There are a lot of loving, sacrificial, brave things that Christians can do specifically because they are followers of Jesus. Christians all over the world do in fact love their neighbor and do good by drilling wells, feeding the poor, caring for orphans, and fighting for justice. We can certainly praise God for the way his grace is at work in the lives of his people, motivating them to serve and obey him in sacrificial ways.
But unless those things are self-consciously being undertaken in order to further the establishment of a local church, I don’t think we should consider them “missions.” Unless those efforts are aimed at getting the gospel to people who have never heard it and then pulling those people into local churches, they are not part of the church’s mission.
When we’re talking about Christian missions, we ought to be talking about doing the things that lead to the formation of churches.
“When we are talking about Christian missions, we ought to be talking about doing the things that lead to the formation of churches.”
Admittedly, the Bible doesn’t give us a definition of missions per se, so I don’t want to overstate my case. And I’m not aware of any command in the Bible that we ought to plant churches.
But what we are told to do is to make disciples, and once we have made them we are to baptize them and teach them to obey Jesus (Matt. 28:19–20). And what is the context in which that is to happen? It must be the local church.
Gospel Preached, Disciples Made, Churches Planted
If I am correct, then when we come to the pages of the New Testament, we would expect to see that when people are evangelized and become disciples, they pull together into local churches. And in fact, that’s what we see in the early days of the gospel’s spread.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. . . . And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:19–21; 24b–26, emphasis mine).
So that pattern is that the gospel is proclaimed (Acts 11:20), many are added to the Lord (Acts 11:24), and what results is a church (Acts 11:26). In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas went to Antioch in Pisidia to preach the gospel, and many people believed in Jesus:
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).
And when Paul went back later to see how things were going, what he found wasn’t a soup kitchen or an NGO, but a church:
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:21–23).
We could go on heaping up examples, but the point is clear: when the gospel is preached, disciples are made (because the Lord has appointed many to eternal life) and those disciples form churches.
We tend to think that institutions and structures are the enemy of the organic spread of the gospel. But the apostle Paul seemed to think that what these new believers needed was order (Titus 1:5) and elders in every church (Acts 14:23).
“When the gospel is preached, disciples are made and those disciples form churches. . . .The goal of mission is the institution of the church.”
The goal of mission is the institution of the church. This is because God has decided that it is through the proliferation of the local church that he will glorify himself. These communities of light spread around the world will both reveal his character and declare his praise. It’s in the context of a church that believers are taught, led, and discipled (Eph. 4:11–13).
When a sinner comes to Christ, we don’t merely tell them to stop sinning and live as a Christian. Instead, we bring them into a church where they’re taught to follow Jesus and where they can flourish under God-given spiritual authority and care.
Here are a few examples of what this looks like in our church’s approach to missions:
- We have sent a team of long-term Christian workers to a city in the Balkans where there were no known indigenous believers. Those individuals may do a host of things to build relationships with locals, but their final purpose is to see a church established as unbelievers become disciples of Christ. Everything they do is evaluated in light of that goal.
- We have sent a couple to work with a portion of the Zulu people in South Africa, a place where there is an insufficient gospel presence. There are unlimited practical needs this couple could try to address, and there are some ways in which they must work to meet some of those needs in order to be accepted members of the wider community. Their focus, however, is always on spreading the gospel and seeing a church planted for the people who are coming to Christ.
- We’re hoping to send another couple to South Asia in a few years. The city to which they will be going is full of poverty and human misery. And while we want to see schools and hospitals and proper sanitation in that place, what we want to see even more are healthy local churches where disciples are made and baptized and taught to obey all that Jesus commanded.
The local church is the means by which God will spread his word and his glory throughout the world. As a result, the Scriptures don’t seem to distinguish between the spread of Christianity and the spread of the church (e.g., Acts 16:5).
The question for your local church is whether your approach to missions reflects the same priorities.
Mike McKinley is a pastor at Sterling Park Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia, and is on the board of Radstock Ministries, an international church planting network.