Like food for their earth-worn souls, Christians need their local churches. God provides Christians with nourishment through community with the believers (Col 2:19; Eph 4:11–16). This idea makes sense to Western Christians, because it is the norm. But what about missionaries who serve in hard places today—where there are no other Christians? “Church-by-Skype” seems woefully deficient. So, how can missionaries get the nourishment they need when there is no local church near them?
These days, many “pioneer” missionaries serve on teams together with other missionaries in difficult places. Christians are communal creatures, so teaming can provide much needed care. These teams of missionaries love each other and minister together to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. If that’s the case, can we say a missionary team is a local church?
Like food for their earth-worn souls, Christians need their local churches.
Teams are not Churches
No—“teams” are not churches. A missionary team is not automatically a church just like groups of Christians in the New Testament were not automatically churches. Some intentionality is needed to make a group of Christians into a church.
Every missionary team has the potential to be a church. We know from the Bible that God has given Christians who live near each other the authority to become local churches. At the most basic level, then, churches are baptized Christians who devote themselves to being a church and begin to do everything that the Bible says a church should do. Therefore, missionary teams can become a church if they fulfill a few requirements.
Be a Church
In order to become a church, a team must decide to devote themselves to being what a biblical church is meant to be. Churches have self-awareness. They are not made up of Christians who do not know what they are. Instead, they are comprised of Christians who see themselves as a church and devote themselves to Bible study and communal life so they can follow all of Scripture’s designs for who they are and what they do.
Do What Churches Do
Teams must also begin to do what churches do in order to be considered churches. Under the authority God has given them and guided by the Scriptures, Christians who commit themselves to being a church together should start doing everything a church does. Biblically speaking, churches worship, serve one another, fellowship together, proclaim the gospel, and make disciples together. They also set in place biblically-qualified leaders. (These are only the basics of what a church should be and do. For more information on healthy churches, see the IMB’s definition of “church” and this article on the 12 Characteristics of a Healthy Church.)
For a group of Christians to become a church they need to meet both of these qualifications. Groups who only devote themselves to being a church but never actually do anything as a church are like a sports “team” that never actually plays. They meet together for practice, but never engage in actual “game time” activities. It would be hard to consider such a group a team in any sense of the term. On the other hand, groups who loosely do some of what churches do but never see themselves as a church and therefore don’t devote themselves to being a church will never display the rigorous perseverance needed to become “members of one another” (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 12:27).
Missionaries Need Local Churches
Missionaries can face very complex situations. While they should always pursue local church involvement, missionary teams should seek to become churches themselves only when necessary. If they do, they face an ever-present danger of an inward focus on that church, rather than an outward focus on evangelism and church planting in indigenous soil. It is often wiser when an option to invest in an existing local church–even if that church is very unhealthy. In many places around the world, the distance between the worldview and language of the missionary team and those they serve is small enough that they can expect to join into fellowship with the church within a relatively small amount of time.
Missionary teams can provide a visible expression of gospel community.
When a local body is not otherwise accessible, missionary teams may actively become churches. As they covenant together to do so, they provide a visible expression of gospel community. Such a visible display can be life-giving in a place where there were formerly no churches! In addition, these churches will give the missionary teams an opportunity to actively live out their collective understanding of church before helping new local believers to do so. Their churches can also provide on-the-ground pastoral care that serves as a kind of “first responder” triage for the spiritual well-being of missionaries serving in difficult places.
No matter the circumstance, missionary teams must hold to a biblically robust understanding of the local church. They must obey the biblical imperatives for Christians to be meaningfully involved in local churches–they aren’t exempt simply because of their roles as missionaries. We–all believers, including missionaries–want to be “members of one another” and understand that we can only plant healthy churches when we submit to a church ourselves.