Recently, I wrote about how church membership is for every Christian. In this article, I carefully explained why even missionaries should join local churches. But an objection quickly arises. What do missionaries do when there isn’t a church? After all, it would be truly terrible if we only sent missionaries to places where there is already an established Christian witness. Not when there are so many who still need to hear the hope of salvation in Christ alone.
We should send people to be a light where it is spiritually darkest. As Christ’s people, we must be unwilling to concede any portion of the map to the worship of anyone other than Jesus Christ. And yet, Christ has taught us the centrality of the local church for every Christian. So, what do we do?
Sadly, many missionaries, churches, and sending organizations respond not by addressing it, but by essentially throwing out the biblical expectation that a Christian should be a member of a local church. However, we should be quick to recognize that this isn’t good enough. If we want to see others believe the gospel and submit themselves to Jesus’ lordship, we need to live like we believe God’s Word still applies to Christianity outside of our context. We need to apply it even to those situations where obedience feels more difficult.
Isolation is not the Normal Way Christians Should Live
First, remember isolation is not the normal vision for the Christian life. We need other people in our life to serve, love, and encourage. The Bible is clear that it is spiritually dangerous to live isolated from fellow believers.
It is spiritually dangerous to live isolated from fellow believers.
We have a terrible habit of treating exceptions as proof that we should ignore the rule. Not many Christians nor missionaries should be in places without other Christians they can covenant within a local church. Don’t let exceptional circumstances excuse intentional disobedience to Christ’s guidance.
What is a Real Church?
Second, the objection about frontier missionaries and church membership often seems grounded in unspoken assumptions about what makes a real church or healthy church. Thankfully, Jesus has given us the minimum number of members required for a church—two or three (Matthew 18:18–20). I don’t mean to encourage naivete. There are certainly challenges of being in a church with only two or three other members, just as there are challenges to being a part of a church with 300 or 3,000 members.
Complexity is not a reason for us to ignore the importance of the local church.
But inconvenience and complexity should never be a reason for us to ignore the importance of the local church to Christian endurance––especially for missionaries in lonely, spiritually challenging, frontier contexts. We must rigorously evaluate our internal assumptions of what a church needs against what Scripture teaches us it needs.
Church Membership is Meaningful
Third, remember church membership isn’t just about checking off a box. When the Bible teaches we “must” do something, it’s not the same as a government telling us that “You must fill out this form.” It’s the equivalent of a doctor saying, “You must eat well.” You can ignore his instruction, but only to your own harm.
Just as there may be situations where you are hindered from eating well while you’re traveling, that doesn’t mean you should give up taking any care about what you eat, so there may be situations where individual Christians are unable to commit to a local church in their context. But we should never send missionaries into that situation lightly. Nor should we ever send people who see no spiritual danger in living where there is no church.
Membership in a local church is not something that we want our missionaries to think of as a chore that they can find a way to technically fulfill but as a means of preserving their faith and commending the gospel. The absence of a church is not only a peril to them and their family’s well-being, but it is also a weakness that will undercut their public ministry. We need missionaries who prize and prioritize the local church, especially in places where there are no churches. That’s how those places become places with churches, as the Lord saves.
Send Missionaries Who Love the Local Church
As evangelicals, we intuitively understand that we should send missionaries who grieve the lack of Christians in other parts of the world. But we must be sure that those we send also grieve the lack of local churches. Otherwise, the exceptional situation––to have no part in a local church––is what we will train the next generation of Christians to embrace as the norm of their lives.