The word “symbiosis” literally means, “living together.” In nature we refer to symbiotic relationships as those relationships that mutually benefit each other. For example, there is a kind of tree called the Bullhorn Acacia tree that often serves as the home of a certain species of stinging ants. For the ants, the tree provides both protection and food sources. What does the tree get in return? Quite a lot actually. Since the ants are very territorial and aggressive, they protect the tree by attacking anything that tries to touch it (i.e., other insects, deer and even humans). They have also been known to climb up the Bullhorn Acacia and clear away branches from other trees that are impeding its growth. So, both parties in the relationship benefit from each other’s abilities and resources. That’s part of what it means to be in a symbiotic relationship.
When we think about churches and sending agencies sending out missionaries, we could wish they would also enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Sadly, this is often not the case. First, we’ll discuss why this often doesn’t happen and then talk about some ways these two important organizations can help each other.
One of the most important reasons churches and sending agencies don’t work together as they should is simply that they don’t see themselves as being on the same team. They often see themselves as separate entities, sometimes even rivals, instead of teammates. Honestly, I put most of blame for this on the church. Churches too often don’t think through the whole process of what takes to train a missionary, send them out, and then care for them on the field. They are often so focused on just getting the missionary to the field that they wrongly conclude their job is done when that time comes. Churches must see that their job of truly caring for their missionaries is only just beginning when those missionaries hit the field.
Caring for missionaries on the field well is where the relationship between the sending church and the sending agencies must work together in a symbiotic relationship. Both entities have unique qualities that benefit each other, and, more importantly, the missionaries that are on the field seeking to plant churches.
In order for this to happen, sending churches and sending agencies must see themselves as being on the same team. They must view each other as working together for the good of the missionaries and the proclamation of the gospel. From the outset, the churches should be in contact with the sending agencies in order to better understand what level of care and oversight they will give the missionaries. As a pastor, I would never encourage one of our missionaries to go to the field with a sending agency that does not have the resources to properly support them. A few of the things we look for the sending agency to do for our missionaries are: holding their feet to the fire with accountability in their language learning, ensuring that they are learning the culture and worldview of the people they are trying to reach, and then making sure the team is getting along and working well together. The sending agencies should be the experts when it comes to culture and language acquisition. As the sending church, we want to keep communication lines open with the sending agency to ensure these very important elements are being accomplished.
Of course the sending church has much to offer as well. They know the missionaries well (at least they should know them well before they ever think of sending them out). They can help the sending agency get to know the strengths and weaknesses of these missionaries. The church can, and should, be there to offer spiritual care for the missionaries through physical visits, Skype sessions, and ongoing prayer. This ongoing spiritual care should not stop the moment the missionaries got on the plane, it should continue for as long as the missionaries are on the field. The church must still consider their missionaries to be their sheep, just with a very different zip code.
With these two entities working together – the sending agencies with their expertise in CLA and boots on the ground presence, and the churches owning their responsibility to spiritually care for their missionaries – this should form a powerful team. It should be a team whose relationships are mutually beneficial for everyone and serves to ensure that the gospel is proclaimed and churches planted amongst the nations!
By Brian Murphy
Brian is the lead pastor at Living Grace Community Church in Bakersfield, CA and a member of the board of directors for Radius International.