Why buy from a stranger, when you can borrow from a relative?
On planting churches cross-culturally, mission agencies, cross-cultural best practice
and the Newfrontiers family.
Andy McCullough. April 2022.
Historically, when church planting internationally, Newfrontiers churches have generally
preferred sending cross-cultural, long-term workers via a direct send model, rather than via
mission agencies. The primary driver for this perspective has been theological/missiological.
In this paper, it will be argued that, whilst this perspective has not changed, any reflection on
forty years of Newfrontiers sending will show, alongside fruitfulness, some continued and
concerning gaps which must either be repaired and provided for internally to Newfrontiers, or
else supplemented through effective partnerships with mission agencies.
Theological emphasis on direct sending
The genius of Newfrontiers’ focus, through the decades, on the role of apostolic ministry in
breaking new ground and laying foundations, the primacy of the local church as the locus
and engine of mission, as well as an emphasis on church planting as both method and
outcome of reaching new people and new places, has resulted in the subsequent
development of apostolic families in which newly-established churches found themselves
locally-led yet meaningfully relationally connected to a wider network of peers. For anyone
exposed to the teaching of Terry Virgo and David Devenish, or immersed in Stoneleigh and
The Brighton Leadership Conference, any of the thousands who have been through gap
year equivalents, leadership training across the spheres, or part of a well-taught local
church, this is how Acts and the Epistles are read. For hundreds of church leaders, there has
been a deeply-held passion for global mission through apostolically-driven church planting.
Post-the 2011 multiplication into devolved apostolic spheres, this has continued to be the
Those from the world of mission agencies have sometimes struggled to understand these
convictions, particularly how deeply-felt they are. The Newfrontiers aversion to “para-church”
organisations is well-known. Mobilisers from various agencies have struggled to get traction
in many of our churches. They can find it hard to understand, because they too feel that the
local church is key in the sending and supporting of workers, and that church-planting is a
wise and Scriptural methodology for evangelism and discipleship.
But for us, these things are more than effective methods, they constitute the defining outworking of our whole view of
the world, a Biblical-theological trajectory from Eden to Revelation of God’s desire for a
people amongst whom to dwell, the absolute centrality of the local church to this narrative,
and the mandate upon Ephesians 4 ministries to continue to equip the Church to reach the
unreached, lay apostolic foundations, and extend the Kingdom of God contextually, all on a
distinctively relational and charismatic basis.
This narrative is deeply, holistically and
lastingly engrained in our worldviews, and para-church or any other initiatives that detract
focus, dissipate resources or distract people must be of secondary concern at best. In many
cases, they have been of no interest at all.
The fruit of direct sending
The fruit of this approach is vibrantly on display in a truly international family, meaningfully
connected by warm relationships and shared values, organised as spheres around
recognised apostolic leadership, with a measure of contextual diversity including, for the
sake of our emphasis in this paper, an ongoing commitment to sending people cross-
culturally, especially to the least-reached people and places on our planet. At first glance,
then, the Newfrontiers contribution to world mission over the last few decades is justified.
When one looks more closely, however, the picture is more complex; while there have been
challenges working with mission agencies, there have also been tangible benefits as well.
Much of the new ground that has been broken, in particular in the Islamic world, did actually
involve partnerships with organisations like Frontiers, People International, World Horizons
and others. David Devenish’s leadership into the Islamic World provided an understanding
that we actually lacked the experience to get people into certain places. Many of these
partnerships were meaningful, long-term and productive. Communities were established that
bore our apostolic distinctives, and that relate substantially to the wider Newfrontiers family.
However, those involved in such partnerships speak of them as not being without tensions
and difficulties. Often team members from various denominational backgrounds trying to
plant values-distinctive churches experienced conflict, defaulting to the lowest common
denominator in church planting. For example, charismatic theology was seen as a secondary
issue, being therefore resisted in church planting. Often, multiple voices into a work from
various stakeholders could bring confusion and contradiction. At times, warm relationship at
senior levels with an agency did not translate to the same warmth “in country.” There have
been times when competition over local believers has sadly become intense and destructive.
A sense of responsibility by sending churches for the people and for the mission has not
always been front and centre, as delegation diluted ownership. When the church has been
planted and local leadership established, there has at times been confusion for the local
leaders around which stakeholders deserve the most honour or connection. Partnership with
agencies, therefore, has been a complex reality of Newfrontiers sending, especially in the
There have, of course, been direct-send, apostolically co-ordinated Newfrontiers church-planting teams that have been completely “in-house” in terms of people, resources and
expertise. The team I led to Istanbul in 2009 is an example. Such teams have been simpler
in terms of broadly shared values, one key apostolic voice shaping the work, and
supplemented by the experiences of those who went before, best practice gleaned from
agencies, local church ownership, and the local believers coming to faith understanding
where to belong globally. While this continues to be a celebrated way of working, the
weaknesses of this model also need to be articulated.
