June 20, 2024

A review of “Missions Disrupted” – Part 1

Larry Sharp definitely knows the mission world. He served with Crossworld (then Unevangelized Fields Mission) in Brazil for over two decades. In 1993, he returned to the USA and became the Vice President for the mission in the home office. He is now Vice President Emeritus and serves as a business consultant for Crossworld. Prior to leaving his executive role with the mission agency, he founded IBEC Ventures. This organization focuses on serving missional professionals who want to engage in Business as Mission. He continues in a training role with IBEC to this day. I have met Larry in intermission gatherings and have known his siblings since my college days. So, when I heard that this seasoned missionary leader had written a book on the demise of the missions movement, I wanted to know what he had to say.

Many great BAM examples

missional professionals

The book is entitled “Missions Disrupted: From Professional Missionaries to Missional Professionals“. It focuses on how business professionals can extend the kingdom God in the world of business. In this valuable resource, Sharp gives us multiple succinct examples of missional business ventures. These ventures have proven effective in making disciples of the nations while at the same time addressing significant material needs in their local communities. I count 27 such case studies. They tell the stories of business professionals who have decided to use their skills to bless the nations. They are truly inspiring examples of both large-scale and small-to-medium-scale business start-ups, all with the goal of living out the Gospel in cross-cultural contexts.

An overview of the contents

The book begins with a rationale for Business as Mission (BAM). The Missio Dei (the mission of God or the sending of God) serves as the foundation for all missional work. Because God is at work today, Christ’s followers should join him in his mission to transform this world. But a new and exciting transition is occurring. In the past, missions was largely understood to be the work of professional missionaries. Now it is increasingly becoming the work of those who are engaged in the marketplaces of the world.

The book ends with some helpful suggestions about how churches, mission agencies and Christian professionals can work together to strengthen this innovative new approach to mission work.

I affirm and celebrate so much of what Larry Sharp has written. But I also want to note some cautions and questions. I believe that a cursory reading of the book could lead to some misunderstandings and wrong conclusions. There are important issues in the book that deserve more attention.

The era of professional missions is coming to an end

First of all, the title suggests a major transition, even a revolution, is to be subject of this book. The back cover of the book gives credence to this impression by saying,

Author and former missionary Larry Sharp believes that the era of professional missions is coming to an end and that the future lies now with missional professionals.

Christianbook product page for Missions Disrupted

This startling declaration appears to be in stark contrast with the theme or perspective of Sharp’s previous book, “The Greatest Missionary Generation.” But Sharp is not contradicting himself. He believes that the missionaries in the decades following the Second World War had incredible opportunities and achievements and are well worth remembering. But according to him, that age of mission heroics is past. Now the work of bringing the Good News to the billions who do not know Jesus must be done differently and the leading role will be played by those who work and live out their faith in the marketplace.

Pushing for a radical change

Sharp gives the impression, at least at first glance, that he is pushing for a radical change. He seems to be advocating for a complete rejection of the “professional missionary” model.

Where do I pick up this message? I have already commented on the title and the categorical statement on the back cover that the era of professional missionaries is ending. Sharp’s first chapter is titled “The Age of Missions Has Ended, the Age of Missio Dei Has Begun”. This phrase is an adaptation of Bishop Stephen Neill’s words in his 1964 book, “A History of Christian Missions”. This quote from Neill is repeated twice in the book.

The second chapter talks about disruptive innovation theory. Just like personal computers displaced mainframe computers, so Business as Mission is displacing the model of professionally trained missionaries. Whereas mainframe computers were expensive and only for the elite, personal computers are accessible to the common person. In the same way, the model of sending out expensive professional missionaries is being replaced by the model of everyday Christians living out their faith in the marketplace.

Attacking the primacy of the clergy

It is clear that Sharp is much troubled by the dichotomy between the clergy and the laity in Christian work, and particularly in cross-cultural mission work. He wants to eradicate the misconception that mission work is reserved for missionaries.

Therefore, it is incorrect to say that the church has a mission; it is the mission. Mission should be the full-time preoccupation of the people of God; not just delegated to a few designated missionaries.

Missions Disrupted, p. 26.

