The Great Commission is church work at its very core. God has ordained the church to be the vehicle through which he advances his gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:18–20; Ephesians 3:1–13). Discipleship happens in the context of the local church and God sends missionaries through the church to disciple all nations (Ephesians 4:1–16; Acts 13:1–3). Sending organizations play a significant role in sending, but God has entrusted this responsibility to the local church.
In the book of Acts, the first intentional cross-cultural endeavor to spread the gospel was initiated by the Holy Spirit as he enlisted Paul and Barnabas to engage in this work in the context of the church’s corporate gathering at Antioch (Acts 13:1–3). This church became “home base” for the mission as Paul and Barnabas regularly circled back to report to them and encourage them concerning the gospel’s progress among all nations (Acts 14:26–28). God chose the church to be a conduit to commend them and sustain them in that work.
The church’s role in sending missionaries fleshes out in multiple ways: equipping, affirming, prayer, support, financial partnership, and strengthening. One important step in this process I’d like to suggest is the corporate affirmation necessary to be sent by the church.
Corporate Affirmation Formally Endorses the Missionary’s Message and Character
Christ entrusted the authority of the keys of the kingdom to the church as he enlisted churches to represent him on earth (Matthew 16:13–20, 18:15–20). Local churches steward this responsibility by distinguishing the true gospel from any false substitutes (1 Timothy 3:14–16; Galatians 1–2), defining the identity of the people of God on earth through baptism and church discipline (Matthew 16:17–19, 18:15–20, 28:18–20), and endorsing qualified messengers of the gospel as they are sent (3 John 5–8).
Corporate affirmation of a missionary functions to extend the sending church’s authority to that missionary until a local church is established in the pioneer context
Corporate affirmation of a missionary functions to extend the sending church’s authority to that missionary until a local church is established in the pioneer context, which is then able to steward this responsibility faithfully in that context.
Just as a notary public is appointed and endorsed by a state government to verify people’s identity, in corporate affirmation, local churches place a stamp of approval on missionary candidates to verify the credibility of their ministry and message.
Missionaries Should Meet Deacon or Elder Qualifications
No one scriptural text mandates missionaries to be elder or deacon qualified, yet I sense those being sent out from the church will likely be in leadership roles that correspond to these diaconal and elder-like roles we find in the New Testament (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9). Therefore, consider looking to these passages as a template for the character and competency necessary to be affirmed.
These servants must first “be tested” in order to ensure that they evidence the transforming work of the gospel in their lives, particularly in the realms of integrity and credibility with those inside their home and church, and those outside the church. This corresponds nicely to the continual affirmations of different apostles and gospel servants in the New Testament who have different roles to advance the gospel (Colossians 1:7; Philippians 2:18–25).
Corporate Affirmation Can Encourage Missionaries During Trials
In 1 Timothy, Paul urged Timothy to stay at Ephesus as a distorted gospel threatened to displace the true gospel from the center of the congregational life of the churches there. Guarding the gospel would not be easy.
In this one brief letter, Paul recalls the prophetic affirmation by the elders at the beginning of his ministry in two separate sections in order to strengthen Timothy (1 Timothy 1:18, 4:14). Paul knew that this solidarity with others at the beginning of the work imparts the necessary backbone for Timothy to endure the present trials he would face at Ephesus.
Our corporate affirmation imparts a congregational rod into the backbone of those we send. They will face dark days and deep valleys of discouragement. This work is slow and hard. Just as Paul recalled Timothy’s affirmation by the elders, our corporate affirmation can fuel our missionary’s endurance as they recall our solidarity with them from day one of their ministries.
They need not wonder if they mistakenly discerned God’s desire for them. They need not fear they were naive in embracing this endeavor. Our presence to assess and affirm undergirds them with the strength to keep pressing forward in the mission.