The local church – God’s agent for mission
The task of mission is a great one and we all need to understand it in order to be focused and responsible in the way we encourage or take part in it. We need biblical principles to guide us.
In previous articles, I set out three principles which build on one another – first, the fact that God is a missionary God is the great foundation on which everything else rests. Then the way God has chosen to save people is through conscious faith in his Son. Finally, in order to have this faith people need to hear the gospel of truth – which is why missionaries are essential.
God has commissioned us to reach nations with the gospel, and to ensure that God’s purpose will be realised – of drawing to himself those from every tribe, tongue, nation and people.
But now we need to define who God has made responsible for this great missionary task. So far we have spoken of ‘we’ and ‘us’ – but who is this? Christians in general, mission societies or local churches?
The local church
God has no need to use ‘means’ in the work of evangelising the world. That is to say, he could, if he chose, speak directly to people to tell them the gospel himself. However, usually, God does use means – people like us, Christians who have heard the gospel, believed it, put their faith in Jesus Christ and who then go on to tell the gospel to others.
God has laid the responsibility of mission on his people, and specifically on the local church, the body of Christ.
In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) Jesus gives his disciples this mammoth task of reaching all the nations of the world. How are they going to do it? The model is set down for us in the book of Acts.
Everything in place
The book opens with a reminder that this is the ongoing work of Christ (Acts 1:1), and before Jesus ascends into heaven he confirms what he wants them to do (1:8).
The book of Acts divides into three sections – the work in Jerusalem (chs. 1-7), the work in Samaria (ch.8) and the conversion of the Gentiles (ch.9 onwards). After Paul’s conversion (ch.9) Peter is taught that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as the Jews (ch.10) and reports back to the church in Jerusalem (ch.11).
Most of the believers in Jerusalem are scattered by persecution, and as a result the gospel reaches Antioch. A great number of Gentiles are converted and a church is planted there (11:19-30). Paul is brought in to teach them and for the first time, disciples are called ‘Christians’.
Now everything is in place to begin in earnest the missionary outreach to the nations of the world. A series of churches has been established from Jerusalem to Antioch, each bringing the gospel to its region and spreading the message onward into unreached territory. All the apostles have grasped that the gospel is for Gentiles too, and Paul – Christ’s chosen ambassador to the Gentiles – has been converted.
The Holy Spirit calls the local church in Antioch to set apart Paul and Barnabas for the mission field (Acts 13:1-3). Jesus’ concern for the ‘Lord of the harvest to send forth workers into his harvest field’ (Matthew 9:38) is beginning to bear fruit.
Thus, by the Holy Spirit’s command, the local church at Antioch becomes the sending body. The missionary activity is not directed by the apostles from their base in Jerusalem, but by the local church in Antioch. The same pattern is repeated later with Timothy (Acts 16:3; 1 Timothy 4:14). There is no hierarchy from the Jerusalem church downward, and the responsibility of the local church in Antioch does not end with sending individuals to the task.
The local church continues to have a duty of care towards those sent out. In Acts 14:26-28 Paul and Barnabas are seen reporting back to the church in Antioch. As churches are established they become involved in the great missionary task by means of prayer and financial support (Philippians 4:14-18; Colossians 4:3; 3 John 5-8; Romans 15:28-32). Even in troubled churches, believers like Gaius (3 John) are encouraged to care for passing missionaries, despite the strife in the local church.
The pattern set out for us, therefore, is one in which local churches send out members they have recognised as gifted by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel – supporting them materially and in prayer, recognising churches established in other places as their brethren, and cooperating together with them in the missionary task.
Thus the aim of mission is to see more churches established and biblically equipped. This is what Paul did as he went to Philippi, Corinth, Thessalonica – in each place a church was established, taught, and elders were appointed to care for the flock. Many of the New Testament letters were written on the mission field to churches established by mission.
The work of mission should be church-based and church-focused at both ends. A church should do the sending of missionaries and a planted church should be the result.
Implications for our churches
What are the implications? First, that each local church has a part to play – certainly in bringing the gospel to its local area. But also, each church is called by God to be proactive, contributing to the task of reaching all nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ and seeing churches planted. None of us can abdicate from the Great Commission. It is ours to fulfil, as much as it was for the eleven apostles.
What can we do? All the things the Antioch church did:
We can send – missionaries come from churches. We must always be cultivating, encouraging, praying and expecting God to raise up people from our midst to be involved in his service. We need missionaries both like Paul (to plant churches) and like Timothy (to establish churches).
We can help finance those sent from other churches – as the Philippians gave to Paul. We should be putting a good proportion of our money into the cause of making Christ known across the world, consistently supporting faithful workers.
We can be involved in training, encouraging and teaching – giving placements to young men; supporting sound Bible colleges; releasing Bible teachers to help others; and corresponding with missionaries and showing an interest in their work.
We can pray – Paul was always encouraging churches to pray for gospel work. Our prayer can change the world.
Cooperation between churches is to be expected. The New Testament pattern is of local churches that are independent but who cooperate and work together – particularly in terms of world mission.
We have to work hard at partnerships for the sake of the gospel. Working with others takes a great deal of effort and sometimes complicates matters, but it is necessary for the cause of the gospel.
This is where mission societies can be of great help – acting as facilitators and administrators for cooperation and avoiding duplication of effort. But they need to be church-minded and faithful to the biblical gospel, recognising that God’s agency for mission is the local church and not the society itself.
The aim is to see new, self-supporting, missionary-minded churches established. The Pauline pattern of church planting should be the goal of all missionary work. We want these churches to become self-supporting and then to contribute to the missionary cause themselves.
It is all too easy to create churches which are dependent, rather than independent. The norm should be for indigenous pastors to lead churches, though this may not always be the case, as was evident in the New Testament (look at Antioch’s eldership, Acts 13:1).
Once a church is established we should respect and work with it – not seeing it as less significant because we helped establish it. Being church-based has effects at both ends – here in terms of sending and support, there in terms of respect and cooperation.
Finally, we must seek to maintain the integrity of our missionary work and links. Our commitment to making the gospel known in doctrine and practice needs to be consistent with our own basis of faith.
We must not have double standards – preaching and teaching certain truths as important to us, but then supporting works and ministries which neglect or deny those truths in other places.
We need to have the same outlook as Paul – fixed, flexible and focused (1 Corinthians 9:19-27). He was fixed on gospel truth, determined to win others and bring them into obedience to Christ’s law. He was flexible on everything else, and focused on the task. That same biblical integrity and balance of principles should govern our missionary work and fellowship links.
Heed the call of Isaiah 54:2-3, and remember William Carey’s dictum: ‘Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God!’