Prayer letters, truth-telling and missionary accountability...

Recently, we heard another missionary in our general area claim to have planted 300 churches in his twenty-five years of ministry in Zambia. My word, I don’t even know what to say to that. Maybe it’s true, but it sure raised questions in my mind.

Three hundred, gospel-centered, Bible-preaching, worldview-shaping, culture-transforming churches started since the late 80s? Most Zambian denominations can’t claim this. With all the excellent pastors we have in the Reformed Baptist churches, this fellowship can claim about 10% of that figure. I’ve never heard another missionary claim anything like this. I hope you’ll pardon me if I doubt the veracity of such a profession.

It made me think in lots of other directions... way beyond the truthfulness of his claims.

  • It sure must be nice to write home to tell your supporters that you’re planting a church a month, and have done so every month, for twenty-five years.
  • It must make people think there is a revival going on over here. That’s not the Zambia I know, but it is the Zambia toward which I pray.
  • It makes me think we’re worshipping the goddess of success and not the One who tells us “to go out to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”

Churches, denominations, mission groups and supporters need to hold missionaries accountable for their lives and for their work. That is a real necessity in the days of a secularized church, Internet pornography, failed and failing marriages, and an antinomian gospel. The antinomian gospel preaches faith without repentance and grants assurance without obedience. It’s one of the curses under which we labor in Zambia and it’s pretty common in the States, also.

While a missionary can’t have a relationship of intimate accountability with all of his supporters, someone has to hold me accountable for the details of my life and work. I well remember the time when the men from southern Africa (with our mission) met on a retreat in South Africa where we talked about these issues and looked each other in the eyes and asked painful questions about obedience and failure. That’s good and missionaries need that. I certainly do. Home churches need to do that with the missionaries they send out.

Someone also needs to hold missionaries accountable for telling the truth about their work. Years ago, some ministers involved in the healing revival of the 1950s in America used to boast about the conversions that had taken place under their preaching. When they went to foreign lands, things especially got out of hand. Historian David E. Harrell, Jr. has written about the case of several evangelists who claimed 3 million souls had come to Christ in Jamaica under their ministries. A fellow Pentecostal took up the uncomfortable task of pointing out that the entire population of the island at this point in time was only 1.6 million (All Things are Possible). The startling claims of conversions in Africa coming as a result of watching the Jesus Film also come to mind. Exaggerated claims are certainly not a new phenomenon.

Let’s keep expecting great things from God and praying toward that end, but let’s also be modest in our claims. And let’s not encourage our missionaries to make claims that are open to so many questions. Really, even the supporters back home who have never been to Africa know such claims are ridiculous. Allowing them to go unchallenged put lies at the foundation of one of the most vital works of the church today: mission support and prayer. Who needs it? Certainly not the God Who warned us to watch out when all men speak well of you.

 

David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. He currently lives in Lusaka, Zambia with his wife, Terri, and serves as the dean of the Seminary at the African Christian University. He is a career missionary with Mission to The World in Zambia.

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In the past, there were missionaries who went away to far places and suffered excruciating trials for the sake of the Gospel.  Their only accountability was God.  

Five-part accountability of the present.

1. The first part of accountability is God, who sees all things. For me, this one is the strongest level of accountability.  Him I cannot fool. For Him I serve, in a place in many ways uncomfortable, and outside of the call I would not be here.  That seems to be the focus of Paul when he talks about to whom he is accountable.

2. The second phase of accountability is the presbytery -- that is, examining a man to see if he is qualified to serve as a teaching elder. He and his ordination credentials remain under the authority of that presbytery.  They are the ones to whom one goes to report on some sin or scandal.

3. The third phase is this ordained man and the churches that support him. These church sessions can be vigilant in praying for and checking up on and even visiting the missionary, not as someone suspect, but in loving fellowship.  

4. The further level of accountability is the missionaries banding together on the field to form something like a provisional presbytery.  

5. And the final stage is their affiliation with a local denomination or local church on the field.

I would caution on an overreach of micromanaging from the sending churches.  A lot of times, I have observed sending denominations and churches deal more tightly with the missionaries than with their own ordained church planters.  They treat them as suspect rather than fellow brothers fully qualified who have been ordained to a calling given by God and attested to by the church.

At some point sending churches must trust the missionary they are sending out and trust the God by whom their work and that of the missionary's will be judged.

Dear Joel,

Senders who will not wonder or ask or probe under most any circumstances though set up the missionaries almost as gods whose words are unquestionable truth. This is not right either. There must be something between a relationship of constant distrust and suspicion, and a relationship of unquestioning, unsharpening credulity, where wisdom dwells.

