For many years, I grew up in a country that’s associated with violence and bloodshed in the minds of most people. There is nothing like the reality of a war zone to underline the weightier reality – people are dying apart from Christ, and going to hell.
This reality has mobilized countless young Christians to pour out their lives to proclaim the gospel to those who have not heard it. It has propelled saints who can rightly be called heroes of the faith to go to hard places and tell people about Jesus.
The urgency that reality stirs up in our hearts is good. But when it is the only or primary motivation, we often commission global workers absolutely devoted to the gospel who have given little to no thought about what comes next after people profess faith. The urgent need for people to be converted often produces work that has not prepared for the days, months, years, and decades between conversion and heaven.
The Need for Global Workers Who Equip the Church
We need global workers who not only consider how to share the gospel, but how to help Christians grow in faithfulness and maturity across lifetimes. One simple, but often neglected way to accomplish this is for more churches to consider commissioning some of their own elders as global workers.
We need global workers who not only consider how to share the gospel, but how to help Christians grow in faithfulness and maturity across lifetimes.
Just as the church in Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas, men who had served as leaders of that church for at least fourteen years, we should be willing to send out our most experienced teachers and shepherds for the sake of the gospel.
Viewing the landscape of global workers, I’d say this proposal is quite unusual. So let me address a potential objection and give three particular reasons why I think sending men who have served as church elders out as global workers is not only a nice idea, but uniquely strategic.
Aren’t elders more established in life and less likely to move overseas?
This objection is absolutely relevant. I have often warned college students that the realities of adult responsibilities will make their missionary aspirations feel impractical and unattainable. It is far easier to mobilize young, relatively unattached people than it is people with years or decades of roots in one place. But since when does ease determine what we should consider doing in service to our King?
The church in Antioch didn’t send out all of it’s elders, but it did send out Paul and Barnabas. They were established leaders. They had had fruitful ministries. I’d venture to say they were some of the most valued elders of that church—Paul as the theologian and Barnabas as the constant encourager. Yet they were sent out.
3 Reasons to Send Elders to the Mission Field
This is not to say that every elder should move overseas for missions. But why not some? Why not at least one? If the cost seems too high for an elder of your church to pay, why would you ask a young college student to pay it? Now for the benefits of sending elders.
Godly elders are wise in the Word.
Christian ministry depends on God’s Word. It is his word that he has promised will accomplish the purpose for which he sent it out (Isaiah 55:10–11). God’s Word is powerful and sufficient. But applying God’s Word requires more than just having a copy of the Bible or an excellent search engine. It also requires wisdom. The message of salvation is clear; but how to interpret and apply the full counsel of God is not always clear—at least not right away.
The job of elders in the life of a church is to lead the church devoting themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2, 4; 1 Timothy 3:2). In other words, in a local church’s leadership is a pool of men who are already experienced and practiced in interpreting and applying God’s Word to the lives of a congregation and individuals.
Young churches—especially those in a place with no cultural Christian background— often face challenges that require greater pastoral wisdom, not less, than an established body. Why not send men you know are saturated in Scripture and have shown the ability to apply it to the various circumstances and challenges in one group of people?
Godly elders are experienced in navigating matters of conscience.
Perhaps you’re thinking, the trouble is that the older you get, the more set in your ways you become, and we don’t want elders to project cultural assumptions onto young believers in a different country. That’s a good concern to have, but I would suggest that a capable elder has already invested considerable time navigating something akin to this in shepherding a local church. Cultural differences are essentially large-scale matters of conscience.
A godly elder will have had experience leading people through convictions different from his own without falling into legalism or moral relativism.
The unity of any church depends on people with differing consciences learning how to live with one another and this unity depends on teachers who refuse to bind people’s conscience to more than the teaching of God’s Word. A godly elder will have had experience leading people through convictions different from his own without falling into legalism or moral relativism.
A faithful pastor will have already had considerable experience navigating similar issues: how do I speak to this zealous young Christian who is persuaded that it is sinful for any Christian to watch a movie? How do I counsel these two brothers, one of whom thinks he can eat meat and the other that he cannot, to live together peaceably? How do I speak to people seeking my advice? A good pastor knows not every Christian has to do the same thing, but there’s freedom in many decisions. The practice of discerning whether a particular way of life is sinful, foolish, or just different is much of what a good pastor has to think about in a given counseling situation. This muscle is crucial for usefully ministering cross-culturally.
Godly elders set an example for others.
Elders are meant to be models of godly maturity. So, on ‘the field,’ whether they become an elder of a local congregation or not, your elder is someone you know will be a model of Christian godliness. One of the great vacuums in my city is the absence of models of mature Christians. So much of godly maturity and godly leadership is caught better than it is taught. Perhaps the reason why many mission fields still struggle from a dearth of indigenous leaders is that churches have not considered sending men who could teach by their lives what it means to be an elder.
I think of my friend Andy who moved to a nearby city, after serving as a staff pastor of a church in the United States for over twenty years. The number of church leaders who sought him out has been astounding to me. He and I might give the same advice about pastoring, but he has a level of credibility that I am about 15 years away from. He can be an example for other leaders here in a particular way because of his lifetime of experience.
Lastly, consider what it means for your elders to be models of godly maturity in your own church. If you want to see members of your church invested in global missions; if you want young people to give their entire lives for the sake of the gospel; perhaps ask yourself this question: do they have any examples of godly elders who would do the same with their own lives?