The Missionary and the Local Church

When my best friend got married, he made the mistake of asking me to officiate his wedding. No, it wasn’t so much that I dropped the bride’s ring on the floor. Or that it rolled within an inch of falling into a vent. It was that when she came down the aisle, I almost out-cried him. I love my friend so much. Seeing his bride at that moment—the woman who made him so happy—filled me with the kind of emotion guys often don’t know what to do with. So, I just smiled and made that awkward snort that comes from choking back tears.

Loving What Christ Loves

If we love Christ, then we will love his bride. Such is the legacy of the man whom Jesus himself said there was none greater—John the Baptist. Joy for Jesus meant joy for John (John 3:27–29). He was delighted to see Jesus get his glory, come into his kingdom, and receive his bride. With a posture only possible by the Spirit upon him, John concluded humbly, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, HCSB). Simply put, a humble posture loves what Christ loves. And what Christ loves most is “the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, HCSB).

Not Loving the Church

Yet, I have seen a less than humble posture in my day. Honestly, I’ve had it myself. I have been a missionary who didn’t love local churches very much—especially American churches. Before moving overseas, I viewed them as inwardly focused and slow to change. They felt to me like a burden to either reform or escape. Although there were many good reasons why I desired to serve as a missionary, I am sad to say that one of the things that helped turn my eyes toward foreign fields was my disillusionment with churches.

“The Scriptures portray so much regarding the missionary’s love for the church—an affection as zealous as that which burns in them for unreached peoples.”

Unfortunately, I have sometimes found that same disillusionment to be a common bond with fellow missionaries abroad. It lurked not so much in our words, though we often verbalized our disappointment with pastors and church members who “just don’t care” and “don’t get it.” The real proof was in our actions—that we were willing to try the work of missionaries without deep, abiding relationships with local churches.

The Church’s Relationship to the Missionary

Now as a pastor of an American church (yes, see the irony?), I’m thrilled by the changes I see. With God’s help, I’ve come a long way and so have many churches. We’ve begun to recognize the Great Commission was given not simply to individuals but to local churches.

A couple of years ago I worked on blog project that eventually became the book The Sending Church Defined. Throughout my research for that project, I was blown away by the clear message of both Scripture and Christian scholarship that local churches are responsible as the senders of their people both locally and globally. They’re to be all in with God’s mission, not merely outsourcing their missionaries to agencies or simply donating money to a missional cause. Churches are to take primary responsibility in shepherding their missionaries before, during, and after their service abroad.

The Missionary’s Relationship to the Church

What troubles me now, however, is what I didn’t find during my research for that project. Though there is much written about the posture of the church toward the missionary, I have found almost nothing about the missionary’s posture toward the church—except for one notable book: the Bible. The Scriptures portray so much regarding the missionary’s love for the church—an affection as zealous as that which burns in them for unreached peoples.

Take Paul, for instance. We look to him as the prime example of a pioneer missionary. Yet, his life was a helix of both church and field. This intertwining of church and field in Paul’s life can be seen in at least four ways.

  1. As he was converted and affirmed alongside churches (Damascus, Jerusalem, and Tarsus), he was also called and formed into an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9).
  2. As he co-pastored the church at Antioch (Acts 11), he was also commissioned to be sent on his first missionary journey (Acts 13).
  3. After planting new churches on that first journey (Acts 13–14), he settled back into his sending church for a while (Acts 14:24–28).
  4. Then, fast forward to when he wrote a letter to the church in Rome while spending time with the church in Corinth. He expressed his need for support in getting to where Christ was not yet known: Spain (Rom. 15).

An Intertwining of Church and Field

Church and field were so intertwined for Paul that it’s almost unhelpful to distinguish between the two. His initiating affection for churches was written all over his missionary identity (Phil. 1:4; Eph. 1:16). He penned heartfelt letters to them (2 Cor. 2:4) in which he agonized over their growth (Gal. 4:19–20), prayed for them constantly (1 Thess. 1:2), was delighted to spend time with them (Rom. 15:23–24), avoided being a financial burden to them (2 Thess. 3:7–8), rejoiced over them (1 Thess. 2:17–20), and wept with them (Acts 20:36–38).

Mutual Affection between the Missionary and the Church

There’s no indication that this kind of relationship between missionary and church was just for the first century. By God’s grace, many of today’s churches and missionaries are pursuing healthy, mutual partnerships as they spread God’s glory to the nations. And, since mutual affection between church and field starts long before a commissioning ceremony, it’s far better to find out during the assessment phase of a missionary applicant’s journey whether the relationship between a candidate and his or her local church needs strengthening.

Missionaries are not only ambassadors of Christ. They also represent their sending church. Paul was a model missionary, in part, because he had a model of church partnership that helped fuel his faithfulness. We admire Paul. Let’s admire and adopt his posture toward the local church as well.


Bradley Bell is a former IMB missionary and current lead pastor at Antioch Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the director of content development at The Upstream Collective, authored The Sending Church Defined, and blogs at brokenmissiology.com. You can find him on Twitter @BradleyRBell.