The Missionary Task: Entering with Exit in Mind

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a six-part series of articles commenting on the missionary task. For the official and complete version of the missionary task as defined by IMB, please refer to the IMB Foundations Magazine. Each article in this series covers a single component of the six-part missionary task in the following order: Entry, Evangelism, Disciple Making, Church Formation, Leadership Development, and Exit and Partnership.

Needs abound almost endlessly around the world, and it’s all too easy to allow those needs to drive the actions of missionaries and partner churches. Knowing that temptation, IMB trains missionaries and partners to focus on what we call the six-part missionary task to advance Christ’s kingdom. The missionary task is our roadmap. It’s the path on which mission is accomplished. It’s what guides our mission efforts.

Recently, a pastor, a missions committee, and I discussed the outline of a missionary task, and it was like a light bulb suddenly turned on over their heads. I thought it might be helpful to share it here as well.

What Is the Missionary Task?

We believe that a faithful reading of Scripture applied to practical missiology denotes six basic components that we’ve labeled the core missionary task: entry, evangelism, disciple making, healthy church formation, leadership development, and strategically planned exit and partnership.

In this series of articles, we will discuss each of these components individually.

“A people without the gospel is tragic but far worse is when no one is even looking for them in order to share the gospel.”

Part One of the Missionary Task: Entry

A people without the gospel is tragic but far worse is when no one is even looking for them in order to share the gospel. To carry out the missionary task, we must first have access to people who need to hear the gospel. We must find them. We must get to them. We must communicate with them.

Research—finding and learning about people—is an incredibly important part of the entry phase. It undergirds the task of evangelism through prioritizing a thorough understanding of the people to which the missionary is carrying the gospel.

During research, the worldview of the people must be examined in order to know and understand them. Primary religious influences must be identified, as well as culture, history, economic and political climate. Healthy contextualization won’t happen apart from research.

A Healthy Plan

Beyond research, another very important aspect of entry is planning for and executing a plan to gain access to the people. Getting to them means establishing a realistic presence, which is often difficult and complex. In many places where missionaries are needed, governments aren’t exactly welcoming. But presence is a must. With a little creativity, we are able to establish authentic and appropriate avenues of entry among the people.

This is where churches, with their diverse membership, are uniquely equipped to play a vital role in using their creativity to help missionaries enter and establish a credible presence among a given people. Business or medical professionals have skills to offer that open doors and build relational bridges. Business owners can create opportunities for entry by providing employment. Doctors and nurses can gain access during long-term assignments or short-term projects by meeting human needs.

Entry also includes communication. Particularly for long-term engagement, the language of the people must be learned and used in order to speak with them. Language acquisition is a multi-year process. Having a full grasp of language is not necessary or possible in most cases before getting started in ministry. So, partner churches can help during the entry phase even if they don’t have language skills. Nationals and long-term workers are often able to assist as translators.

Pitfalls and Benefits

There are several pitfalls worthy of caution when thinking and planning for entry into a new culture. The first is the pitfall of busyness. Entry often includes tangible projects or activities—building a business, studying language, leading human needs projects, etc. Those projects are often good and necessary, but there can be a temptation to remain focused on the activity without being intentional in addressing the missionary task.

A similar pitfall is achieving access with superficial intentions simply for gaining access. If access is not addressed seriously, it will not stand up to scrutiny nor will it be authentic or credible. Those who enter a context as a business person must be engaged in business. They must work with the aim of making their endeavor thrive and add value to the people who live there. Those who work as educators must teach with excellence and work toward maintaining a reputation in the community as teachers who contribute to the betterment of students and their families.

Another common pitfall that occurs during entry is bypassing the arduous work of language acquisition. Life in a cross-cultural context is often overwhelming. It takes intentional focus and daily discipline for language learning to happen. Like I mentioned above, short-term teams don’t have to acquire language skills to assist with entry. They can depend upon field partners to help with translation. But even short-term team members should make attempts to learn as much as possible.

The benefits of effective entry are evident. Our access prepares the way for the remainder of the missionary task—the next step being evangelism, which we’ll explore in the next installment.

“Good entry provides partner churches the opportunity to play their part in the Great Commission by unleashing their innovation to bring diverse gifts and skills to our shared task.”

When a missionary’s access is credible, the reason for being there is no longer questioned. Entry and ongoing presence are secure. Learning the language means the missionary is prepared to share the gospel. Good entry also provides numerous partner churches the opportunity to play their part in the Great Commission by unleashing their innovation to bring diverse gifts and skills to our shared task.

Entry in the Framework of the Six-Part Missionary Task

Since entry is only the first part of the missionary task, it must be accomplished in a way that appropriately leads to the other five parts of the task: evangelism, disciple making, local church formation, leadership development, and, finally, partnership and exit.

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.