Missions and the Local Church


Editorial Comment: This post is the sixth of 10 articles explaining Reaching & Teaching’s 10 Missiological Distinctives.

We believe healthy local churches are needed in every community; therefore, we strive to reach new peoples and places with the gospel while also strengthening churches and leaders where health is lacking.

Reaching & Teaching believes the church is the means and goal of missions. By “means” we’re saying the church is the God-designed instrument by which our mission is carried out. By “goal” we’re suggesting the church is the end toward which all disciple-making should move. When Jesus sent his followers into the world to make disciples of all nations, his plan was for them not just to make individual converts. He wanted them to gather those disciples into communities of believers.[1] The ultimate purpose of missions is worship, and it’s through the church that God’s manifold wisdom and glory are being displayed (Eph. 3:10). Therefore, Reaching & Teaching seeks to obey the Great Commission by establishing new churches and strengthening existing churches all over the world.

The Centrality of the Church in Jesus’s Plan

Because the Great Commission passages in the Gospels and Acts don’t explicitly mention the church,[2] it’s sometimes argued that the goal of Jesus’ command is simply to make disciples, not necessarily to establish churches. But Jesus himself taught that the church was a crucial part of making disciples of all nations.

In Matthew 16, he announced his plan to create his “church”—a community of kingdom citizens who bear his name and represent his kingdom on earth. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Viewed through the lens of Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus’s words indicate that building his church is the intended goal of his charge to make disciples of all nations. In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches that his followers would gather in local, recognizable, accountable communities. Also called “the church” (Matt. 18:17), these local bodies would serve as outposts of Jesus’s ever-expanding kingdom.

So when we turn to the book of Acts to discover how the apostles understood and obeyed the Great Commission, we find them making disciples by gathering new converts into local churches (Acts 11:19–26; 14:21–23). It was in these local congregations that Jesus’s Great Commission commands to baptize and teach were carried out (Acts 2:41–42). Members of these churches were devoted to the Word and to one another. They worshipped and prayed together, shared the Lord’s Supper, showed hospitality, and met each other’s physical needs (Acts 2:42–46). Known both as “the disciples” (Acts 9:1) and “the church” (Acts 5:11; 8:1), they had an identifiable, countable membership (Acts 6:7) and recognized leaders (Acts 6:1–6). They testified to their community and suffered persecution together (Acts 8:1). And through it all, they continued to grow.

As the Great Commission was obeyed, the glorified Christ built his church as he promised (Matt. 16:18)! This is why we believe the church is the goal of missions. Healthy local churches are the natural and necessary product of faithful evangelism and discipleship in a specific area of the world.

Where Churches Are Needed

So where do we want to see healthy churches established? The simple answer is everywhere because Jesus sent his apostles to make disciples of “all nations” (panta ta ethne in Greek). Who are the ethne—the nations? We don’t believe ethne refers to geo-political nation-states as we use that word today. But nor is it likely that Jesus was thinking of “people groups” in the technical ethno-linguistic sense used by modern sociologists and anthropologists.

If we fast-forward from Matthew 28:19 to Acts 2:5–11, we find that when Luke refers to “all nations” using the same Greek words, he lists peoples (Parthians and Medes), regions (Judea, Asia, and Cappadocia), and cities (Rome). Similarly, Paul’s mission focused on cities (Philippi and Corinth) and political and geographic regions (Galatia, Macedonia, and Spain). In Revelation, however, the Apostle John’s vision of the glorified church includes the tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations of the earth (Rev. 5:9). So rather than being overly simplistic or technical in our understanding of ethne, we conclude that Jesus is calling his church to go to all the peoples and all the places of the world—near and far, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

What does this mean for us today? How can we be faithful to make disciples of all nations? We believe that Great Commission obedience includes both establishing new churches and strengthening existing churches everywhere.

Establishing New Churches

Where do new churches need to be planted? Perhaps the most obvious starting point is “among those who have never heard the gospel.”

Much of the world is still what we call “unreached.” These are places and peoples among whom, using Paul’s language, “Christ has not already been named” (Rom. 15:20). We are responsible to take the gospel to them. And not only must we take them the gospel; we must also play the long game of discipling them and gathering them into local churches as we teach them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).

But there’s more to say about where to go with the gospel. Churches must also be established in places where the gospel has arrived, but in an impure or distorted form. You might call these areas “misreached.” They’re full of people who claim to be Christians but their so-called churches don’t possess the true gospel. Here we can think of much of the Global South, such as Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. These regions are overrun by Roman Catholicism, varieties of the prosperity gospel, radical Pentecostalism, and many other forms of syncretistic Christianity.

