On June 30, 2017, a sister mission organization closed her doors after thirty-three years of service. An article in Christianity Today reported the closing of Global Mapping International (GMI) and identified important challenges which led to its demise. People from GMI have graciously shared their story and in doing so have provided helpful insight to the current era of missions.
The context in which the church fulfills her mission is changing. Understanding that context is important to both the church and to mission agencies. GMI revealed reasons for closing, and I have identified three lessons we can all learn from them.
Technological and Generational Changes
GMI identified two important changes responsible for their demise: emerging technology and generational realities.
Technological changes have empowered everyday people. Decades ago, the technology needed to create maps for the mission community was not available to the masses. But now, anyone with a computer can search for and even create high-quality mapping. GMI fell victim to the increasing access to technology.
Generational changes also revealed a change in cultural behaviors. Previous generations supported organizations such as GMI out of loyalty or conviction. Current generations, however, often choose relationship and partnership as a precursor to providing support. The resulting behaviors, while slow to develop, caught up with GMI.
“Churches and mission agencies need to recognize and make sense of the significant changes that are shaping how churches engage in mission.”
Change is inevitable, and churches and mission agencies need to recognize and make sense of the significant changes that are shaping how churches engage in mission. The cumulative change creates an unraveling of the status quo and may seem chaotic. Commenting on the chaos, Seth Godin wrote in his book Meatball Sundae, “Some organizations will thrive from this increased chaos, some will be unprepared, and some will merely fight it and lose.” Churches and mission organizations must learn the important lesson of pivoting and positioning in the context of changing technologies and generational preferences.
A quiet, decades-long debate has rumbled through the halls of mission organizations and churches alike. The debate caught up with and overtook GMI. GMI referred to the professionalization and de-professionalization of the mission as a substantial cause of their closing. Missiologists refer to it as the professionalization and amateurization of the mission.
Some missiologists adhere exclusively to the professional missionary role as the way to address the Great Commission. They believe the singularly appropriate way to engage in the mission is to provide monetary support to agencies who train and send professional missionaries. On the other hand, other missiologists believe nonprofessional missionaries are more effective. Add to the debate the empowerment of a changing generation with ever-evolving technology, including ease of travel and communication, and the stage is set for conflict between the two.
Either way, professional missionaries and their organizations must learn how to relate to and partner with a new generation of churches, church leaders, and people who are interested in engaging in mission in nontraditional ways. In fact, the key to limitless sending may be wrapped up in this simple lesson. Professional missionaries and their leaders must learn to relate to, partner with, equip, empower, and unleash multitudes of nonprofessional missionaries seeking to join the mission as everyday disciples.
The Cause and Its People
Jon Hirst of GMI stated, “The reality is that God blesses causes and people; he doesn’t bless organizations.” Much has been discussed in the mission community lately about the centrality of the local church in sending. But practice betrays what we really believe. It is subtly tempting to get so wrapped up in and focused on an organization once you are on the inside. But Hirst cautions, “It is essential that we as ministries have a way to get out of our own heads and see the world from new perspectives.”
“The reality is that God blesses causes and people; he doesn’t bless organizations.”
The Great Commission will be accomplished and God’s kingdom will advance. The closing of GMI is evidence that organizations may come and go. Organizations are only blessed as they serve the cause and the people of the cause. The lesson is clear. Don’t focus on your organization alone. Focus instead on the cause and serving the people of the cause and the organization will be blessed.
Responding to Lessons
Indeed, we are in a changing world, both technologically and generationally. People are engaging in mission in creative ways, and both churches and mission organizations will need to address those changes in the coming days. We can—and should—learn from the difficult lessons graciously shared by GMI. In the face of change, many of us—especially in older organizations—tend to pull back and hold tightly to tradition. Instead of seeking control, it is more advisable in these instances to exercise our muscles in order to increase flexibility and agility.
In the days ahead, God-willing, thousands of people pursuing mission through limitless pathways will be a reality. Relationship and partnership in mission are more accessible than at any time in the history of the church. For mission organizations, exponential influence is within reach. Professional missionaries and the agencies through which they serve can leverage their worldwide networks, experiences, strategies, and training to serve other willing partners.
So excuses for deferred or delayed involvement are few.
D. Ray Davis serves on the mobilization team at IMB. He and his family previously served among Sub-Saharan African Peoples. You can follow him @DRayDavis.