In the political arena there is often a debate over whether our country should intervene in world conflicts such as the ISIS emergency in Iraq. The question is often whether there will be "boots on the ground" or if intervention will be "safe and sterile" through the use of drones or the air force. We have learned over time that it is difficult to deal with a real threat without people who are actually on the ground. Be sure here that I am not arguing for more US intervention globally.
There is an analogy here, however, to missions where there are those who would like to redefine missions in the west in a way that virtually eliminates long term missionaries in favor of short term training and the support of national missionaries. The argument is that it is a cheaper and more efficient way to do missions. After all it costs significant dollars to send full time missionaries. And then there are language acquisition challenges as well as the challenges of living cross culturally.
I am a huge advocate of effective short term teaching as well as helping nationals from around the world send missionaries. I also believe that the role of missionaries is changing from being primarily doers to being primarily equippers of others. That being said, I would argue that having boots on the ground is a non-negotiable for the church in the west as well as the church in any other part of the world.
Why? Well, lets think of Christ's instructions to the church in the Great Commission. He said
His explicit command was that we go to all nations and the promise that He is with us to the end of the age implies that this missionary mandate stretched from His ascension to His return. To abandon this mandate is to ignore one of the last and key instructions of Christ.
Furthermore, Jesus Himself gave us the example of what it means to reach the lost through incarnational ministry. He came to us, He lived with us, He became one of us in order to identify with us. Why would we do any different? If Jesus was willing to forgo the advantages of heaven for us, why would we not be willing to forgo the inconveniences of another culture for the sake of the Good News?
Think of how Jesus discipled His disciples. He was with them and shared His life with them. He ministered in their presence and then got the disciples involved in ministry. Eventually at His ascension he gave His ministry to them. This was life on life ministry that could not be done from a distance.
In every sense of the phrase, Jesus' ministry was a boots on the ground ministry. That kind of personal and incarnational ministry must continue till Jesus returns. It should be supplemented by short term ministries and it should be focused on developing, empowering and releasing healthy national leaders wherever we work but it is and always will be a boots on the ground ministry.