Finally, churches must be established in places where there once was a gospel presence but it has subsequently disappeared. Here we can think of places like the Middle East and Europe. The church’s mission among the nations began in the Middle East. Paul viewed Europe as the “ends of the earth,” and it later became the birthplace of the Reformation and eventually the modern missions movement. But today, the Middle East is dominated by Islam, and Europe is overwhelmingly secular and atheistic. You might call these areas “once-reached.”

What do the unreached, misreached, and once-reached need? They need faithful missionaries who proclaim the gospel, make disciples, and plant healthy, vibrant churches where disciples grow in grace together and work together to spread the gospel to their own community and beyond.

Strengthening Existing Churches

But the work of missions must not be limited to only starting new churches. Great Commission faithfulness includes strengthening existing churches and leaders in areas of the world where the true gospel is present and true churches do exist, but where ecclesial health is insufficient to make mature disciples and plant new healthy churches. If our goal is to see healthy churches everywhere, then our missions strategy must include these. We can call them the “underreached.”

The Apostle Paul was committed to strengthening existing churches. A survey of his missionary travels shows his ministry oscillating between planting new churches and strengthening existing ones. His care for already established churches—both ones he planted and ones he didn’t plant—provides us with a helpful example.

As Paul planned his missionary trips over the years, both the needs of the unreached and the needs of the church dictated his itinerary. Each of his journeys included extended time among existing churches. In Acts 14, after planting churches throughout Galatia, Paul and his team returned to those churches to “strengthen” and “encourage” them (vv. 21–23). Similarly, the initial goal of Paul’s second missionary journey was to visit the churches planted on his first one (Acts 15:36). The result of those visits, Luke reports, was that the churches were “strengthened” (Acts 15:41; 16:5). Likewise, Paul’s third journey included return visits to many existing churches where he again “strengthen[ed] all the disciples” (Acts 18:23). Clearly, strengthening the church was an important part of Paul’s missionary strategy.

Churches Paul planted received, in most cases, three or more return visits from him or his teammates over the years. Even churches he didn’t plant—like Colossae, Laodicea, and Antioch—received significant attention from him. Paul writes letters to the churches and prays for them constantly. He often sends members of his church planting team to do long-term strengthening among them. Paul’s ministry was as pastoral as it was pioneering. He tells the Corinthians that he was constantly burdened by “the daily pressure of [his] anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). They were always on his mind and heart.

In Romans 15:20, Paul famously states, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.” It is sometimes claimed that these words indicate that true missions work must be limited to the unreached. But Paul the “foundation layer” (1 Cor. 3:10) was often a “builder” as well; he did sometimes build on others’ foundations. As passionate as he was about “sowing” (1 Cor. 3:5–6), he faithfully “watered” as well.

Fleshing It Out

Unfortunately, in modern missions strategies, the needs of the “unreached” and the “reached” are often pitted against each other. So are “church planting” and “church strengthening.” But Reaching & Teaching believes that faithfulness to the Great Commission leads us to both the unreached and the “reached,” to church planting and church strengthening.

We can’t assume that the presence of churches in a given city, region, or country means that all missionaries should turn their efforts elsewhere. Taking our cue from Paul, we recognize that missionary work includes supplying weak churches “what is lacking in [their] faith” (1 Thess. 3:10).

Missionaries should care about both planting and strengthening, even as their gifts or passions might be inclined toward one or the other. Many will share Paul’s “ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Rom. 15:20). But some will share his other ambition to work for years among weak churches, laboring “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in” them (Gal. 4:19). Like Paul, they may see churches they didn’t plant as opportunities to labor tirelessly to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28–2:1).

The Lord of the harvest sends out laborers with varied gifts and ambitions because we need such diversity to meet the needs of all the peoples of the earth—the unreached, the misreached, the once-reached, and the underreached. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:8–9).

[1] See “What is the Mission of the Church” RTIM blog.

[2] Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-40; John 20:21; Acts 1:8.

AJ Gibson

AJ Gibson and his wife, Ruth, have served as missionaries since 2004. They joined Reaching and Teaching in early 2015 and AJ serves as Reaching and Teaching’s Regional Leader for Latin America. He also travels and teaches throughout Mexico and South America. The Gibsons now live in south Texas and AJ serves as an elder in his local church. They have two adult sons (Jonathan and Christian) and three children still at home (Katelyn, Hudson, and Sofia).

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