Jealousy, division, and even hatred have long marked evangelistic teams serving the nations. C.T. Studd sent his own son home from his church planting team, calling the boy lazy and a hindrance to the work. A friend recounts a story of a team who entered the newly-opened Soviet Union in the later part of the twentieth century. After the team conducted a week-long training, local believers asked the leader of the group, “Next time can you send us a team that loves each other?”
There aren’t many scenarios where we know Satan is delighted, but there’s no doubt he’s looking forward to missionary teams living in division.
Often the kind of dissent and hostility that plagues missionary teams looks a lot more like subtle annoyance or passively ignoring others than blatant hatred. I’ve heard missionaries say, “Every minute I spend with foreigners is a minute I don’t spend with nationals”, or “I didn’t come here for Americans.” Or “I wish I could just work with my teammates without being their emotional support.”
After warning members of the church at Galatia not to bite and devour each other, Paul tells them that the works of the flesh include “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy.” By contrast, those who walk by, keep in step with, are filled with, and produce the fruit of the Spirit live in harmony with one another (Galatians 5:16–26).
We Need Each Other in the Missionary Task
Our relationships with other Christians are not secondary to the missionary task. We cannot love those to whom God has sent us if we refuse to love those he sent us with. How missionaries show their sacrificial love for one another is one of the best apologetics for the gospel in a world marked by factions, dissensions, and hate. Missionary teams are messy, and I would argue they are messy by God’s design.
Church plants worldwide have failed, not because they didn’t have the right theology, but because their church planting teams couldn’t love one another.
If you are a sent-out one, you inevitably will work alongside someone who doesn’t see the world just like you do. How we pursue unity in the midst of this glorious diversity of culture, perspective, spiritual gifting, age, etc., is a radical outworking that can only be found in the wake of Christ’s redeeming work in our lives and relationships. Fledgling church plants around the world have failed, not because they didn’t have the right theology, but because their church planting teams couldn’t love one another.
Because relational unity is so essential to gospel advance among the nations, Satan wants to sow division and dissension among missionary teams. If missionary teams constantly fight with each other, the disciples they produce will never learn the familial identities of the people of God.
So where do we start?
Start with the Gospel
Before he went to the cross, Jesus taught his disciples what life after his ascension would entail. He spends a significant amount of time teaching them about the Holy Spirit, and the theme of loving one another permeates his words to them. He tells them that they must love one another as he has loved them––and that the world will know that they are his by their love.
In the prayer before his arrest, he begs his Father that his followers will be one, just as he and the Father are one so that the world will know God the Father sent him (John 13:31–15, 17:20–26). If the people of God do not love each other as Christ has loved them, the world cannot see that Jesus is who he said he is and that the gospel changes lives.
The more missionaries meditate on the long-suffering, forbearing love of Jesus, the more patient they will be with each other.
The more missionaries meditate on the long-suffering, forbearing love of Jesus, the more patient they will be with each other. The more they realize the mysterious reality of their union with Christ that unites them with other believers, the more they will strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Thinking deeply and often about the gospel, and preaching it to themselves and other believers will fuel a supernatural love that surpasses anything those without Christ have known. This will show the world the amazing power of the cross (Ephesians 2:16–18).
Prioritize the Local Church
Nearly all the struggles missionaries face should be addressed in the context of the local church. For many overseas workers, church on the field consists of a superficial Bible study with a few other Christians. Many overseas workers see membership in a church with others who speak their native language as a distraction to their work overseas rather than an essential part of it. Neglecting accountable engagement with a local church is a sure path to disaster.
God has designed the local church, not the missionary team or sending organization, to be the primary place missionaries learn how to live the Christian life, mature together in Christ, and submit to godly authority. The local church is the place where those proclaiming the gospel learn to live out the implications of the gospel to others. Missionaries, like every other Christian, only grow to maturity with a local body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1–16; 1 Peter 2:1–12).
Begin with the One-Anothers
Missionaries must honor the fundamental obligation to live out the “one anothers” with the Christians around them. If they learn to bear with one another, forgive one another, and be kind to one another, team conflict and division will dissipate (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32). The Lord has given us the guidelines through which we can display the love that Christ said would mark his followers.
May God by his grace give us the unity that the Father desires, that the Son died to purchase, and that the Spirit empowers. May he help us live together in such a way that the nations marvel at a God who can cause people to love as he does.