The Local Church is Critical to Missions - Radical

The Local Church is Critical to Missions

Many American Christians have come to think about the Great Commission (Matthew 18:16–20) through the lens of western individualism. In a world where we think the Bible is all about us and less about Jesus, and the gospel is all about our felt needs and less about God’s glory, how could we not think that the Great Commission is more of a me thing than a we thing?

Although an individualist conception of missions may feel normal for us, it would have felt very foreign to the apostles who first received the Great Commission, and indeed, to many generations of Christians thereafter.

What is the Great Commission?

The Great Commission is the command of Christ, under the authority of Christ, given to the church of Christ, to make disciples of Christ, in order to build up the body of Christ, for the eternal glory of Christ.

Missions has been given to the local church, belongs to the local church, is supported by the local church, is accountable to the local church, depends on the local church, and builds the local church.

Any conception of the Great Commission detached from the authority of the local church is sub-biblical. We need to see the corporate nature of the Great Commission.

Missions has been given to the local church, belongs to the local church, is supported by the local church, is accountable to the local church, depends on the local church, and builds the local church.

Missions Has Been Given to the Local Church

While I won’t provide a full exegesis of Matthew 18:15–20, it has been amply demonstrated elsewhere that in this passage Jesus teaches us that the final authority to render decisions about the who and the what of the gospel belongs to the local church. The local church makes clear who is and is not a disciple of Jesus. Only the local church has the authority to do this.

  • Parachurch organizations do not have this authority.
  • A series of interlocking church courts do not have this authority.
  • A college of cardinals does not have this authority.
  • Individual Christians do not have this authority.

Only the local church has the authority to distinguish true believers from false, the true gospel from heresy. The main way the church marks off true believers from false converts is through the dual ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:17).

When the local church sends out missionaries, we are commissioning them not  only to make disciples but also to mark off disciples. When these new disciples are discerned to be true disciples, they come together in covenant to form local churches. Only the local church has the authority to send out missionaries to form other local churches.

Missions Belongs to the Local Church

If the mission of the church has been given to the local church, then nothing about the passing of time, the changing of context, the development of technology, the shift in biblical literacy, the urgency of the task, or the challenges faced in this generation changes the fact that the Great Commission belongs to the local church and the local church alone.

We can see this principle in several places throughout the New Testament, but perhaps nowhere as clearly as in Acts 13 and the appointing of Saul and Barnabas as missionaries.

In Acts 13:1–3, we see that it was the church at Antioch that worshiped, fasted, and prayed about who to commission as missionaries. Saul and Barnabas were chosen by the Spirit, working through the church, to be sent out as ambassadors of the gospel. They were then prayed over by the church, sent out by the church, and subsequently supported by the church.

Everywhere we look in the New Testament, we see that God gave the authority to carry out the Great Commission to the church. That hasn’t changed.

Missions is Supported by the Local Church

The Local Church Raises Up Missionaries

God’s design is for missionaries to be raised up in the local church context. While there may be exceptions to this general rule, we should all recognize that this is what the normal path to becoming a missionary looks like.

  1. Salvation
  2. Baptism and Membership
  3. Discipleship
  4. Commissioning

While step 1 may happen anywhere, steps 2–4 should all happen in the context of the local church. The vast majority of the hard work that goes into taking someone from a baby Christian to a maturing Christian equipped to take the gospel to the nations happens in the local church (2 Timothy 2:15).

That is not to say there won’t be any outside help along the way. Praise God for books, sermons, schools, training centers, and other great resources that help prepare men and women for the mission field! These resources should exist as supplements to what God is already doing in the local church to prepare Christians to serve as ambassadors of Jesus.

The Local Church Trains Missionaries

In order to make this point, we must understand that the most important missionary training we do happens week-in, week-out every Sunday morning, for years on end. It may seem strange to some, but the main time for Christian discipleship is our Sunday morning worship.

During corporate worship, we let God’s word speak to us, and through us (1 Timothy 4:13), we sing his word to one another (Colossians 3:16), we stir one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24–25), and we exercise the keys of the kingdom together (1 Corinthians 5:4).

In the following verses, we see how the apostles’ missionary journeys were sustained by local churches. In Philippians 4:15–16, Paul says,

And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.

Paul’s missionary works were sustained by the Philippian church. Likewise, the apostle John gives the following instructions in 3 John 5–8:

Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.

Do you see? John says that we, the church, must support missionaries. Again, in Titus 3:13 Paul says,

Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing.

How would Titus have provided for Zenas and Apollos? Who would he have had to lean on? The local church.

Missions and Missionaries are Accountable to the Local Church

If you take the time to study Acts 15, you’ll see that the dispute between Paul and the Judaizers was a dispute between two local churches (Acts 15:1–4). Missionaries sent from Judea were teaching salvation by works in Antioch. Antioch was not happy about these false teachers. How did they respond? The church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to the home church of the false teachers to hold them accountable. They didn’t take the matter up with a missions board, a denominational head, or an ad hoc committee. They went to the local church.

Healthy Missions Depend on Healthy Local Churches

As we’ve just seen from studying Acts 15, local churches export what they produce. The church in Judea was producing false teaching, and they sent it out to Antioch. Whatever we are building in our local churches is what we will export through our missionaries.

If we are raising up doctrinally ignorant, relationally vacuum-sealed, evangelistically inept Christians in our local churches, that is what we will send out to the nations. I’ve witnessed this with my own two eyes. It’s atrocious.

If we want strong, vibrant, healthy, courageous missionaries doing good gospel work among the nations, it must begin at home in our local churches.

Missions Builds and Strengthens the Local Church

How Do Missions Build the Local Church?

Well, ask yourself this question: how did the apostles understand their marching orders in Matthew 28? The answer is found in the book of Acts, where we see the apostles walk in obedience to their master’s command to take the gospel to the nations.

The apostles preach, people get saved, and churches are formed. Whenever gospel workers go out and make disciples of the nations, those disciples come together to form churches.

How Do Missions Strengthen the Local Church?

Consider the example of Paul and Titus. Why did Paul leave Titus in Crete? To put the local church in order (Titus 1:5). There was a church in Crete, but it was not a strong church. It was not particularly healthy. It was not well ordered. So, Paul had Titus stay behind to strengthen the body so that it would be strong and well-rooted.

Paul’s heart was not merely to see churches planted, but to see strong churches planted (Acts 15:41).

The aim of the Great Commission is not merely more churches, but strong and healthy churches. Every good gift is given to the church that it may be built up into Christ (Ephesians 4:11–12).

The Great Commission is the command of Christ under the authority of Christ given to the church of Christ to make disciples of Christ in order to build up the body of Christ, all for the eternal glory of Christ.

Sean DeMars is husband to Amber, dad to Patience and Isabella, and pastor at 6th Ave Church in Decatur, Alabama. He previously served among unreached people groups in Peru.

Less than 1% of all money given to missions goes to unreached people and places.*

That means that the people with the most urgent spiritual and physical needs on the planet are receiving the least amount of support. Let's change that!