Two ways the local church may prevent attrition in global missions

June 2, 2022

Life on the mission field is commendable work and, for many, a calling worth giving their lives to. The life and work of a missionary, though, is challenging for untold reasons, a fact the apostle Paul knew all too well. In describing his work, he wrote, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). From families whose missionary zeal wanes because of sickness to marital difficulties brought on by a seemingly unending workload to the discouragement experienced after years of no visible gospel fruit, not to mention exposure to deep depression, anxiety, and persecution, the challenges and potential afflictions for missionaries are many. And, too often, the result is a mission field vacated, left to lie fallow. 

These are some of the real examples being highlighted by studies indicating an alarming pattern of attrition in global missions. For example, a recent three-year study conducted by Missio Nexus showed that upward of two-thirds of missionaries left the field for potentially preventable reasons, equating financially to around 40 million dollars lost every three years. From a stewardship perspective, this is problematic. But, equally important, the stories behind these numbers are tragic. Years of potential gospel ministry are being squandered, oftentimes for reasons which better pre-field assessment, equipping, and care may have prevented.

So, how can our churches better prepare their missionaries to avoid these pitfalls, so many of which could be preventable? Below I discuss two biblical principles for minimizing missionary attrition. 

Two missionary principles

After Jesus commissioned his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18), a pattern began to develop as the message of the gospel advanced, a pattern that continues to this day. The Lord saves people from their sin and, upon being baptized into the Triune name of God, these new believers are joined to a local assembly—a church. It’s at the emergence of this pattern, after the establishment of the local church first encountered in the book of Acts, that we see in the church at Antioch the first Christian missionaries identified and sent:

“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2).

We may ask: was this a random, purely reactive response by the church to send out missionaries simply because Barnabas and Saul felt “called” to go? Furthermore, beyond being prompted by the Holy Spirit, how did they know Barnabas and Saul were qualified and ready for this difficult work? These questions lead to the first principle.

  1. Take the time to have missionary candidates tested within the church

In Acts 11:26, we read that Barnabas, who had been sent by the church in Jerusalem to Antioch, sought out Saul, bringing him to Antioch where they labored together among the churches for at least a year before being sent out. If we fast-forward to Acts 16, where Scripture details Paul’s recruitment of Timothy, describing him as a man spoken highly of by “the brothers and sisters at Lystra and Iconium” (v. 2), we encounter a similar idea. In both stories, we are introduced to characters who had been vetted by the churches where they belonged and identified as men qualified for the work of missions. 

In other words, these were not quick assessments by the churches in Antioch, Lystra, or Iconium. These men were not qualified based on some sort of subjective whim, but were men from among the church who had proven themselves as qualified because of their time-tested faithfulness to the gospel. Thus, it is here, where we learn our most foundational missionary principle: the local church is the proving ground by which potential missionaries are assessed and equipped over time for the work of ministry abroad. Therefore, churches should take ample time to know their missionary candidates.

  1. Take the time and resources to care for those you send and partner with in missions

As Paul labored in his mission of proclaiming the gospel, establishing churches and elders, and encouraging the churches he helped plant, he himself was cared for by the church. In Philippians 4, Paul seems to view the financial partnership of the church as more than simply bankrolling the mission, but as a kindness to share (to have fellowship) in his trouble (Phil. 4:14). He highlights his need for the local church’s prayers, and he outlines the encouragement he draws from them (Phil. 1:19; Col. 4:3; 1 Thess. 5:25; 2 Thess. 3:1). And he writes of the importance of the church to remember his difficulties (Col. 4:18). 

Furthermore, we see the encouragement he receives in Timothy’s report that the church in Thessalonica remembers and longs for them, causing them to be comforted even in the difficulties of field life (1 Thess. 3:6-9). And after being stoned in Lystra, where does Paul go for a time of reprieve and encouragement, but to the church in Antioch (Acts 14:24-28)?

In reading the book of Acts and Paul’s letters in the New Testament, the principle of resourcing, caring for, and partnering with missionaries on the field is undeniable. And it is a principle rooted in the supernatural love found only in the people united to Christ in a local church, a love which transcends surface-level pleasantries and affects the soul. The local church, therefore, is the primary means by which biblical soul care and tangible care are given to its missionaries.

How we can get better at sending

So, how are we doing at sending? In our heart for missions, are we so eager to flood the fields with workers that we neglect our responsibility to prepare those we’re sending? Are we unknowingly sacrificing the sustainability of brothers and sisters in the field at the altar of convenience and speed? 

There are untold churches laboring well to assess, equip, and care for those in their congregations who desire to go to difficult places for the gospel. Yet there are many churches who desire this but who may not be well-equipped to provide adequate attention, time, and resources to faithfully steward this responsibility. Either way, our ultimate hope and assurance is founded in the fact that God will be glorified whether we do it well or not; it is his mission to complete. 

Yet, this is exactly the reason and fuel for why we must continue to press in and wisely steward the roles he has given us as members and participants within his flock. Our love and desire for God’s glory among the nations must not drive us to neglect the means by which he accomplishes this, which is the local church. The clear pattern in Scripture is that the local church assesses, equips, and cares for his flock, even as it sends its members to ends of the Earth. 

So, what are some practical ways the church can more fully embrace this responsibility of assessment, equipping, and care of those desiring to go and those sent?

Though we do have an enemy, and much opposition and difficulty in this world (Acts 14:22), let us not grow weary in our pursuit of sending spiritually mature missionaries and caring biblically for them on and off the field. And let us do this so that these precious missionaries and the nations whom they serve might more clearly see the glory of the one true and living God. 

Cody Montgomery

Cody Montgomery serves as an elder at Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and is the executive director of Frontlines Ministries, an organization that aims to connect biblical soul care to missions through the local church. He is married to Brittany, and they have three daughters. For more information … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24