The Priority Of Incarnational Missions: Or “Is The Tail Of Volunteerism Wagging The Dog?” -- By: Stan May

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 05:1 (Spring 2008)
Article: The Priority Of Incarnational Missions: Or “Is The Tail Of Volunteerism Wagging The Dog?”
Author: Stan May

The Priority Of Incarnational Missions: Or “Is The Tail Of Volunteerism Wagging The Dog?”

Stan May

Associate Professor of Missions
Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary


Perhaps the most notable trend in missions in the past quarter century has been the rise of volunteer mission teams. These teams travel overseas for brief periods (1–4 weeks)1 and perform varied services. Some teams function strictly within the realm of humanitarian work (hunger relief, medical missions, agriculture); some teams combine humanitarian work with evangelism or other church-related functions; some teams minister to missionaries themselves; and, some teams focus exclusively on evangelism, church planting, and leadership training. Alone, Southern Baptist churches sent out more than 30,000 volunteers overseas last year,2 and these figures reflect only those Southern Baptist churches that communicated with the International Mission Board—many do not. Missiologist Ralph Winter noted that “nearly 2 million short-termers leave the United States each year compared to 35,000 long-term missionaries.”3

Volunteer mission teams fulfill numerous positive roles: they provide needed medical care in regions where such care is limited or unavailable; they draw crowds simply by virtue of being exotic visitors; they serve alongside career missionaries and thus assist these missionaries to fulfill their strategies; they minister to missionaries and nationals by providing much-needed “shots in the arm” spiritually, strategically, physically, and emotionally; they expose many to overseas service and thus create a new interest in missions at home; and the list goes on.4 The multitude of volunteers fulfilling these functions causes many to rejoice in this trend.

While these numbers seem to signal an unprecedented interest in overseas work, they also may awaken serious concerns. These concerns stem from a missiological appraisal of the volunteer situation. For the time being, volunteers will continue to go from churches across America, and volunteers are not necessarily bad. I applaud volunteers who fill any role that furthers the missionary’s strategy and advances the kingdom. Volunteers complement the work of career missionaries, but the core strategy of every mission board must be built around and upon career missionaries—those who sense a call from God, leave family, friends, and familiarity, and plant their lives in another country with a commitment t...

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