Recently, a church’s missions committee asked me the question, “What kind of members should the church be sending to the mission field?”
I’m always grateful when a church or a missions committee asks that question. I’m grateful because it shows they take their role in missions seriously. Many important elements should be in place for those who feel the call to missions, but allow me to give eight crucial factors that are often overlooked.
1. They should be members the church has identified for missions.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:2–3)
Western Christianity is increasingly privatized and individualistic. So it’s no surprise that the mission field is full of self-identified missionaries—that is, missionaries who haven’t been set aside, approved, or appointed by a church. They are “Lone Ranger” missionaries. Going to the missionary without a church’s affirmation is a lot like baptizing yourself. Such a practice should never happen. Besides, after 20 years in the Middle East, I have yet to meet a self-identified missionary who was actually qualified for the work.
Put simply, the church should take up its responsibility to identify and send members according to the pattern of Acts 13. The church leaders of Antioch were attentive to the Holy Spirit. They took the work of prayer and fasting seriously, and they sent Paul and Barnabas with the church’s full approval to plant additional churches.
If someone comes to you and says they want to be a missionary but they are not well known by their church, what should you do? Wait until you know them well before you send them out.
Bottom line: the church needs to identify and send missionaries.
2. They should love the church.
Ephesians 1:22 echoes the Great Commission with a statement about the authority of Jesus and the primacy of the church: “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.”
And in Ephesians 3:9–10, Paul says it’s “through the church” that the wisdom of God is made known: “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.”
The church is God’s chosen method to advance the gospel. Practically, this happens through various local churches (see point #6). Yet time and again, I meet missionaries who distance themselves from the local gatherings because they see it as a distraction from “their” ministries. But if a missionary doesn’t love the church, if they don’t see the need for the church in their own lives, then they aren’t loving what Jesus loves and prioritizing what Jesus prioritizes.
Loving Christ’s bride—warts and all—is a serious litmus test of a missionary’s calling. It’s understandably difficult if the lampstand has long been removed from a church (Rev 2:5) or if the heresies are just too overwhelming. And yet, I have never had the opportunity to join a healthy church on the field. I’ve needed to roll up my sleeves—out of love for the Church—to help a church become healthier and biblically rooted.
Was it hard? Absolutely. Was it worth it—even though it did take time away from the ministry for which I had been tasked? Absolutely. Over the years, we saw churches become vibrant, and the ministry we directed flourished as well.
Bottom line: Make sure that your church sends members who have a deep and abiding love for the bride of Christ.
3. They should know what a church is.
If they love the church, they should know what a church is. And yet, over and over again, when I ask people who are supposed to be planting a church to define “church,” they don’t know how.
This is embarrassing.
Most have relied on the decades, perhaps even centuries, of those who have gone before in establishing their home church, with no thought about how those home churches got there.
Historically, a church is merely a gathering of Christians who hear the Word of God preached and rightly practice the sacraments of baptism and communion. That’s true. But we can say more for churches who worship according to New Testament principles.
My definition of the church breaks down into four parts: what the church is, what the church does, the basic mission of the church, and the ultimate reason for church.
- The church is a gathering of baptized, born-again believers who covenant together in love as members. They gather under the authority of the Scriptures and the leadership of the elders.
- Churches only do a few things: They gather regularly to hear the word preached. They sing and pray, they pray for the sick, they support the work of the ministry. They exercise church discipline, and they practice the sacraments of baptism and communion.
- The overarching mission of the church is summarized by the Great Commission: go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded.
- The church ultimately exists to worship God, to be a visible image of the gospel, and to give God glory and worship.
These things must be done to be a church. They are irreducible elements; if you take away any of the things in this list, you get a diminished church. If you take away enough, you get no church at all.
Of course, there are all kinds of other things churches can do: small groups, men’s meetings, basketball teams, youth programs, schools, soup kitchens, and more. But you don’t have to do those things to be a church.
If a missionary can’t explain and defend these essential parts of a church—or, worse, if they don’t believe in these biblical elements—then they aren’t ready for the mission field.
Bottom line: Don’t send a member who can’t define or explain the basic elements of a biblical church.
4. They should know the difference between the cultural and the biblical.
Cultural forms must always be secondary—not unimportant, but secondary—to biblical principles. I say regularly in our church: we don’t want an American church, we don’t want an African church, we don’t want an Asian church, we don’t want an Arab church (although we have American, African, Asian, and Arab members in our church). We want a biblical church.
Whether or not a local church meets under a tree or in a cave or sits on cushions on the floor or in pews is a secondary consideration compared to the faithful exposition of the Scriptures, the installation of qualified elders, and the establishment of meaningful membership.
The latter are biblical principles, but even beyond rock-solid biblical principles there is a need for the wisdom of those who have gone before us—not as Westerners, but as those who loved the church and wisely started practices like establishing a statement of faith, or putting together a constitution to protect the church’s practice, or setting out how to love one another more fully through a biblical church covenant. Sadly, these practices are often foolishly discarded and derided as “Western.”
