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!

What’s Missing in Missions?

The missions program is dead in the water.  There seems to be no excitement and little involvement on the part of church members.  The missions committee continues to meet, the women’s auxiliary has its coffee klatches, but little gets done and what is done doesn’t have much impact on the church or, it seems, on the lives of the missionaries it supports.

Most members still don’t know the names of their missionaries.  And they could not hope to recognize them if ever they dropped in for tea – because most of the congregation has never laid eyes on most of the missionaries the church has picked up over the years.

A few stalwart souls have put up a missions bulletin board.  It is exciting to see what God is doing through missionaries in different parts of the world.  But after reading 5-10 letters, one gets confused about just who needed a new typewriter and which one was starting an outreach among the miners.

Oh, well.  Their friends will pray for them and help them.  The only time our church ever saw them was five years ago when they spoke at the Sunday night service, but the $75 we send them every month makes it worth their while to keep us on the mailing list.

Periodically, the missions committee emerges from its chambers to promote a new work project.  Letters ought to be written to encourage these strangers in their labor for God!  A gift box should be sent, even though one really does not know if their shirt size is small or extra large.  And, of course, it all takes a good bit of time.  You begin to wonder if such projects really promote missions – or if they just promote work.

What’s the problem with the missions program?  Is the missions committee not doing its job?  Just whose responsibility is it to stir up interest in missions?  Who is best in a position to do it?  The pastor through his sermons?  The missions committee with its projects?  Or the missionary far away in Africa, Asia, South America or Europe?

We usually think of the local church as supporting the missionary, who in turn supports the church on the field.  But the ministry of the missionary is not directed only to the foreign church.  He has a vital ministry to his home church as well, for their missionary involvement must be vicarious.  They cannot go to the field themselves.  God has given them work to do at home.  And the only way they can experience the satisfaction, the exhilaration, the thrills, and the difficulties of bringing the gospel to “the remotest part of the earth” is through the missionaries they support.

More than the missions committee, more than the minister, more than the individual church members, it is the missionary himself who can put life and meaning back into the sending church’s missions program by letting its members experience vicariously the ministry they are having through him!

A phone call once every quarter, transmitted live to the congregation at a Sunday service, brings the mission field right into their sanctuary or auditorium on a regular basis.  A five-minute recording and slide presentation send from the field every few months makes them aware of ongoing developments even as they happen.  And of course, the general letters are a valuable record that can be read and reread as desired.

Why is it so few churches experience this sort of close contact with their missionaries on the field?  I would like to suggest three reasons:

First, the typical missionary has 10-20 churches providing his support.  His work on the field is time-consuming as it is.  To “minister” in any meaningful way to 20 supporting churches is an impossibility!  Why even consider it?

Second, the close personal relationship between the missionary and the people at home, so vital in giving them a vested interest in what is happening so far away, has not been developed.  How could it be, when the missionary has 20 churches to visit on furlough?  AS much as we may wish to deny it, attending one Sunday service every three to four years does not provide enough personal contact to do the job.

Third, as useful as large mission agencies have been in furthering the work of foreign missions, they inevitably weaken the relationship between the local church and the missionary.  Who does the missionary send his monthly reports to?  To whom does he submit his financial statement?  Where does he turn in emergencies or when a need for help or reinforcements arise?  To the mission agency!  It has been established to serve exactly those purposes!  But in the process, the local church becomes less and less a part of missions.

So is it any wonder the missions program of many churches is little more than a page in its bylaws, or an invisible committee, or a yearly conference, or a contrived project carried out every now and then to give a feeling of involvement?

What can be done to remedy this situation?  I believe each church should send and support their own missionary.  If this is not possible, then share the responsibility with just a few “like-minded” churches.  Having just a few churches to visit would give the missionary both the time and the motivation to help them be an integral part of the ministry they support.

The missionary should be from their own congregation, someone whose life and ministry is well-known by them.  And whenever possible, he should be sent out by his church, with the church assuming responsibility for even the minor details of his ministry.

“But”, one might object, “where would the money come from for such a project?  And what do we do if there is no missionary in our congregation?”

The solution to both these concerns is to pray – and then show God you are serious in your request by setting aside the funds you will need when God raises up that missionary in response to your prayer of faith.  For many churches, it would not be unreasonable to budget $1,000 – $2,000 each month for foreign missions.  Even though there may be no missionary project to spend it on, the money should still be regularly set aside for use when that day arrives.

The outfitting and transportation expenses for getting started may be as high as $20,000 – $30,000, but in two or three years that much will have accumulated.  Meanwhile, the Lord may well take that long to prepare the missionary and support team He intends to provide in answer to your prayers.  In this way, when the missionary is ready to go, the start-up expenses will already be available without adding an additional, sudden burden to the church’s budget.

Also, knowing that funds and a support team are already in place might resolve the other problem by encouraging prospective missionaries from your own congregation.  The major obstacle keeping many people from the mission field is concern over how to obtain the needed finances.  While one might chide such “lack of faith”, it is not hard to understand why the traditional method seems unsatisfactory.  Typically missionary “candidates” must visit sixty or more churches promoting themselves and their project, as they compete for a share of the church’s missions budget.  “Success” is measured by the ability to convince 10-20 churches to marginally support a person and ministry they hardly know.

Of course, a church that serious about missions might attract all kinds of individuals looking for a “home” church to pay the way as they satisfy their pioneering urge!  Certainly the church cannot let just anyone walk off with the money!  But God will provide someone who has consistently demonstrated a willingness and desire to do a missionary’s work – at home!

And once that one is on the way, it will be time to begin praying and preparing to send the next missionary.  The prospect of sending forth missionaries from the local church may be frightening to many pastors and congregations.  Certainly the matter is not a trivial one.  But churches seeking a more Biblical approach to missions and one that promotes rather than minimizes the relationship between the people at home and the missionary on the field, one that puts life and meaning back into the missions program, have tried it and found that it really does work.  Perhaps your church may be stimulated to follow their example!