In my job doing Mobilization at Reaching & Teaching for the past several years, I have had the privilege of talking with a variety of people. One thing many of them have in common: they are seeking to give their lives to see the lost saved and the saved discipled around the world.
When the topic of preparation comes up, I often hear the same questions: Should I go to college? What should I major in? Is seminary education necessary? How do I decide where to go? What visas will I need? Should I start trying to learn the language?
These questions are certainly important to pray through and seek wise counsel in. But they are secondary to something more fundamental in terms of cross-cultural missions preparation: loving the local church. I recently heard a missionary comment that the most fruitful missionaries were the ones who were most plugged into a local church before they even get overseas. That kind of orientation toward the church doesn’t magically happen when hopping on a plane. With that in mind, here are six ways to cultivate love for the local church, while you wait to go:
1. Learn about the church.
Jen Wilkin has recently made famous the phrase, “The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.” While she rightly applies this to knowing the character of God, the same could be true about the church. Have you ever wondered why expositional preaching, church membership, and plurality of elders matters? The biblical foundations for these practices point to the glory and wisdom of our God. As Ephesians 3 says, “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The more you learn about how God intended the church to function, the more fuel you will give your heart to love your local church.
Where should we start in learning about the church? Read good resources like The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, Compelling Community, and other resources put out by 9Marks. Consider joining our Global Ecclesiology and Missiology Internship starting in January 2023. Read through the New Testament, specifically looking for what it teaches about the church—keeping in mind the difference between prescriptive and descriptive passages of Scripture.
2. Serve real needs in your church.
International missions, like many things in the Christian life, is easily romanticized. We envision sharing the gospel, seeing the lost come to Christ, and gathering them together in a local church. It’s hard to think of anything more beautiful. And yet, we can forget that each one of those new believers would be a person—with the personality quirks, cultural baggage, and personal issues just like the men and women that you find in your particular church.
Develop the muscles of laying your life down for the body of Christ, even when it’s not easy. For example, serve in the nursery, bring meals to families that are overwhelmed, or give rides to elderly people in the church that need to get to doctor appointments. In big and little ways, prioritize serving the body of Christ.
3. Submit to the leadership of your church.
Many missionaries are independent. This makes sense because it takes a certain tenacity to cross an ocean, plant yourself in a brand new culture, and go after language and culture learning for the long haul. Such independence and desire to chart new paths is a gift from God.
And yet, missionaries ought to be happily submissive to God-given authorities. If you’re waiting to get to the field, then start seeking wisdom and counsel from your elders about what they would encourage you to do next. Ask them for feedback on your giftings and fittedness for cross-cultural ministry. If they have hesitations or encourage you to grow in certain ways before going, then recognize that as a kindness of God.
4. Develop the character of a leader in the church.
A few weeks ago, we ran a post about the importance of churches sending their “best.” He wrote, “As missionaries are sent out to plant local churches, it only makes sense that they should be elder-qualified—for men in particular, but the principle holds true for women as well.”
Rather than spending most of your emotional energy on the where, what, and how of what your cross-cultural ministry will look like, instead think about who you want to be. How can you cultivate the spiritual disciplines? Are there areas of sin that you’re not willing to submit to the Lord? Are you growing in loving real people, and able to practice the fruit of the spirit in your interactions with them? Aaron Menikoff’s Character Matters is a great resource to read as you think about what it means to be a person of integrity.
5. Work for biblical growth of your church.
As Christians, we desire for our churches to grow. But our task is not to manipulate people into the Kingdom, or to rely on our own methods, or to welcome people as members of the church without discerning saving faith and spiritual fruit. Rather, the growth we want to see is growth that only God can do, through the means that he has ordained. Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
So, work for the growth of your church by being faithful in evangelism. Grow in the skill and habit of gospel conversations with people, and pray that God would provide the fruit. We plant and we water—God gives the growth.
6. Pray for the church.
Finally, labor in prayer for the church. Pray for the members of your local church by name, asking that God would grow them in wisdom and love. Pray for other churches in your city, that they would be faithful to preach the gospel. Pray for churches around the world to be protected from false teaching and be biblically faithful, humble, and courageous.
As you pray about going overseas or seek counsel about the many logistical and practical details of missions, let me encourage you: Don’t wait until you’re overseas to develop the muscles of loving the church.