We believe the church is the primary means of obeying the Great Commission among the nations as local churches identify, train, send, and support qualified missionaries.
God is on a mission to redeem his people from all nations for his glory. He is the ultimate Sender, the one who sends his Son as the Savior of the world and, in turn, sends workers into the harvest. How is the Lord of the harvest sending laborers today? Many groups play a part: seminaries train, missions agencies assist, and individuals support. But God has prescribed a glorious and effective plan for fulfilling the Great Commission: the church. The church is God’s ordained vehicle to obey the Great Commission and his ordained pipeline of harvest workers.
God’s Vehicle for Missions
Although the Great Commission applies to every believer, the responsibility to fulfill the mission is not given to individual Christians per se, but to the corporate people of God. God’s glory shines through a temple made up of individual stones united to the Cornerstone (1 Pet. 2:4–6), God’s greatness is declared by a kingdom of priests (1 Pet 2:9), and God’s wisdom is showcased in the church (Eph. 3:10). Missions isn’t a solo project; it’s something God’s people do together.
Furthermore, missions isn’t something we do on our own authority. We aren’t the Lord of the harvest; Jesus is. And yet, he has remarkably delegated to the church the authority to conduct God’s mission by receiving members (Matt. 16:18–19), exercising discipline (Matt. 18:18–20), and making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–19). In the same way that individual Christians can’t unilaterally exercise church discipline, individuals can’t fulfill the Great Commission disconnected from the local church.
The Church’s Responsibility
The early church understood this and exercised its authority to fulfill the Great Commission. In the book of Acts, we don’t find self-appointed missionaries, but men appointed for ministry by local churches. Mathias served as an apostle, but a church appointed him (Acts 1:15, 26). Stephen ministered and preached because the church appointed him to be a deacon (Acts 6:5). At first glance, it may appear that Philip went to Samaria on his own initiative, but it soon becomes clear that he is under the authority of the apostles (Acts 8:14ff).
This pattern continues in Acts 13 when the church in Antioch, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, sent out Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1–3). At the end of their trip, they returned to Antioch “where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work” and reported on what had been accomplished through them (Acts 14:26–27). On their second trip, they leave from Antioch (Acts 15:40) and return to Antioch (Acts 18:22). Clearly, the church in Antioch was exercising its authority to send missionaries.
Paul and Barnabas weren’t the only missionaries in the early church. Where did Paul’s traveling companions come from? John Mark came from the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:25). Barnabas was a leader in the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1–3). Epaphras came from the church in Colossae (Col. 1:7; 4:12). Timothy was recommended and affirmed by the local church in Lystra (Acts 16:1–2). The book of Acts even provides us with a list of the sending churches of many of Paul’s missionary colleagues: Berea sent Sopater, Thessalonica sent Aristarchus and Secundus, Derbe sent Gaius, and so forth (Acts 20:4).
The witness of Scripture is clear: the church is God’s means for raising up and sending out workers into the harvest. Jesus did not give the Great Commission to missions agencies, denominations, or even isolated individuals. As Dutch theologian and missionary, J. H. Bavinck writes, “It is the church, the body of Christ, which forms the organ through which and in which the glorified Christ will reveal his great work of salvation in the world. . . . There are no other institutions that can take over this responsibility.”
The Church’s Failure
Some zealous Christians understandably feel impatient and frustrated by the church’s ineffectiveness in obeying the Great Commission. The urgency of the task, some might argue, necessitates a more effective strategy. If the church won’t step up, then individual believers and para-church ministries must pick up the slack.
But the urgency of the task doesn’t allow us to disregard God’s pattern. Rather, we should redouble our efforts to obey the mission in the way that Jesus prescribed. The church needs to recover and accept its responsibility as the primary agent for fulfilling the Great Commission. And Christians who are passionate for God’s glory among the nations should not abandon the church, but rather help it to fulfill its God-ordained mission.
Does It Matter?
This isn’t theological nitpicking. Emphasizing the responsibility of the local church in the Great Commission carries massive implications.
If missionaries aren’t sent out of local churches, then they lack necessary affirmation. Which God-ordained leaders have affirmed their gifts and qualifications? If they haven’t been trained by a local church, then they likely won’t understand the mission of the church or healthy ecclesiology. If they aren’t sent out of a local church, then they may not have pastors in their lives to care for them, correct them, and counsel them. If a missionary doesn’t love the local church at home, then why would we expect them to be passionate about planting healthy churches around the world? It’s unwise for “Lone Ranger” missionaries to plant churches when they don’t understand what a church is, or fail to submit to a church themselves and therefore lack any church’s affirmation.
