This article is part of a series on missions and the local church. We trust that this series will encourage both faithfulness to Christ’s bride and obedience to the bride’s mission.
Do you remember the Machine Gun Preacher? Nothing says missions like a machine gun and rippling muscles, right? However, thinking about Sam Childers makes me consider how missionaries get to the field. How did that guy get there? Why did he stay? Was anyone helping and guiding him? What was his message? How did he measure success? I want to know the answer because deep down I want assurance that what I am doing is meaningful and worthwhile (I’m in good company with this concern: Phil 2:16-17).
More than my personal concern, all Christians have the responsibility to take the gospel to the nations. What if the missionary you are supporting is not preaching the gospel? Whose job is it to steer and encourage the work being done in Jesus’ name?
For a moving treatment of this topic, check out Mack Stiles’ excellent article, “Don’t Go Until You Are Sent.” However, I would like to round out what Mack said. He talks about the role of the local church and does so marvelously! But there is a little bit more to add.
All God’s People Going into All the World
All Christians are called (sent) by God to make the gospel known to those who have yet to believe in Jesus. All Christians are also called to both receive and give discipleship through the local church. Everyone – that means you. You may not be moving to the Middle East or actively engaging refugees in your town (why not start moving in that direction?), but you do have neighbors and co-workers.
In the most basic way imaginable, missionaries are just like you, sent by God to faithfully witness to the gospel of Jesus. Herein lies the start of the answer of “who” sends the missionary. God must, through providence and spiritual gifts, give you the desire, skills, and maturity to be a missionary. So many people miss this in their zeal: you need to be prepared to go before going. That preparation is part of what it means to be called and sent by God.
The Sending Process
Here is where this process gets sticky. The normal process looks something like this. A potential missionary goes on a short-term mission trip and comes back ready to sell everything and move to a new country. When this happens, the “M” goes back to his local congregation to tell them of his or her desire to go. The pastors of the church are left feeling that saying “no” is like saying no to God. So few people want to be missionaries that this desire must be God’s will! Even if the candidate is not fit because of character or competency, so often the zeal to go outweighs the ability to submit to godly authority. Who wins—the missionary or the pastors?
The only New Testament model, Acts 13, shows Paul and Barnabas being selected and sent out by the church in Antioch. They were given the blessing of the church as well as the authority to do the work of the ministry. Moreover, there was an expectation that they would return to give testimony to what they said and did as well as what the Lord did through them. This full-circle of ministry is what makes this model something that we ought to emulate.
I have only been on the field for nine months. I am still in the midst of language and culture learning. One thing that I already rely on, perhaps the thing I rely on the most, is the relationship I have with my sending church (shout out to Trinity Baptist Church in Vidalia, GA). I have the honor of reporting on our work and struggles to real people who pray for us and support us. I know of missionaries that do not have that. Some say that after nine to ten years of ministry, their sending church doesn’t even know that they exist – that they are only being personally prayed for by family and a couple of close friends.
The Role of the Missions Agency
There is often a gap in the schema of relying on the local church to be the sender of missionaries: most local churches don’t have the first clue about sending missionaries. It’s true. The dark, ugly secret is that local churches have outsourced the missions task for so long that they only have an idea of what missions is and how it should be done. Being a missionary is not easy. There are hundreds (thousands) of details and security concerns. There are insurance issues and financial burdens. For some churches those details are just that: little details that could be worked through as fast as you could say “passport.” For most churches I imagine that it would be an undue burden and stress to handle the maze of logistical details.
Here is where the missions agency comes into play. The missionary candidate goes to his or her pastor and gets the approval and support of the church, but can’t figure out what to do or where to go. Well, a good next step is to find a theologically and missiologically healthy sending agency (like Reaching & Teaching!) that lines up with the Great Commission. The local church is usually helped here again by the missions agency because it always has a system to prepare missionaries. The church then cooperates with the missions agency to get its missionary to the field to continue the work of that local church and the universal church.
Who sends the missionary? The Lord prepares, provides, and prompts, while the church recognizes and affirms the work of the Lord. Often the local church may find it daunting to send a missionary to the field and therefore may find it strategically useful to partner with a likeminded agency. The missions agency helps to fill in the gap between the the local church and the missionary. However, nothing replaces the authority or safety of having a strong sending church relationship. A sending agency must not replace the authority and role of the local church, but complement it.