Why Self-Funded Missionaries are the FutureMay 16, 2023
Church attendance and giving are down 30% over the last two years, according to recent surveys. If this trend continues, churches will be forced to make more serious cutbacks. Programming and staffing are often the first places to cut.
But what happens when churches need to cut back on support for missions? Are self-funded missionaries the future of the church? We’ll talk about it in this episode of the More Than a Pastor Show.
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Declining Church Giving = Declining Support for Missionaries
Recent surveys by Barna and other groups show church participation has declined by about one-third over the last couple of years.
What’s your experience been like for your church? Is that about where you’re at? Or is it better? Worse?
I know many church leaders are hoping and praying the trend goes the other way post-COVID. But I believe many churches will face a sustained decline, and will have to make tough choices in their programming and staffing budgets.
In previous episodes, I’ve shared some of the social, cultural, economic, and political trends which I believe point to a new reality for the church in America, a co-vocational future for the church, where pastors will need to derive their income mostly from work in the marketplace, through their own business or a traditional job. If you’re new, be sure to check those out.
But I’ll summarize it all by sharing my belief that the church is experiencing a sea change - a massive shift of people who feel the church, by and large, has come to resemble the everything-is-black-and-white, rules-oriented, institutional religion that Jesus came to up-end.
Why Are People Leaving the Church?
They’re leaving because they’ve experienced an awakening toward a more grace-filled life in Christ that is more nuanced and motivated more by love than compliance with rules, centered around the basic creeds and confessions of faith in Christ rather than an exhaustive book of doctrine or discipline.
Certainly, this is a generalization, and your church may be different and your mileage may vary, as they say.
But if it’s true that we’re in or entering a season of de-churching, of ongoing, sustained decline in attendance and giving for many churches, I think three questions need to be explored:
- What does this mean for the missionaries who are supported by churches who will be forced to make drastic cuts in their missions giving?
- What does it mean for missionaries when many of the individuals who have supported them no longer believe in, or want to perpetuate, what they believe is institutionalized Christianity?
- What does it mean for missions agencies if they can’t find people who are willing, or able, to raise $100,000 a year or more, in many cases, to serve overseas?
Disclaimer: This is Not the End of the Church
Now, before I go any further, let me share my usual disclaimer that I don’t believe this is the end of the church, because I believe Jesus Christ is still building his church for his purposes in the world.
But I wonder if this is the end of the traditional, corporate, institutional type of church. And that maybe the church of the 21st century looks more like the church of the 1st century than the 19th or 20th.
And maybe, just maybe, missions in the 21st century will look more like missions in the 1st century too.
How will Missions be Funded in the 21st Century Church?
So, how will missions be funded in the 21st century church?
Well, if you’ve been around here a while, you can probably guess what I’m going to say.
Because you know I believe co-vocational pastors are the future of the church. So it stands to reason that I also believe co-vocational or self-funded missionaries are the future of missions.
I’ve long believed that in the future, we’ll need churches that don’t look like churches, pastors who don’t look like pastors. And now…well…missionaries who don’t look like missionaries.
What is a Self-funded Missionary?
A self-funded missionary is one who does not need to raise their full financial support from donors. They self-fund their ministry in whole or in part through their own streams of income derived from a business, investments, or employment in the marketplace.
5 Reasons Why it’s Getting Harder for Missionaries to Raise Support
So why is it getting harder for missionaries to raise support? Here are 5 reasons why:
- Growing economic uncertainty from COVID, fears of recession due to geopolitical instability from the war in Ukraine, and concerns about Russia and China, make people less likely to give.
- Rising prices due to inflation mean that missionaries need to raise more money than ever before.
- People are leaving institutional religion, which leads to a sustained decline in attendance and giving for many churches. As a result, churches are forced to cut back on programming, staffing, and giving locally and globally. Some churches give a straight percentage of their budget for missions, like maybe 10%, so if the entire budget is down 30%, then giving to missions giving goes down 30%. Others do designated giving, and if people are leaving your church, they are no longer keeping their designated giving commitment. And some churches do a combination of budgeted and designated giving for missions. But either way, a decline in general giving or designated giving means a decline in giving for missions.
- Individual supporters who are leaving institutional religion are less likely to support church multiplication or missions projects that would, in their minds, perpetuate it. So some missionaries will see a decline in individual giving as well.
- In general, “global missions” are getting a bad reputation in some segments of the culture, where it is seen as not respecting other cultures or faiths, or attempting to proselytize foreigners into Americanized Christians.
So these are some of the reasons why I think it will be harder for traditional missionaries to raise support, and why many missionaries will need to become self-funded.
Unfortunately, many churches and missions agencies wouldn’t have any idea how to accommodate self-funded missionaries because It doesn’t fit their traditional missions model.
