I grew up on the East Coast and spent many summers enjoying the beach. The beach patrol utilized a set of colored flags to indicate how safe it was to swim in the ocean on a given day. When the green flag was flying it was all clear to enjoy the surf. If red, it was too dangerous to venture beyond the depth of one’s knees.
As a child, distinguishing the difference in conditions was often imperceptible. The surface of the water only told half the story; unseen currents below the surface were often the culprit for a red flag. The most dangerous of these currents is known as an “undertow;” a sweeping current below the waves wielding tremendous power. Even the most skilled swimmer can be swept away by its force. Although I couldn’t see this force of nature, I was thankful others understood its power and kept me safe.
In the world of missions, the same sort of seen/unseen dynamic is at work that is imperceptible to many Christians. Life in the local church may feel more or less engaged in serving the nations based on experiences. Someone who goes on a short-term missions trip or hosts a missionary family who is stateside feels more engaged with serving the nations than someone who doesn’t. They’ve seen and experienced the crashing waves of personal evangelism or encouraging brothers and sisters directly. It’s exciting and tangible. Others give generously to support the work and feel a sense of ownership as they partner in the gospel. God uses these experiences to grow in grace, fuel passion for missions, and stir hearts to go to the nations.
However, many Christians never have these experiences. They stand on the beach wondering if the current of their lives is making much of a difference for the advance of the gospel around the world. Yet all believers are part of the church (1 Cor. 12:13) and are to demonstrate that reality through a commitment to gather and serve with a local body. It is through this common experience of the Christian life that God’s kingdom is being established throughout the world. I am convinced that loving your local church is the “undertow” for serving the nations: an unseen force that wields tremendous power for advancing the gospel around the world. Here are 3 reasons why.
1. God sends missionaries out from the local church (Acts 13:2).
As the book of Acts unfolds, it is clear that the local church is central to God’s plan for blessing the nations through the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). The blessing of salvation is heralded by the body of Christ, the church.
Note the context in which the Spirit sets apart Barnabas and Saul: during corporate worship of the gathered church. There is no indication that the congregation was gathered for a special purpose or seeking the Lord’s direction about how to serve the nations. It was through the ordinary means of grace (corporate worship) that God moved and one of the most fruitful missionary teams in church history was sent out.
Are we to expect the Spirit to set apart missionaries every time the church gathers? No. Should we expect God to work every time the church gathers? Of course! Missions is certainly one of the “good works” we are to “stir up” in one another when we gather (Heb. 10:24). You serve the nations by loving your church enough to be present regularly to stir and be stirred. Pastor Garrett Kell notes, “The most basic ministry we have is the ministry of simply showing up.” This is something every Christian can—and should—be doing to serve the nations.
The command to not neglect the gathering (Heb. 10:25) is foundational to the mission of the church. Said positively, loving the church by faithfully attending and participating in the corporate gathering is the context in which the Spirit is at work stirring up the “good work” of missions. Every Christian can be used by God to stir up a heart for the nations at the weekly gathering. Don’t overlook this simple, yet glorious reality.
2. The ministry of the word in the local church goes forth in power to the world (1 Thess. 1:8).
Perhaps you have heard the famous platitude attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The sentiment aims to encourage Christians to live lives that reflect the truth they proclaim, so much so that their transformed lives proclaim the gospel without the need for words. However, Paul keeps God’s word and the church’s witness together.
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul thanks God that the church reflected the transforming power of the gospel in their lives (1:6). It was a powerful witness throughout the region (1:7) and their faith went “forth everywhere” (1:9). Yet, their witness did not stand alone: “the word of the Lord sounded forth” (1:8). The ministry of God’s word in the local church reverberated from the church because of how they received it: “you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (2:13). There is a correlation between the church’s primary ministry of proclaiming God’s word to itself that is inseparable with the word going forth beyond its four walls.
What does that have to do with loving your local church? Everything! Anyone who desires to take the gospel to the nations must first be a receiver of the word. God’s word is the lone offensive weapon in our arsenal to “boldly proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19). All of God’s people are to sharpen their swords, not merely through personal Bible study and devotions, but by receiving the word in the context of a local church because there is evangelistic force to the undertow of collectively receiving the word.
How is this accomplished? We express love for the church through the ministry of listening to the word preached in the context of the gathered church. Like an undertow, it may not seem visible, but there is tremendous power coursing through the pews of the church as the word is actively embraced. To use Paul’s metaphor, it sounds forth from those seats because God’s word brings life. Never underestimate what God can do—is doing—through your faithful ministry of receiving the word week after week after week.
Most acknowledge that Francis of Assisi never uttered the famous truism above. Here is what he really said: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” Do you pray that the nations might receive the gospel preached by missionaries? Perhaps we might first pray that we “walk the walk” in our own lives by faithfully receiving God’s word proclaimed in the local church. It is the most powerful preparation for the mission field. May our desire to serve the nations begin by humbly embracing the simple ministry of receiving the preached word.
3. Gifting for ministry is revealed and used for the church (1 Cor. 1:7, 12:7,12).
Spiritual gift inventories are a popular way for believers to identify their gift(s) in order to serve the church. The flaw with such an approach is rooted in answering a number of self-reflective questions rather than God’s means of fitting the body together in the context of serving the church gathered.
Paul acknowledged that the church in Corinth was “not lacking in any gift” (1:7). He could declare this because he knew God “apportions” gifts according to His sovereign will (12:11) so that the many gifts fit together into “one body” (12:12) for the “common good” (12:7).
New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner asserts, “The Lord calls upon us to assess our gifts realistically, and here is where other people can help us, for our gifts don’t just reflect what we think about ourselves. Other members of the body of Christ can and must help us discern and confirm the gifts in our lives.” In other words, God gifts the church with members to build itself up in Christ, which is the corporate aim that occurs in the context of the church gathered.
If we desire to serve the nations according to God’s design, we will be committed to actively serve our local church so that others may discern and affirm our gifting. One word of warning: we are to serve the church out of love for Christ and others. Ministry is never to be motivated by a sort of navel gazing to “know thyself,” but is to flow from a love for Jesus and the “common good” of the local body to which He has joined us. Again, Schreiner is helpful, “Spiritual gifts are exercised when we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, when we love others for Christ’s sake.” While this love can be expressed outside the gathering, its primary expression is to be within the local church.
At the risk of being redundant, the best way to serve the nations is to love and serve your local church. Our usefulness for the kingdom flows out of the church’s ultimate aim of being built up in Christ. For Paul, the most excellent way to pursue this is by love (12:31-13:3). No amount of self-sacrifice or gifting or faith will overcome a deficit of love to serve the local church. So, love your church and trust that God will work through your loving service to build His church throughout the world.
While loving your local church may seem imperceptible, God’s word makes it clear that it is the undercurrent of Kingdom advance that will serve the nations as God establishes His church around the world. May we love our local churches in such a way that the collective force of this undertow sweeps the gospel across the globe for the glory of Jesus Christ!
 J. Garrett Kell, Church – Do I Have to Go? (First Steps) (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd: 2019), 1253.
 Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are & Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2018), 35.
 Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, 51.