for the gospel to be preached, but the gospel is powerful even when we haven't done a lot of good deeds to pad it. "The gospel is the power of God unto salvation." We can't "preach the gospel without words." We can and should care about people's physical needs when we see them. We can and should show the love of Christ in compassionate tangible ways, but a person will not be saved, redeemed and transformed until they have heard and responded to the gospel.

The book of Acts has more it it exemplifying what it is to proclaim the gospel than any other book of the Bible. In it we see Paul traveling from city to city verbally proclaiming the gospel. He isn't doing good deeds first. He is proclaiming the gospel in many hostile environments (even more hostile than the current USA), because he knows that God infuses the spoken gospel with His power. God has chosen to work through our proclamation.

Once a person responds to the gospel they are indwelt by God's Spirit, who enables them to live as God intended. We are saved, not just for eternal life, but to do the deeds that God has purposed for us to do. The message about the work of the Spirit is the gospel within the gospel, as Darrell Bock puts it. God transforms the heart of flesh into a heart of stone, that His people can obey him.

Susan S. said...

BTW, I think that one of the main reasons the persecuted churches are healthier is that individuals really have to 'count the cost' when they respond to the gospel. I think that there are likely to be far fewer false converts in such an environment, where people respond to the gospel knowing that it puts their life at risk. In that case a person has to truly understand their desperate need for Christ, and that their fate is word without Him. They enter God's family prepared to give up much in exchange for Him.

You can say that the main problem is a lack of discipleship, but perhaps a more systemic problem is that there are many who profess Christ but have never responded to the gospel with belief and repentance...brouht about by a work of the Spirit in their hearts. That HAS to be the precursor to "discipleship". That which we in modern times have called "discipleship" is what the second part of the great commission is all about, "teaching them to obey all that I have commanded"

Unknown said...


Thanks for responding. I don't think US churches are selfish. Far from it.

I have been blessed to see lots of good missionary work, I have seen some not-so-good and I have seen some that gave me the frights. It's the broad brush that I find so distasteful. Criticism for the right reasons is always a good thing. Criticism designed to announce a new missions adventure by framing others as dysfunctional is not a good thing.

To steal a quote and slightly change it, "Missions is the despair of tidy minds." I will pray for you. I know God has used missions strategy to teach me how little I really understand about the Kingdom and it's been a great, humbling blessing.

(BTW, I spent the weekend with a mutual friend who told me about your new venture. I was eagerly checking the blog for an announcement and that's how I found your post. I am a part of The Living Room, Orlando, house church network and the friend was from AZ.)

Unknown said...

Now that I am not in the Socialist Military Dictatorship or a Dictatorial Mission agency I feel free to air my humble opinion. ; )
I hope Starling Initiatives is a group of Multiplication consultants who are not merely arm chair theoreticians but real practitioners. As you know most of the successful leaders of Disciple/Church Multiplication aren't the best presenters or look cool. You and I have sat in on expensive conferences and meetings where these "Missions" experts drone on and on about their 3 churches that they have planted. Some of these experts were at meetings where you were also speaking. Sorry, the mission agencies said I was "too blunt".

You are right on about calling out the Broken system. I have seen many CPM/DMM practitioners in traditional church planting and mission agencies crucified by jealous administrators.
George Patterson talks about the reasons behind this "trend" and elaborates your point on our new site. 9:30-13:15 minutes on the video.!about_us/csgz

we borrowed the video from Robinson.

Total Nutrition said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward Aw said...

When I blessed to train, I say we send out 4 types of people from the USA.

1. Church Planters
2. Leadership development people
3. Community development people
4. Business as Mission people.

The problem is that they have NEVER planted a church in the USA, lead anyone in the USA, done any community development in the USA, nor had a business in the USA.

So, they think that what they have not (perhaps could not and would not) done in a place where they know the language, culture, laws, and have a support system in place they can do in a place where they don't know the language, nor the culture, nor the laws, and have no support system?

That is what I call ultimate condescension to the people they are trying to reach. That they and their place is so "dumb" that we can just go over there with no experience and expect them to do what they tell us and everything goes hunky dory? Wow!

Additionally, Americans typically hate to fail. Yet, if they only failed here first where they have the encouragement and support system. If they keep getting back up (adjusting and learning) I have much greater confidence that they will succeed over there.

What is the stat? Over 50% of missionaries never return to the field after the first term and we have spent something like $500,000 on them? And it took them about 3 years to get the fulltime support?