Mission — evangelism or church planting?
God is the author of all missionary work. As David Livingstone said, ‘God had an only Son and he made him a missionary’. The incredible thing is that God chooses to use us in the great missionary task.
Who do we mean when we say he uses ‘us’? It is quite clear from the New Testament that God’s agency for mission is the local church. The church in Antioch was called by the Holy Spirit to set apart Paul and Barnabas for the great missionary task of reaching the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3), and it is to that church that they report back all that God has done through them (Acts 14:26-28).
This does not mean that each local church must go it alone without reference to what others are doing. As John McDonald shows above, church-based mission necessitates co-operation and organisation — if we are to follow the pattern of the early church and work together for the sake of gospel missionary work.
Churches need to work together not only in sending and supporting missionaries but also on the mission field itself. Missionary work should not just be ‘church based’ but also ‘church focused’.
When Paul and his companions went on their missionary journeys they planted churches. Their aim was not just to evangelise a particular area and see people converted, but that those converted should be gathered together as a local church.
The New Testament contains many letters written to what started out as newly planted missionary churches — in places like Philippi, Corinth and Thessalonica. As these new churches came into being, Paul expected them to become involved in the missionary task by prayer, financial support and their own outreach.
So he commends the Philippians for their ‘partnership with me’ (4:14-18); urges the Colossians to ‘pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ’ (4:3); and praises the Thessalonians that ‘from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth … in every place’ (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
Working with others
In practical terms, this means that the aim of our missionary work is to see new self-supporting missionary-minded churches established. We don’t want churches on the mission field that are dependent on ‘parent’ churches when they could be independent.
To achieve this will mean praying for and training up national pastors to quickly take the lead in newly planted churches, seeking to instil in them the same outward looking missionary mindset.
This in turn will require co-operation with others on the mission field. This is where suitably church-focused missionary organisations and church associations can be of enormous benefit — bringing wisdom, co-ordination and partnership in a given situation.
Their experience and local knowledge relating to the needs of a particular country or people group can be invaluable in avoiding pitfalls and promoting good on the mission field.
This is the basis on which several missionary organisations operate, for example the European Missionary Fellowship (I use this example as it is a missionary organisation with which I am familiar).
EMF supports missionaries in 16 countries across Europe, where there is great spiritual darkness despite the fact that this continent once knew the blessing of the Reformation. The vast majority of EMF missionaries are nationals serving in their own countries.
With a solid base of support from churches in the UK and further afield, we are therefore working with local churches on the ground — to see men trained and equipped for ministry, to support men in pastoral charges until their local church is strong enough to support them completely, and to see new churches planted.
Achieving this involves organisation, conferences, travel, literature work and running the EMF School of Biblical Studies in Welwyn. Without such activities the churches across Europe would be weaker and less able to fulfil their responsibilities — to proclaim the gospel and in turn send out gospel workers to reach the lost.
God’s agent for mission is the local church, and that means church-based mission and church-focused mission. As Carey said, ‘Expect great things from God! Attempt great things for God!’