Why Missions Organizations Must Prioritize the Local Church
I sat in a pastor’s office in Asia. He told me about an organization that had recently sent a large number of workers to their area. Some of that time was spent in his city, where he’d been pastoring for almost two decades.
The story he shared went something like this: The local police knew about his church. So when a group of eager and evangelistic young adults descended upon the city marketplace, he was one of their first calls. But there was a problem: he had no idea who these people were or what they were doing. After all, the group saw no need to apprise any local church of their evangelistic outreach. They ignored the obvious credibility that would come by working alongside local believers. In other words, they showed a lack of care for the local church.
This pastor was both happy and unhappy. Of course he rejoiced that locals were hearing the gospel. And yet, he lamented the fact that these eager evangelists seemed to have entirely forgotten about the church.
As the president of missions organization that happily sends short-team trips around the globe, I resonate with this pastor’s concern. After all, let’s assume that someone put their faith in Jesus that day. Hallelujah! But what’s next? What was their plan? To try and disciple someone in a foreign language for a couple of weeks and then wish them well?
When I hear stories like this, I have one overarching question: Why do so many organizations think of the local church as merely incidental to their evangelistic goals?
WHY WE TALK ABOUT THE CHURCH
When I talk about the work of Reaching & Teaching, I always talk about the local church. Usually that means I spend at least some time talking about my own church: Third Avenue Baptist. Some find this unusual. They wonder, “Why is this missions guy talking so much about his American church?” The answer is simple: because we believe that healthy local churches are God’s chosen means for making mature disciples and training future pastors around the world. We also believe that healthy local churches here will send the most qualified and equipped missionaries abroad.
At Reaching & Teaching, we often reference a statistic that 85% of the world’s pastors outside of North America don’t currently have access to formal theological training. To fill that massive gap, we send dozens of short-term teams each year. But we know our short-term teams aren’t the long-term solution. To be sure, we send missionaries across oceans and cultures to train pastors. We’ve been doing that since 2014. But even our long-term missionaries aren’t the long-term solution to the problem of untrained pastors.
So what is? The answer, again, is simple: healthy local churches. We want to work with today’s pastors to equip and train them so that they can lead healthy local churches in which tomorrow’s pastors are trained and equipped.
PUTTING INGREDIENTS IN THE OVEN
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is located just ten minutes away from my church. Our students have the privilege of sitting under esteemed professors. But tomorrow’s pastors aren’t ultimately produced on Southern’s campus. Sure, they get many necessary ingredients there. They learn systematic theology, hermeneutics, and the biblical languages. But those ingredients aren’t baked into anything edible apart from the gathering of the local church.
You can read all the books you want on church leadership. But that doesn’t compare to sitting in our elders meetings and watching the elders pray for each church member by name—something our interns get to do. You can write a paper on church discipline, but it’s another level of training to witness your pastors as they shepherd the church through a difficult case during a members’ meeting. You can read books on marriage and family ministry, but it’s far better to befriend a couple in your home group who has been married for 60 years. You can take a class on preaching—and you’ll learn a lot if you do!—but even that doesn’t compare to attending a weekly service review in which your senior pastor receives critiques of his sermons from first-year college students.
Seminaries provide their students with unmatched ingredients. But healthy local churches teach these students how to put together those ingredients into a recipe and bake it in the oven.
GOD’S DESIGN FOR THE CHURCH
There’s another reason we spend so much time talking about the centrality of the church: it protects us from accidentally supplanting God’s design for the church. In his book Missions, Andy Johnson writes, “Any humanly invented organizations that assist in missions must remember that they are the bridesmaids, not the bride. They are stagehands, not the star. That position and honor and responsibility has been given by Christ to his church, and only to his church.”
I constantly give away and recommend Andy’s book because I want missionaries and their sending churches to grasp God’s design for their local church as “the engine of world missions.” While missions agencies like Reaching & Teaching can play an important role, we receive our mandate from the local churches we serve. I firmly believe that the churches we work with are best qualified to evaluate the character and competence of future missionaries.
It’s easy to simply say that. So how do we put this principle into practice? Yet again, the answer to that question is simple: we expect every one of our global workers to join a local church on the field. This could be an existing local church, or it could be a new church comprised of our team and several other Christians in the area.
It’s hard to teach others to be committed to the local church if we aren’t committed ourselves. That’s why we only send missionaries who have a track record of faithfulness in their own local churches. The local church will always be at the core of Reaching & Teaching’s sending strategy because it’s at the core of God’s sending strategy.