Seminary Viewpoints

Why Must a Missionary Eventually Leave?

March 5, 2019
Video Interviews

Neal Cushman: In seminary chapel we’ve been covering the topic “A Ministry Worth Pursuing,” and we’ve been working our way through Paul’s farewell address in Acts chapter 20. Mark Vowels, our lead missiologist at BJU Seminary, really made some interesting points today. Mark, one of the points that you made is the importance of the missionary leaving the place where they serve, and I wonder if you could just expand on why would that be a big deal for a missionary?

Mark Vowels: Sure. In some ways the longer anyone stays in any one position the harder it is for someone else to follow. That will be true in local church, and that’s even more true if you are a foreigner doing missions work in a country that’s not your home. And so Paul is essentially following the example of Jesus, who came and established ministry, trained his followers, and then he departed. I assume those disciples must have been quite surprised in Acts 1:9 when Jesus gave them instructions, told them their future would involve, by the power of the Holy Spirit, being his witnesses unto the ends of the earth, and then Jesus just goes. He leaves! But the reality is that those disciples would not have conducted their ministry and accomplished what Jesus intended them to do as long as he was there. It would have stayed always centered around his physical person. Once he was gone, by the power of the Spirit and the teaching of his word, they were free, then, to begin to disseminate it. And it still is being disseminated after all these centuries around the world. So Paul takes that model. He goes and follows very closely the kind of ministry that Jesus had, following the commission that Jesus gave him to make disciples, to establish leaders, and then to move on, assuming that those local men with the power of the Holy Spirit and with the word of God’s grace, as it says in Acts 20:32—they will be able to carry on the ministry. That allows for greater expansion, but it also eventually provides greater depth because the local people will allow the Christian experience to be native to their own environment—to their own culture. It’s not an imposition. It’s not somehow syncretized with Westernism or wherever the missionary happens to be from.

Cushman: So I mean is that really a problem today in missions, where you have missionaries who are staying too long in one place?

Vowels: In my estimation at least, when I think of missionaries, especially from a more conservative background, there is a tendency to assume that their experience, which has been very positive to the point of compelling them to become missionaries to go and do this kind of sacrificial ministry in another part of the world—they assume that their experience is so normative that others should share the same experience. And in order to transpose our, in this case American experience, onto people in some other part of the world, that’s going to take many years—in some cases a lifetime. So I see that happening quite frequently, and in my mind at some point that person who started out with a goal of carrying the gospel and making disciples has settled into more of a pastoral role. I would say there’s a real difference according to how Paul practices ministry—and even if you could say how Jesus practices ministry—between a pastoral role and a missionary role. They’re both valuable. They’re both important. They both overlap in places, but the missionary role is different. So, yeah, I do think that’s a big problem, and I think the way around that is to really have the mindset and the objective of a missionary—that is to establish something and really believe that God will continue and even deepen the ministry once you’ve been able to move on and leave that with the local people.

Cushman: So we can have confidence in the Word of God and believe that it will it will carry people on as they learn the Word and live out the Word. Thank you for joining us today.