Usually, the most strategic mission work we can support is work that aims to establish healthy local churches. This can mean two things.
It may mean pioneer evangelism and church planting among a group of people largely unreached by the gospel. Or it may mean laboring to strengthen local churches in places where they exist but are weak, poorly taught, and vulnerable.
We find examples in the pages of Scripture of both presented as strategic missionary work.
Plant New Churches
Pioneer church planting was the heartbeat of the apostle Paul. It was his passion when he wrote:
Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” (Rom. 15:20–21)
Such work remains critically strategic today. While statistics vary widely, most agree that only a tiny portion (maybe 20 percent or less) of Protestant missionaries labor in the least-reached half of the world’s peoples. The remaining 80 percent or more work among peoples with significant gospel access and established Christian churches.
What this means for your own missionary support seems clear. Suppose you have funds to support only one worker and must choose between two—both competently engaged in evangelism and church planting. One is working among a people with hundreds of churches and thousands of Christians. The other is laboring in a highly restricted nation with only a few Christians and hardly any churches.
All other things being equal, you should generally fund the work among the unreached. I know there are extenuating circumstances, and strategies to reach the unreached from a more reached place do exist. Yet the general leaning of the New Testament seems to be toward churches spreading the gospel to “those who have never been told of him.”
It’s vital to note that missionary evangelism should aim to establish local churches. That’s what we see throughout the Bible. Granted, there’s no verse that says, “Go and plant churches.” But we know all Christians should gather into local churches, “not neglecting to meet together” (Heb. 10:25). Everywhere the missionaries in Acts saw a harvest of souls, a church was soon gathered (Acts 14:1–23; 18:8; 19; 20). The goal of missions is to gather churches that plant other churches.
Strengthen Established Churches
But pioneer work isn’t the only missionary work we see commended in Scripture as strategic. At the beginning of his letter to Titus, Paul writes: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Putting churches into better biblical order was also high on Paul’s agenda, and it should probably be higher on our agenda too.
It can be exciting to send and support workers who are pushing back the boundary of darkness in an unreached place. But Paul also demonstrates that it’s worth investing some of our best people in church strengthening where the gospel is already known and churches already exist. In a similar way, Paul reminds his young co-missionary Timothy: “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Tim. 1:3–4).
Along with helping churches to be biblically structured, Paul wants to establish sound, robust biblical doctrine and to guard new churches against error and false teaching. He’s willing to invest perhaps his most valued associate not in his pioneering work in Macedonia, but in the ongoing work of building healthy churches in Ephesus. Perhaps we who love new vistas and greater speed should more readily heed Scripture’s instruction in this regard.
Many of us can imagine what pioneer mission work looks like, but strengthening ongoing church work may be harder to picture. It doesn’t mean encouraging missionaries to hold on to the reins of leadership in a church long after capable local leaders have emerged. That has been done, and the fruit is generally quite poor.
Rather, it means purposefully empowering and equipping leaders for emerging local churches. It may mean working for church health in communities where the churches have long been established but are neglected and weak. In a more formal and traditional sense, it may mean teaching in a Bible college or training local church planters in an established local church. Less formally, it may mean discipling and training church leaders in a worker’s home in a more restricted-access country.
The point is that once churches are organized, there will still be strategic work to do by outside missionaries. We shouldn’t let our good passion to find lost sheep in new pastures fool us into neglecting flocks that have already been gathered, purchased by Christ’s precious blood.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Andy Johnson’s new book, Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global (Crossway, 2017).