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I realize this is a touchy topic.  It is difficult to address.  Statistics on overall attrition cover some of this, but many missionaries who remain within a mission agency do not finish their primary mission.  Of course the question “What does it mean to finish?” can be defined a lot of ways.  For the sake of this article, let’s agree that most churches, and the missionary himself, desire to leave behind a functioning healthy church in a people group that has not had one before.

Let me say from the outset that anyone stepping out to do this very difficult task deserves great respect. The heartaches, sacrifices and years that are involved to do serious, ‘real’ church planting can’t be addressed in this article.  But they are many. Previous Radius Reports have addressed some of those things.  For this article I’ll focus on a few common reasons that are behind the rarity of achieving that goal:

  1. Unrealistic expectations for the individual or family.  Not having a clear idea of the difficulties they will endure, and will need to overcome, to be pioneer church planters is common.  Once folks arrive on the field is it generally too lateto bring them to a deeper level of commitment.  Training that makes them painfully aware of what is ahead of them, and also trains them to seek the Lord in times of darkness, suffering and discouragement, is critical.  Everyone knows it will be hard.  That’s not a news flash, but the details and reality of ‘hard’ take time for a person to get their head around.  It’s just not possible in a 2-3 week candidate school to rearrange the deeply held expectations of a person heading overseas.

 

  1. Lack of skill sets to do the job.  Learning an insider language, creating a written language (At times, those languages don’t even have a written language.), learning the receptor culture, translating the Word of God and teaching the people to read that translation are just a few of the skill sets not imparted in a mentorship, candidate school or 2-3 week course.  Even on-field orientation programs cannot be expected to do the equipping that should be happening in a pre-field setting. Finding this out once they’re on the field is a disappointing realization that occurs to many missionaries.  “You’ll get that on the field” has been said to hundreds of couples. They realize too late that they are in over their heads.

 

  1. Today a new trend is becoming increasingly common. The ‘successful’ missionary is commonly asked by his SENDING AGENCY to move away from his primary church planting location to serve in a leadership position.   The missionary that stays more than a few years, lives in a hard situation and does his job well then surprises the home church with “They asked me to move into leadership, member care, maintenance, contingency, etc.” This is not a new development. Of course veteran missionaries have always been asked to be mentors to others.  But, today, missionaries are moving out of their ministry area BEFORE a local church is anywhere near maturity.

Granted, turnover of new missionaries IS high.  Caring for new missionaries hitting the field is a real issue.  But the systemic question of “Why is turnover so atrocious?” seems not to be a large concern.  We had a missionary serving in Africa come to our Radius campus recently; he had lost 11 partners in the span of 9 years.  Caring for the stream of new missionaries commonly causes ‘veterans’ to leave their place of service permanently, never to return in any long-term sense. And the baby believers, if there are any, get left behind.  At times they are called ‘a church’, but the missionary knows they are in no way ready to stand on their own.  Living in a front line church planting location is hard.  When your missionary leadership asks you to leave, always with good reasons, it’s hard not to be drawn by better access to civilization, 24 hr. power, living closer to your kids (if they are away from you), being more ‘in the loop’ and NOT having to deal with the 24 hour requests that the front line church planter lives among.  Combine those realities with the voice of the sending agency asking you to do this and, all of a sudden, unthinkable decisions are made easier.  Even if the missionary has qualms about leaving the people group he has lived among for a few years.

Among the many missionaries I meet who still serve inside their agencies this is a VERY COMMON story; “The agency asked me… .”   We address all these areas in detail with Radius students.  Seeing new believers come to the point where the term ‘church’ is validly givenmust be the issue that the missionary, the church and the agency don’t compromise on.

Brad Buser

Brad Buser

Founder of Radius International

Brad and his wife Beth planted a church among the Iterri people in Papua New Guinea. Now he is a sought-after speaker for Perspectives classes around the nation, and the instructor of Church Planting at Radius.