Any time I get with Nate Irwin is pure gold. Part of it is the wealth of experience in missions that he brings to the table: a missionary kid in Pakistan, 14 years as a missionary in Pakistan with TEAM, and over 10 years serving as a missions pastor at College Park Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Yet it’s also his humble presence. I’ve come to learn that he genuinely won’t make a big deal of his ministry. Then after my hand is numb from scribbling about a dozen pages of notes, I realize just how effectively he’s leading his church in missions. Here are two particularly sharp areas from College Park’s sending.
One of College Park’s convictional values in missions is investing in national leaders. So rather than focusing solely on sending their own members (which is part of what they do), much of their strategy relates to empowering national partners for the work of the ministry. They have chosen this approach for a few different reasons.
“It comes from my own experience, and just good missiology,” said Irwin. “They’re going to be better than us at reaching their own people.” It’s also a financial decision. National partners require much less support than American sent ones. It’s part of the way College Park has chosen to steward limited resources well.
By “support” Irwin doesn’t mean paying for nationals’ ministry, but their training. “They need to be supported by those they are ministering to.” This, along with accountability, helps to empower the national partner rather than make them dependent. “They’re in the driver’s seat, and we’re putting gas in the tank.”
Fascinated by this approach, I asked, “How do you establish these partnerships?” Once again I encountered a simple-yet-profound response: “We don’t create them; we find them.” It all begins with the prayer, “Lord, lead us.”
Each of College Park’s national partners has a unique story. One developed from an unreached people group that they adopted. Another was a dynamic missions speaker at a conference. Another blossomed through their lead pastor’s passion and connection in Togo. Multiple developed through relationships with impressive national leaders.
“We dated them,” said Irwin, describing the process of testing and approving the partnership. This has led to the establishment of partnerships with three seminaries, one school, and one ministry in Cambodia. So much of College Park’s sending includes missionaries coming alongside nationals with a posture of service, not to run their ministry, but to advance it with finances, prayer, and specialized assistance.
Another standout aspect of College Park’s sending is the way they care for their sent ones. This begins with identifying everyone in the church as either “a goer or a sender”. Those who don’t go globally are expected to support those who do.
Care really pivots on College Park’s “Barnabas Teams,” which are groups of church members dedicated to specific sent ones. Meeting monthly to pray for their sent ones, Barnabas Teams are the missionaries’ “spiritual and emotional lifeline”. One of the entry-level ways church members can be involved in missions is to join one of these teams.
Yet Irwin has also given much attention to the return of sent ones. He notes poignantly, “When we send out troops to the front lines, they’re going to come back wounded.” Thus, College Park automatically sends all their returning missionaries for what Irwin called “a tune-up”. This is a three-day counseling retreat.
College Park has also been at it long enough to have shepherded sent ones through the tough decision of staying or leaving the field. “We want [our sent ones] to be completely honest with us so there’s no surprises,” Irwin said. The church has experienced two instances in which sent ones were forced to return to the states, one because of depression and the other due to marital discord.
Describing the unique challenges of being a “failed sent one” back among the church, Irwin admitted, “It’s awkward. You don’t want to share your whole story with someone you meet in the hallway who asks why you’re back.” That’s why I was blown away when Irwin described that in both situations, after years of journeying with the church, both families are headed back to the field much healthier than before.
Must be doing something right!
This is a republication from The Upstream Collective. Used with permission.