My wife and I arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador as missionaries in December of 1987. In those early missionary days we labored at the center of "the action."
We were in high demand by the churches, associations, and Ecuador Baptist Convention and all their related institutions and programs. A lot of our time was spent attending all the different meetings of both our own denominational work, as well as the events and programs of other evangelical denominations.
I served on various denominational boards, committees, and task forces. Our advise and opinions were respected and listened to. We were constantly called upon to preach, teach, administer, counsel, train, and coordinate ministries, institutions, and strategy. Each of us wore multiple ministerial hats.
All of us were responsible for carrying out an assortment of assignments, often in areas we were not particularly gifted in, but "someone" had to fill those shoes, so we took on these tasks as well. Our phone rang incessantly. Rare were the days when we had an entire evening to ourselves without someone in our home, someone dropping by to chat, or the phone ringing day and night.
Over the years, all of the above has decreased to a mere trickle of what it was 20 years ago. Has the work diminished? Not at all. In fact far more is happening now on multiple levels than anyone could have ever imagined. But our personal influence and role has definitely diminished from what it once was. A better description would be our influence and role has changed. While we are certainly still loved and respected by our Ecuadorian brethren, the things we used to do--as "principal actors on stage"--are now being done by those we poured ourselves into years ago. The very men/women/youth we taught, counseled, trained, and encouraged have taken our place. As I reflect back over the years of all the assignments, responsibilities, tasks, and roles we have played; ALL, without exception, are today in the hands of capable nationals who are doing an excellent job.
One of the hardest missions lessons is the one John the Baptist must have also struggled with: "He must increase; but I must decrease." Someone once defined missionary success as working oneself out of a job.
But actually saying these words is a lot easier than living with the consequences of someone else now doing and filling the roles one used to have. We too want to be needed, sought after, consulted, and called upon. In fact, instead of the phone ringing in the evenings with yet another crisis for us to solve, we now can sit most nights quietly reading a book without interruption.
So what are we still doing here if we have successfully worked ourselves out of all our jobs?
The task is far from completed. With only 5-7% of the population in Ecuador followers of Christ, much remains to see the Great Commission fulfilled in our region of the world.
What I sense is most needed is not more missionaries coming from other parts of the world to help us, but rather a needed shift in role that existing missionaries play.
We must begin to see ourselves more in the apostolic role of encouragers, enablers, equippers, trainers, motivators, connectors, and coordinators who are principally engaged in mobilizing God's people into the ripe harvest fields He has prepared over the past decades.
There will always be room for the first generation apostolic church planter who goes into unreached/under-reached territory to proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, and leave a NT ekklesia. However, in the later stages of a ripe harvest field (like Ecuador) missionaries best serve the King by helping the church understand what remains to be done, how to accomplish the task, provide tools and training, and mobilize to lead hundreds of laborers to bring in the harvest the Lord has given.
Another way of understanding this role change is to explain it this way: I can feel great about spending 30-40 hours a week directly engaged in proclaiming the Gospel, making disciples, baptizing 15-20 and hopefully planting 1-2 churches in a year's time...or, I can spend that same time modeling, training, mobilizing several hundred others to do the same things, and at the end of the year see the Kingdom grow by dozens of churches and hundreds of baptisms and scores of new disciples also equipped to going out and making even more disciples.
In the first role we are the primary actors on stage. Everyone sees us, needs us, and looks to us for direction. In the second we are behind the scenes and the ones "seen" are those we are coaching. The difference in the way we understand our apostolic/missionary role is between planting a church, and being an instrument in the Spirit's hands for dozens of churches to be planted all over the region.
What do you think? As usual, your thoughts and observations are welcome.