Young people will go out to missions regardless, but how does the Church come alongside them? Leaders speak openly about both spiritual and operational challenges of missions at Courage Calls. Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash.

“How you respond to key failures will define your church,” Rev Dr Ivan Liew, missions and outreach pastor at Woodlands Evangelical Free Church and author of Churches And Missions Agencies Together, said at a leaders-only pre-event workshop held before the Courage Calls Missions Conference on September 30 to October 2.

WEFC has a reputation for having excellent member care – but that was only born out of a “painful failure” they experienced almost 30 years ago, he shared.

Building a “scaffolding” for missions

Around the time Dr Liew joined WEFC as a lay-person, the first missionary family sent by WEFC had returned after they faced intense and complex difficulties related to adaptation, ministry, family and even mental health issues.

“They re-told the story and their mistakes. And it changed our culture.”

“Basically, it was painful,” said Dr Liew. But to their credit, his church leadership recognised: “We could have done a lot of things better.”

When he came on staff more than 10 years later, the lesson “still reverberated”, Dr Liew said, recalling the humility, awareness and willingness to bear responsibility that his leaders modelled.

“They re-told the story – without details – in small groups and leader meetings. And it changed our culture.

“Member care became so important.”

Liew, who is also the missions director for the Evangelical Fellowship Of Singapore (EFOS), said: “We need to build systems and establish policies around what God is doing – as a ‘scaffolding’ to send and support individuals answering the call to missions.”

Because church policy is what “helps people to align” with God’s call and it is especially true after what Dr Liew calls “mountaintop moments” like when members decide to commit a year of their lives to answer the call to missions.

Church policy is what “helps people to align” with God’s call.

It was fitting then, that the workshop on church culture and policy which Dr Liew spoke at was part of the Leaders’ Conversation that preceded the Courage Calls Missions Conference.

“I’ve never been in one (conference) where, out of 280 participants, you have close to 200 who are committing to go out to the mission field for the long-term, especially in such uncertain times,” said Joseph Chean, as he addressed 124 leaders from 66 organisations and churches at the Leaders’ Conversation session. 

Chean, who is a part of the multi-agency steering committee of Courage Calls, noted that because the nature of missions has changed especially after Covid, there is a need to engage in the “spiritual dialogue of implications on how you and I will visualise and materialise missions in our local church community”.

“Short term missions is no more an option at this point in time. So we’re saying, just go! You don’t have to come back right away,” he joked before adding that “today, you cannot just send someone out without an expression or an education of some form of training.”

Places where workers will matter

“The bar has been raised,” Dr David Tan observed of would-be missionary candidates. Dr Tan, one of the three panellists at the Leaders’ Conversation, recently retired as the director of Bible translation organisation Wycliffe Singapore after almost 20 years in missions.

“When I started, one of the best pieces of advice I got was: You need to manage your CV properly.”

In the past, missionaries were mostly involved in church planting and evangelism. “Now we need people who have deep work, business and ministry skills. And godly character,” he said.

It’s not that theological training and ministry preparation is obsolete, but that it must be done in “creative ways” if you intend to go to creative access nations, Dr Tan clarified.

“When I started, one of the best pieces of advice I got was: You need to manage your CV properly,” said the ex-Air Force scholar who spent several years as a missionary in Asia.

Risk, however, is the one thing that has not changed. “In missions, we need to take measured risks,” said Dr Tan.

Missions is like parenting. The needs of people groups are unique and have to be discerned accordingly. That is impossible to do from afar, he pointed out, while acknowledging that certain places involved higher risks than others.

“We need people who have deep work, business and ministry skills. And godly character.”

He added:  “We need to send people to places where they are going to matter.

“If there’s no risk, then there’s no need for faith.”

Christy Lim, national director of InterServe, a missions agency that spotlights hard places and works amongst refugees and internally-displaced people – often in areas of conflict – agrees that the focus on unreached people’s groups where there are no Christians or churches, must be matched with an equal attention where suffering is greatest.

“Because that is where Christ is,” she said. “Near the broken-hearted, the widows, the orphans.”

But Lim has even heard some church leaders say: “The Singapore dollar is stronger. Isn’t it much cheaper to support a local worker than to send one of our own?”

“We need to take measured risks. Send people to places where they are going to matter.”

Lim reminded the leaders at the panel discussion: “Human strategy must give way to real compassion – the Lord’s compassion.”

It is not about going to “look for risk”, Lim clarified. Rather it is about “recognising the fact that, in this world, we live in the context of risk and suffering”.

“What message are we sending (if we don’t send people out)? If it’s too difficult, too inconvenient, then what? We don’t go?” Founder of Radion International, Eugene Wee, also challenged the audience.

Without downplaying that Christian ministry is needed in Singapore as well, Wee is concerned that when our churches are only focused on low-lying fruits of ministry, it sets a precedence for “convenient service and faith”, and potentially raising a future generation that is  “allergic” to sacrifice and hardship.

The Gospel felt, not just heard

The lens that people have not heard the Gospel – which used to define mission work – needs to be removed, said Wee.

“We need to make the Gospel felt. Not just heard.”

“This is not very true anymore, people have! They remain unconvinced because they hear it, but they do not feel it.

“We need to make the Gospel felt. Not just heard.”

Sharing how one church in Thailand became a quarantine centre for Covid patients early on in the pandemic, Wee believes that missionaries should go into communities with the “upfront goal of value-adding” to any communities they enter, not just as a cover used in creative access nations.

Wee added that this was, in fact, the “True Normal” that God is calling the Church back to – one that resembles the Early Church of Acts.

“Holistic, transformative missions is old and biblical visibly,” Lim concurred, drawing a parallel to the beginnings of the Church in Singapore over 200 years ago. Schools and hospitals meeting real needs in the name of Christ and impacted society. 

“Those were not ‘platforms’; those were acts of real, sacrificial love and compassion.”

Courage, even in failure

“This is an opportunity for us to review our mission policies,” Wee urged. “To run programmes that nurture and impact life.”

The question is not so much of how to mobilise the younger generation, Wee added. “Because they will go!

It’s not a question of how many people are in church, but how many are pouring their lives out for Christ.

“And that’s the scary thing, right? They will go out regardless of the Church – they are already launching into hard, high-risk areas across the world.

“But how does the Church come alongside with what God is doing in their lives?”

“We need to reimagine what effective missions means,” he surmised. The “wrong KPI” for missions is the question of how many people are sitting in the church. Rather, it should be “how many members are out there pouring their lives out for Christ”.

“It starts with us as leaders,” Wee said. “That requires courage on our part to do something different.”

Liew agreed: “We cannot just write a policy and hope that will change the culture.

God didn’t say: ‘Don’t go if things are not easy!’

“(Church) policy has a significant role. But only if we implement it in the right timing, with wisdom and in ways that are sensitive to our particular church background.”

His advice? “Don’t waste your failures. Share the stories and let that change the leadership culture.

“Obey God’s call for courage.”

Tan added: “Policy is meant to enable, not to obstruct. If it is not helpful, we change it.”

Because, when all is said and done, the question that everything comes back to is: Why do missions?

It’s simple, Tan said, drawing attention back to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).

“Obedience. God didn’t say, ‘Don’t go if things are not easy!’

“We still need to go. We shouldn’t be reckless, but we go in step with the Spirit and how He leads.

“Despite the difficulties, risks and challenges – perhaps even not much results – we need to continue to persevere in obedience to His call.”


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About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".