Bottom line: Send members who can differentiate between biblical principles and cultural forms.
5. They should be mature.
Churches should send people who are mature. But when I say “mature,” I mean it in a biblical sense. Hebrews 5:14 says that the mature are those who have trained themselves, through constant use, to distinguish good from evil. Missionaries must be able to discern what is good or evil in a cross-cultural context, too.
Put another way, we need missionaries who can spot bad mission practices. We need missionaries who can teach about the problems of movements that promise rapidly reproducing churches. In some missions circles, such movements are quite popular.
We need missionaries who can teach about why the prosperity teaching is pernicious and satanic, who understand that it is an “anti-gospel” that preys on the poor and disadvantaged.
We need missionaries who can explain the biblical problems with the “insider movement,” or “Muslim idiom” translations of Scripture.
As a rule of thumb, missionaries should be on a trajectory to be a deacon, a staff member, or perhaps even an elder.
Bottom line: If you wouldn’t put the would-be missionary on your church staff—assuming you had the funds to do so—don’t put them on a plane.
6. They should know and live in line with the gospel.
Every member of your church should know the gospel backwards and forwards. Furthermore, they should live out the gospel and talk about the gospel with others. This message is crystallized into four main components that need to be understood before they can be embraced. We can summarize these components with four questions:
- Who is God?
- What is Man before God?
- Who is Jesus Christ, and what did he accomplish through his death and resurrection?
- How does God tell us we ought to respond to this news?
Few would deny that the gospel is central to missions work. Thankfully, many Christians would also agree that the gospel doesn’t just get us “saved.” Our lives must be “lived” in line with the gospel, as Paul says in Galatians 2:14. Or, as Tim Keller, all Christians—missionaries included—must see the gospel as the A-to-Z of the Christian life, not just the ABCs.
Perhaps that strikes you as obvious. However, when living cross-culturally in a foreign land, it’s astonishingly easy to forget.
I know from experience. Many missionaries forget. There are many missionaries who haven’t shared the gospel in years. They learn to go, they learn a language, they learn how to live cross-culturally, but they’ve forgotten to share the gospel.
The hardest thing for missionaries is not the sacrifices they make by being away from their home, or the medical care they forsake, or the worries they have for their children, or the difficulties of cross-cultural living, or the separation from loved ones.
The hardest thing, in the midst of all the other stuff, is to remember why they’re there, to remember that they’ve gone to the nations to make disciples of the nations by sharing and living out the gospel.
So call your members to gospel-centrality now. Call your members to faithfulness in sharing the gospel now. It only gets harder to evangelize once you moved to another land, even if that’s the reason you moved in the first place.
Bottom line: Starting now, call members who might be missionaries one day to know and live in and speak the gospel of Christ.
7. They should understand the power of the church in evangelism.
A Muslim man wrote me after he saw a baptism at our church. It was his first time in a church, and he wanted to tell me what he noticed:
- He saw the unity of church across many ethnic lines.
- He saw there was no difference between men and women worshiping together.
- He loved being a family together in church (he brought their son).
- He couldn’t get over the love he saw between the people of church.
And then he said, “Thanks to God for his nice works.”
In the upper room, Jesus lays out the greatest evangelism tool: our love for another (John 13) and our unity (John 17).
Amazingly, our love as a church confirms our discipleship, and our unity as a church confirms Christ’s deity, which is the very thing my Muslim friend noticed when he visited a church for the first time!
What helps our evangelism most is not our cultural contextualization, or how rapidly we reproduce, or how well we’ve learned the language, or the other things that cost us so much time and money is spent. What helps our evangelism most is our love and unity.
Everything this Muslim man noticed about our church would not have been present if we had tried to look like the local mosque. We would have been mono-cultural. We would have separated men and women. In short, he wouldn’t have seen much love and unity, as love and unity aren’t highly value in Islam.
I’m grateful this Muslim man saw it so clearly.
Please understand, I’m not saying we shouldn’t contextualize at all. I’m saying that all contextualization should be aiming at our ultimate goal of building a gospel-centered, healthy church as defined by Scripture.
Bottom line: Members should be aware that the greatest tools of evangelism are our love and unity in the church.
8. They should be cross-culturally willing and able.
There’s not time or space to write about cross-cultural ability, as there is a vast sea of resources on missions training, perhaps set in motion in 1866 when Hudson Taylor put on Chinese dress. This conversation on contextualization, including its benefits and limits, is an important one. But for now, let the record show that I believe in cross-cultural training and ability.
Bottom line: Your members should show the ability to be servants and learners in cross-cultural situations.
 Acts 2:41; John 3:1–8; John 13:34–35; Heb 10:24–25; 2 Tim 3:16–17; Acts 14:23; Col 3:16; Eph 3:10; 1 Cor 12:12-26; Matt 18:15–17; Matt 28:18.
 Timothy Keller, “The Centrality of the Gospel,” Redeemer City to City Blog, January 1, 2000, accessed January 22, 2020. https://redeemercitytocity.com/articles-stories/the-centrality-of-the-gospel