It is the proposition of this book that the making of disciples is the task of every Jesus-follower and that the assumption of the past two hundred years that the task is best out-sourced to the professional “missionary” should be challenged and perhaps even rejected.

Larry Sharp, Missions Disrupted, p. 150.

When I first read that second statement, I wondered whether that is really a common assumption among the missionaries themselves. I think most missionaries today would wholeheartedly affirm that the making disciples is the task of every Jesus-followers. I also believe that they see themselves as discipling or training a few key national believers (i.e. the first fruits) who will then go on and do the majority of the disciple-making within their culture.

Missionaries also do not like this dichotomy

Furthermore, I would argue that the clergy/laity dichotomy also troubles most missionaries today.1 See a blog article on marketplace ministry from a few years ago by a colleague of mine arguing against this dichotomy. In the past, the church has put far too much emphasis on the work of clergy (pastors, bishops, missionaries, etc.) and far too little emphasis on the importance of Christians in the marketplace.

Recognizing that this is a problem, most missionaries I know resist being put on a pedestal by their home churches. They also don’t want to be seen as the primary Gospel witnesses by their host cultures. Rarely do missionaries today, at least from our organization, serve in the role of pastor on the mission field. Instead, they tend to serve in the background, focusing on training and discipling a few national believers who will go on to do the majority of the work of discipling their nation. This inconspicuous profile of missionaries is particularly prominent in DMM strategies.2 See my book review of Stubborn Perseverance.

No longer the heroes

In fact, many of us who are missionaries now sense that we no longer enjoy the same esteem as in the past, both in our sending congregations as well as in the countries in which we serve. We are no longer the heroes of faith and frankly, many of us are somewhat relieved. In some contexts, we can say with Paul that “we have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world” (1 Cor 4:13). Missionaries struggle to become “acceptable outsiders” in cultures that often distrust foreigners. But we also deal with the distain of a world that has little tolerance for those who proclaim Jesus as King and Saviour for all cultures and nations.

So, does this growing distrust of or even antipathy toward missionaries mean that the era of sending out full-time missionaries has now ended?

Advantages for missional professionals

In many ways, I agree with Sharp’s argument. Missional professionals have definite advantages in engaging the unreached.

Unlike the couple of decades following the Second World War, modern-day missionaries are no longer allowed free and open access to most of the world’s countries. More than two-thirds of the world’s population (over four billion people) live in over seventy countries that no longer grant religious worker (missionary) visas. The field of missions, as it was once understood, is dying. In fact, the words missionary and even Christianity have become pejorative in many parts of the world.

Missions Disrupted, pp. 10-11.

So, does this reality mean that we should reject the idea of sending out missionaries? Or can we find new ways of incorporating more businesspeople into our mission teams?

My mission agency is actively seeking to promote “new pathways” to the mission field. We want we expand our work through an increasingly diverse workforce. We recognize that those who come with business, educational, medical and advocacy skills and roles will be able to demonstrate the love of Jesus and bring the message of Jesus in different ways than those who come with only seminary training. Our organization realizes that making disciples and planting churches among the unreached in our day will requires greater flexibility and adaptability. These new avenues of visa type, ministry type, identity and contribution to the communities in which we work will provide us with greater and deeper access to the unreached.

Replacement or partnership

My mission agency is not saying that we need to replace professional missionaries with missional professionals. Rather we are affirming that both types of cross-cultural workers are needed. It is not “either/or” but “both/and”. In fact, we would call these missional professionals in cross-cultural contexts “missionaries”.

But Sharp gives the impression that he sees replacement as the preferred and inevitable route that mission work will take. Rather than arguing for an ongoing partnership between missionaries and those engaged in business as mission, in the first part of the book, Sharp seems to want to get rid of missionaries. At first glance, he seems to want to totally turn over the Great Commission to business professionals.

But that impression would be wrong. Yes, there are initial indications of a radical rejection of the missionary model. But within the pages of the book, Sharp never actually states that the age of professional missionaries is over.

Still a role for missionaries

In fact, Sharp admits that there still is a place for the professional missionary. Later in the book, he even recognizes that missional professionals (BAM practitioners) need the help of missionaries, and vice versa.

