Mission — independence or co-operation?
It seems to me that the model for missionary work clearly set out in Scripture is one of ‘church based mission’. Acts 13:1-3 is the key text and establishes the following principles:
(1) mission is the concern of a well-ordered church; (2) God uses godly leadership to identify and separate missionaries for the work; (3) the church as a whole sets aside those separated to this work and commits to caring for them; and (4) the missionaries report back to the whole church (Acts 14:27). This pattern is repeated elsewhere.
Is there room for outside organisations?
There is no doubt that the NT churches saw the need for wider ‘organisation’, at least in general terms. We know this because the church was identified as ‘the body of Christ’, not just in its local form but also as a whole (compare Ephesians 1:23 with 1 Corinthians 12).
This sense of union led to conferences (e.g. Acts 15) to which representatives were sent and where reports were received. From the beginning, more than one church was involved in sending named missionaries — Paul’s co-missionaries Barnabas and Mark had come from Jerusalem.
Emanating from first principles in which the local church held primary responsibility, we see a growing secondary principle of co-operation. By the time we get to Acts 20:4 we have a multi-church team working together — all apparently sent by different individual churches but with a common aim. And in 2 Corinthians 8:16-19 it was ‘the churches’ (plural) that had appointed Titus to be Paul’s helper in extending the work.
How should a missionary organisation work?
We need to ask how this can work in practice, so allow me to use Grace Baptist Mission (GBM) as an example. Inter-church co-operation among ‘Reformed or Grace Baptists’, as we might now call them, has a long history. Indeed, the Northamptonshire Association was central to the sending of William Carey and remained influential in his lifetime.
The organisation should be answerable to the churches meeting together. The question here is who, ultimately, runs the mission? Is it a board or council which, once elected by interested parties, runs matters without reference to local churches? Or is it a body appointed by those churches to act on their behalf and which remains accountable to them? The second seems more in line with the principles mentioned above.
The recruitment of missionaries should be church-led rather than mission-led. The mission should be approached by a church which believes it has a member whom God has called to the work of a missionary and whose call it has tested and approved.
The mission’s responsibility is to review all the circumstances on behalf of the body of churches and to recommend the missionary for support by those churches.
The activity of the mission should be limited to assisting the local church to carry out its responsibility in sending and caring for its missionary. In other words, it should not remove responsibility from the local church when the latter is acting biblically.
Assistance may involve areas of expertise which are not readily available to the local church but which are necessary to the work of mission — for example, experience gathered over many years of sending and supporting missionaries overseas. The mission will seek to nurture the relationship between missionary and church, not to replace it!
As part of its function, the mission will encourage co-operation with like-minded churches in helping a church to meet the funding requirements and in stimulating regular prayer support for the missionary. Wide publicity of the work is a great boon in this regard and is something that the mission can achieve more effectively than the local church.
Why are organisations necessary?
There are, I think, many reasons but here are two salient points.
We live in days when many churches are small and apparently struggling. Yet it is often from such churches God calls his missionary servants. A mission can help other churches join in sharing the privilege of sending a missionary.
Secondly, if a church that has sent a missionary has to close down, GBM can help the missionary find a new ‘home church’ to which to relate — often one they have got to know during years of mutually faithful correspondence and deputation visits.
A brief background to GBM may be found on p.306 of John Appleby’s recent book on William Carey, I Can Plod (Grace Publications).