An Aircraft Carrier to the Nations: Becoming a Runway for Sent Ones

We want to be a church that is an aircraft carrier to the nations. That is, we want our church to be a runway for sent ones.

I’ve cast this vision hundreds of times in the life of our ten-year-old church in Greenville, South Carolina. By virtue of our location, we have a steady stream of young men and women seeking to serve as church planters and international missionaries. As their pastor, I want to steward these human resources well.

Part of this task involves praying for them, providing counsel and connections, and advocating for them with various sending agencies. But I’m also learning that a core aspect of equipping future missionaries involves creating a runway for them to go on mission.

Below are some ways that our church has committed to serving such folks to prepare them for their life as “sent ones” (that is, people commissioned and sent by the church to engage the world as missionaries and church planters).

Empower Them to Evangelize

Because of all that international missions work entails, sent ones need to learn how to infuse missionary intentionality into their regular rhythms before they go. In other words, they must be effective evangelists. As with any other proficiency, this ability is forged through practice.

Those on a sending runway should have already proven themselves to be fruitful evangelists among those with whom they live, learn, work, and play. As a result, their churches should empower them to share the gospel with those far from God, especially those who represent differing cultures in their city.

“A core aspect of equipping future missionaries involves creating a runway for them to go on mission.”

One practical way churches can do this is to invite future sent ones into relationships where they can watch existing leaders evangelize, disciple new believers, and integrate new believers into the life of the church. This mentoring relationship aids both parties.

It serves the future missionaries as they develop the tools for gospel conversations in diverse cultures. It also spurs existing church leaders to prioritize the work of evangelism, setting a positive example for all those who will “stay on mission” wherever God has already placed them.

Give Them Something to Build

It’s one thing to know how to function in an existing system. It’s another thing altogether to know how to build systems that work. Sent ones often find themselves in need of a reproducible system when they’ve never even had the experience of creating one within an existing church. Therefore, they need the opportunity to see something develop from the ground up, ask questions about the process, and learn from experienced leaders about how to create a ministry that successfully accomplishes a worthy goal.

This means we should give future sent ones the opportunity to try their hand at building something—even if it’s as simple as developing an event—in order to know how to create something from scratch. They may also need time to research and develop ministry models that will assist in discipling people to maturity.

“We should give future sent ones the opportunity to try their hand at building something.”

Of course, sent ones will also need to pursue this in a culture of grace since mistakes will be common. They need caring leaders who will help them process failure, learn from mistakes, and refine their work for the future. It’s far better to learn those lessons now than when isolated in an unfamiliar culture.

Challenge Them to Develop Others

Sent ones are not merely to observe our leadership development efforts. They should also learn to replicate their work in others who can carry on the task once they leave. Any missionary will tell you that churches around the world face an overwhelming shortage of leaders. So, the work for all sent ones should involve developing a team of leaders who leverage their complementary strengths on mission.

Once on the field, these leaders will come from the ranks of the newly converted. As such, a sending runway should task sent ones with discipling and developing those who have recently come to faith in our churches in order to help them learn how to build a reproducing pipeline of future missionaries.

“A sending runway should task sent ones with discipling and developing those who have recently come to faith in our churches.”

Again, this work requires effective mentorship of sent ones while on the runway since they are most likely to develop others in the same manner later on. In addition, local churches can, and must, equip future sent ones with simple, clear, reproducible tools that are applicable in any culture. Although they may need to contextualize these tools when they land in their missionary context, equipping them with general tools to train others to evangelize, read the Bible, and plant churches will enhance their confidence when they are grappling for help in a new culture.

Connect Them to the People of the Church

Once sent, staying connected to the sending church is key for emotional and practical support. Many workers have felt the reality of the adage “out of sight is out of mind.” To counteract this, our churches can bring future sent ones before the congregation on a regular basis at both formal and informal gatherings and events. In this way, when the time comes for them to leave, the church can meaningfully commission them with many in the church having some level of relational investment.

It’s also vital to keep sent ones connected to a few leaders and to map out clear expectations for everyone ahead of time. Which pastor is responsible for following up with the sent one? Which lay leaders will do the same? When will they talk? How often? Will the church visit? If so, when? What about the kids? How will they be cared for, and who is going to remain connected to them? These and other questions should be answered ahead of time to avoid unnecessary wounds or disconnection that might develop over time.

“It’s vital to keep sent ones connected to a few leaders and to map out clear expectations for everyone ahead of time.”

Finally, all this should involve conversations about more than just the practical aspects of ministry and the details of their sending. Attention should be given to the way the Spirit is shaping, pressing, challenging, and growing those we are sending. Once they are away, continuing this conversation is critical for their spiritual health and wellbeing. This level of care will also prepare the church to receive a sent one back one day and care for them well after they’ve experienced years (or decades) of intense spiritual warfare and struggle to adapt to the church in America again.

Focus on Developing Self-Awareness, Emotional Intelligence, and Perseverance in Relationships

Effective leadership requires these three qualities whether you are in Boston or Bangladesh. And frankly, very few young leaders excel in any one of them. Sent ones need self-awareness to understand who they are and what value they add to a relationship, and conversely what others find challenging about their unique personality and gifting.

Sent ones will also need emotional intelligence to read the temperature of a conversation and know how to make beneficial adjustments on the spot. Finally, sent ones must learn to persevere in relationships. Rather than spinning out of a relational orbit when they dynamics become challenging, they need to learn how to fight clean and square back up when conflict arises.

Anyone who has served as a missionary for any length of time can tell you why these attributes matter. Sent ones almost always find themselves among a very small team and often cite relational turmoil as a leading cause of attrition. Typically they’re attempting to learn the aforementioned team dynamics while simultaneously attempting to navigate a new culture and missionary venture. Struggling to do both well should come as no surprise.

Yet a sending runway can serve these men and women by bringing these relational themes to the forefront. This means, at minimum, pressing conversations about these topics, challenging sent ones in repentance and reconciliation, fostering skills in conflict resolution, and developing competence in saying difficult things with truth and grace.

In truth, no runway can address all of the preparatory needs for those we send. But the more that churches infuse intentionality in the sending process, the more likely we can enhance the longevity and fruitfulness of those who leave our churches to take the gospel to the nations.