The Missionary and the Local Church

While our companion article touches upon the critical element missing in the missions program of many churches, this article will look at the same issue from the other perspective – What’s missing in the life and ministry of the missionary?  The biblical answer?  The local church!

As we approach this subject, we must first look at the biblical example given in the book of Acts, which is an account of the Lord’s work in building His church during the first years of its existence.  The theme for the book is found in Acts 1:8:

But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.

This declaration was made by the Lord Jesus Christ to His Apostles before He ascended to His Father’s throne.  It spells out the spiritual means (the power of the Holy Spirit) and the systematic method (first Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, and finally the remotest parts of the earth) by which Christ would build His church.

With this in mind, the book of Acts can be divided into three main sections.  Chapters 1-7 describe the rapid growth of the Jerusalem church up until the time of Stephen’s martyrdom.  Chapters 8-12 are devoted to the spread of Christianity as the great persecution in Jerusalem scattered the Christians throughout all Judea and Samaria.  Finally, chapters 13-28 focus on the three missionary journeys of Paul as the gospel was carried beyond the region of Israel by Paul and the other Apostles.

The circumstances surrounding the divine initiation of the missionary church-building era are recorded in Acts 13:1-3:

Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers:  Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.

And the account of the missionaries’ return in Acts 14:27-28:

And when they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.  And they spent a long time with the disciples.

A study of this account reveals five important relationships between the missionary and the local church:

  • The missionary is trained in the local church (Acts 13:1).
  • The missionary is known by the local church (Acts 13:1).
  • The missionary is called through the local church (Acts 13:2).
  • The missionary is sent by the local church (Acts 13:3).
  • The missionary is accountable to the local church (Acts 14:27-28).

First, the missionary is trained in the local church.  While both Paul and Barnabas were referred to as apostles (Acts 14:14) and thus were individuals whose knowledge of the truth came directly from Christ rather than through men (Galatians 1:11-12), the local church was the training ground in which their spiritual gifts were exercised and proven before they were sent forth as missionaries (Acts 13:1).  It is the place of the local church – not a seminary or Bible school – to provide the practical experience a future missionary needs in ministering to God’s people wherever they may be found!  Bible schools and seminaries perform a valuable function, but they are classroom situations.  Although the Lord took Paul into the desert and personally taught him, He still deemed it necessary for Paul to minister in the church at Antioch to gain the wisdom that comes only from practical experience before sending him on his missionary journeys.

Second, the missionary is known by the local church.  Paul and Barnabas were not simply members in a church.  They actively participated in the church, and in a public way.  As teachers, the church was familiar with who they were, what they believed, what they taught, and how they taught it.  The church knew their personalities.

Doubtless, substantial friendships within the Antioch church had developed over the years, for both Paul and Barnabas were interested and concerned for others.  In writing to the Christians at Rome, Paul mentioned 28 friends there whom he knew from past experiences, though he had never visited Rome.  He must have been interested enough in the people who crossed his path that he didn’t soon forget them.  A soldier guarding him in prison might have been a stranger one day, but the next day he was a friend, and often, within a short while, a brother in Christ.  That is the kind of interest and concern Paul had for those around him.

If anything, the same is even more true of Barnabas.  In Acts 4:36 we learn his real name was Joseph, but he was called Barnabas, “Son of Encouragement”, by the Apostles because he was that kind of person.  There are a number of examples in the book of Acts of his interest in helping and promoting others.

So it is clear Paul and Barnabas had strong ties with the local church, and, at the end of their first missionary journey, they returned there where “they spent a long time with the disciples” (Acts 14:28).  It was not a brief re-acquaintance at a weekend missions conference!  They knew their local church, and the local church knew them.

Third, the missionary is called through the local church.  The call to mission work in Acts 13 was not addressed to Paul and Barnabas, but to the church.  Yet from the way God said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,” it is quite likely that Paul and Barnabas had already experienced a personal call to go forth as missionaries.  Even so, they did not simply announce the fact and then set out in search of a sending church and people to support them.  Their call was not validated, nor did they put it into effect, until God also called the local church to send them out.

Fourth, the missionary is sent by the local church – not sent away to raise his own support – but sent out to do the work of a missionary.  And Paul and Barnabas did not go out alone!  Through the laying on of hands, the church identified itself with their ministry.  And they prayed for them.  But that isn’t all.  They were serious about this.  So they fasted.  And one can be sure they did whatever else they could to help, with encouragement and with provisions.  They had an active part.  This is one of the reasons God called his missionaries through the local church.  It was a joint calling, because it was a joint effort.

Fifth, the missionary is accountable to the local church.  After completing each missionary journey, Paul returned home where the entire church gathered to hear his report (Acts 14:27, 18:22).

It has already been observed that the church laid hands on Paul and Barnabas before sending them forth.  From studying all the instances of this practice in the Bible, one sees it was done when invoking a blessing (Genesis 48:17), when commissioning or imparting authority (Numbers 27:23, Acts 6:6), when identifying with someone or something (II Chronicles 29:23, Leviticus 8:14), and when imparting some special gift such as wisdom or the Holy Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9, Acts 19:6).  With the exception of the latter, probably all of these were involved in the church’s action – blessing, identifying with, commissioning, and authorizing them for the work which they were to do.  That is what the local church does:  it has been given the authority to send missionaries into the Lord’s service.

Clearly, Paul and Barnabas as apostles did not derive their authority from the church.  They had authority over the church, and it came directly from God.  Still, God called them through the church, and in doing so He has given us a pattern to follow.  He has given the local church the highest authority in furthering His earthly kingdom.  The biblical example clearly places the missionary authority and responsibility with the local church.

Now contrast this with this hypothetical but realistic modern-day scenario:  A believer goes from high school into Bible school or later seminary, where he senses God’s call to missions.  After completing his classroom training, he tells his home church of his desire.  Meanwhile, a mission agency has contacted him at school, or perhaps he has contacted them, for the purpose of working in an overseas ministry. 

The home church has not had the benefit of participating in his personal life and ministry since high school days; but, because of his interest in missions and his many certificates and diplomas, they verify his calling and send him away to raise support.  By the time he raises the necessary financial support, he is involved with 10-20 churches and is ready to send himself forth under the watchful and helpful eye of the mission agency.  Together they work out the details, and finally the day comes when he leaves for the field of service appointed by the agency.

The first term may be somewhat stressful as new customs are encountered, a new language must be spoken, and he must learn how to put into practice the things taught at school about ministering.  But, by God’s grace, and with the help of experienced missionaries and his mission agency, he begins to see fruit.

Three years have passed and now he is looking forward to a short rest and much-needed fellowship with Christians at home.  However, in six months he has to report to 20 churches!  Suddenly, the pace becomes hectic, even frantic!  His church only sees him coming and going, and enduring friendships cannot develop at all before it is already time to rush off to the field again!

The differences between the Biblical pattern and the method described above are obvious.  In the hypothetical example, the missionary was trained at school, not in the church.  As a result of bypassing the church, his call was totally individualistic.  He was not well-known to his home church nor to the20 other churches supporting him.  He was really sent out by the mission agency, with the church taking a very small part and assuming little responsibility.  And on furlough, his ministry to the local church was less than optimal.

In contrasting the two approaches, the important point is not that one way is right and the other is wrong.  However, we should always strive to conform our methods to the Biblical example.  God’s pattern in Scripture is to work through the local church in carrying out His great commission, not skirt around it!  That is the key point!  So let’s encourage the church to assume its proper role, not just for the benefit of the local missions program, but for the sake of furthering Christ’s kingdom!  Because what’s missing today in missions – is the local church!