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Should I Give to Missionaries Directly or Through the Church?

If you’ve been a Christian for long, chances are you’ve been asked to support a missionary. A letter comes in the mail. A text to your phone. Or maybe a message over Facebook. Your friends—or people who used to be your friends—let you know they plan to serve for the summer or move overseas. They need financial help. So they ask for your support.

Many Christians respond positively. Over the years, I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of God’s people toward missionaries, including myself. If able, believers are willing to give, especially to the global cause of Christ.

But what happens when individuals give directly to missionaries more than to churches? Is it possible an otherwise loving and generous act can slowly undermine the work of the Great Commission?

Recent Shift

These days, when missionary candidates prepare for service, they’ll often attend a training, whether online or in person, on “partner development”—the latest lingo for support raising. There’s an entire cottage industry for “PD” in missions. Books, webinars, and boot camps are available to help missionaries raise funds and get to the field as fast as possible. And the assumed way to do that is through individuals.

Why? Because churches take a long time to identify qualified candidates. To get a church’s financial backing, missionaries must apply, interview, and cut through the bureaucratic red tape of committees and councils. On the other hand, a friend from high school can decide to drop $50 per month over a chai latte. In the time it takes missionaries to receive a single church’s approval, they can easily speak with hundreds of willing individuals.

In the time it takes missionaries to receive a single church’s approval, they can easily speak with hundreds of willing individuals.

Meanwhile, many American evangelicals are more than happy to take control of their giving. Church members may be concerned a missionary chosen by a church committee might not align with their personal priorities or convictions. Many would rather support someone they know than someone they’ve only ever seen on a postcard pinned to a map at the back of the church. In my experience, Christians give to people more than projects—and missionaries you don’t know feel like projects. Not only that, but Americans less and less like giving to institutions. They may not trust how the church spends its money. So they’d rather give directly to an international missionary than wonder how their offering is spent in the church’s budget.

Redirected Gift

These sentiments resonate with me. I’m not opposed to Christians giving directly to missions. In the interest of full disclosure, our family is supported by many generous individuals. And there’s solid biblical precedent for such a practice (Rom. 16:2; cf. Luke 8:1–3). Which is why, in addition to our family’s church giving, we also give directly to missionaries.

But over the years, I’ve been concerned by the growing trend of missionaries being supported primarily—if not exclusively—by individuals rather than churches. So in recent days, our family has redirected more of our giving back to the church. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Churches send missionaries.

Missionaries aren’t self-senders, nor do individual Christians send missionaries. Instead, churches send missionaries. To be an ambassador for Christ is to be an appointed representative of a church (or churches).

This is the example we see in Scripture. When the Spirit set apart Paul and Barnabas for service, he did so through the church (Acts 13:1–3). Similarly, the first Christian congregations identified, vetted, and approved the workers they sent on mission (11:22; 2 Cor. 8:19–23; Phil. 2:25). Churches are God’s appointed means for carrying out all Christ’s commands. Disconnected individuals aren’t vested with that authority. And most Christians aren’t in a place to assess the character and competency of missionaries, much less hold them responsible for their work.

If we believe churches are the senders of missionaries, it stands to reason that the lion’s share of any Christian’s missionary giving should typically be done through the local church. While individual believers are free to be patrons of the work of missions, they should only do so for missionaries affirmed by, ambassadors of, and accountable to a local church.

2. Institutions outlast individuals.

Another reason to give more of your missions dollars through the church is that local churches, as institutions, are more durable than individuals. Missionaries come and go, as do missions givers. Most churches and other parachurch institutions will outlast us all.

So if we want our giving to contribute to long-term kingdom influence, we should consider the value of investing in more than just individuals. When you give to missions through your local congregation, you’re both supporting missionaries and strengthening the church.

When you give to missions through your local congregation, you’re both supporting missionaries and strengthening the church.

If you want your giving to outlast yourself, give to the church. On any given month, if you forget to put your check in the offering, another member will likely make up the difference. And when she loses her job, you’ll be there to contribute her share. But if and when there’s any disruption in your ability to give, it will directly affect the missionaries you personally support. So, giving to the church allows your contribution to be more reliable than a personal donation could ever be.

3. Humility defers responsibility.

The last reason to give to missions through the local church is one I’ve found personally challenging: to do so is an expression of humility. The anti-institutionalism and rampant individualism of Western culture are ultimately expressions of pride. Many of us—myself included—naturally think we can spend our money better than the church. If we don’t like how our church supports missions or whom they sponsor, we can redirect our giving. We can prioritize what we value.

But this is another way Christians buy into our culture’s expressive individualism. Instead, we should recognize the value of the God-given systems and structures over us. We should reject the arrogance that assumes we always know better. Humility defers responsibility to authority.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to influence the way our churches fund missions. But we’ll never have such influence if all our giving is by the individual and for the individual. By giving to the church, we humbly relinquish autonomy and control and ultimately entrust all things to our good Father—including the work of missions.

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