This article is a summary of a message preached by IMB President, David Platt. In it, he explored the relationship between missionaries and local churches on the field.
Missionaries have a difficult relationship with the local churches around them on the field. In the mythology of missions, the missionary has risen above such paltry things as potlucks and committee meetings. They’ve “graduated” from church. And what’s more, by the very nature of their occupation, missionaries often must live and work in places where a local body of believers is practically impossible to come by.
In reality, missionaries and local churches need each other. The exact parameters of the relationship between the two may change or be otherwise dependent on circumstance.
1. Missionaries Plant
The missionary’s first and most obvious responsibility to local churches is to facilitate their planting. Therefore, a missionary must know what a healthy church looks like, for how can he replicate what he’s never seen? Scripture leaves ample room for local expression and glorious diversity between congregations, but we can’t compromise on the theological essentials of the church. This is Christ’s body, not ours. We have no right to take liberties with the bride of Christ.
Although no church is perfect in these matters, a healthy church will nevertheless adopt a posture of obedience to Scripture, striving for God’s ideal and trusting him to bless their obedience.
The circumstances of a church’s birth will set the course of its life.
Conversely, as important as it is not deviate from biblical direction in church planting, missionaries must be equally careful not to confuse essentials with nonessentials. A healthy church can’t function without biblical preaching, but that preaching can be done on a rooftop or under a tree. Biblical leadership is indispensable, but that leadership can be paid, unpaid, or bivocational. The standard set by Scripture is high enough without stacking it with trivialities. Missionaries must know which issues to hold with tight fists and which to hold with open hands, and they must be careful never to let nonessential matters cause unnecessary division or enmity.
The circumstances of a church’s birth will set the course of its life, and an unhealthy church can be a blight on its community and an ordeal to restore to health. Church planters have the privilege and responsibility of getting young churches started off right. Far better to raise a new church up in the way it should go than to leave a string of mistakes for later generations to correct.
What about when churches are no longer new? How should missionaries relate to churches that have already been planted and growing for a while?
2. Missionaries Partner
There are certainly many parts of the globe without a single gathering of local believers, but wherever there are healthy congregations within physical reach, missionaries must partner with them. After all, they cannot bypass the church in order to plant the church! Whenever possible and beneficial for reaching the unreached, missionaries must collaborate with existing churches.
Tragically, some churches are decidedly unhealthy, and missionaries must work around those congregations. But writing off a church as “unhealthy” should never be taken lightly. And it should never be upon the basis of nonessentials like instruments in worship or order of service.
An unhealthy church is one which is willfully disobedient. It not only falls short of the biblical directives for church life, but it also exhibits no desire to repent and change. And a missionary who decides, after much prayer and seeking of wise counsel, to refuse partnership with an unhealthy church must do so with a posture of grace and a resolution to continue praying for their repentance.
Other churches are more obviously in process than their “healthy” or “unhealthy” counterparts. Perhaps they’re strong on some fronts, weak in others, and downright wrong on a few. They’re imperfect but aware of their imperfections, and (most importantly) willing to humbly learn and change. These are the churches we should work alongside. Missionaries should actively look for opportunities to draw them into greater alignment with the missionary task.
But what are they to do with a truly healthy church, one which is dedicated to biblical truth and striving to perfect their walk together? First, they should thank God for the church’s existence. Then, work with and through them. They should intentionally look for opportunities to carry out the missionary task in cooperation with their leadership, and sometimes even as a part of their membership.
3. Missionaries Participate
Missionaries must participate in healthy churches as members. They need church families. The churches who send them remain precious and important. They fill a role in missionaries’ lives that no other group can fill. But they still need the local church, whether it’s a cathedral in France or a hut in India.
The local bride of Christ, in all her glory, is God’s plan A for reaching the unreached.
This is firstly for their own good. Every single believer needs discipleship in the context of a local body of members with a diversity of gifts. Missionaries can’t spiritually survive, much less thrive, without a community of brothers and sisters coming around them and carrying out the functions of a church. They need biblical leadership, daily prayer, strong accountability, and quality teaching. A church family hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away simply can’t provide those things.
Secondly, missionaries must participate in the local church because the local church is how the gospel spreads. The local bride of Christ, in all her glory, is God’s plan A for reaching the unreached. Churches are the very thing we came overseas to plant, and how can we plant what we don’t personally prioritize?
David Platt (@plattdavid) is the president of the International Mission Board. Follow him at @plattdavid.