Training leaders is an essential component of the missionary task. Churches need leaders to teach the Word, guard the flock, advance the gospel, and equip the saints for the work of ministry. These leaders need to know the Word of God well and to conform their lives and their ministries to that Word if they are to lead faithfully.
This means the missionary task necessarily includes leadership training that grounds new leaders in the Bible. Missionary activity that does not provide solid biblical training for church leaders is a form of missionary malpractice.
“Missionary activity that does not provide solid biblical training for church leaders is a form of missionary malpractice.”
Which Kinds of Leaders?
However, there are a variety of leaders in the body of Christ. Which kinds of leaders should missionaries focus on developing? Should they focus on those who will teach and guard the flock of God? Should they focus on those who will share the gospel locally? Should they focus on leaders who will be sent out from the church to plant other churches, either nearby or among other peoples? Is one of these a higher priority than the others? How do we decide this question?
Qualified Pastors, Elders, Overseers
The Bible gives us categories for the types of leaders God intended for his church. One of these is the pastor/elder/overseer. Scripture tells us that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in each of the churches they had planted as they returned from their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23).
A careful examination of the Bible reveals that the words elder, pastor (or shepherd), and overseer (or bishop) are used interchangeably in the New Testament (see Acts 20:28; Titus 1:5–7; 1 Pet. 5:1–4). These three words all refer to one type of leader, not to three separate offices or to a leadership hierarchy in the church.
The Bible gives us two separate descriptions of the sort of men these elder/pastor/overseers should be (1 Tim. 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9). These men (and they are supposed to be men) are to exhibit the character of exemplary disciples, and they must be able to teach. Their job is to shepherd the church, teach the truth of Scripture, and refute false teaching.
Another type of leader is the deacon. Again, Paul gives us a description of who deacons ought to be (1 Tim. 3:8–13). Like elders, they should be examples of mature discipleship, but there is no requirement that they be able to teach. If the appointment of the seven men in Acts 6 refers to the creation of deacons in the church, their function matches their name: deacon simply means servant, and the role of the seven was to take care of physical needs in the church in order to free the apostles to concentrate on the ministry of the Word and prayer.
Deacons, then, are literally servants of the church who take care of those things that need doing for the church to function well. The qualifications for deacons are spiritual maturity, a good reputation, and wisdom, and these qualities are best trained in the context of the normal discipleship of a local church.
There are three references in the New Testament to evangelists. In Acts 21:8, we are told the apostle Paul stayed in the home of Philip the evangelist in Caesarea. In Ephesians 4:11, evangelists are listed as one of God’s gifts to the church, right before shepherds and teachers. In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul admonishes Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. As there are no other references to this in the New Testament, it is hard to categorize evangelist as a formal office in the church, but it is certainly a much-needed function.
All believers should seek to share the gospel as a part of their regular lives, but God seems to gift certain individuals in evangelism in a special way. It would be wise for churches to notice, affirm, train, and encourage those who are gifted evangelists. It is also appropriate in some circumstances for churches to provide financial support to enable evangelists to devote their full attention to that task.
Qualified Sent Ones
What about missionaries? The word missionary does not occur in the Bible, but it comes from a Latin form of the word apostle, which means sent one. Most of the references to apostles in the New Testament refer to the twelve apostles (including Paul), who played a special and unrepeatable role as eyewitnesses to the resurrection and authorized transmitters of true instruction about the person, teaching, and work of Jesus (Mark 3:13–19; Acts 1:15–26).
However, there are other references in the New Testament that apply the word apostle to people who are not among the Twelve, such as Barnabas (Acts 14:4; Acts 14:14). In this case, a sent-one is a person sent out by a local church for the purpose of taking the gospel where it is not yet known.
Paul was in the habit of picking up people like Timothy and Titus, taking them with him on his journeys, training them through personal mentorship, and then sending them out to carry on the mission (Acts 16:1–3, 19:22; 1 Cor. 4:17, 16:10; Gal. 2:1–3; Phil. 2:19–23; 1 Thess. 3:1–7; Titus 1:1–5). The Great Commission is an explicit command of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we see in the New Testament examples of missionary training and sending.
The Focus of Leadership Training in Missions
What, then, should be the focus of leadership training in missions? Churches must have pastors/elders/overseers to be healthy. It is no mistake that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church, and that Paul left Titus in Crete to appoint elders in every town. The most explicit descriptions we have of the qualifications for any type of church leaders are the lists in 1 Timothy and Titus for pastor/elder/overseer.
Because these men must be exemplary disciples of proven character, their discipleship must be thorough, and because each elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9 ESV), their biblical instruction also needs to be deep and rigorous. This sort of pastoral training needs to be a nonnegotiable priority in the missionary task.
“Training missionaries is a necessary task. It doesn’t replace training pastors or constitute a higher priority, but it is a priority in its own right.”
At the same time, evangelists and missionaries also need to be raised up, trained, and sent out by churches, including brand new churches on the mission field. There is no job description or list of characteristics for these roles like those provided in Scripture for pastors. We do not see Paul or his associates appointing evangelists or missionaries in every church.
However, the roles themselves are clearly biblical, and the command of Jesus to share the gospel and make disciples to the ends of the earth is unambiguous and binding. Training evangelists and missionaries is a necessary task. It doesn’t replace training pastors or constitute a higher priority, but it is a priority in its own right.
Sustainable Leadership Training
What kind of leaders should we train as we pursue the missionary task? We should train all of the kinds we find in the New Testament: pastors, deacons, evangelists, and missionaries. Deacons are humble servants who are best trained in the normal discipleship patterns of a local church. That leaves pastors/elders/overseers, evangelists, and missionaries. The missionary task requires investing in the training of each of these. Ultimately, it requires investing in the establishment of sustainable means for training such leaders after the missionary is no longer on the scene.
Zane Pratt serves as the vice president of training for the International Mission Board.