Overseas mission and its impact in the local church
It is easy for overseas mission to be on the periphery of a local church’s vision, especially if it is small and already at full stretch seeking to reach people in its own locality. The global Covid pandemic has narrowed the focus even more as it tends to foster a survival mentality as attendance and giving come under pressure.
But is the choice between the local and the global a zero sum game? According to Tim Silberman, lecturer at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, it is not. In a recent ‘Pastor’s Heart’ podcast he produced evidence to show that there is a strong correlation between commitment to overseas mission and local mission effectiveness. He discovered that engaging with overseas mission was a powerful stimulant to being mission-minded locally as well.
Crucially, this engagement needs to be relational and not limited to just a small group of leaders. This insight coincides with a point made strongly by Andy Johnson in his book ‘Missions’ (Crossway, 2017) that it is better to support a few missionaries well than to allow a kind of mission inflation where the financial and relational capacity of the church is spread so thinly that the connections become rather abstract for most church members.
But both Silberman and Johnson seem to think of overseas mission primarily in the traditional mould of sending people from a Western culture into a non-Western setting. But this assumption needs to tested. Alongside the pandemic, the other global phenomenon of 2020 has been the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in May. Without ignoring the way that BLM has been exploited for ideological reasons, it has triggered an important self-searching. In my own church, ethnic minority brothers and sisters asked if our sending of overseas Mission Partners reflected an outmoded “Anglo-Saxon Christian sub-culture”.
While there clearly is still a need for cross cultural mission, especially in evangelising unreached people groups, this question does remind us that the traditional mission fields are places where indigenous people are now far better placed for front line evangelism and this opens up a wider understanding of how local churches, even those that are small and might see themselves as struggling, can nonetheless be creatively engaged.
For example, in my Gafcon role as Membership Development Secretary, I was recently able to link a Tanzanian bishop I know with an Anglican congregation in England which was looking for an overseas mission partnership. The English congregation is of modest size, but this partnership has already been a great encouragement to the Tanzanians and is based primarily on prayer and relationship rather than revolving around money, although the sharing of resources is rightly a part of mission partnership. In a world now habituated to Zoom meetings, this kind of mission link is already possible for just about any congregation and does not necessarily need to be with a diocese, but could be with a parish or with evangelists working in indigenous mission movements and organisations.
Above the door of Staunton Harold church in Leicestershire, there is a dedication to its builder, Sir Robert Shirley ‘Whose singular praise it is, to have done the best things in ye worst times.’ It was built as a Laudian protest against the Commonwealth Puritans, but we do not need to agree with Sir Robert’s churchmanship to see the nobility of the sentiment. In what may feel like the ‘worst times’ with the strong temptation to withdraw into ourselves, a renewed focus on overseas mission surely counts as one of the ‘best things’.