There is a constant call within the northeastern part of the United States for laborers to move to the area and join the battle to see the region re-awakened to the power of the Gospel. Church planting ministries regularly recruit and promote vision tours in an attempt to get more missionaries to the shores of the proverbial Babylon that is the New England states, plus New York and perhaps New Jersey.
An Influx of Missionaries
Over the course of the last 25 years, these groups have been successful in bringing numerous people to the area with a clear call to come and start new works for the glory of God. Churches have been planted, ministries have been started, Christ has awakened many and the Gospel has gone out in power. As a native of and as a current practitioner within the Northeast, I am grateful for my brothers and sisters who have laid down their lives and moved from their homes, both within this country and internationally, to respond to the calling of Jesus Christ to make disciples of all nations.
With all of this being said, I humbly submit a healthy caution for those who come to the Northeast as missionaries: do not discount the indigenous people and the power of God already at work within them.
The Church Is Already Here
A common temptation for missionaries, regardless of their mission field, is to cry out like the prophet Elijah, “I alone am left.” (1 Kings 19:10) But if a missionary traveling to any of the New England states or to New York or New Jersey is honest, they will discover that God’s redeemed people are already there and have been praying to Lord of the harvest to send more laborers. To declare the opposite is offensive and hurtful to local Christians.
If one looks closely within the Northeast, one will discover a longstanding remnant that has been working diligently with very little resources. Not only that, but within our urban centers one will also encounter a vibrant and flourishing Christian community rapidly multiplying among the immigrant and refugee populations, whose children have become natives to our region and now make up a portion of our indigenous population.
A Different, But Valid, Culture
So if missionaries coming to the Northeast are not alone, they must be to ask genuinely, What is the end goal of my calling to this area?
A tragic outcome of the colonial powers that traveled the globe during the 19th and 20th centuries to “civilize the savage,” was that they established dominion over those whom they visited. Empires were established and local cultures were destroyed as British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and German rulers sent their own people to refashion newly established colonies to resemble their own communities.
Missionaries who come to the Northeast can take heed of this example. You must not subtly, overtly, or in any way, attempt to “civilize the savage Northeasterner” and you must recognize that the goal of your calling is not to create mini-versions of church from back home.
Instead, celebrate the residents of New England, New York and New Jersey, and respect us as people made in the image of God. Our culture may be different from yours, but it is not less than what you are accustomed to enjoying. Within every culture of people is an expression of the beauty of our glorious God.
When it comes to what you are helping to build, come alongside God and His people in the community to develop a Christian community/ministry that doesn’t betray the fabric of the local residents. Utilize local leadership and listen to indigenous voices instead of relying on the church growth gurus from back home. When Christian communities are developed in this way, all within a Biblical framework, Northeastern churches will reflect their community with magnificence to the glory of God.
The Leaders Are in the Harvest
Finally, consider the Northeasterners living in the city or town to which you have been called as being God’s primary assets in leading the spreading of the Gospel.
For at least the past fifty years, missiologists have understood that the role of missionaries is not to start and become the figurehead for a multiplying ministry. Rather, in a true apostolic manner, both global and domestic missionaries should be concerned with raising up indigenous leadership at all costs.
A helpful perspective in this discussion can be found in what community development advocates have long endorsed: Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). In so many words ABCD states that one must observe the community not from a negative viewpoint to determine what it is lacking, but from a positive perspective, grabbing hold of the assets that are already available, despite how different they might look. For the missionary to the Northeast, embracing this method guarantees that those who are indigenous will influence the expression of what is created and will promote an authentic result.
Unfortunately, it is a common practice within new ministries and new churches in the Northeast to fill ministerial roles with more missionaries rather than with homegrown servants. This leadership replacement strategy communicates both a lack of true discipleship on the part of the missionary and a lack of value placed in the indigenous members of the church/ministry. Northeastern churches and ministries must not be sustained by a constant arrival of missionary platoons from other parts of the country, but by the growing indigenous Christian population who knows the context best.
The Real Needs
What Northeasterners need most are missionaries who humbly arrive with an honest heart to both introduce people to Jesus and work side-by-side with those locals who already know Christ. We need those who are willing to help with the sort of equipping that leads to empowerment. We need those whose end goal is to place newly established churches and ministries in the hands of local leadership and to strengthen existing indigenous works so that our churches can plant churches.
This type of work takes time and requires that missionaries release control and be flexible with what their new ministry, church or community will eventually look like. But in the end, the ministries and churches of the Northeast have always belonged to God – not us – anyway.
Northeasterners need our brothers and sisters who come from far away to spread the Gospel in our region. We have been praying for you. We invite you to come. We only ask that you serve our people humbly with a genuine concern for their welfare and their spiritual development. We trust you to be about His Kingdom and not your own.
John M. Ames is the church planting pastor of Faith Community Church in Providence, RI.