Sojourn Church: Our Journey to Become a Sending Church

When I first started using sending church language back in 2008, I got mostly blank stares. I would open to Acts 13–15 and share with church leaders my vision to see local churches live out their missions identity by investing in and sending out cross-cultural missionaries with intentionality. Though many were excited about the idea, few were ready to embrace it. Oh, how things have changed. What was once considered a novel idea has now become the desire of many local churches.

In my role as a missions pastor at Sojourn Community Church, I’m often asked how we moved from being a church with nominal engagement in global mission to a sending church with vision, systems, and a plan for sending our own people to the nations. Though a great question, it’s a difficult one to answer. My first instinct is to offer other churches detailed solutions from our story, but I’ve come to realize that every church is unique and beautiful and must engage in her own way.

Our Story is Our Own

To tell another church to do what Sojourn has done would be like telling a missionary to follow ten preplanned steps to guaranteed missionary success. And that would be foolishness. Instead, I encourage local church leaders to start by creating missions anew. Ask what it would look like to approach missions as an artist approaches a blank canvas or a composer a song. Approach global missions with a desire to dream and create something in your church that will last.

When it comes to creating or reinventing missions in your local church, let me suggest the following three ideas:

Build Missionary Identity into the DNA of the Church

Every member of your church needs to see himself or herself as a missionary where he or she lives and works. When church members open the book of Acts and read stories of the gospel spreading through normal, everyday people, they need to see themselves.

My intent here is not to debate whether everyone should be considered a missionary. I do believe there is something unique about the call to take the gospel cross-culturally. However, when we elevate the missionary call beyond the normal Christian, we rob people of their gospel-mandated role to be on mission wherever they find themselves. In conversations with my friend Larry McCrary, the director of The Upstream Collective, he often says, “Missions is not a program or activity of the church. It’s an identity.”  I agree completely.

When we elevate the missionary call beyond the normal Christian, we rob people of their gospel-mandated role to be on mission wherever they find themselves.

Members of your church need to understand that they are called to be missionaries in their local context first and foremost. Your church should certainly have a clear and robust program to help members take the gospel across oceans, but do not neglect the need to help them take the gospel across the street. If they are not engaged with their neighbors, they will not be engaged with the nations.

At Sojourn, our sending story began when our lead pastor, Daniel Montgomery, built into our church from the very beginning a culture of “every member is a missionary.” That culture stuck with us and even today, seventeen years later, our members are active in living out their identity as sent ones.

Create a Sending Culture

Healthy churches do not hoard their best leaders. As difficult as it might be, they send them away to start new things. When we send our best leaders out, it shows both a commitment to and the priority of the mission and gives other people a chance to rise to the occasion.

Not long ago, a few of our church leaders were concerned that we were sending out some of our best pastors and leaders, and our congregation was feeling the pain of their absence. I pulled Pastor Daniel aside and shared the fact that our staff and ministries were feeling that pain. Daniel’s response fit directly with the culture he has been at the forefront of creating, “We have a ton of great leaders. Send them out.”

We want our church be to a launching pad for church planting and international missions. I encourage you to take the same posture. There is definitely great pain in developing great leaders only to send them out, but there is also great reward in seeing a culture develop where others step up to take their place in ministry (not to mention the great reward of seeing the fruit of their ministries in the many places they are sent).

Sojourn is certainly not the first local church to model this. We see it in Acts 13. The Church at Antioch sent out their very best in Barnabas and Paul. I am sure the pain in sending was real, but the impact for the kingdom was undeniable. It was worth it. And so it is for Sojourn. The difficulty of sending out our best is far outweighed by the fruit of their ministry.

Make a Plan Before You Get Busy in Missions

Build a foundation based on who you are as a church, your mission convictions, and what your church specifically has to offer.

For a former church plant like Sojourn, the process of laying a foundation was not hard. We didn’t have much of a missions program to start with. In many ways we had a blank slate. Before 2010, Sojourn had a few missionaries on the field, but we did not have any kind of plan to support them or increase our engagement. We loved missions, but we had not taken the time to create a plan for our own missions journey.

“We have a ton of great leaders. Send them out.”

I was hired that same year, and our pastors gave me the first four months to create a missions strategy from scratch. I was given time and space to build something from the ground up. I read every book I could find, visited dynamic sending churches, dreamed, and ask God what role our local church should play in such a big task. This period of foundational development was key for where we are today.

My Parting Advice

You may or may not have the joy and freedom of a blank slate in the same way I did. In fact, many mission leaders reading this article may be at the helm of a long-term, inherited legacy mission program with decades of history and plenty of baggage. Wherever you find yourself, let me offer three final pieces of wisdom:

  1. Have a point person.
    Someone needs to lead missions. Give this person time and space to learn from others, dream big, and develop a plan. Every great church on mission that I am aware of has a missions champion. Who is yours?
  2. Be a learner.
    Take the time needed to learn all you can about being a dynamic sending church. Ask other mission leaders you respect if you can learn from them. Read a lot—the Bible and various missions resources. If you continue to maintain the posture of a learner, the missions engagement at your church will only get better over time.
  3. Ask what your church has to offer.
    Wrestle with what your church has to offer in global missions. What are your convictions as it relates to missions? What are your greatest gifts as a church? Create a plan for missions in your church based off what you discover.

Nathan Garth is the lead international missions pastor at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter @Nathan_Garth.

For more information on creating a sending culture in your church, check out this podcast from J.D. Greear and this interview with Cliff Jordan. You can also check out The Sending Church Defined by Zach Bradley.