Dr. Todd Lafferty from the Southern Baptist Convention shared reasons for failure in the mission field and nine patterns for successful mission work.
The executive vice president of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention spoke at the 2022 Chinese Missionary Mobilization Conference which was held online from 22nd to 24th September, to commemorate the 110th Anniversary of Lottie Moon’s martyrdom on her mission to China. Featuring the theme of "We Are Here, Please Send Us", the conference was hosted by Bethel Renewal Center and Chicago China Servant.
With experience of serving overseas for nearly three decades, Dr. Todd Lafferty observed that much of the ineffectiveness or failure in the mission field resulted from the inconsistency between the missionaries’ methodology and the needs of the target area, which are dependent on its current phase.
On the 23rd, Dr. Lafferty introduced three phases in the church development that appear in every people group. At first, the area is in the "unreached phase", and this can be seen as the "prehistory" of the church. Phase two is characterized by the rapid spread of the gospel and the multiplication of the church. During this phase, the Spirit works in obvious ways and churches reproduce, filled with first-generation believers. And in phase three, churches are well-established, structured, and formalized. They have developed traditions and the congregation usually includes families. Missionaries usually come from phase three, introduced by Dr. Lafferty.
He pointed out that missionaries tend to copy the church pattern of phase three, which they come from, to their target people group, which are likely to be in phases one and two. They tend to overlook the difference between the calling and gifts needed in different phases. While phase three requires gifts in teaching, the other two phases call for apostolic ministries.
“Transplanting phase three patterns to a phase-one place can’t help it move to phase two”, said Dr. Lafferty. In such a scenario, missionaries might have unrealistic expectations and quit because of disappointment, while the new-founded churches might be dependent on outside resources and fail to grow. “Agencies and missionaries should constantly evaluate whether their methodology is appropriate to the phase”, recommended Dr. Lafferty.
“Any movement of reproducing church comes from the Lord, however, we can either work in facilitating ways or detrimental ways.” In order to work consistently and align with God, Dr. Lafferty introduced nine effective patterns of mission work.
1. Live “incarnational”
Dr. Lafferty emphasized that missionaries should live locally among the community just as Jesus was made flesh. Particularly, he said missionaries should spend time learning the local language, understand the local culture and make sure they have good personal testimonies. Sharing the Gospel in a way that is understandable under the local worldview is the core.
2. Pray intensely
“Focused, fervent prayer is almost always present before movement of reproducing churches”, said Dr. Lafferty. “When God’s Spirit starts moving, nothing eternally significant will take place without the battle being fought through prayer. Strongholds of Satan and deceptions in culture and society must be identified and torn down through prayers and proclamation. ”
Many people might perceive prayers as a backstage task, supporting the front-line missionaries. In contrast, Dr. Lafferty argued that the front-line missionaries must pray intensely and see prayers as an important part of their daily work. “The most common missionary failure is lack of prayers”, he said.
3. Sow immensely
As the Scripture said, he who sows sparingly reaps sparingly. Dr. Lafferty agrees that personal evangelism is important, but equally, the Gospel must be widespread so that mission workers can spot the best soil.
“We must develop methodologies that get the Gospel to far more people than our personal testimony can impact”, said Dr. Lafferty. Social media could be useful for this, and spreading personal testimony could also be beneficial. In addition, he suggested training others to join in the task.
4. Harvest intentionally
“Spreading the message is important, but we must respond to the seekers”, said Dr. Lafferty, “Our concentration should be on part of the field where the seeds are germinating”. He reminded the listeners that this could be a huge challenge in a persecution environment.
5. Disciple infectiously
As the old saying goes, a disciple who doesn’t make disciples isn’t a real disciple. Again, Dr. Lafferty warned against the tendency of copying patterns in well-established churches, where the focus of discipleship could be on knowledge. Obedience, instead of mere knowledge, is what new disciples need. “Believers from an area of dark spiritual background will immediately see life transformation and start training others once they have learned a few things that they can obey”, said Dr. Lafferty.
Missionary George Patterson’s concluded 7 commandments that have proved to be useful in South Asia and South America: to repent and believe (Mark 1:15); to be baptized (Matt 28:19); pray (Matt 6:9-13); to go and make disciples (Matt 28:19-20); to love (Matt 22:37-39); to observe Lord’s supper (Luke 22:19-20); and to give (Luke 6:38).
6. Congregate immediately
Instead of adding new believers to an existing church potentially from a different phrase, Dr. Lafferty recommended gathering them at new churches. This might not be the best idea, he said.
“Every new believer could be used as the new living stone at a new church”, he said. New groups need to be taught how to worship, how to study the Bible, and how to pray, as quickly as possible. If they are introduced to established churches, this process might be unnecessarily complicated.
7. Function indigenously
By this, Dr. Lafferty suggested local churches should seek not to depend on outside resources. In order to function indigenously, churches should be self-supporting, self governing, and self-propagating. “If new churches can not be started primarily because there is not enough money or leadership or certain kind of degree, then unbiblical expectations are hindering the work”, he explained.
8. Equip informally
“Providing appropriate, practical, on-the-job, just-in-time training for leaders of house churches is essential. Education is good but its primary focus must be on training leaders for every church evangelizing to the local people group.”
Dr. Lafferty stressed the need for leaders to stay locally with their church, and therefore what they need is practical skills to meet the needs of the week.
9. Lead inconspicuously
Dr. Lafferty admitted that it could be difficult to lead strongly without causing focus on ourselves and causing dependence. However, “movements of growing churches, by definition, must be indigenous movements, led by people within that people group”, he said.
He continued, “Missionary leadership must be behind the scene, empowering local leadership to develop, and then grow infinitely. Our focus is on planting new churches with the natural ability to reproduce themselves. This means churches must be healthy with simple structures. Movements of growing churches occur when we multiply disciples, leaders, and preachers. And the role of missionary is to figure out what is hindering this process and do whatever we can to overcome it.”
“If you come from established churches, you must think differently. Don’t try to replicate the church that you grew up in, but to allow churches grow indigenously and reproduce”, he concluded.