Would that not be the kind of accountability outlined above?

As someone who was a missionary in East Africa (Kenya) for 5 years until recently, all I can say is "hear, hear". The amount of truth-twisting, selective sharing of information, and downright spreading of falsehoods that goes on in missionary and local pastors' newsletters to their "overseas friends" is absolutely shameful, and would be hard to believe had I not seen it so constantly.

Dear Joel,

The part that seemed to be missing from the good list you have up there is if something that doesn't seem right filters down to an individual supporting church or church member (through a missionary newsletter for example), it just makes sense that they should be able to ask about it. Maybe it was a simple misspeak or there's an explanation for it; but if the other layers of accountability fail and it's getting to the level where there's no correction even when lies are being disseminated at large (which apparently is not a theoretical problem), surely the answer isn't to let the issue go unaddressed still farther.

I am not arguing against other closer, gentler layers of accountability to help it not ever get to that level.

What a great reason for churches to send people to visit missionaries, no?  (not that this has anything to do with the fact that my new pastor is a Romanian married to a Filipina)

It doesn't pastoral oversight, but I'm always amazed at what my family members learn about people around them.  You sit and listen, and they talk.

Still not nearly as bad as a lot of what I have seen on the Charisma Magazine website!

Dear Joel: Your thoughts are good, but let me raise some questions about them.

1. The vast majority of missionaries on the field don't have that fivefold accountability structure you mention. Most are out here independently. They can do pretty much whatever they want and write back home almost anything they want. Examples of abuse abound.

According to his wife, when one missionary comes to the big city, he heads for the casino to gamble. She sensed that this might seem odd and so she added, "but he always wins." A U.S. denomination was sending money to fund an orphanage in country. When they sent out missionaries to Zambia, they checked up on the orphanage and found it didn't actually exist. So much for the warm reports that came back about it.

You've assumed a Presbyterian structure, and that's reasonable, since you probably thought I was writing from a Presbyterian perspective. But I was actually thinking far beyond that. Independency is one of the great problems on the mission field.

2. Let me address the Presbyterian structure since that's me. I believe in the way we govern ourselves and our work in presbyteries. But, if the truth be told, I'm not sure how much my presbytery knows about the work that I do. Several of the presbyters get my prayer letters, but beyond that, the correspondence is mostly one way. [And believe me, I'm not saying this to give them a back-handed criticism. I'm trying to be a truth-teller and speak reality.]

You might say, well, they rely on MTW to do that. Yes, I think that they do and given their busy lives and pressing business in the bounds of their presbytery, I can understand that. Still, it's not ideal, nor is it the way it's supposed to be. Maybe the experience of other MTW missionaries (who are ordained pastors or elders) is different.

3. I can't say too much in the way of thanksgiving to God for the way MTW watches over their missionaries. They do a great job. Yes, mistakes occur, but whoever thought it would be different? I'm amazed and grateful for how often they get it right. I'm very grateful for the bosses I've had with MTW in my region. They've done quite well in keeping us accountable. I know Terri would join me and give her "amen" to what I've written here.

Still, I want to ask, is every region the same as mine? Do leaders all over MTW look missionaries in the eyes and ask them, "have you been looking at internet pornography in the last year?" We even talk about what some might call "inevitable pornography," like when you click on an article on the Drudge Report and it sends you to an article on "Mail Online," and then your eyes stray over to the right side of the page ...

4. You didn't mention accountability from the missionary's home congregation. I know that my presbytery is my home church, but what about the church that sent me out and affirmed my sense of call to the mission field. Shouldn't they have a special place in my accountability structure?

Unfortunately, lots of missionaries don't really have a home church. That may sound odd to say, but I bet it is more common then we realise, even in the Presbyterian context. 

To my way of thinking, the accountability that comes from this church is essential. They will know you better than most other supporting churches. They'll know your sins and background and marriage and your wife and kids. Without accountability from them, there is going to be a big hole in your accountability structure. 

Every missionary needs accountability from their home session and home congregation and home missions committee? I'm very grateful for what we have in our home church, but my hunch is that not everyone has that kind of support.

How many missionaries have gone to their session and confessed their sins to them and asked them to pray for them? How many sessions would even know what to do if this occurred? How many missionaries don't do it since they know they would face judgement and consequences?

5. Finally (since it's always nice to have five points), let me talk about the missionary's church on the field. In my experience, Zambians are very respectful toward missionaries and this might be due to the legacy of David Livingstone, a man greatly respected in our country. Fortunately, a number of Zambian Christian leaders have said that sometimes we might have too much respect for missionaries here and this can keep us from helping them where and when they need pastoral help and care. Amen and amen.

