Coalescing Churches and Missionaries

The Church – the universal body of Christ – is a unique institution made up of people rather than materials or mechanisms. Established and sustained by God Himself, the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The oft-quoted passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel contains the commission of the Church – her purposeful assignment and the promise of her providential Lord. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says to His disciples,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Mark Dever (commenting on this very passage) says, “Jesus’ command to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ [or ‘all nations’] reminds believers that Christ is Lord over all, that he loves all, and that he will call all to account on the great day. Therefore, Christians today have a responsibility to take the gospel around the world.” Dever also understands that congregations (local expressions of the universal Church) are bearers of this same responsibility, because congregations are made up of individual Christians. “Christians together can pool wisdom, experience, financial support, prayers, and callings and direct them all to the common purpose of making God’s name great among the nations…” Dever leaves no room for individual Christians or assembled groups of the same to remain unengaged from this Great Commission when he says, “Witnessing the glory of God proclaimed around the globe in the hearts of all his people should be an end and purpose for every local church.”[1]

Involvement in this intentional activity is no peripheral matter for any local church, and many congregations have been purposefully working at it for a long time. However, recent research and contemporary conversations are revealing that a disconnect may have developed over time between the two prongs that have formed the spearhead of this Christian commission. Local churches in America seem to have been allowed to understand missions as something that is done over there – anywhere but here – by someone called a missionary. Many local churches support “missions efforts” with their financial backing, giving a portion of their budget to some kind of cooperative program that distributes funds to local and international missionaries. Sometimes local churches may even call a special prayer meetings with a “missions” emphasis, but taking ownership of particular missional efforts appears to be lacking at best. In addition, the perceived distance between missions and local church ministry has permitted most American Christians to remain personally unengaged from the Great Commission. This is a tragedy.

What is worse is that missionaries, having such a strong commitment to go and tell, are continuing to do so without an essential and healthy attachment to a local church or churches. “The problem is that there are now missionaries all over the world with virtually no connection to local churches to love and care for them, shepherd them, and join them on mission.” To compound the loss, “there are also local churches full of laypeople talking about being ‘missional’ without the benefit of learning from those who are actively crossing cultures with the Gospel. They are talking about mission without the input of missionaries (emphasis added).”[2] If one is to understand what it is to be missional, it is imperative that one understands what it is to be a missionary.

Ed Stetzer helpfully defines the term “missional” in his standard-setting work on the subject of “missional churches.” He says, “Missional means actually doing mission… adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound.”[3] With this definition in mind, it is helpful to consider that missional living may only realized in the local church context as missionaries and their efforts are appropriately known and celebrated in the local church.

The bringing together of missionaries and the local church is a combination that regains the benefits of the multi-membered body of Christ. If the missionary is the extended arm of the local church, then the local church is the core, which lends stability, resources, and strength to the missionary. Just as the arm needs the core to function properly, so the core needs the exercise, reach, and functionality of the arm in order to remain healthy. There are many more aspects of local church ministry that may not include a direct relationship to missionary efforts, but all of what the local church is and does should center around the idea of living missionally in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – both in the context of its own community and in the world at large. These two distinct branches of missional engagement (missionaries and the local church) are so intertwined that each compliments the other in multiple ways, particularly when they are both functioning healthily.

The pervading goal of the missionary is the same as the local church, namely the Great Commission – make disciples, baptize them, and teach submission to Christ to the glory of His great name. If this directive is embraced and acted upon, the result will inevitably be a plurality of baptized disciples who will be life-long learners who grow in their submission to Christ. This plurality of Christians, if the missionary is properly focused on the task, will be formed into a local church themselves. “The result of [the missionary’s] work should be biblical, local, independent churches that reflect the soil in which they are planted.”[4]  Therefore, the missionary is most effective when he is planting local churches with those baptized disciples who have benefitted from his proclamation of the Gospel.

These locally planted churches will be better churches if they resemble the same kind of local church(es) that have cultivated a quality relationship with the missionary who facilitated their own rooting and grounding. If missionaries and local churches work in tandem (as it seems they were designed to do), then the cycle will simply continue. Aubrey Malphurs says of church planting and its ultimate goal,

“We are not to start just any kind of church; they should be Great Commission churches. These are churches that take most seriously Jesus’s command to make disciples! Making disciples begins with evangelism and continues with edification or the building up of the saints in the faith with the ultimate goal of their attaining spiritual maturity (Col. 1:28–29; Heb. 5:11–6:1).”[5]

Malphurs’ statement brings us back to the beginning; the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The goal of newly planted church is the same as the missionary, and it is the same as the established local church congregation. When the established local church is healthy, she will serve her role well as a support structure for the missionary and a model for the church plants that (by God’s grace) result from his efforts. When the missionary is healthy, he will serve his role well as an evangelist and facilitator for the eventual indigenous church plant(s) as well as a motivation and inspiration for the congregants who support him. When the indigenous church plant is healthy, she will repeat the cycle with new missionaries and fresh groups of newly converted Christians.

There are so many benefits to this relationship that a brief work such as this cannot explore them all. Suffice it to say that the coalescing of churches and missionaries is a recipe for enjoying vibrant, Great Commission assemblies of vigorous, missional disciples of Christ – both locally and globally.

 

[1]Dever, Mark. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

[2]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[3]Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

[4]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[5]Malphurs, Aubrey. The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting: A Guide for Starting Any Kind of Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

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