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Equipping for Engagement

The pastor from another state sat across the table from me. He saw no need for equipping mission trip team members in his church. He was only concerned that they get out among the lost.

He said, “We just let our people learn about missions while they’re doing missions. They grow spiritually when they do missionary work. I don’t mind them meeting to prepare for the trip, but that’s the extent of our training efforts. We really don’t have a need for anything else like that in our church.”

“Aren’t you concerned about bringing harm to the people you mean to help?” I asked.

“What kind of harm could my people possibly cause? We’re just talking about working across town in a poverty-stricken area.”

This was an important point to me. I pointed out what I had seen volunteers doing to cause problems among other people. I know they meant well, but I said, “Just by showing up, volunteers can take on a position of superiority. Experts call this a ‘God complex.’ Yes, your church members try to help, but they make the people with whom they are working feel even more terrible about their situation. If those in need didn’t already have a scarred identity, they often develop one.”

“We don’t mean to do harm on a physical needs level, but we do a world of good on the spiritual level,” said the pastor.

“Yes, I understand,” I said. “The people may identify with believers in some way, but they often put up a false front for others to see. A lot of them remain as they were, but also claim belief in Jesus. That’s why some people who go to church on Sunday will visit a fortune teller on Monday. We call that syncretism.”

“But the lost in our town get to hear about Jesus; some for the first time.”

“If your church members are going to evangelize without any follow-up plans in place, then they could actually ‘inoculate’ the lost from ever hearing the gospel clearly again. They think they’ve heard it all.”

This was obviously making the pastor think. He was quiet for a moment, so I asked him a tough love kind of question.

“Would your church members be willing to change their focus from what they get out of it to changing what they discover is wrong instead?”

The pastor was thinking hard now, so I asked another one—the hard one.

“Would they be willing to strip away who they are? Would they literally ‘deny themselves’ and cross into the culture of needy people who are without Christ?”

“Then we’d need some training,” the pastor observed quietly.

In the decades that I’ve been training volunteers, I’ve found that they need training. Take oral methods like telling Bible stories, for instance. You use oral methods because it’s what people need, not your well-meaning, but all-too-often highly literate missions volunteers. And then there are acts of kindness that some mission groups carry out. Servant evangelism is often done for people who are among the have-nots. You may be “just” working across town. But just because they may be smaller in number doesn’t mean that they need a different approach that you’d do among people overseas.

Training is needed before missions volunteers boldly step in to help people with ongoing needs. We need to listen carefully. How did they get here? How will telling the story of God help them? A book that I have found helpful is by Bryant L. Myers. Some of my ideas are from Walking with the Poor (WorldVision). Myers encourages believers to begin mission work by celebrating all that is already being done correctly, no matter how insignificant.

Seek out training that is done right. There are no Mulligans as there are in golf, no make-up tests, or “do-overs.” Yes, some believers may go on and do their own top-down thing; brash and crash, bull in the china shop. However, church leaders who know better must lovingly guide those with missions zeal to the point that they can do what Jesus said in Luke 9:23 to deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow Jesus to walk among people in need.

--Mark Snowden directs the Cincinnati Area Baptist Association

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