The topic we're discussing is very important since missionary marriages are under attack from many different directions, missionary kids face struggles that few can appreciate and missionaries can be caught in a web of sin from which they cannot get out. 

Thank you, Joel, for your good words!

    I'm impressed that MTW routinely asks about pornography. Really,a presbytery ought to ask every member about that every year, as well as financial questions. And every congregation ought to ask every member. I know the leaders have so much to do already that it's hard to think about looking for more things to discipline, but more prevention means less need to cure. 

     Do most missionaries even have a single home congregation? If you have more than one church funding you, it's easy to escape accountability, since the unpleasant duty isn't pinned onto any one church.  This is a big reason for churches to concentrate their mission giving: it also concentrates their attention.  There's a saying: "Do put all your eggs in one basket--- and then *watch that basket*."

Dear David, perhaps we are simply looking at things from a slightly different frame of reference and addressing slightly different questions. I don't want to discount the problems, but do want to ask questions about what are the biblical solutions.  I am sure a lot of what I write below you would agree with, but I'd like to articulate it at this juncture:

Point taken about presbytery in that it does not function as it should. Yet that does not mean we should create a separate structure to do what the Bible has given for presbyters to do.  Rather than saying the presbytery trusts a mission board staff, it might be more accurate to say the presbytery abdicates to the mission board staff -- that is, biblically the responsibility is on the elders rather than being given to a mission board.  Even a local church session has been equipped by God to send out missionaries -- if I am accurately interpreting the model of Scripture in Acts regarding the church in Antioch.  

We do not need to leave it to the professionals of missiology in mission boards.  Indeed the mission boards often run things like a corporation rather than a presbytery -- they have a top down structure that is quite episcopal. That is why I speak of forming a provisional presbytery on the field as it was done in Korea and other places in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I was a "team leader" when I was with a certain mission organization before but I chose to allow myself to be put in that position so that I would have the maneuvering room and freedom to operate as I saw fit -- that is operate as a presbytery with all the ordained missionaries on equal parity.

Maybe it is better that local church teaching and ruling elders who are doing day in day out labors and who are busy, maybe it is still better for them to be the ones to be doing the sending rather than full time staff of a mission board.  Even when you have ordained teaching elders on mission boards or serving as staff, I think sometimes they can lose perspective as they shuttle from agency to agency, promotion to promotion rather than laboring in a local church (See: Kenneth Foreman: The Debate on the Administration of Missions by Thorwell for more on that.)

I am trying to overlay your ideal in comparison to what I imagine the structure was for Paul and the folks that went with them.  Was there so much oversight with Paul and his companions?  Hence my phrase "at some point the missionary must be trusted..."  God brought things to light via ordinary means... e.g Paul rebuked Peter publicly when he observed something wrong.  When Paul had all of his travels what and when did he report to the home folks -- he reported back to them several years later?  

Not to discount the problem of men who are preaching the word for profit, lying about their labors, or falling into scandal, but I think that because something bad happens in one field or place, it should not necessarily be an occasion to implement a universal policy in all fields. We again should inquire of the Lord in His Word.  What are the principles that apply? Is the structure that God revealed sufficient?  

Does the fact that there will be wolves in sheep's clothing mean that God's structure for the church is insufficient? Having been both within and outside of a particular mission board, I think one issue is the heaping up of policy after policy on all missionaries in reaction to individual problems on individual fields.  The cost ends up doubling or more.  And it is a great question how much actually was prevented.  There are still problems and still scandals.  Yet the missionaries do a whole lot of paperwork, are under an episcopal structure, etc.  A lot less time is spent in actual ministry - evangelism and discipleship.

Further in an attempt to root out the problems in advance, I think many potential missionaries are excluded who would have been good (in their weakness) and many are included who can do the game for a 1 week $2000 readiness evaluation, and a 1 month $10,000 pre-field training but who are actually not the right men (and women) for the ministry.  They can pass psychological tests and are good at fund raising.  While many potential missionaries who might have made great missionaries are told that alas if they are not capable of raising support in the timely manner, then they just must not be called by God.  Yet with all of this screening, with all of the policies and insurances and paperwork and reporting and controlling by money like a corporate field office, many of the ones who make it are ineffective in their strength while the ones who did not might have been much more effective in their weaknesses.  And God in His providence allows bad decisions to have an impact on the course of history, but that does not mean the decisions were not bad, nor that the ones excluded should have been excluded in God's eyes.  

