Peruse mission journals or blogs, and you will find articles celebrating or questioning the ongoing volunteer phenomenon, which has seen tens of thousands of lay church members travel abroad to preach the Gospel.
At one end of the philosophical spectrum are those who believe volunteers have transformed and revitalized missions, returned the global mission task to its proper owner — the local church — and mobilized several generations of believers to take the Gospel to the nations. At the other extreme are critics who warn that “amateur missionaries” on vacation with good intentions and poor preparation make little positive impact for the kingdom of God abroad — and do actual harm in some instances.
I don’t pretend to be objective in the debate: I’m pro-volunteer. I’ve been making the case for mission volunteerism since the late 1970s. A week after finishing college, I signed on with Southern Baptists’ new Mission Service Corps program for long-term volunteers and started writing feature stories about other volunteers working throughout America. A few years later I joined the Foreign (now International) Mission Board news staff and began to see volunteers in action overseas.
In those days, some missionaries grumbled about having to take time from their ministries to “baby-sit” visiting volunteers, find something productive for them to do, keep them from causing an international incident, etc. Time passed, however, and more and more lay volunteers came to serve. Open-minded missionaries — and even some of the grouches — began to discover how valuable volunteers could be in evangelism, relief work, launching new ministries, even penetrating new regions and people groups with the Gospel. When they went home, excited volunteers told about their spiritual adventures and got their churches involved in supporting and participating in missions.
Today, most new missionaries point back to experiences they had as volunteers or shorter-term workers as key moments in their journey to a life commitment to missions.
Still, the critics make some valid points about volunteering. There’s a right way — and many wrong ways — to do volunteer missions. Church teams that “parachute” into an overseas location, make no attempt to work with or even contact missionaries and local believers and proceed to do their own thing seldom produce real results. They often claim hundreds or thousands of “converts,” few of whom can be found a week after the volunteer team goes home.
A missionary friend in Southeast Asia has worked for many years in a land that gets many such visitors. They come. They look around. They leave. Few return.
Hunt, pastor since 1987 at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., led a church that hadn’t produced a missionary in 150 years to be one of the most strategic mission mobilization centers in America. It sends out hundreds of volunteers each year and partners with missionaries in some of the most challenging places on earth. But Woodstock never does “Lone Ranger” missions, if Hunt has anything to do with it.
“I see a lot of churches led by enthusiastic young pastors who ride off to the mission field with no vision, no strategic relationship, no plan,” he observes. “They ‘fire a shot’ here and there and come home with some great stories, but it often ends there. Don’t try to be Indiana Jones, the solo hero who barely makes it back alive. Be a team player, a coach and a mobilizer. … Work with a knowledgeable mission partner who knows his field. You’ll make a much more lasting impact.”
Amen to that.