I hope we can agree that the church should especially care about eternal suffering. The church is that unique gospel community chartered by Jesus Christ himself. Consequently, it should especially labor to fulfill its unique mission to guard the gospel, proclaim the gospel, and disciple those who respond in repentance and faith to the gospel.
If our churches fail at that mission, no matter what other good things we do, we will have failed in the unique mandate that Christ has given us as churches. It is good to do other good things, and our churches may make different decisions about engaging in good works and social action. But it is the stewardship of the gospel that remains utterly unique to the Christian church. We must keep first things first. That is the priority of Christian missions.
SEE ALSO: 3 Questions to Ask before Considering Long-Term Missions
God intends not only that his mission would go forward but that it would go forward on his terms. He means to get glory by showing that the mission is his and that his power sustains it. Any effort on our part to change or broaden the mission, or to substitute our ideas for God’s, runs the risk of trying to rob God of his rightful glory. And trying to rob an all-knowing and all-powerful God of the thing he is most passionate about in all the universe is breathtakingly stupid and ultimately pointless. God says:
For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another. (Isa. 48:9–11)
SEE ALSO: 3 Missions of a New Believer
In one sense the commission to missions was given to every individual Christian. But in another sense it was given primarily to local churches. Each of us individually is called to obey Christ’s command to make disciples who know and obey his Word. But how does he intend us to do that? His Word is clear—normally we are to pursue obedience, build up disciples, and plant other churches through the local church. The local church makes clear who is and who is not a disciple through baptism and membership in the body (Acts 2:41). The local church is where most discipling naturally takes place (Heb. 10:24–25). The local church sends out missionaries (Acts 13:3) and cares for missionaries after they are sent (Phil. 4:15–16; 3 John 1–8). And healthy, reproducing local churches are normally the aim and end of our missionary effort (Acts 15:41; Titus 1:5).
It would be cruel for God to know what he wants, but then leave us to figure it all out. God would never treat his children that way. Throughout his Word, God has given us a treasury of instructions on the global mission of the church—what it is and how to approach the mission in faithfulness and joyful confidence. We love and honor him not merely by working toward the final goal he’s given—worshipers from every language, tribe, people, and nation—but also by using the means he has decreed. And he has told us that his global mission will advance through holy lives, faithful prayer, gospel proclamation, and healthy reproducing churches.
SEE ALSO: What Real Missions by Ordinary Christians Looks Like
The role of the local church is not merely to assess but also to actively equip missionaries. We may not know a lot about specific cultures, learning languages, or even historical issues that shape a people’s attitudes toward the gospel. But the local church is the perfect place—God’s appointed place—to grow Christian character, encourage general fruitfulness, and transmit sound Bible doctrine. We shouldn’t let a few things we might not know keep us from faithfully and assertively stewarding the responsibility for missions God has given churches. Churches are where faithful missionaries are made. If our churches do a good job in our basic responsibilities, then we have all we need to raise up godly missionaries.
Not only should our churches send missionaries wisely, but we should support them appropriately. And our support for workers should be as ample as God’s Word enjoins. As we commit to send or support missionaries, we should expect our giving to be serious, significant, and sacrificial. Whether we give directly to missionaries or through some cooperative sending agency, our goal should be workers amply supplied so that they lack nothing.
The foundation of a congregation’s ability to care for its missionaries is regular communication. We can’t meet needs we don’t know about, and it’s hard to meet pastoral needs if relationships atrophy. Thankfully, it’s probably never been easier to keep up relationships from afar. With email and Skype, there is generally no reason to fall out of touch with workers. But it still takes effort. Busyness, time-zone differences, and sometimes security concerns can push these calls off the agenda. Church leaders should consider setting a regular monthly time when they will call each supported worker. In addition, they might find another member of the church who is willing to keep in regular contact with each missionary and occasionally report back to the congregation.
One of the best ways to care for missionaries is literally to do what the Bible says to do: show hospitality to them (3 John 8). I wish biblical application were always this straightforward. Hospitality is important during brief visits, but even more important during the months-long returns most missionaries make from time to time. During those longer visits home, consider what your church can do to offer free housing to the workers you support. Plan and budget ahead for this. And don’t stop with housing. Look for ways to help them be a meaningful part of the congregation. We want our workers to be able to rest, be refreshed, and reconnect with friends and church leaders. They won’t be able to do this if financial concerns force them to live far away with relatives or with another church more willing to provide the housing they need.
Supporting workers well also means being sensitive about how, when, and whether to send short-term teams to work with them. It’s worth noting that not all short-term teams are a help. Sending people at the wrong time or with the wrong skills, or just sending the wrong kind of people, will not help your long-term workers. The best way to make sure short-term work is genuinely helpful is to send teams that your overseas workers request. Make it clear to your long-term missionaries that receiving short-term teams is not a condition of your support. Rather, give them the freedom to direct who should come, when they should come, and even if they should come or not. Anything else is likely to lead to short-term projects that serve your own ends, but at the considerable expense to the workers you claim to want to help.
Your church should work to cultivate long-term overseas workers from your own congregation. At the outset of a partnership, why not articulate the explicit goal that some of your own members will uproot their lives and plant them long term in another culture for the sake of the gospel? Even more, if possible, why not aim to eventually staff an entire missionary team from your church or in partnership with other like-minded churches. Having a team that is on the same theological page right from the start won’t solve every problem, but it will certainly avoid many.
Being long term focused may also mean doing short-term trips with the long-term mind-set. Rather than just providing “missions experiences,” consider trips that support the work of existing long-term teams to whom you are committed. See your short-term work primarily as a way to support your longterm partners in whatever ways they need, and secondarily as a way to raise up your own members to join the work long term. Workers on the mission field generally need more boots on the ground—day in, day out—not just friends passing through.
Andy Johnson (PhD, Texas A&M) serves as an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
Image courtesy: ©Thinkstock/georgemuresan
Publication date: September 26, 2017