Earlier this year, I wrote arguing that churches should consider sending not just elder-qualified men to the mission field, but even actual elders. I gave a lot of attention to the question of why it’s useful to send elders of your local church to the mission field.
If you’ve sent an elder as a missionary, what is he supposed to do? How should elders serve their new church on the mission field? I want to walk through two possible missionary roles that an elder can fill in a church where their experience would serve as crucial preparation for success.
Serve as a Pastor or Elder of a Local Church
Biblical wisdom is cross-cultural, and biblical wisdom is not won quickly, but developed over time. A man who has been an elder should already have experience teaching God’s Word. A man who has been an elder should already have worked through sticky issues like divorce and remarriage, a young man in ministry addicted to pornography, or conflict between members. It can be helpful to have worked through these issues in your home culture before walking through them in a new cultural context.
A faithful elder is someone you can trust to navigate a changing culture and apply God’s Word because they’ve already been doing that.
Many in the missions-world fear someone who has pastored before will be too set in their ways and unable to adjust to the new cultural realities. Maybe, but I’d argue that a faithful elder is someone you can trust to navigate a changing culture and apply God’s Word in thoughtful, contextualized ways, because they’ve already been doing that.
Faithful Examples of Men Who Model Godliness as Elders
A faithful elder should be wise enough to recognize he doesn’t know everything. John Cotton was a minister in Lincolnshire, England in the 1600’s. In order to escape summons to the Star Chamber, where many evangelical ministers were prosecuted for their biblical faith, he fled to New England and was called to be the pastor of the First Church in Boston, Massachusetts. When he arrived, he found a church ordered significantly different than what he had been leading back in England. So he decided to be publicly silent on the issue, and give it more study.
Three years later, he affirmed that the church in this Boston was obeying Scripture better than he had been. That’s the mark of a good elder – but it’s also the mark of a good missionary. Someone who has the humility and discipline to scrutinize his own cultural assumptions under the authority of Scripture is someone who can be trusted to teach outside of his own culture.
A man who has served as an elder in your church is well-prepared to fill the gap in young churches in contexts where there aren’t many elder-qualified men yet. Perhaps this looks like serving as the only pastor of a brand-new church. Perhaps it looks like serving as an elder alongside an indigenous brother.
Serve as a Faithful, Elder-Supporting Member
There are many stories of missionaries who pastor a church only to see that church collapse in on itself when the missionary leaves. While I believe that missionaries can still successfully pastor churches, there are particular challenges to functioning in that role. Twice the church in Persia reached China with the gospel in the middle ages. And twice the church in China completely died out – in large part because there were no local leaders appointed.
You shouldn’t assume that an elder you send out will become a pastor of a church on the mission field.
You shouldn’t assume that an elder you send out will become a pastor of a church on the mission field – not because he’s not qualified to, but because it may not be the best way to serve that church. Many young churches have insecure leaders who feel threatened by another fellow pastor. These young churches are fighting to prove their faith is not just a Western idealogy. In such cases, there are other ways to serve a church.
Faithful Examples of Men Who Model Godliness as Church Members
A few years ago, Eric, one of the founding elders of our church moved to a different city on the field. He joined a church with a young elder – and in fact, a man who had had hands laid upon him too quickly (1 Timothy 3:6). Eric had moved from serving as an elder to now trying to submit to a leader who was less competent and less qualified than he was for that work. This meant that as he worked hard to honor his elders in a midst of church strife, he was able to model godliness to his fellow members, young Christians, who had never seen this kind of difficulty before.
Just as a godly marriage consists not only of mature leadership in the husband, but also maturity in the wife; a church that will flourish doesn’t only need mature elders, but also mature, godly members. A man who has served as an elder previously is typically well-attuned to those situations where the elders most need support to rise up from the membership.