The Missionary Task: Forming a Healthy Church

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a six-part series of articles commenting on the missionary task. For the official and complete version of the missionary task as defined by IMB, please refer to the IMB Foundations Magazine. Each article in this series covers a single component of the six-part missionary task in the following order: EntryEvangelismDisciple MakingChurch FormationLeadership Development, and Exit and Partnership.

While disciple making is the core command of the Great Commission, we at IMB believe the best way to make disciples is through planting healthy churches that multiply. And for other elements of the missionary task to proliferate—evangelism and discipleship—a healthy community of faith is required. In other words, the church provides staying power.

Healthy church formation is not simply a church that is growing through evangelism. Rather, it’s starting churches that start churches and, thereby, making more disciples.

“For other elements of the missionary task to proliferate—evangelism and discipleship—a healthy community of faith is required. In other words, the church provides staying power.”

A Healthy Plan

A local church is a group of baptized believers in Jesus Christ who are committed to each other as the body of Christ and who meet together regularly to carry out the functions of a biblical church (IMB Foundations, p. 91). With a loving commitment to plant healthy churches, the IMB has identified twelve characteristics of a healthy church that guide our efforts. These attributes are not a checklist to reach a destination but rather a description of the innate traits of a sustainable church. They are essential for church health.

Here are the twelve characteristics we’ve identified that mark healthy churches in every context.

  1. Biblical evangelism
  2. Biblical discipleship
  3. Biblical membership
  4. Biblical leadership
  5. Biblical preaching and teaching
  6. Biblical ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  7. Biblical worship
  8. Biblical fellowship
  9. Biblical prayer
  10. Biblical accountability
  11. Biblical giving
  12. Biblical mission

Pitfalls and Benefits

The need for the gospel among the lost is urgent, and we desire to see churches multiply as rapidly as God chooses. However, we recognize God’s Word gives us no promise that our faithfulness to the missionary task will be rewarded with any certain reproduction rate. Expecting church formation to happen quickly is a common pitfall for missionaries. While rapid multiplication is biblically possible, it is not biblically promised. So, it’s unwise to expect it to happen in every context.

Another pitfall relates to leadership. A temptation exists for missionaries or partnering churches to take leadership of churches instead of training nationals to lead those churches. If we fail to foster local leadership and walk alongside them, we create unhealthy dependence upon outside leadership.

Another pitfall in church formation is the temptation to provide financial support, buildings, and other physical resources that are not sustainable or reproducible in a given culture. When churches are enticed to build what they cannot afford, there is a danger of dependence, especially when funded by outside donors. If a new church on the mission field chooses to build or buy a building, the members need to own that vision and carry it out with local resources for the health of the church.

Likewise, the churches we plant should be contextualized to their local cultures, just as churches are in North America. It’s tempting to recreate our own styles of worship and church activities in another context, simply because those are the things we know and practice. Yet, that doesn’t allow truly indigenous expressions of the local church to arise—ones that make sense in that culture. Instead, we want to allow Scripture to be the guide that defines what is required for a church to be a church. One benefit of this mindset is that missionaries are free to focus their efforts on weightier matters like helping to guard against unhealthy practices such as syncretism or the promotion of poor theology.

In the same way that we need to allow for indigenous churches to arise, we also must avoid the temptation to impose extrabiblical denominational structures with which we’re familiar. Of course, we should seek to foster cooperation among churches in a given place or people for the sake of mission. We will even encourage and facilitate the development of structures for cooperation that are appropriate for each setting. However, they need to be indigenous structures in order to fully and effectively develop in those places.

One final note on contextualization I’d like to add here. Going to places of great need, we must never reinforce any form of racism or other ungodly forms of human division. We should never separate people who could worship together simply because they are from different races, classes, or castes. One benefit of diversity in the local church is that it gives tangible expression to the truth that every human being is an image bearer of God and, therefore, all people have equal worth. Of course, we must be sensitive to ethnic and linguistic differences that affect peoples’ ability to hear and understand the gospel, to worship and learn in their own heart languages, and to express the beauty of their own unique cultures as disciples of Jesus. 

Church Formation in the Framework of the Six-Part Missionary Task

As the fourth element of the missionary task, church formation follows entry, evangelism, and discipleship. Once those new churches are formed, they are strengthened by leadership development—the fifth element of the missionary task, which we’ll discuss in the next article of this series.

D. Ray Davis serves on the mobilization team at IMB. He and his family previously served among Sub-Saharan African peoples. You can follow him @DRayDavis.