The idea that the local church is indispensable to the life and ministry of a missionary should go without saying. Unfortunately, though, some missionaries and churches in our day have failed to make this vital connection. The missionary may view the local church’s affirmation as a necessary formality or rubber stamp rather than a vital part of his or her calling, that is, if the church is in the picture at all.
Some churches, on the other hand, have failed to take responsibility for the critical role they play in the missionary’s calling and future ministry. Once a person claims to have been “called to missions,” no further questions are asked. The would-be missionary is simply passed along to a missions agency, with little thought given to the church’s ongoing responsibility in the missionary’s training. “Be sure to send us your newsletter,” may be the final correspondence.
The scenarios mentioned above are problematic at a number of levels. For starters, there is the very real possibility of churches sending out individuals who are not called and equipped to serve as missionaries. (I’m defining a missionary as an individual—hopefully as part of a team—sent out by a local church to cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic boundaries in order to make the gospel of Christ known among a people or place where there is little or no access to the gospel). Significant resources may be poured into disciple-making efforts that are at best ineffective and at worst unbiblical.
On the other hand, missionaries also lose when their connection to a local church is weak. In a task that is extremely demanding spiritually, emotionally, and physically, they are cut off from a vital source of encouragement and counsel.
With these unfortunate scenarios in mind, let me briefly identify six reasons missionaries need, and should want, the involvement of their local church. Each of these reasons could be expanded upon, and there are likely several more that could be added.
1. Missionaries need their calling affirmed.
While it’s true that God works in the lives of individual Christians, the “missionary call” is not a private matter. Regardless of what a potential missionary may feel that God is leading him or her to do, it is the church that must affirm this perceived calling. Church leaders and members should be able to say, “Yes, we see evidence that God may be leading this person to serve as a missionary.” This kind of affirmation by other Spirit-filled believers should provide the missionary with greater confidence than a mere memory of “feeling called.” The church’s affirmation then sets the stage for intentional instruction and ongoing observation, which relates directly to the next point.
2. Missionaries need to grow spiritually and exercise their gifts.
Like all other Christians, potential missionaries need to grow in godliness and exercise their spiritual gifts. And since the purpose of spiritual gifts is to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11–16; 1 Corinthians 12), the church is the proper place to exercise these gifts. As helpful as missions agencies can be in terms of training and equipping people for certain cross-cultural challenges, the church has been uniquely equipped by God to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11–16; 1 Corinthians 12).
3. Missionaries need to see and participate in a healthy church.
If your goal is to see a healthy church planted in an unreached context, then it is only natural that you would want to observe and be a faithful member of a healthy church. No church is perfectly healthy, so this isn’t a call to leave your current church. But it would be unwise for anyone to seek to raise up faithful members if he has never been one himself. A potential missionary should be familiar with, and integral to, the life and ministry of a local church.
4. Missionaries need to be sent out.
There’s an assumption being made in the three points above that, perhaps, shouldn’t be assumed: missionaries are sent out by churches. While other ministries and missions agencies can play an important role in this process, the New Testament points us to the church as the true sender. Christ commanded His original disciples, and by extension the church in all ages, to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:46–47). Then, once we get to Acts and the Epistles, we see the church doing just that––sending out workers for the proclamation of the gospel across the known world (Acts 13:1–3; Romans 15:24; 3 John 6).
5. Missionaries need accountability.
Most Christians know how easy it is, even if unintentionally, to float through the Christian life without any accountability from fellow believers. Now imagine being on the other side of the world with (at best) only a few fellow believers stretched out over vast regions. The missionary’s sending church should seek to provide accountability both in terms of personal holiness and gospel proclamation. Such accountability is not primarily about counting converts or micro-managing an individual’s spiritual progress; the point is to encourage integrity and faithfulness in ministry. Missionaries should welcome this kind of accountability, which is closely connected to the final point below.
6. Missionaries need encouragement, prayer, and counsel.
Every Christian needs the gifts and encouragement of fellow believers, and missionaries are no exception. They need regular encouragement, prayer, and, at times, counsel from their sending church. The missionary’s task can be lonely and discouraging, particularly when there’s no visible fruit. Like us, missionaries have challenges in their marriages, in their parenting, in their evangelism, in their mental health, etc. They may even need a concentrated time of counseling. Churches should be eager to offer this kind of spiritual care to those whom they send out, and missionaries will undoubtedly be the better for it.
It’s in this final step that we’re reminded why the missionary-church connection is not merely a formality or a rubber stamp in order to receive funds. It’s a life-giving relationship that, by the grace of God, may be used to bear fruit for the sake of Christ’s name. Missionaries and their sending churches should work together to this end.