Missiologist David Hesselgrave makes the same point:
“Almost without exception missionary-evangelists who are successful in planting new churches have the backing of sending churches. Why? Because missionary-evangelists sent by Christian churches (as opposed to those who are sent by individual Christians or institutions, or those who go on their own initiative) tend to be churchmen. They are church-oriented rather than campaign-oriented and program-oriented.”
Put simply, healthy churches are planted by healthy church members. So local churches must joyfully accept the responsibility of training up and sending out missionaries.
God’s Pipeline for Harvest Workers
So how does this happen? It starts with a church’s culture. It starts with exalting King Jesus as worthy through our preaching and our singing and our praying. That’s the necessary foundation. But that’s not all. The best harvest workers come from churches full of members who disciple each other, where men and women are regularly growing in Christ and helping others grow in Christ. Churches develop missionaries the same way that they develop godly members, leaders, and elders.
From this pool of disciples, the church will identify potential missionaries. The church shouldn’t simply send anyone who wants to go. Just as not everyone is gifted to be a musician or qualified to be a pastor, not every believer is gifted or qualified to be a missionary. The church should evaluate candidates based on their godly character, spiritual maturity, Bible knowledge, language-learning ability, and physical and emotional health. The strength of their relationships—with their spouses, their children, their fellow church members, even their coworkers—should be considered. Churches should look for men and women who are already evangelizing and making disciples.
Harshit Singh, a pastor in India, gives a strong but needed admonition to sending churches: “Please don’t send bad workers. If a person cannot be an elder in your church, then don’t send them. . . . We want people who have love for the local church back [home] first, who have proved to be faithful teachers.” Pastors must be willing to say “not yet” or even “no.” Sadly, many missionaries return home after only a few years not because they lack passion or willingness, but because they were under-qualified and under-prepared.
Second, local churches must train missionaries. For too long has the church abdicated this responsibility to others. To be clear, churches can and probably should delegate high-level theological training to a seminary or logistics to a missionary agency or language-learning to a training organization, but the ideal place to grow a missionary is in the greenhouse of a healthy church. Even when the church welcomes help, it does so intentionally. Pastors should be aware of the methodologies encouraged at missions conferences, seminaries, and agencies.
This process should include one-on-one discipleship, internships, missions trips, and reading good books together. Here’s the big idea: potential missionaries should learn about missions in the context of the church. The best training to be a good missionary is to be a good church member in a healthy church. Why? Because the most important skills a missionary needs —evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership training—are best learned in the context of a local church.
Third, the church must send missionaries. The church is the primary sending agency. Through prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit, the church sends their beloved members for the work God has called them to (Acts 13:2–3). Through tears of joy, the church commends them to the grace of God (Acts 14:26). What a joyful privilege.
But the church’s task isn’t yet complete, for they must continue to support these missionaries. This includes generous financial support when possible. But support extends beyond finances to care, communication, visits, and prayer. Who is checking on the missionary’s language and culture acquisition? Who is aware if he has significantly changed his theology or methodology? Who is praying that the Word of the Lord would run full speed ahead and be glorified (2 Thess. 3:1)? Who is praying that God would embolden missionaries to proclaim the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 6:19)? Those holding the ropes back home should feel the unique responsibility of caring for their missionaries on the field.
Now comes the best part: this process repeats itself. Once a missionary gets to the mission field, they will replicate the process of identifying, training, sending and supporting missionaries out of national local churches.
The Church Is God’s Plan
Why is the local church so important for the health of global missions? Because the local church is God’s ordained vehicle to fulfill the Great Commission and God’s ordained pipeline of harvest workers. It is the local church—not seminaries, denominations, or missions agencies—that equips and sends missionaries.
God’s goal in missions is to fill the earth with his glory, and he plans to accomplish this through the church. We glorify God by sending mature disciples to the ends of the earth to make more disciples and plant more churches. Missions begins and ends with the church because the church is God’s plan to fulfill the Great Commission.
 J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1961), 59.
 David J. Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: A Guide for Home and Foreign Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 425.
 Harshit Singh, “How Western Methods Have Affected Missions in India,” 9 Marks, https://www.9marks.org/message/how-western-methods-have-affected-missions-in-india/.
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