3 Things Churches and Agencies Need to Do
- Be Adaptable - As the old, traditional models of church and missions become less sustainable, we will be faced with a couple of options. 1. We can double-down on what we think missions should look like because of how it’s always been, and keep trying to live in that world. Or, 2. We can adapt and be open to exploring new models for missions. And as I’ve shared before, I think missions in the 21st century are going to look more like missions in the 1st century than what we’ve experienced in the last 200 years. What was it like in the 1st century? Largely it was the self-funded missionary, wasn’t it? The tentmaker model.
- Unleash Creativity - It’s time to be creative in our definition of what “counts” as missions, and create new categories for the self-funded missionary. Right now, few agencies have a category for, or know what to do with, a co-vocational or self-funded missionary. I was talking to a friend of mine a few weeks ago. He’s a businessman who has organized his life and business in such a way that he can dedicate a large portion of his time each week to ministry, and his particular passion is student athletes at the college level. He’s been on-staff with a couple of different student athlete outreach ministries now…but when I say on-staff, I mean that he’s been a self-funded ministry. He shared that one of the struggles and challenges is that organizations don’t have a category for the self-funded missionary. You’re either on staff as a missionary, or you’re not. So they’ve had to work to figure out what to do with my friend who wants to serve in this way, but doesn’t fit the “mold” that’s been created.
- Embrace the Gig and Creator Economies - Today, it’s not uncommon for people to have their main job plus a side gig or project that fuels their passion, provides extra income, and offers more fulfillment in life. And it’s easier than ever for people to create sustainable income through their own online platform. If there was ever a moment when the church could empower self-funded missionaries, this is it.
3 Basic Ways Missionaries Could Self-Fund Their Ministries
So, what are some of the best ways that missionaries could self-fund their ministries if they no longer relied on traditional missionary support?
- Traditional Job - People are always moving to other countries to take a new job. So why not pursue a career that moves you to the country where you want to live and do ministry? In 2019 I learned about an organization called Scatter Global, that recruits skilled professionals for real jobs overseas, and equips them to live out the gospel in their new workplace and community. I thought this was a great idea! There's also a growing Marketplace Multiplier movement that resources and networks people to be on-mission through their work in the marketplace, whether that's in their home country or around the world.
- Local Business - If you have a passion for entrepreneurship and business development, launching a business can be a great way to establish yourself in the community you want to live in overseas, and build redemptive relationships with others, while providing the sustainable income you need. Twenty years ago I knew a couple who moved to northern Africa as missionaries, but they did it in the context of starting a small business there that made furniture. Through a podcast I learned of an American missionary in Belgium who became an expert in Belgian chocolate and turned that passion into a business that funded their ministry. I've also heard of missionaries generating income as travel and tour guides and English teachers, but the possibilities really are endless.
- Online Platform - It's easier than ever to create sustainable income through an online platform of some kind. Artsy people are making great money creating and selling things on sites like Etsy. Those with teaching skills can make money online teaching English or other languages they are proficient in, or teaching other subjects or courses. In fact, 4-5 years ago, my daughters took online Spanish classes from an American missionary living in Mexico. Thousands of people are making a full-time living online through video gaming, or creating videos for YouTube or TikTok. And if that's not your style, don't worry, because just about any kind of business idea could be done online. If you have a passion or a message to share, you can turn it into a profitable online platform.
Of course, you'll want to be sure to check out the visa, work permit, and other legal requirements necessary in your particular country.
Application & Action
1. So, what do you think will happen to missions and missionaries If church giving continues to decline? Will co-vocational or self-funded missionaries become the norm?
2. If this episode has helped you, would you please let me know by leaving me a review on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever it is that you’re watching or listening? Thank you!
Free Coaching Session
Do you wish you had someone to talk to about your situation. Maybe you’re a pastor or missionary wondering how you could self-fund your ministry? Or you feel so stuck you just don’t know where to begin or how you could move forward in your current context?
Then why don’t you apply for one of my free coaching calls? That’s what George did a couple of months ago.
George and his wife had been career missionaries in the Middle East in their younger years, but have been stateside for the last 20 years. Now they are looking to go back to the Middle East, and have been raising support, but they're finding it harder today than it was the first time they went overseas. Their support level has been plateaued a long time, and George has started exploring ways they could possibly self-fund their ministry. And that’s what led him to book a call with me.
In talking with him, we discovered that both he and his wife have some amazing skills that could easily be leveraged into income outside of their traditional missionary work, with work that could be done remotely no matter where in the world they lived.
Now they’re pursuing a strategy to create a business they can do from anywhere that will provide sustainable income for them, and still give them plenty of time for the ministry work God has called them to.
One of the reasons pastors and missionaries struggle and get stuck is because they lack a mentor who has been there and can show them the way. If that's you, I would love to give you a call with me as my gift for being a listener. If you are a pastor or missionary who wants to create sustainable income streams outside of your church, let’s talk.
I have set aside a few spots on my calendar for these calls. If you would like one, you can apply at www.morethanapastor.com/coaching.
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