“What is a church?”

It was the question I dreaded most. I was 28 years old and had been promoted from missions team leader to regional director. I was sitting at our monthly leaders’ meeting, with 10 other team leaders representing more than 80 full-time supported missionaries who served in the 10/40 window. Our discussions were supposed to be motivating and encouraging, and they often were. We talked about evangelism strategy and fruitfulness, of growing disciples and the potential for multiplication in the future. But then someone would ask that question, or one like it. Is our goal to plant churches? Were we doing that? And, oh, by the way, do we even agree on what a church is? What makes a church a church?

I dreaded the question because I didn’t know the answer. Worse, I knew from repeated fruitless discussions that nobody in the room knew the answer. We didn’t know how to define a church, much less a good or healthy one. What was the difference between a church and a gathering of 25 students on a college campus? We had started plenty of those. What was the difference between a church and 30 business professionals gathering for regular Bible study?

It wasn’t just an academic question for us. By God’s grace, we had witnessed God produce amazing fruit through our labors. So as we held those discussions, we knew there were believers who would gather that very week. These gathering were filled with people we’d discipled, many of whom were looking to us for their sense of direction. Quickly, they discovered we didn’t have a whole lot to offer them.

Same Story Everywhere

In the 19 years since I first stepped onto the mission field, I’ve seen and heard the same story repeated across organizations and regions. All too often Western missionaries don’t have much to say about the church, at least not with biblical clarity. Among evangelicals, thankfully, the gospel usually remains clear, the inerrancy of Scripture is generally affirmed, and the importance of theology is typically acknowledged. But the church?

Ask some missionaries you know if they can explain how their work relates to the task of church planting, and you’ll get fewer answers than you’d expect. Ask them how they define the church and what a healthy one looks like, and you’ll get fewer answers still.

The reality is that when you send missionaries, when you support them, and when you partner with others to do so, you are exporting a doctrine of the church. Over the years, I’ve concluded that far too often we are exporting bad ecclesiology.

And the results on the field can be tragic.

How Did We Get Here? 

There are probably lots of things contributing to the problem. I want to suggest three.

1. Sending churches often view missions as something they can outsource to others.

Church leaders have enough to deal with inside their own church, so overseeing and resourcing missionaries often feels beyond their capacity or expertise.

It’s certainly true that letting agencies meet these needs has many benefits. But the problem is that churches often overestimate what a sending agency can do. For example, no application process can replace evaluating a person’s gifting and qualification through regular involvement in the life of a local church. This kind of inquiry should begin at the front-end of the process, not as a quick checklist when a church reference form is suddenly required.

2. Sending agencies receive the outsourcing but don’t have a clear doctrine of the church.

Sending agencies are either created with a certain ministry focus, or they create one as they go. Some decide to focus on evangelism among a certain segment of the population, like students or business professionals. Other groups focus on training leaders in a certain theological curriculum. Still others focus on starting new churches in a certain region or among a certain people.

What seems rare in these scenarios is for the agency to adequately evaluate “success” by considering the long-term health of the churches they’ve planted. As a mid-level leader in my sending agency, I remember the struggle of living between the tension of measurable organizational goals (how many new groups have you started?) and the desire for our work to have long-term viability. My attempts to have conversations about the health of our work beyond sheer numbers did not go very far.

3. The missionaries themselves don’t know what they’re aiming for.

The saying goes, “Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time.” Every missionary on the field aims to do good work. They share the faith, try to disciple new believers, and pray that God will bless the work. It’s a good start, but it’s not the same as having a clear picture of a planted church functioning in a biblical manner and raising up its own resources for further ministry. They lack this picture because they don’t understand what God’s Word says about the local church and the central role it plays in fulfilling the Great Commission.

What Can Be Done? 

So what can your church do help begin exporting better ecclesiology?

1. Practically evaluate your missions program.

If you’re a pastor or elder, do you know the quality of the people you’re sending? Do you know what they’re really doing on the field? Have you asked them to describe their work in detail? Have you made the progress of their work part of the prayer life of your church? Are your leaders and members invested in seeing healthy churches planted through your missionaries?

2. Make Paul’s first missionary journey a model for missions (Acts 13–14).

Focus on the quality of your missionaries, not the quantity. The Spirit leads the church at Antioch to send Paul and Barnabas—two of their best (Acts 13:2)! Look to encourage those already ministering in the context of your church to think and pray about missions.

Make the work of missionaries a central part of the life of your church. The sending of Paul and Barnabas was a church-wide time of fasting and praying (Acts 13:3). Similarly, consider how you can make prayer for your missionaries more consistent in your own church. Use your pastoral prayer and prayer meetings as times to regularly pray for the work of the missionaries you support, and for the evangelization of people around the globe.

Encourage your missionaries to keep their eyes on the prize of planted healthy churches. Paul and Barnabas didn’t only preach or only disciple; they continued visiting and shepherding until elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23). Presumably this is what the church at Antioch expected them to do. So ask prospective missionaries to articulate a ministry plan that includes both planting churches and shepherding those churches toward health.

Invite furloughing missionaries to make a full report to the church. Paul and Barnabas gathered the church together and “declared all that God had done with them” (Acts 14:27). On a recent furlough I was asked by the elder boards of several supporting churches to make a report to them. I loved it! Deep down missionaries want to know their supporting churches stand with them in the task of raising up indigenous churches. We also love the accountability of knowing we need to share more than just a few photos with smiling local people in them.

3. Consider doing more with less.

Exporting bad ecclesiology comes from the Western idea that more is necessarily more. We send more workers and ask them for more results. We measure success in terms of more professions of faith and more churches planted, without asking about the health of either the “converts” or the “churches.” I think we inherently know many of the systems in place aim at breadth rather than depth, but we don’t know how to change them.

A simple beginning would be, over time, to move toward supporting fewer people in a better way. Give fewer missionaries more money. Divert some funds to regularly sending an elder to visit their work. Make it possible for furloughing missionaries to spend more time with your church. Above all, consider their work your work. Make it your aim not just to lead a healthy church, but to see healthy churches planted in all the places you’re sending missionaries.

Editors’ note: This article originally appeared at 9Marks in their Fall 2015 Journal issue titled Missions: Adding Wisdom to Zeal.