No Lone Rangers: Why We Should Only Send Missionary Teams

Americans love stories about heroes. We love reading about people like Malala Yousafzai, the courageous Pakistani girl who reached an international audience as she fought the misogyny of the Taliban. We also admire explorers like Ernest Shackleton, whose leadership and grit enabled him to deliver his crew safely through a catastrophic Antarctic shipwreck.

Heroes provide us with examples of those who seem to overcome all obstacles by the sheer force of their will. They inspire us to wonder if we too might be capable of greatness. But as we retell these stories, we may be subconsciously reinforcing a typically American sense of rugged individualism.

Hitting Close to Home

In our churches, for example, we often tell heroic-sounding stories about missionaries and church planters. Think about names like William Carey and Lottie Moon. Right or wrong, most think of them as individuals who stormed the frontiers of mission, pressing boldly into places unknown where Christ is unnamed.

“As we retell heroic stories, we may be subconsciously reinforcing a typically American sense of rugged individualism.”

Their commitment to the gospel and the Great Commission is indeed inspiring. However, the way we tend to tell their stories inadvertently portrays a baptized version of Western individualism. We imagine their departure like the end of an episode of The Lone Ranger. We see them as a single figure silhouetted against the sunset, riding off to do good somewhere beyond the horizon.

Yet we must fight the temptation to view church planters as Lone Ranger Christians. Instead, here are four reasons why we should pursue team-based church planting.

1. Community Is Foundational to Humanity

First of all, the Bible teaches that community is vital for humanity. Consider that before sin entered the world the only thing that was declared “not good” was Adam’s aloneness (Gen. 2:18). Likewise, the wisdom literature of the Bible regularly commends community as the context for wise living (Eccl. 4:9-12; Prov. 18:1; 27:17). Even Jesus chose to share his life and ministry with a small squad of disciples (Luke 6:12-16). And he sent out his followers in pairs to announce the coming of the kingdom (Luke 10:1).

“We must fight the temptation to view church planters as Lone Ranger Christians.”

So when the church at Antioch commissions the first cross-cultural disciple-makers, they send Barnabas and Saul as a team (Acts 13:1–5). Likewise, throughout the book of Acts, we continually see groups of disciples doing the work of disciple-making together (Acts 15:36–41, 16:1-5, 17:15, 18:1-4). Thus the Bible both depicts and commends disciple-making—including frontier disciple-making—as a task to be undertaken by a community of believers. What would cause us to think that church planters are an exception?

2. Men and Women Have Complementary Contributions

In addition to biblical precedent, a team-based approach to church planting has several practical advantages. The first advantage is that teams usually consist of both men and women. Such diversity is important since many global cultures consider conversations between unrelated men and women to be inappropriate. For this reason, we need both sexes to share the gospel and make disciples, which necessarily entails a team.

When my wife and I served overseas as missionaries, the women on our team had access to certain conversations that men did not. That’s because that country’s culture devalues women, viewing them merely as sexual objects with reproductive abilities. As such, a man sharing the gospel with a woman was suspected of having ulterior motives. In contrast, the women were able to share how the Bible establishes the dignity and value of women without the hindrance of such suspicion.

Of course, the men on our team were uniquely positioned for other work. For example, they were able to explain how the gospel results in leading, serving, and loving like Christ. By attempting to model Christ-like servant leadership, their message and lives contrasted sharply with the strong-handed, self-centered leadership esteemed by that culture. We would have lost many of these opportunities without both sexes on teams together.

3. Singles and Families Are Stronger Together

Another strategic aspect of team-based church planting is the potential mixture of families and singles. Unfortunately, we can find ourselves tempted to disparage these different stations in life. For married teammates, it is easy to envy the uninhibited schedules of single teammates. They dream of the ministry they could accomplish if they didn’t have the responsibilities of children and spouses. On the other hand, for singles it’s easy to think that they will never earn respect in their communities until they marry.

“The advantages of teams run parallel to the biblical portrait of the Body of Christ working together.”

Yet both stations are vital to ministering to entire communities. Our single teammates found innumerable opportunities to speak of their identity in Christ as more precious than the identity that their national friends expected to come from marriage. At the same time, the married couples on our team enjoyed natural connections with other families. These relationships provided unique opportunities to display and explain how the gospel informs marriage and parenting. In this way, single and married teammates bring strengths to church planting teams that strategically extend the ministry’s reach.

4. Teams Are the Means and the End

I could continue listing the ways that teams with members of diverse ages, skill sets, and personality types expands ministry opportunities. Ultimately these advantages run parallel to the biblical portrait of the Body of Christ working together. For if the goal of the missionary task is planting churches, then the team itself provides a nascent version of the community it envisions.

As church-planting teams work together, strategically utilizing the gifts of each member, they both proclaim and display a form of the gospel-shaped church it labors to produce. In all this Christ continues to build his church. And when Christ does this through whole teams of diverse disciple-makers, the only “lone hero” of church planting left to exalt is the Lord Jesus himself.

Matthew Bennett and his wife, Emily, served as missionaries with the IMB for almost seven years. He holds a PhD in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he currently serves as an assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.