Recently, I felt a burden in my heart for an unreached people group in the Middle East. So I went and visited. It seemed God had aligned a need in that place with my gifts in ministry. My wife said her heart was warm to go. My extended family gave the thumbs up. The financial support was there. As we prayed, our desire to go only increased.
Ready. Set. Go. Right? We had the desire, training, means, support, and sense of calling from God. Just choose a missionary organization and head out?
Not on your life. Not without the support of a healthy local church.
Greatest Problem in Missions
Modern missions endeavors face many thorny challenges: contextualization, indigeneity, and autonomy, among other cultural issues. Yet in our globalized world, with so many doing great work on cultural issues, there seems to be an ascendant problem: a lack of understanding of the church’s nature and its role in missions.
The greatest challenge to modern missions is a lack of understanding of the church’s nature and its role in missions.
This is the greatest challenge to modern missions, and it raises a variety of other issues. Here I’d like to focus on one small, yet significant, corner of this challenge: partnering with a healthy sending church for missionary work.
But first, let me tell you a story.
‘I Baptized Myself!’
I was a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the United States for decades. One of the joys of working in that ministry was an annual week-long camp on the beach at the end of school year. One year, in one of our evening share times, a student said, “I was having a great time on the beach reading through the book of Acts—which, by the way, I’d never read before—and I got to this part about Philip and the guy from Ethiopia.”
At this point, the staff workers glanced at one another with bemused looks.
“And I started thinking,” the fledgling theologian continued, “that I’d never been baptized. And there was all the ocean in front of me, and I thought, why not? So I jumped in, prayed, and fell backward into the water. I baptized myself!”
Yup. The student “baptized” himself.
Now, I’m not going to outline all the reasons why Christians shouldn’t do that. Virtually no historic or contemporary Christian organization has practiced self-baptisms. Most Christians rightly understand baptism to signify being incorporated into Christ and his visible body, the church. As such, it’s a portal into the community of believers.
Going to the nations without the support of a local church is a little like baptizing yourself.
Baptizing yourself is silly. And going to the nations without the support of a local church is a little like baptizing yourself. Being a self-proclaimed lone-ranger missionary is as ridiculous and arrogant as baptizing yourself.
The Church Sends
Since the church began organizing mission trips in Acts 13, missions has been about the church—not an individual or even a parachurch organization—sending out workers to preach the gospel and establish new churches.
Yet with surprising regularity I meet someone who’s a self-proclaimed missionary with little to no local church endorsement or backing. Ironically, this person will often tell me they’re doing “CP” work (i.e., church planting). They must be unaware that the church of Antioch—the first practitioner of organized New Testament missions—is our template for missions today.
Barnabas, sent by the Jerusalem church, went to Antioch. When it became clear God was bringing many to himself, Barnabas recruited Paul to join him in the work (Acts 11:22ff). Barnabas and Paul pastored the church of Antioch alongside other faithful believers (Acts 13:1). After some time, the Lord spoke to the church—the church!—to set aside Paul and Barnabas for the work God was calling them to. We now refer to this as the first missionary journey (Acts 13:2–3). And here’s the kicker: the church did it.
The church in Antioch didn’t send the youngest (and thus cheapest to support), the least experienced in ministry, the most awkward, or those they wanted to get rid of. They sent Paul and Barnabas! They sent their best, the two men who were undoubtedly the congregation’s strongest leaders. Can you imagine what it was like to lose Barnabas and Paul from the weekly fellowship?
Churches should send out those they’d be willing to hire as staff.
We desperately need a rigorous application of Acts 13 today. It isn’t about churches being willing to sign off on someone and maybe send a check. It’s about churches sending out biblically qualified, carefully examined partners for the work. Churches should send out those they’d be willing to hire as staff, the ones who’d sting a bit to lose to overseas work.
Don’t Go Until You’re Sent
A church should send not only leader-qualified members, but also those truly submitted to the church.
When I met with the elders of my current church to share what I felt God had laid on my heart, I told them I didn’t want to do what I’d seen so many do in the past.
I told them I had been an elder myself and knew what it’s like for a believer to inform me of their missionary call without ever approaching the leaders for direction. I wasn’t coming to them expecting an automatic commissioning with full financial support. I wanted my elders to know I would submit to their leadership.
Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, there was a time I was that young believer who expected support and blessing for “my ministry.” But now, older and wiser, I told them I’d never go if they said no.
I’ll never again make a missions move without the collective wisdom of my elders in a healthy church.
The elders asked good, probing questions. There was lively discussion, including about my submission to their leadership. One asked, “Mack, it stretches credulity to think if we decide ‘no,’ that you really wouldn’t go.” Now, granted, he’s a lawyer; cross-examination is his job. But my heart was clear: I’ve come to a place where I’ll never again make a missions move without the collective wisdom of my elders in a healthy church.
In part, that’s because I’ve seen what happens when unsubmitted missionaries “send” themselves. They form unhealthy churches overseas—if they form them at all. It’s the height of irony that missionaries who work so hard at cultural sensitivity export the worst part of Western individualism in the way they model their lack of commitment to the local church.
So don’t baptize yourself. And if you’re determined to do missionary work, don’t go until you’ve submitted to, and are sent by, a healthy local church.