Business needs mission agencies and agencies need business. Missionaries bring a lot to the table: evangelistic training, spiritual accountability, contextualization with culture, and missional fervor, to name a few. Business leaders bring job creation, respect in the community, and important relationships. It is mandatory to have a healthy relationship between missionaries and businesspeople.

Missions Disrupted, pp. 160-161.

Moving “from professional missionaries to missional professionals” does not suggest that we no longer value professional missionaries. Missional and pastoral professions are indeed one of the professions of the future, as they lead the majority of believers in preparing them for works of service (Eph. 4:12). They have contributed immeasurably to God at work over the past one hundred and fifty years; and while they will increasingly take a back seat to this emerging paradigm, there is much of high worth to value and come alongside in partnership.

Missions Disrupted, p. 300.

Clearly, Larry Sharp wants to make sure that we do not overlook or minimize the work of missional professionals. He desires that we recognize them as key players in God’s work in the world. The church should not view professional missionaries as the epitome of service for God. With these desires, I (and most other missionaries I know) would wholeheartedly agree.

Furthermore, Sharp continues to believe that there is a calling to serve the church, and that some should pursue that calling.

While some are called to church or parachurch ministries, which they should pursue, most will enter the marketplace seeking to integrate their faith with their work.

Missions Disrupted, p. 133.

Supposedly, this calling would encompass those who are called to serve as professional missionaries, serving and establishing the church in cross-cultural contexts.

Interestingly, in a few of the BAM case studies that the author presents, the business hired a full-time pastor. This pastor cared for the spiritual needs of the Christ-followers employed in the business. So even in the business context, Sharp apparently sees a need for professional clergy.

Why say the era of professional missions is ending?

So then why did Sharp allow this radical statement about the end of professional missions to describe his book on the back cover? In overstating his case, are he and his publisher trying to gain a larger hearing (i.e. sell more books)? Or did his previous missionary experience prompt him to soften his original position in the latter part of the book? Or is the author just seeking to disrupt our thinking? Maybe he wants to challenge us to consider another viewpoint, before settling on a position that incorporates strengths of both. I am not sure.

I do believe that Sharp is advocating for a reformation of missions. But I am not sure he is actually calling for a revolution or even a full-blown disruptive innovation. As long as we give missional business professionals their rightful place at the missions table, Sharp still affirms the role of full-time missionaries. Admittedly, Sharp believes that the majority of mission workers of the future will be business professionals, not missionaries.

A problem with the words

It does appear that Sharp has more issues with the words “missionary” and “missions” than with the concept of mission agencies sending out missionaries. He objects to the terminology more than to what missionaries and mission agencies do.

In Appendix A, Sharp suggests that rather than the words “missions” and “missionaries”, we should use other words. “Blessing the nations, global engagement, God’s global purposes, reconciliation, and peacemaking” are better terms than “missions”. “International staff, apostle, kingdom worker, cross-cultural worker, social entrepreneur, businessperson living an intentional Christian life” are better than “missionary.”

The roles of missionaries and missional professionals

If Larry Sharp’s intent was to get missionaries, mission leaders and churches to reconsider the best way to engage the unreached, he certainly accomplished that goal. Missions Disrupted has challenged me to think carefully about why I believe that full-time cross-cultural missionaries still have a valuable role to play in accomplishing the Great Commission.

The book did not convince me to jettison missionary work and decide to start a business in another country. In fact, as I have pointed out in my review, I am not convinced that was really Sharp’s intent.

I believe we need a more robust partnership between professional missionaries and missional professionals. I would argue that this needs to be a long-term partnership.

Whereas we need many more missional professionals, they will not and cannot replace those sent out as missionaries. In my next blog post, I will explain more of my thinking on why I believe that partnership, and not replacement is a better model. I will also share a few more of my concerns and questions about “Missions Disrupted”.

2 thoughts on “Is the era of professional missionaries over?

  1. Thanks for working through this. I agree we need both. There is too much emphasis on doing away with traditional missionaries. We finish the task only when the Lord comes. Until then the Great Commission is a mandate for every church and hopefully mission agencies can continue to encourage, partner and facilitate the sending of missionaries from all the churches we work with around the world.

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