by Jeff Straub
Seminary professors who come to the classroom with missionary and pastoral experience can offer immense practical value to men preparing for ministry. I recently observed my fortieth anniversary of preaching the gospel. I began vocational ministry a few years later, in the fall of 1980, and spent a total of nineteen years in ministry in Canada: eleven as a supported missionary in Manitoba and then another eight years as a missionary-supporting pastor in southern Ontario. When I began to teach missions courses eight years ago, I determined to teach the classes so that both prospective missionaries and prospective pastors could benefit. I think that both the missionary and the supporting church need to think about the task of world evangelism deliberately and philosophically. Missionaries have only a few years to serve the Lord and churches have limited resources to devote to missions. Shouldn’t we use our time and money carefully to maximize our efforts?
Many pastors want to increase their church’s commitment to missions. My second ministry, a church plant, provided me the opportunity to begin a missions program from scratch. In my next ministry, I pastored a church that had never had a regular missions program. They gave funds occasionally to missionaries as they came through town, but the church had no monthly, systematic plan for the promotion and support of missions. It was a blessing to institute such a program. I was able to lead these churches to embrace a plan for supporting missions based on my experience as a missionary and my sensibilities as a pastor. I have since offered these ideas to our seminary students.
A missions-minded pastor is foundational for developing a missions-minded church. Pastors cannot lead their people to places they are not willing to go themselves. If a pastor wants his church to be committed to the Great Commission, he must be dedicated to it himself. But where to begin? How does a pastor become missions-minded?
First, pastors need to cultivate the discipline of knowing missionaries — friends from seminary, missionaries that the church supports, and other missionaries with whom they become acquainted. Pastors should read their letters, answer their emails and talk to them on the phone, ask them questions, and otherwise enter into their lives. Supporting churches are an essential part of the modern missionary movement, so the pastor must take an active role in knowing the church’s missionaries. If the pastor cannot name the missionary families of the church, how can the congregation be expected to remember them?
Can I insert an admonition? Ask any experienced missionary and he will tell you that pastors are notorious for poor communication. They often don’t answer email in a timely fashion and they don’t return phone calls from a missionary. Some pastors may argue that they don’t have time to answer every request from a prospective missionary. To be honest, I am a little befuddled by this attitude. Pastors do not have time to send a thoughtful response or speak briefly with a missionary seeking to raise support? Ask your missionaries how discouraging this is to them. All missionaries know that not every church they contact can support them. But surely there is a courteous way to say no, personally and directly. I had occasion to call a church one time on other business and the secretary grilled me to make sure I wasn’t a missionary. “The pastor doesn’t take calls from missionaries,” I was informed. This is appalling. We ask men and women to follow Christ but we do not have time to hear their burden or consider their need? We cannot pray “Lord, send laborers!” and then say “Missionary, I am too busy to answer you!” A church led in this way will hardly become missions-minded.
Second, having gotten to know missionaries, the pastor should cultivate the habit of praying for them. Pray for their marriages and children, their health and safety, their language skills and cultural adjustment, their financial needs, and their homesickness. Pray for the flourishing of their ministries and the success of the gospel. They need it and the pastor will benefit from the discipline of prayer. Pray for them publicly and privately, in your home and from your pulpit. Let the people of the church hear you bring the names of the church’s missionaries before the throne of grace. I was recently at a service in which my son presented his ministry. At the end of the service the pastor led the congregation in a very thoughtful prayer for my son and his family as they returned to the mission field. He prayed both for their lives and for their ministries. It was a thoughtful prayer that went on for more than five minutes. It was powerful listening to this brother pray for my kids and their ministry before the Lord. This is a missions-minded pastor—it is no coincidence that he leads a missions-minded church!
Third, a pastor cultivates missions-mindedness by communicating with missionaries. Call them on the phone, or use one of the myriad video-conferencing tools available today. Communicate with them if you want them to communicate with you. A church’s missionaries should rightly be viewed as an extension of the church’s ministry. As a pastor would talk to the pastoral staff, to his secretary, or to the youth workers, he should see it as a basic responsibility to talk regularly with the church’s missionaries. Call one or two each month. It doesn’t require a 45-minute commitment. Take five minutes to reach out and say hello. “We are praying for you!” “Thank you for your service!” “What more can we do to help?” Listen to them, ask questions, and tell them about the home front. Remember Proverbs 25:25: “Good news from a far country is like a drink of cold water to a thirsty soul!” A small investment of time can pay huge dividends in world evangelism. Your call may be just the thing the Lord uses to encourage the missionary to stay in the battle.
Finally, there are few things that increase the pastor’s burden for missions like visiting missionaries on the field. This is particularly important if you are a sending church pastor. Have you actually seen the work the church supports? Have you spent time on the field with your missionaries? Some might ask, “How can the church afford to do this?” This is entirely backwards: if they are your missionaries, shouldn’t you see their field, their work, their homes, and their lives for yourself? This will help you lead the church to better minister to them. You have seen with your own eyes and experienced the sights and smells, the poverty and the beauty, the challenges and the blessings of their ministry. If a church cannot afford to do this, can it really act as a sending church?
Becoming a missions-minded pastor takes work, but it pays big rewards for ministry. It is the practical foundation for establishing a missions-minded church.
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.