When missionaries prepare to go overseas, they often receive extensive cultural, ministry, and linguistic training that equips them to reach the lost. Yet, the importance of the local church can quickly be devalued for the sake of outreach.
Don’t Ignore the Local Church
While missionaries must leave their home churches behind when they go overseas, my concern is with the compromises made by some missionaries who do not prioritize church membership overseas. Thankfully, there are many around the globe who are deeply committed to mission work among the unreached and place a high value on the local church. Unfortunately, there are some who believe or act as if the local church is a distraction from their mission.
In my own context, I’ve observed so many missionaries who rightly aim to build relationships with those they have been sent to. They organize literacy classes, connect with college students, and organize evangelistic events. These are all good and helpful ways that they serve our community.
But, the final step is typically inviting someone to be a part of a discovery Bible study or a discipleship group. The local church is never even mentioned. This strategy rightly focuses on the importance of God’s Word, but unfortunately downplays the importance of conversion and forgets the centrality of the local church. God’s design for the church places a high value on the regular gathering of God’s people where the Word of God is preached, the visible signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are present, and hymns and spiritual songs are sung to the Lord.
Biblical Examples of the Church in Acts
Acts 2 describes the Day of Pentecost which features Peter’s address to onlookers who were astonished by the work of the Holy Spirit. In this message, Peter boldly proclaims Jesus’ resurrection by saying that the Jesus they crucified is no longer dead, but alive. Piercing their hearts with his message, Peter calls them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.
However, the story does not end there. In Acts 2:42 we get a glimpse of what life looked like for the newly converted.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.
The faith of these new converts leads them to devote themselves to God and to a family of believers. In this passage, these new converts devote themselves to God’s Word, to regular time with believers, to sharing meals, and to prayer.
In Acts 13–14, the church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on mission. At the end of their journey in Acts 14, we learn that after they had preached in various towns and made many disciples, they returned to the towns they initially visited. In Acts 14:23, they appoint elders in churches to encourage them to continue in the faith.
Conversion Leads to Participation in the Church
Conversion should not be separated from participation in a local church. In this passage, Paul and Barnabas preach the gospel to the lost, disciple and encourage new believers, and bring believers together in a local church by establishing elders. Throughout Acts, these three components are evident. The local church is always a part of the mission as new converts are integrated into their new community.
In Acts, the believers understand that being a Christian means that they ought to belong to the church. Therefore, they endeavored not just to call people to repentance but to call them to devotion to God and to his people in churches.
Are missionaries today ensuring that those who convert participate in churches? Why is this so important? Why can this not just be an option for missionaries who have thriving Bible study groups with excellent attendance records and for those who have developed a bond with a teenager they led to faith through a discipleship program?
Because God has placed immense value on the church. The Scriptures clearly encourage us to regularly gather with one another in churches. The church is not a human invention or a western construct, but a gift from God.
God’s Care for the Church
God cares for the church so much so that Jesus’ blood was poured out for her redemption (Acts 20:28). Jesus is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23) and the gates of hell will never prevail against her (Matthew 16:18).
Without the church, we do not have pastoral care from our elders, teaching from sermons, or the benefits of practicing baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
In light of God’s love for the universal church, the author of Hebrews warns us of the danger of neglecting to regularly gather together (Hebrews 10:25). These regular gatherings where Christians assemble refer to local churches. This is the place where we use our gift of giving, teaching, serving, exhorting, and showing mercy (Romans 12) in devotion to God and to his people.
Nothing can or should replace God’s design. Missionaries should aim to show new converts the value of the church. Without the church, we do not have pastoral care from our elders, teaching from sermons, or the benefits of practicing baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Without the church, we lack a regular place to practice the “one another’s” of Romans 12.
If missionaries settle for anything less than the local church, they do a disservice to the church and to the Christians they serve. We need the local church.