I have been looking at how a non-profit organization can avoid mission drift. You can find Part One of this series at this link. My mission organization, SEND International, says our mission is “to mobilize God’s people and engage the unreached in order to establish reproducing churches.” Recently, we have adopted the theme of “kingdom transformation.” We want to broaden our ministries to more than just spiritual needs. In so doing, we want to strengthen our evangelism and church planting among the unreached. We are not in any way changing our mission statement.

Historical examples of mission drift

Nevertheless, as I noted in my previous blog post, this new theme raises the danger of mission drift. This has happened many times in the past. Organizations that were focused on one thing gradually changed until their work in no way matched what they originally set out to do. For example, the Puritans of New English who founded Harvard University stated it’s purpose in this way:

Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.

Patrick Halbrook, “Knowing God at Harvard

But today, the university is entirely secular and even antagonistic toward the beliefs of its original founders. In 2019, almost 40% of the graduating class identified themselves as agnostics or atheists.1The Secular Life at Harvard | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson (thecrimson.com)

The same thing has happened with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Originally, the founders created the YMCA to disciple young men and promote the evangelical faith. 2See Robert Ferguson’s review of the book “Mission Drift” in “The Silent Crisis of Mission Drift.”

To help my organization guard against mission drift, I have suggested four boundary markers. These markers specifically address dangers related to adopting this new theme. Each marker is framed as a question that could help us determine whether we are still in alignment with our mission statement.

The 4 ways of going off track

mission drift

The first boundary marker was addressed in Part One – Are we focused on the unreached? Now let’s look at the next three.

Is the Gospel being proclaimed?

Many of our hesitations about getting involved in kingdom transformation are because we are wary of the “Social Gospel.” The Social Gospel Movement was a movement in the early 20th century among American Protestants. It sought to address the social inequities created by the Industrial Revolution. Although its early leaders still talked about the need for personal conversion, succeeding generations did not. Instead, its later supporters were very optimistic about human nature, believing that people were essentially good. Hence, they emphasized the need for social reform which they believe would then bring in the kingdom of God.

Foreign missions were influenced by this movement as well. Some began to see their goal as spreading Christian (Western) civilization, rather than presenting the Gospel of Christ reconciling sinful human beings to himself through the cross.

David Bosch’s criticism is worth noting.

The Gospel of social improvement became the panacea which the North American messiah would administer to the world’s less privileged. The logical terminus of this entire development can hardly be characterized more aptly than in Niebuhr’s classic description: ‘A God without wrath, brought men without sin, into a Kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’

David Bosch, Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective, p.156, quoting H.R. Niebuhr in “The KInGdom of God in America, p. 167.

Gradual transition

This transition to the Gospel of social improvement happened gradually over many decades. Yes, it was influenced by liberal theology, humanistic thinking, and Darwinism. Nevertheless, orthodox churches and mission organizations lost their way, and no longer were in alignment with the original mission of their founders. More importantly, they lost sight of the Gospel handed down by the apostles.

To guard against this danger of losing our emphasis on the proclamation of the Gospel, we need to set up another boundary marker. We need to continually ask ourselves, “Is Gospel proclamation still at the heart of everything we are doing?” If we can no longer give an emphatic “Yes” to that question, we need to examine how we have succumbed to mission drift.

Are we empowering local people?

SEND International’s mission statement says that we seek to establish reproducing churches. Our goal is that the work will keep multiplying after the missionaries leave. The reproduction must happen within their own people group, but also beyond. One of our distinctive characteristics is that we are not satisfied with just establishing a strong evangelical church among a particular people group. We consistently move to the next step. SEND seeks to mobilize the church to also send out its own workers to the unreached. We want them to join us in engaging the remaining unreached of this world.

Not a perpetual presence

When we apply this framework to our Kingdom Development Goals (KDGs), we see that we must work for similar results. These efforts to transform communities in a more holistic way must not foster an ongoing dependency on expatriate missionaries. Our “transformational presence in the communities where we serve”3from SEND: The Next 75 must not require a perpetual presence of expatriate workers.

Why is it important that we avoid an ongoing dependency on mission funds, expertise and personnel? Because our mission statement continues to drive us to the next unreached people group. As a mission, we establish “finish lines” that help us determine when our work in a region is done, and when we can reassign our workers to the next unreached people group. Our kingdom transformation programs must not require us to stay, when our mission statement tells us to go.

Furthermore, just as we want the churches we have planted to reproduce themselves by planting new churches, kingdom transformation must also lead to reproduction. Transformed lives and communities should result in these individuals and communities reaching out to help bring about similar transformation in other communities, even without mission help.

Local ownership

What kind of strategies protect us from ongoing dependency and encourage reproducibility? Strategies that result in local ownership of the projects or programs in which we participate. The local residents of the community, not we as expatriates, must determine what kind of help they need. We must seek to use the resources that are already available in the community, rather than relying primarily on outside resources. We must transfer the skills and knowledge to the local people so that they teach others and assume leadership for our kingdom transformation initiatives. See the book, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert for more ideas.

In this third area, the question that I propose we need to ask ourselves is, “Are we empowering local people to help themselves?” You may have a better way of framing this boundary marker.

Are we establishing reproducing churches?

The fourth boundary marker also focuses on the goal of reproducing churches, as stated in our SEND Mission Statement. We do not want to see only reproduction in our relief and development work. Our ultimate aim is that we will see the church of Jesus Christ established and reproducing itself. Transformed communities must be accompanied by reproducing communities of faith.

When we finish our work in a particular area, we want to see thriving communities. We look for self-sustainable transformation. We hope that our work will have a wide-ranging impact on the physical, economic, and social well-being of the community. But if there is no reproducing church, we have failed to accomplish our mission. Our work is not yet done. If the only people that have become followers of Jesus are a handful of program staff members who are too busy to share their faith with others, we must not be satisfied with our results.

Hence, we need to continually ask ourselves as we engage in Kingdom Development Goals, “Are we seeing reproducing churches?” I have framed the boundary marker in this way: “Are we persevering until we see reproducing churches being established?”

Risk and then reassess

Let me conclude by saying that these boundary markers are more like rumble strips on a highway than electric fences. Rumble strips warn sleepy drivers when they are crossing into dangerous territory. In response, drivers then make a small correction to their steering wheel to get back into safety. They keep on driving with more alertness and are appreciative of the helpful reminder to stay in the right lane. Electric fences, on the other hand, give any trespassers an immediate and painful shock. The animal (or person) backs away quickly, and learns to never get close to that electric fence again.

In engaging in this kingdom transformation work, SEND workers will occasionally start veering off the path prescribed by our mission statement. In our attempts to be innovative, we will not always get it right. We will need to take risks, and we do not know how the initiative will turn out. We likely will not recognize that we have gone out of alignment with our mission statement until someone asks one of these boundary-marker questions. That marker is not a signal to quit; it is a time to reassess and make a small course correction.

Other boundary markers for mission drift

As I said in my first post, this list of boundary-marker questions is not an exhaustive list. What other questions would you suggest that would help SEND International to avoid mission drift? Would you word any of the ones I have given in a different way?