Pastorally, direct sending can be hit or miss, resulting in mixed experiences for those sent in
terms of supervision and expertise, which is simply not good enough, especially for those
who are “missed.” Best practice seems to be distributed ad-hoc and charismatically across
the movement in certain individuals. Those who have access to these individuals benefit
from their wisdom, experience better care and support. But those who do not can experience
little or no support, can be poorly prepared and trained, can spend inordinate amounts of
time and energy “reinventing the wheel.” Not only different sending churches, but also
different apostolic spheres have varying amounts of expertise and resource. This lack of a
level playing field means that some are sent and supported excellently, whilst others are
The stakes are high, and there is a lot of pain in evidence across the movement
amongst those who have suffered in silence. Are these the unsung heroes of our movement,
or the victims of an institutional naiveté that has underestimated the challenges and
responsibilities of cross-cultural sending, particularly among the unreached?
One of the reasons that the Unreached Network came together was in recognition that there
is a huge amount of experience and genius within our movement, but that much of this was
inaccessible and unevenly distributed. Dissemination of best practice across various
platforms is our attempt to fill this gap, serving churches and apostolic spheres with the hard-won wisdom of many individuals. Of course, best practice has no teeth, and all we can do is
Connected to the idea of missional best practice, there have also been varying levels of
understanding across the movement around the core ideas of contextualisation, language
learning, raising local leaders, multipliability, confronting cultural strongholds, all of which can
be seen in some places to be a real strength of Newfrontiers’ mission, and in other places to
be astonishingly absent.
“How is it possible,” onlookers may well ask, “that Newfrontiers
teams in some places seem truly in tune with the wider missions conversation, that the
mission is contextual and indigenising and fruitful, yet in other places the approach seems to
outdated, inappropriate, indeed harmful?” How can a movement be so inconsistent viz-a-viz
such critical issues of missional best practice?
The multiplication into multiple apostolic spheres since 2011 may well have exacerbated
these inconsistencies, creating silos of thinking or echo-chambers, so that inputs into
missional conversation are limited within each sphere, but these issues were extant in
Newfrontiers prior to and regardless of this, reflecting discrepancies in the distribution of gift,
wisdom, experience, engagement with wider mission best practice conversations, relational
connectivity, all across a huge global family. Most voices only reach so far. Most wisdom
flows through relationships. Most leaders only know so many other leaders.
Direct sending, with high local church ownership and linked to Holy Spirit-led apostolic
strategy, will remain theologically core and methodologically front and centre in the years to
come. Where this is done with an ear to best practice in training, preparation, sending,
caring, and mission design, through to ongoing learning for fruitfulness and ultimately, in
most cases, well-managed re-entry, the potential for fruitfulness is high. For this to happen,
the post-modern tendency to “cut out the middle man,” for pastors to send people via their
own extant relationships, with arrogant deafness to wider conversations, must be confronted.
“Direct sending” must never mean “independent sending” without reference to the wider
context. This is a sure way to damage people through inadequate care and to damage the
mission through inappropriate methods.
We must therefore continue improving our in-house capacity for direct sending, in line with
our theological distinctives. There is enough wisdom around, but it needs to get to the places
where it is most needed. We cannot expect local church pastors to be experts in everything,
but the benefit of apostolic families is that it is reasonable to expect that each sphere have
in-house expertise, a missiologist and their team, if you like, as repositories of best practice.
And until this is possible, spheres need to seek this expertise from elsewhere.
However, even in this best-case scenario, there will still be gaps. Cross-sphere partnerships
are a cornerstone of cross-cultural sending currently, with the vast majority of cross-cultural
church planting teams being made up of individuals from multiple apostolic spheres. This is
a welcome solution to the smallness of the spheres (what if I am in a sphere that focuses on
Europe whilst I have a sense of call to East Asia?), and a sign of the big-heartedness and
relational warmth at the heart of Newfrontiers.
And yet, there is still probably a place for relationally warm partnerships with mission
agencies. There is definitely a need to keep participating in the wider mission conversation.
It is not always possible to put together a team in-house into an unreached place, sometimes
an individual or a family might be better positioned in partnership with an agency.
Sometimes the pros of partnership outweigh the cons of values non-alignment, particularly
from a pastoral imperative, rather than an apostolic one. Sometimes we have supported
single women poorly (statistically still the largest demographic in cross-cultural mission),
whilst the networking and support offered by an agency could supplement sending church
pastoral care and make their placement more sustainable. Sometimes we just need to be in
the room with agencies, to learn from them, and to see what the Holy Spirit will do.
Newfrontiers’ contribution to global mission is not negligible. Neither is it the only story. Our
distinctive convictions mean that direct sending and cross-cultural church planting will
continue to be a priority across the spheres. Indeed, pumping resource into cross-cultural
mission must continue to be a priority across the churches. However, we must fight against
the smallness of worlds that local church or even apostolic spheres can become. We must
keep tuned in to the wider conversation around missional best practice. We must not make
foolish mistakes in sending that continue to hurt people through inadequate care. We don’t
know what we don’t know, and what we don’t know can cause hurt. We must think through
mission design and contextualisation more intelligently. We must resource mission support
infrastructure more generously. And yet, even if we do all these things, we must continue to
be open to the possibility that mission agencies may still have a contribution to make to our
story, even as we may still have a contribution to make to theirs.
For a pdf of this article click here: why buy from a stranger?