International church planters engage in frontline ministry that fulfills the global marching orders of King Jesus. They have a sacred calling that comes with its own challenges. Some of their greatest challenges are not only putting their boots on every day but answering philosophical and practical questions that can undermine their vigorous and courageous efforts.
Here are three of the most common—and thereby significant—questions that deserve and demand careful consideration.
1. Does Every Church Plant Need a Pastor?
The local church consists of redeemed and regenerate followers of Christ who cooperate to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. While the church is fundamentally defined as God’s chosen people (1 Pet. 2:9), it’s functionally designed to have pastoral leadership. As the early church reproduced, the apostles “appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23; cf. Titus 1:5) and established the model for multiplying local congregations. But this is much easier said than done.
Perhaps the most daunting aspect of this strategy for church planting—particularly in international contexts of mostly unreached people groups—is discipling and developing believers who qualify to occupy the pastoral office (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5–9). This is especially the case in basic forms of church models (i.e., house churches) and because of Scripture’s prohibition against appointing “recent convert[s]” (1 Tim. 3:6).
The health and longevity of the church will largely depend on our faithfulness to establish pastoral leadership.
But the time and investment required to train native pastors doesn’t nullify the necessity of their appointment. Local church shepherds ultimately provide the spiritual nourishment, care, and guidance as representatives of the Chief Shepherd and as examples to the flock (1 Pet 5:2–4). They’re designated stewards of God’s church and God’s truth (Titus 1:7, 9). They serve as indispensable leaders who provide spiritual oversight for the body of Christ (Heb. 13:17). Therefore, church planters should adopt a strategy that models, mentors, and multiplies indigenous pastors.
This requires initially serving as the shepherd of the church while it launches. It also involves teaching and training potential pastors for an unspecified season that doesn’t prematurely ordain them (1 Tim. 5:22). We must be willing to invest the time and tutelage necessary for them to develop into qualified servant leaders. This mentorship period ultimately transitions into the passing of the leadership baton as they exhibit the spiritual qualifications stipulated in the Scriptures. The health and longevity of the church will largely depend on our faithfulness to establish pastoral leadership.
2. What is the Role of My Family?
International missions is notoriously hard on families. Balancing ministry demands and our personal responsibilities can often distract from wholehearted devotion to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:33–34). But this tension is partially resolved as the members of our families work together to fulfill the mission.
By God’s design, the home provides the nurturing environment that is intended to perpetuate the faith from generation to generation. God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” not only included human reproduction (Gen. 1:28), it was also intended to multiply the faith (Ps. 78:6–7). This primarily transpires through our discipline and instruction (Eph. 6:4) as we teach our children to love the Lord, listen to the Lord, and live for the Lord (Deut. 6:4–7). But it also includes the public testimony of the family to the outside world (vv. 8–9).
Cultural integration without moral compromise can be a compelling witness for Christ.
There are several dynamics of this public testimony that can be leveraged for the gospel. For example, our marital union is meant to depict the covenantal relationship between Christ and his people. Spousal support and affection should be characterized by an unfailing and sacrificial love. Likewise, our parental care is intended to reflect our heavenly Father’s perfect love that he lavishes on us as his children (1 Jn. 3:1). In addition, the honor, respect, and obedience our children demonstrate for us (Eph. 6:1–2) should mirror our humble submission to the Lord. These relational portrayals are often counter-cultural, especially in international contexts, and can serve as a powerful testimony of God’s redemptive love that is available through Christ.
As it was in Israel, our distinction as God’s people through our familial testimony is meant to demonstrate that “the Lord [our] God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9, ESV).
3. Is Living the Gospel and Loving People Enough?
International church planters have a responsibility to authentically integrate into their host culture. Few things communicate a genuine love for people as much as our sincere affiliation with them and an acceptance of their ethnic and cultural heritage. While this doesn’t mean adopting their religious views, it does involve investing in the economic and social fabric of their community for the sake of the gospel so that some might be saved (1 Cor. 9:19–23).
Cultural integration without moral compromise can be a compelling witness for Christ. Our gospel witness must include a visual testimony of a lifestyle that corresponds with the truth of the gospel. Otherwise, our profession to know God may be invalidated by our lives, rendering us useless for Christ (Titus 1:16). Paul defended the validity of his ministry with his integrity, stating, “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5, ESV).
But morality and ministry without the message don’t provide the necessary means for conversion. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16) and it must be heard as much as seen. For “how are they to believe in whom they have not heard?” since “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14, 17, ESV).
A faithful and effective witness must include both, a visual expression and a verbal explanation of the gospel. Though some contexts may require a heightened awareness of strategic tact and sensitivity, our lips and our lives must always work together to share the good news of Jesus.
R. Scott Pace is the Rev. A. E. and Dora Hughes Chair of Christian Ministry and chair of the Christian and Cross-Cultural Ministry Department at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, OK. He is author (with Danny Akin) of Pastoral Theology: Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor Is and What He Does (B&H Academic, 2017)