Too many mission agencies? Maybe.

Eddie Arthur and I are back at it again (joyfully, mind you!). He says, “There are too many mission agencies.” And he says I’m wrong in my own previous answer. And he might be right. But I have a few caveats.
His rejoinder points:
1. There is a drop in church attendance across the board in the UK. If that is true, and it looks to me like Eddie gives strong indicators it is, then it is a very clear problem–for both churches and agencies. Fewer church attenders may not equal fewer believers, but it does correlate to less giving. Mission agencies need money: with less money, agencies will have problems, and some might go under. And it’s possible (though not desirable) that two agencies competing for the same funds for ministry in the same place will neither one have enough to survive, and both die, where one might have made it.
2. There are lots of places where the Gospel has yet to reach, but this doesn’t mean that Western mission agencies should be the ones to reach them. I agree with Eddie–mostly. At the same time, I’m a big believer in “the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.” I think someone has to reach them, and it might just as well be an English mission as a Nigerian one. God plays no favorites. (Like Eddie, there’s a lot to unpack here, and my generalization has some important caveats). If we get into saying non-Western agencies should instead of Western ones, we get into outsourcing mission, paying locals to do dangerous work, and other bad things (and to be clear, that’s not where Eddie’s going with this, but others have).
Now, I believe in the E-1/2/3 ideas, and how people in the culture are better evangelists to the culture then people outside the culture. This is core to the idea of “reaching the unreached.” But if there’s no one in the culture, it can be just as big a cultural distance for Chinese to go to Uighurs as for British to go to Uighurs, so which culture crosses the boundary is less important. Our own agency sends small teams to unreached places to start movements, but we do it largely by finding local believers who are passionate for their people and equipping/training/encouraging/networking them. In a sense, we send a team to start a local home mission designed to reach the whole area (see “Team of 1“). This is a role I think any Western agency can play, but I’ve found few that really do it intentionally.
3. The negatives of competition. If an agency is placing slick communication and hard-sell techniques over integrity, it doesn’t deserve to survive. In that, I think I am even blunter than Eddie.
And then, Eddie’s four points about why the current number of agencies is “too many”:
1. The numbers aren’t sustainable, but those who survive may not be the most useful, important or effective – this is a challenging issue. We can pray the survivors will attract people who are effective, thus upping the effectiveness (over time) of individual organizations. I view this particular time in England as probably cyclical.
But if the chief challenge is insufficient money to sustain the existing agencies, then the problem isn’t too many agencies, but too few believers. And if that is the case, then reducing the number of agencies may be a required mechanical step, but it’s not the solution to the problem.
2. The multiplicity of agencies leads to information overload – This, too, is a challenging issue, but one I think is likely only going to be solved when people stop supporting agencies and reduce the actual amount of information received. No agency is going to stop sending communications when its funding lifeline is in jeopardy. In my own life, I’ve switched nearly all correspondence to email only, because I can use rules to auto-file. Nearly every piece of paper mail that comes to our house I end up throwing away – I open our mail over the trash can.
3. Modality/Sodality is wrong: “I realize that there are still those who hang on to Ralph Winter’s modality/sodality view of agencies and the church, but the theological tide is flowing strongly against it.”
I have a slightly different take on this. On the one hand, we have the local church (a “planted-unmoving” localized expression of the ekklesia). Then, we have the missionary team: a “mobile-moving-crossing” expression of the ekklesia. Now, what we think of is: the missionary team is “sent by” someone, which means they are “owned by” someone. (This is rather like what I think Jesus was referring to when the Pharisees asked, of the woman who was the husband of 7 men, whose wife would she be in heaven? The question wasn’t so much about marriage, to me, as about ownership: “who owns her?”)
What if we think of the team a bit differently – “no one owns them”? What if they are, in fact, a new “daughter church plant” of the mother church? Such churches are accountable to others as all churches are, but they aren’t “staff” of a mother church. One of their responsibilities is to spread the Gospel and see new churches planted, obviously, and in that their particular challenge is to cross cultural boundaries.
This neatly avoids the issue of “we give our best to these agencies and they take them and send them” while also avoiding the “we sent you, we decide when you come home” issue. (In my experience, the big problem with local churches sending missions is if a church splits or decides to send them somewhere else or the like.)
I would like to develop this thinking a little further, but this post is (like Eddie’s) getting too long, so I’ll leave it for another time.
4. The multitude of agencies is a denial of the Gospel – unity vs diversity. I’m not sure I agree here, but I need to think about this one. We have 40,000+ denominations in the world. While one can make the argument there should be fewer denominations, are we really going to argue we should have only one Church (Catholics and Orthodox would, obviously). Moreover, no one argues about whether there ought to be multiple churches in a given city (although we can note when there seem to be “too many”–I’ve seen a dozen churches in a town of a thousand, for example). Multiple players also leads to duplication which brings about some level of resilience. You can make the argument in extremes either way. A balance in the middle is needed. I think we can have unity in the church while having diversity of congregations, missions, ministries, etc.
Many of these issues are very important discussion points. Like Eddie, I’m not sure that our discussion is going to necessarily lead immediately to change – no agency is going to say, “Well, Justin and Eddie say there are too many agencies, so, let’s just vote to close up shop.” Still, I hope a few changes are possible: maybe you’ll consider a merger with another agency. Maybe you’ll decide to send one less piece of literature. Maybe you’ll start switching to mostly-email communications. Most importantly, maybe you’ll ask, how can we improve our relationships with the churches that send workers through us?
That’d be a win for me.
Update, 5pm: I went back to Operation World and looked at some stats. Here’s what I came up with: OW has UK at 59.6% Christian, AGR -0.8%. AGRs for Protestants -1.1%, Independent +1.8% (on 0.8 million), Anglican -0.8%, Catholic -0.3%, Orthodox 0.5%, Marginal -0.6%. Evangelicals 5.4 million, 0.0% AGR, 1/3 regularly attend church. That makes for ~2 million regular evangelical attenders. Not a very big giving base, for sure. 6,400 long-term workers sent from the UK in 2010. Let’s say $50,000 p.a. support (I know, not pounds, but I’m American, so…) = US$320 million required = US$160 per regular evangelical attender, and a gift from every evangelical attender is obviously not likely. It’s a problem.