Several years ago Bill Hybels, senior pastor of super-duper mega church, Willow Creek in Barrington, IL, rocked the evangelical world by confessing that one area of discipleship Willow Creek had dramatically overlooked was helping their people to become “self-feeders” on the Bible. In other words, they were excellent at reaching out to the community, getting people in the seats, getting people involved in programs, and even seeing many people coming to know the Lord but they had never taught these disciples how to feast on the Word of God on their own. The Willow Creek leadership had realized that their people were dependent on church programs and Sunday services to grow and be edified which according to their internal surveys created a growth plateau in their people.
At that time the blogosphere and social media were ablaze with “I told you so’s” directed at Hybels. However, in reality Hybels and his team at Willow Creek put their finger directly on a huge issue not just in his church but in evangelicalism today. Many of our churches are over-programmed and focus too much energy on professionalizing Sunday services rather than helping our people to become better disciples by becoming “self-feeders.” The point of training up “self-feeders” is not to isolate people or elevate personal time with the Lord over corporate time with the Lord, but rather the goal is to enhance their experience of spiritual growth within the community of the church. Therefore, we must help our “self-feeders” to contribute to the spiritual growth of the local and global body of Christ.
So what does this have to do with missions? Maybe more than you think. My lovely wife recently pointed out to me that perhaps more than anyone else, missionaries must be “self-feeders.” Why is this? Many places throughout the world are simply devoid of doctrinally sound, biblical churches and are led by men who have never had any form of discipleship or training. Therefore, many missionaries simply cannot count on a strong local church to help feed them spiritually. Furthermore, if one is newer to the mission field they may not have the language skills necessary to really understand a sermon or other teachings in their new language.
Thus, missionaries must be “self-feeders” – able to grow in their love and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ apart from programs and dynamite Sunday sermons.
Finally, if our churches are serious about training up and sending out missionaries we must be serious about teaching our people how to feast on the Word of God apart from programs. We must not just teach our people how to study the Bible for the sake of gaining theological knowledge but in stead, teach them how to engage the Scriptures with a heart that not only thirsts for God’s truth but also in a way that will bring about the sanctifying and satisfying work of God’s Spirt in their lives.