Can we not use simpler means to evaluate candidates as we are called to do for every teaching elder in the churches?  How often do professional staff pick the first sons of Jesse instead of the youngest out in the fields who seems of no account?  I guess this is not just with mission board folks... but also goes to all places in the church included election of ruling elders.  

My thoughts are gushing a little right now so I'll stop there for the moment.

"We even talk about what some might call "inevitable pornography," like when you ... "

Oy vey!! Who needs a thumbnail graphic over on the right-hand part of a web page at a newspaper site? What about if you were submerged in appeals to pornographic interests if you dared to go much further than the hallway of the apartment block in which you live?

This was the situation when I lived in Vienna thirty years ago! Living in that city revolutionized my understanding and appreciation of Sigmund Freud. Turns out he was a master at cataloging (and attempting to engage) the psychological perversity of that city. 

Thirty years ago there was no internet. Pornography was available in Vienna in ordinary retail outlets along well-trafficked thoroughfares, with the wares made easily visible to those strolling down the busy streets.  

And, then, there were the posters for men's sock, modeled by muscley young men wearing nothing but those socks, many of these billboards as wide as the side of a building and as high as four or five stories! You couldn't possibly miss them at a distance of a quarter mile.

The city was drenched in images of sex. It is still drenched in images of sex. Try taking your friends and family on a walking tour of the First District. The expanse of images of naked human flesh must be estimated in the hundreds of acres. And its all presented -- not in tiny, grainy web-page thumbnails -- but in gigantic proportions. Those who behold it are small, the libidinous nudes in provocative poses are gargantuan, literally gargantuan.  

Imagine rearing your children in that culture!

Imagine the assaults on a missionary wife's self-esteem when she KNOWS her husband is literally immersed as he moves through the city in images of female sexuality far more voluptuous than anything she can present to him. Imagine an aging, paunchy missionary husband's self-confidence in bed with his wife when he KNOWS that as she moves through the city she is surrounded by testosterone-drenched images of men who (at least visibly) challenge his own  boudoir appeal.

</rant>

I hear you, Father Bill. Europe is a cesspool. I've only experienced it a bit,  but I'm with you. MTW had an area retreat in Greece many years ago and they gave out warnings for those who went into Athens for an afternoon of shopping. It wasn't as bad as your description of Vienna, but it was still pretty bad. Glad I don't live there. Pray for those missionaries who labor in Europe and face this everyday.

Europe's been a cesspool for a while, at least in the upper classes.  I've got a cookbook written by a nobleman who appears to have escaped Austria's most infamous corporal, and he notes that the 19th century was as bad as Fr. Bill's description--at least in the houses of the rich.  Also take a look at anything by Honore de Balzac. 

(leads to the question; was Europe ever really evangelized in any significant way?)

Fr Bill - Try Amsterdam. I was under strict orders when I visited last year as to what to avoid, and I did so, but it is not hard to see how corrosive that environment could be. But some people seem to be able to manage in it. 

Well said David. Psalm78.72. Speaks to the next generation of mission. As one who has read your prayer letters for 10 years I am thankful for your integrity.

>>> and then your eyes stray over to the right side of the page ...

Browse with images turned off. It's a pain to configure it, and once you land on a safe website you often have to turn images back on or you're unable to navigate the site. Flipping back and forth between the "show images" and the "don't show images" settings on some browsers is such a pain that they're almost unusable; on other browsers it's easier. Pick a browser that lets you can turn off images.

About specific browsers: I have been unable to find an easy enough way to change back and forth on image settings with Chrome, so I have Chrome set not to show images. Firefox has an Image Show-Hide add-on that makes it easy to flip back and forth with a little icon on the toolbar.

You'll also need to disable Flash and Silverlight. I use the FlashBlock add-on for Firefox and the FlashControl extension for Chrome. It puts a little button there instead of the video and you can view it by clicking that button instead of it auto-playing.

On Youtube when you go to view a specific video it is of great help to have images disabled. Then those thumbnails down the right side are blanked out--what a help! Also, pause the video in the last few seconds, so you don't get the "related videos" at the end. It's not worth it. (If you're a blogger, put &rel=0 at the end of your youtube video link and it disables the related videos display.)

I've written more under a post called Configure your browser for battle and would be happy to help anyone who was having trouble figuring out the particular settings for his browser.

I don't read Wesley J. Smith as much now that he's moved off of firstthings.com, because his new venue is not safe. I get as much as I can from my RSS feed to get an idea of what he's saying and generally let it go at that.

I hope this is helpful for someone. These practices are definitely work, but they have been a big help to me.

Love,

Daniel

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