Since I’ve been engaged in the work of “raising support,” as it is commonly called, I thought it would be appropriate to offer a brief “theology of supporting missionaries.” The intent of this post is to encourage those of you who participate in missions through financial support, whether you do so in partnership with us or with others.
“Supporting Missionaries”: A Misnomer?
Now that I’ve introduced this post this way, I want to offer a slight critique of this common nomenclature that we use: “supporting missionaries.” To start off, I understand why we describe this act in this way. Missionaries are the ones who go to the mission field, and the people who provide the funds that enable them to go are “supporting” them. It makes sense.
Yet the more I’ve thought about this, the more I think this terminology is misleading. To say that the folks who stay home and sacrificially provide funds are “supporting missionaries” seems subtly to imply two things: (1) that they are not directly participating in the work of missions themselves, and (2) that the money they donate is being given to the missionary.
As you can see in the illustration above, on this understanding the conceptual line of giving goes straight from the supporter to the missionary, and there is no direct line from the supporter to God’s work on the mission field. It is only the missionary ministering God’s word in the foreign land who is viewed as directly involved in God’s work on that mission field.
When the missionary/supporter relationship is conceived this way, missionaries can often feel self-conscious asking people to give funds because it feels like they’re asking potential supporters to give to them. This incorrect understanding can also lead to the false view that supporters are somehow second-class citizens when it comes to the missionary endeavor, since they are allegedly not directly involved in the mission work. But all of these are mistaken conclusions.
The Biblical Model: Offerings Made to the Lord
In Numbers 18, God told Aaron that he and his sons, along with the Levites, were responsible for caring for and serving in the tabernacle (vv. 5-6). He went on to tell Aaron,
“I myself have put you in charge of the offerings presented to me; all the holy offerings the Israelites give me I give to you and your sons as your portion, your perpetual share” (v. 8).
That is, the people were to give offerings to the Lord, which He then redirected and designated for the temple servants as their livelihood. Repeatedly throughout the chapter God reiterates this emphasis that the gifts brought by the people were given to Him yet used for the temple servants (vv. 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 21, 24, 26).
Significantly, Paul uses this OT concept to ground his teaching that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from doing so:
“Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Cor 9:13-14).
Based on the OT precedent, the implication here is that church members who give funds toward missions are giving offerings to the Lord. These funds are used to provide for those who preach the gospel vocationally–the NT equivalent of the priests and Levites–but conceptually they are offerings given to God himself.
A Better Description: “Partnering with Missionaries”
Based on this biblical model, it seems that a better way to understand the missionary/supporter relationship is that of a partnership.
Viewed this way, both missionary and supporter are directly participating in God’s work on the mission field; one participates by going and the other by giving. The supporter is not giving his money to the missionary but bringing an offering to God, and therefore the conceptual line of giving here goes straight from the supporter to God’s work. Similarly, when “raising support,” the missionary need not feel awkward about asking people to give because they are not asking the potential supporter to give to them but rather presenting them with an opportunity to worship God and participate in His mission.
This makes the missionary and the supporter partners in the missions endeavor. Rather than the missionary being a player in the game and the supporter being a fan cheering on the sideline, both are standing side-by-side on the playing field. They play different positions, to be sure, but they necessarily complement one another, and no points are scored without both playing their part. Neither has a higher calling, and neither is second-class.
Of course, the funds offered by the supporter are functionally used to provide for the needs of the missionary, but by keeping these distinctions in mind we see that the ministry of “partnering with missionaries” is first and foremost an act of worship entailing offerings to God and therefore direct participation in what God is doing on the mission field.