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Can a Missionary Switch Sending Churches?

There are good and bad reasons missionaries may consider parting ways with their home church.
When a missionary is sent out into the field, it is important that they have not only prayer and financial support of numerous individuals and churches.

But it is of the utmost importance that they remain formally connected to a primary sending church.

This connection is typically through a membership or covenant relationship that affirms this particular church as their primary church body for accountability. This primary sending church serves as their spiritual shepherd and overseer. Just as every Christian should join a local church, the missionary should typically retain membership in a church that has commissioned and sent them out for gospel ministry. For example, even though the Apostle Paul had authority by virtue of his apostleship, it was the church of Antioch that commissioned Paul and Barnabas to be sent out (Acts 13:1-3).

The missionary task is given to Christ’s church. It is ultimately the local church that commissions and sends out missionaries. It is ultimately not the parachurch that sends missionaries. The parachurch is ideally only an aid to the church that stands behind them, not in front of them. Regardless of what agency a missionary partners with or the number of churches that support them through prayer and giving, it is important that they have a primary sending church. With a primary sending church, a missionary demonstrates their commitment to Christ’s body and accountability to a particular body. The missionary task is not just to see individuals saved but to build Christ’s church (Matt. 16:18). How can we be about building the body of Christ and making disciples when we show utter disregard for the local expression of Christ’s body?

That said, sometimes it may be necessary for the missionary to change sending churches. Unfortunately, America has become a consumerist culture, and many treat their choice of church as casually as they treat a choice between fast food restaurants. This should not be. Likewise, missionaries should be sober and prayerful in their both their initial decision on a sending church and, if necessary, when to change.

America has become a consumerist culture, and many treat their choice of church as casually as they treat a choice between fast food restaurants.

ABWE places a high priority in the local sending church as the one who sends the missionary. While most sending churches do a great job of supporting and staying connected to their missionaries, sometimes things break down. This can raise a question in the mind of the missionary: “When should I switch my sending church?” This article will address the missionary who has this question.

Before we examine the cases for changing or not changing your sending church, let’s ask a more foundational question that will hopefully govern our analysis. Ask yourself this: Am I accountable to a church only when it is convenient? This is much like asking a person in a marriage, “Do you love your spouse only when it is easy?” Everyone loves when it is easy. No one has a problem being accountable to authority when the authority agrees with them. Like love, accountability is only tested when things get hard. Is my impulse to move on because I am not getting my way, or am I committed to living out my accountability to the local church in tangible ways? Relationships are forged in the heat. Covenant commitments are tested when hardships and struggles come. Let’s make sure our impulse is not to run for easier ground but rather to submit to the lordship of Christ in every area of life, including our church commitments.

Case Studies

While we can’t cover every scenario, let’s break down scenarios into three categories: cases in which (1) you should absolutely leave your sending church, (2) you may need to leave your sending church, and (3) you should almost never leave your sending church.

Absolute reasons to leave:

They abandon the gospel.

The apostle Paul writes, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6–8 ESV).

A church can abandon the gospel. The people can turn away from Christ. If a church no longer believes the gospel or other matters of first importance to the gospel (e.g. deity of Christ, bodily resurrection; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4), then you should part ways this the church. This is not an act of rebellion or arrogance but of holding on to Christ and his lordship above all other human concerns.

They abandon the necessity of gospel proclamation.

Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20 ESV).

Paul also says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?... So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:14, 17 ESV).

Sometimes a church does not explicitly abandon the gospel, but they abandon the necessity of preaching the gospel. In other words, their doctrine doesn’t change, but they begin to think that if we just show love and do good deeds we never have to say anything. Love and good deeds are an important component to our Christian witness (John 13:35), but the Holy Spirit uses the preaching and the sharing of God’s word to bring about saving faith. If the verbal communication of God’s word is removed from ministry, then what remains isn’t Biblical ministry. Leave the church that makes doing social deeds more important than evangelism and instruction in the faith. Deeds are important and necessary (James 2:17-18, 26), but they must stay in their proper order and place.

ABWE was founded when Dr. Raphael Thomas’s mission board told him to stop preaching the gospel and focus only on the medical component of his ministry. He refused to give up gospel preaching. Since its founding, whenever ABWE missionaries enter countries and performs deeds of mercy, they do so with the goal of explicitly proclaiming the gospel, making mature disciples, and planting healthy churches. Seeing that you care can influence someone to be willing to listen. The approach is both/and, not either/or.

The lost must place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. While they often need to see Christians demonstrating love and care in tangible ways, they won’t understand why we care unless they hear God’s word and are pointed to Jesus Christ. They need a Savior.

