I believe that the agent, authority, and aim of global missions is the local church. The work of establishing, building up, and supporting of local churches that display the good reign of King Jesus through disciple-making and worship belongs to local churches. This belief shapes the way that we engage missions, and it shapes how local churches are involved in supporting and partnering with those they send as missionaries.
The Biblical Precedent in Missionary Sending
From the very beginning of missionary work in the New Testament, we see that the local church plays a central role. The first occasion where someone is identified and commissioned for a task of making disciples in far-off places shows up in Acts 13. The details are important here. Luke records that the church at Antioch was gathered for worship and fasting (Acts 13:2). The gathered church discerns the Holy Spirit setting apart Barnabas and Saul for a specific task. The church continues their fast, prays, and eventually lays hands on the two men, sending them to this work. We are told that the church at Antioch sends Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:3) and that the Holy Spirit sent them (Acts 13:4).
As they labor at the work to which they had been sent, Barnabas and Saul plant churches and appoint elders everywhere they went. When they completed their work, Acts 14:26–27 records, “From there they sailed back to Antioch where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. After they arrived and gathered the church together, they reported everything God had done with them and that he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” Barnabas and Saul understood themselves to be accountable to their sending church, and their report bears that out. While this may be descriptive and not prescriptive, it sets a biblical precedent and pattern with no alternative examples.
God’s Design for the Church’s Purpose
Local churches are central to missionary sending because of the biblical precedent and the ecclesiological emphasis of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. When 1 Timothy 3 is considered, most of the attention is often directed at the qualifications given for elders and deacons. Sometimes, this causes us to neglect to see that Paul gives a rationale for the expectations he is laying out. The chapter ends with Paul writing, “I have written so that you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
Sending missionaries should mean sending those who will be involved in planting and strengthening local churches.
If the church is to display and uphold the truth and to serve as the household of God, it is clearly at the center of God’s purposes. Reinforcing this, we might recall that it is the church that will ultimately prevail, even against the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18). If missions is the task of obeying Christ’s commission in places where biblical truth must be upheld, displayed, and at war against the kingdom of darkness, then the church seems to be the best investment. Sending missionaries should mean sending those who will be involved in planting and strengthening local churches.
How the Church Can Practically Support Missionaries
Finally, if these convictions describe and define our missionary task, then local churches should be involved in supporting their missionaries with finances, affirmation, accountability, and partnership. Instead of abdicating these things to a missions agency, local churches should hold the responsibility to encourage members to consider missions work and then help direct and define that work with them.
Local churches can know and observe their missionary candidates better than an agency can.
When someone indicates an aspiration to the mission field, it should first be the local church that evaluates their character and competency qualifications to help them determine their calling. In commissioning someone to the field, the local church should speak into the priorities and expectations for which they will be accountable. And in supporting their work and testing its integrity, the local church should be quick to send other members to encourage, help speak into strategy and theology, and direct others to help in the task.
All of these things are best accomplished by local churches, since they can know and observe their missionary candidates better than an agency can. Likewise, if the church is responsible for keeping their sent ones accountable for the work to which they are sent, the local church should be seeking ways to be aware and involved in the work on the field. Finally, if the church is commissioning missionaries, they should be the first to support, encourage, and supply the needs of those they have sent. These responsibilities lie at the feet of local churches by biblical precedent, ecclesiological conviction, and practical wisdom.