“You can’t commend what you don’t cherish.” Missionaries, John Piper writes, will never call the nations to worship if they’re not personally engaged in heartfelt worship. 
I want to apply this principle to the missionary and the local church. If missionaries don’t cherish the church, then how can they commend it to others?
Christ commissioned the church to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, to make disciples, and to baptize. The missionary task is the responsibility of local churches. Most missionaries understand this. That’s why we seek to be sent by local churches; that’s why we raise funds through churches. We understand that healthy churches will be actively engaged in church planting efforts both at home and abroad.
Sadly, this local church priority fades when many missionaries arrive on the field. Obviously, some go to places where there are no believers and certainly no local churches. Others go to places where churches exist, but they’re young and immature. Still others go to places where at least some sort of national church has existed for generations. It would be naive to believe that all existing churches on the field are healthy and open to partnership. But it would be equally naive to believe that missionaries don’t need to partner with any national churches.
Indeed, I’ve heard missionaries say that they actively avoid joining or even associating with existing national churches because that would “slow down evangelistic and church planting efforts.” Sure enough, some national churches aren’t worth associating with, much less joining. But to dismiss church altogether makes it impossible to cherish Christ’s bride and commend her to others. How can it be that our desire for quick results leads to our devaluing the local church?
By God’s grace, my family and I are members of a growing and healthy national church whose mission is “to be a biblical church that plants biblical churches.” Beyond that, our church is part of a broader association of churches, many of which were planted by workers sent out from our church. In our few years on the field, we’ve enjoyed many advantages of humbly and joyfully serving alongside these churches. I’ll name a few.
Shepherding and Accountability
This first one might sound selfish, but it is nevertheless essential for the missionary. Perhaps the most important reason to partner with local churches on the mission field has nothing to do with strategy and everything to do with the nature of the church. After all, the local church is where believers are shepherded, encouraged, challenged, rebuked, disciplined, and exhorted. There’s simply no replacement for the church in the life of a believer—missionaries included. Our sending churches play an important role, but it’s more-or-less impossible to be shepherded from thousands of miles away. Missionaries need the shepherding and accountability of a local church.
Shortly after we moved to Argentina, some friends commented that we seemed to be adjusting well to life on the field. That was true, but it wasn’t because we are super missionaries. Instead, it had everything to do with the fact that we’d joined a church that loved and cared for us. We faced language and cultural barriers, but the church lovingly and patiently shepherded us through those difficult days of culture shock and adaptation.
But we need more than just love and encouragement. We also need exhortation, correction, and, if necessary, discipline. Missionaries face subtle, yet real dangers regarding personal holiness. Sometimes, we can feel that because we’ve given up so much and are sacrificing to serve God, we deserve to let loose. Add isolation and a lack of accountability to that poor thinking and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Knowing the dangers of my own heart, I’m especially thankful for the elders of our church to whom I have joyfully submitted and who can exhort and correct me when necessary. Missionaries aren’t exempt from the call to submit to and obey local church elders (Hebrews 13:17).
Cultural Expertise and Avoiding the “White Savior” Complex
Another advantage of partnering with national churches is their cultural knowledge and expertise. As we seek to evangelize, plant churches, and train leaders in the same or nearby cultures, such relationships are invaluable. They’ll help us avoid mistakes that are unknown to us but obvious to locals. It doesn’t take long to learn the broad contours of a culture, but it can take years to learn its nuances and subtleties.
Let me give you an example. Recently, some fellow missionaries and I travelled to a remote area in the mountains to do pastoral training on several occasions. Despite our missionary training and best intentions, we knew our cultural peculiarities made it difficult for us to develop deep relationships. On a later trip, one of the pastors from our church accompanied us. Though he faced significant cultural barriers as well, he picked up on nuances that had escaped us. His insights have helped our ongoing efforts in that region.
On other occasions, I’ve pressed for quick action while my elders have encouraged me to move slowly. Their counsel frustrated me at first, but that quickly passed when I realized they were right. Had I moved ahead at the speed I wanted, it would have been a disaster. This wise counsel comes from them knowing the culture much better than I do.
Relying on others Christians’ cultural expertise helps to avoid the “White Savior” complex that’s unfortunately all-too-common among Western missionaries. It’s easy for missionaries to arrive on the field, certain that their methods and strategies are better than whatever the locals are doing. But missionaries shouldn’t ignore what local churches, empowered by the same Spirit, have been doing long before we arrived. Rather, we should humbly partner with them, knowing that God has ordained for his glory to be known among all peoples through local churches.
A final advantage involves the missionary’s long term strategy. Every missionary’s long-term desire is to see national churches planting churches, training pastors, and training and sending their own missionaries. We can often partner with existing churches to fuel this process.
Our local church was planted 25 years ago in order to faithfully proclaim the gospel to university students and young professionals. By God’s grace, the church has grown, sent out church planters and missionaries, and now serves as a training hub for pastors and leaders across the country. Other churches have partnered with us, and we’ve begun to form an association. In other words, all the pieces are in place to work toward our long-term goals.
But imagine if we’d refused to work with national churches because they may “slow us down.” That would sacrifice long-term strategy for perceived short-term gains. While the New Testament encourages urgency in spreading the gospel, it doesn’t suggest that such urgency demands bypassing healthy ecclesiology (Acts 14:20–24). If our desire is to see reproducing churches that train and send missionaries for generations to come, then let’s partner with national churches.
Missionaries often have a pioneering spirit. They want to start new things in new places. But sometimes, the best thing we can do is recognize how God has already been up to old things in old places. He’s been building his church long before we arrived, and he will continue to long after we’re gone. So we rejoice at his sovereign kindness, and we joyfully and humbly partner with national churches for God’s glory among all peoples.
 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy Of God In Missions, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2010), 36.