If your church does not support the proclamation of the gospel as essential for reaching people, they have fundamentally misunderstood what the gospel is. The gospel is a message to be proclaimed and believed, not a lifestyle or a set of deeds. No matter how correct a church’s doctrinal statement might be, a church that doesn’t see the necessity to proclaim the word of God is living in denial of the gospel as the power of God. Leave it.

No matter how correct a church’s doctrinal statement might be, a church that doesn’t see the necessity to proclaim the word of God is living in denial of the gospel as the power of God. Leave it.

Possible Reasons to Leave:

Disagreement on secondary doctrinal issues.

Sometimes secondary doctrinal issues may be a reason to switch to a new sending church. These would be issues in which the gospel itself is not at stake, nor is heresy in the classical sense being taught, but there are serious errors nevertheless. We must evaluate these issues on a sliding scale (consider Al Mohler’s case for Theological Triage or Gavin’s Ortland’s short work on the topic). For example, it would be difficult to partner with a sending church that abandons its position on inerrancy, in part because it usually is a harbinger of things to come. If you are part of a Baptist mission, it may not be wise or allowable if your sending church begins to practice infant baptism. This sort of thing, however, may depend on your convictions, the convictions of your mission board, and even how strict the change has become. We could multiply a host of secondary issues that may be reasons to switch churches. There are other minor doctrinal changes that may not be a reason to switch (for example, some churches may be more open accepting different biblical positions on end times or the age of the earth).

Unethical behavior.

If your sending church is guilty of unethical behavior, it might create a situation where you cannot trust them or in good conscience be accountable to them. Other times, depending how the issue is handled, the relationship can be repaired. I know of an instance where a missionary had to switch sending churches because the church was embezzling money that was meant for the missionary. Other times, a staff member or volunteer is caught doing something wrong or illegal and the situation is handled properly by the church. Seek reconciliation and the peace of Christ as much as possible and as far as it depends upon you. However, if behavior doesn’t change and sin is not handled correctly, you may be wise to consider a new sending church for your accountability. It is hard to be accountable to a person or entity that does not also hold itself accountable.

It is impossible to write exhaustive case law on when you should leave a sending church. Examine your own heart in the matter. Pursue objectivity. Seek the wisdom of a few other trusted spiritual advisors (Prov. 11:14). Do not jump to conclusions or speculate. Do not ascribe motives, particularly in the absence of clear evidence. Sometimes people do the wrong thing with the right intent. Weigh all information carefully and judiciously before you decide. Pray, pray, pray!

Ask yourself diagnostic questions like:

  • Am I still able in Christ to submit to this body?
  • Are there steps that can be taken to reconcile how these things might have damaged the relationship?
  • Does the congregation still support me and my ministry?
  • Am I looking for an excuse to leave or am I being fair?
  • Am I leaving out only of my desire to be right or be vindicated?
  • If I feel wronged, how might I be pressed to forgive and reconcile rather than pull away?
  • What course of action is most faithful and obedient to Christ?
  • What course of action will demonstrate the most mercy, grace, and love in a way that honors Christ? (Note that mercy and grace do not mean we allow ourselves to be victimized. It does mean we forsake powerplays, games, and one-upmanship.)

In addition, there are some more circumstantial, pragmatic reasons you may need to consider changing your sending church:

The sending church’s missions program has changed.

Sometimes a church will completely overhaul the types or areas of missions that they support. A church may decide to focus only on supporting missionaries in a particular area like the 10/40 Window. Or they may decide to support only those exclusively committed to direct church planting. Usually such changes only affect decisions concerning which new missionaries to support in the future, and churches continue to support previous missionaries. It is possible, however, that their change in focus makes it difficult for them to partner with you. This is not a reason to hastily switch churches. In fact, my recommendation is to not switch unless the situation becomes completely unworkable. Be willing to make as many compromises as feasibly possible to maintain your partnership. No relationship is ever perfect.

You need to change your home base for geographic reasons.

Often, one reason you chose a sending church is because it is where you were attending at the time you went to the field. They called you from within their ranks. When you go on home assignment or furlough, your home base is usually near your sending church. Often this places you close to extended family and friends, making networking easier. But what if your ailing parents live across the country and their condition worsens? Or your child is ready to attend a four-year college in the U.S. in a different state?

Consider: if anyone in your congregation moved because of a job change or family obligation, no one would fault them for switching their membership to a new church. Ought we not extend the same grace to missionaries?

My recommendation is to not switch unless the situation becomes completely unworkable. No relationship is ever perfect.

Not a Reason to Leave:

You want more autonomy.

Sometimes sending churches will add requirements to the missionary. They may ask for additional updates and reports. They may ask for increased communication and accountability. Many times, this should be welcomed. Sometimes it can become burdensome. But you must not cut and run from a church honestly seeking to exercise its God-given accountability over your spiritual life.

