What image comes to your mind when you think of the word “missions?” I think there are several that are fairly prominent – an old guy in a fat tie with a boring voice and a slide projector, a massive organization or denomination spending millions of dollars per year orchestrating global outreach, or just any humanitarian effort anywhere by anyone.
For me, there are two ways to define “missions.” One is the lifestyle every Christian ought to have of sharing Christ with others as God opens opportunities. In this sense, we’re to live our lives “on mission” with a sensitivity to God’s leading each and every moment as to where He would have us to speak well about Him next.
The second way to define missions is in reference to the activity of spreading the gospel to new places and planting churches where no churches exist, or where the influence of existing churches is failing to fully saturate the culture with the gospel (which is nearly everywhere). When thinking of missions in this more official light, I define missions as local churches commissioning (sending, endorsing, and supporting) God-called servants to carry the gospel elsewhere and to plant other local churches
I have a fairly narrow viewpoint when it comes to the inclusion of the local church in that definition. Why? Well for one thing (and I know that few will understand or agree with this), for me, that’s the only “church” that exists. I don’t personally believe in the existence of a universal, invisible church made up of all believers everywhere. I see the church in the New Testament as a local institution… but that’s a whole different post in the making.
Another reason I’m convinced of the strong role of the local church in missions is because this seems to be the basis for missions in the New Testament. I find the most significant support for this in Acts 13, where Paul, Barnabas and three others are “sent out” by the church at Antioch. Here’s a glance at verse two through the first part of verse four…
As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit,…
Here are some phrases that jump out at me that provide the foundation of what I believe about sending missionaries…
- As they ministered… – The Bible is clear that Paul and Barnabas had done more than simply express to others a call from God – they had been actively serving in the trenches. So for me, potential missionaries must be laying a solid track record of willing and faithful service in the context of a local church.
- …and fasted – There was intense prayer, then there was an answer from God in the form of a calling. They were being obedient to Jesus’ command to pray for laborers for the harvest, and to the great commission itself, and God answered. Missionaries are called and new fields open in response to prayer.
- …the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to me…” – That the Holy Spirit does the calling is no surprise, but that He speaks these words not to Paul and Barnabas, but to the church leaders suggests the prominent role those local church leaders will play in the sending of these messengers.
- and laid hands on them, they sent them away… – The church prayed for them, commissioned them, and sent them.
Before I support a missionary financially I want to know these things, in addition to their basic character and doctrinal convictions:
- Have they demonstrated leadership in their local church?
- Are they equipped and shaped for the field? Did God form them into church planters?
- Are they Spirit-filled, God-called prayer warriors?
- Are the submissive to and accountable to the leadership of an established church?
- Are they willing to go anywhere God calls, no matter the cost?
And what does all of this have to do with the role of the local church? Leadership and accountability don’t happen in a universal, invisible environment. Relationships are the basis for any great organization and relationships are formed inside the context of the local church, made up of flesh and blood brothers and sisters in Christ. Further, relationships are essential to the longer term success of any church plant. It’s unwise to go rogue when it comes to something as hugely challenging as planting a new church. You need help!
That need is mutual, in fact. My established church needs the life you breathe into us every time you drop by to report all that God is doing through you. It fires us up to send more support!
Now before you misunderstand, I’m not opposed to denominations and associations organizing missions activity. In fact, it’s almost essential in getting through the door and staying involved in certain parts of the world. Such organizations help with credentials, financial transfers and transactions, leadership, training, mentoring, and pulling together networks of supporting churches. But at the end of the day, every missionary needs a sending church, and every church needs to be sending missionaries. Pray with me, won’t you?