Missionaries often have a pioneering attitude that dislikes feeling boxed in or micromanaged. This intrepid spirit often serves them well on the field. But the danger of this spirit is that it mistakes physical isolation overseas for independence from authority. You should not leave a church merely because of pride. Don’t take a “may way-or-the-highway” approach or think, “Who are they to tell me what to do?” While there are times we must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29), there are times we must work harder to submit to man out of reverence for Christ.

The church reduces your support.

A sending church should not be chosen by how much or how little financial support they give to you. Sometimes a sending church may not be the church that is able to give the most amount of money, particularly if the church is small and other churches join to contribute to the missionary. I would add this caveat, there may be times where a sending church withdraws is support entirely and another church comes along and offers support in exchange for being the sending church. Each case is different so think it through carefully using Biblical wisdom. My main concern is you do not make a decision solely over money or church size but that you evaluate the reasons for the drop in support and the possible switch.

Hopefully, as you began to feel the call to missions, the church also began to feel that call to send you. The church had a call from the Lord to send you just as much as you had a call from the Lord to go. In fact, the church serves as an outward affirmation of your call. They commission and send in the plan of God.

Your church didn’t send you because of prestige and size; they sent you because they love you, you were committed to them, and they commissioned you for the spreading of the gospel. Churches may reduce support to missionaries for a whole host of reasons, often for financial and economic difficulties beyond our control. Don’t play games with sending churches when there are financial difficulties or reductions. If they are continuing to support you in prayer, in the Spirit, and through encouragement and affirmation, weather the difficulties with them. You never know how your loyalty to them may strengthen your bonds of love and be rewarded in the eternal kingdom.

The church is shrinking.

It can be tempting to switch sending churches if you see a new, missions-minded church on the rise while your own church is shrinking or even sinking. Certainly, if a church is closing its doors, you will have to move on. But if that is not the case, stay in partnership as long as you can. Consider how Paul still received support from the Macedonians even in their poverty (2 Cor. 8:14). Affirm them by praying for them (consider Paul’s partnership with the Philippian church in Phil. 1:3-5; 4:10-20). Communicate with them. Even if they drop your support to zero, show them they matter to you more than the money.

There is new leadership.

When you commit to a sending church, you commit to the whole congregation and not just to the pastors and elders. You may love your sending pastor dearly and be tempted to follow him if he moves to shepherd a different flock. Or, you may be tempted to partner with a church with a famous pastor. We are not to have a spirit of partisanship—“I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos” (1 Corinthians 1:12)—with regard to the leaders we cherish.

You may get nervous when their home church has a sizeable shakeup in leadership. The temptation is to switch to a stable church when we see our sending church experiencing waves. We would encourage you to ride out the storm, assuming there are no deeply compromising moral issues at play. Reach out to new leaders. Write notes of encouragement. Express your love for the church and your desire to partner together. Sometimes new leaders have so much on their plate in a crisis that is is encouraging for them to know that their relationship with you is yet another burden.

Don’t play games with sending churches when there are financial difficulties or reductions. If they are continuing to support you in prayer, in the Spirit, and through encouragement and affirmation, weather the difficulties with them.

Conclusion

This article has tried to tackle the question for the missionary: when should I switch my sending church? We’ve outlined general guidelines designed to hold high the value of the local church membership for the commissioned and sent missionary. The approval of a sending church is not a rubber stamp. It is supposed to signify commitment, accountability, and spiritual authority. The Bible does not permit Christians, especially missionaries, to be lone rangers in their service to him.

Knowing when to switch your sending church is a difficult topic. Apart from issues in which the gospel is at stake, there are no hard and fast biblical rules for when to switch churches. It is a matter of wisdom and applying the biblical concept of membership and covenant community.

A missionary should not be without a sending church. Sometimes enduring a rocky relationship is better in the long run than switching. If one does decide to switch, a missionary should not put themselves in a position without a sending church and meaningful accountability to its leadership. Having a difficult sending church is better than having no church.

In the United States, we often treat our relationship with the church as one of passive consumption. We’ve lost the vision of the church as a covenant community and have treated it instead like a fast food restaurant or any other service provider. The evangelical church must resist this impulse, and missionaries should lead by example in standing against this trend. We must value the sending church. And if we value the sending church, we will treat the question of leaving a church with great care, departing only when every other option has been exhausted.

The missionary is to be about building God’s church. A missionary’s relationship to their home church, even in difficult seasons, is a gauge of how they view their own missionary task. Let’s choose to cherish our local churches as the bride for which Christ died.

About the Author

Tim Bertolet serves with ABWE as HR Coordinator. He previously served for sixteen years in pastoral ministry and has experience as an MK. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria, a M.A.R. in Biblical Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor’s in Bible from Lancaster Bible College. He resides in York, Pa. with his four daughters. Tim enjoys reading, writing, theology, and is an avid fan of science fiction.

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