This paper was written as part of my studies in the Greyfriars Hall ministerial training program.
In this position paper, I will address key areas of focus and emphasis that a local church should value as they seek to obey Christ’s Great Commission in the world (Mt. 28:18-20). Due to length limitations, this paper will not dive into a deep biblical/theological explanation of the Great Commission, but instead presupposes that Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” is part of the mission of the local church, and the question at hand is how a church should go about this work.
The topics included are: the centrality of the local church in missions, the qualifications of a missionary, how many missionaries a local congregation should support, equipping indigenous leaders in the field, and why our optimistic eschatology should encourage and fuel missions efforts.
I believe that the proposals in this paper align with Christ Church’s Philosophy of Missions, which is worth re-reading and can be found in the list of recommended resources at the end of this paper.
Centrality of the Church
We begin with the Church, specifically the local congregation. The work of missions is the work of the church, which is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim. 3:15), submitted to Christ (Eph. 1:22), and entrusted with the gospel through the ages. This means that a missionary should be sent out by the church he is a member of, and not by a parachurch missions organization.
This is not to say that parachurch organizations are unhelpful and do not have a place in a biblical model of missions. Mission organizations are vital in that they provide experienced training, guidance, and support for missionary teams in the field that the local church back home is not equipped to do.
In order to not subvert the authority of local churches, mission organizations should only accept those who have been selected and approved by their church. Additionally, the sending church must assume the responsibility of supporting and overseeing the life of the missionary and his family. Unless the missionary is serving in a field where there is an established church to join, he remains a member of his sending church, and the elders are responsible for his soul (Heb. 13:17). Given the stresses associated with missionary endeavors, there must be elders assigned to have regular check-ins with the missionary, so that he is both encouraged in his work and protected from any potential crises.
Qualifications of a Missionary
In the Great Commission, Jesus calls the Church to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Triune Name, teaching them to observe all things He has commanded. This means that the primary focus and task of Christian missions is the establishing of local churches. Men and women are converted to Christ, and then they gather together to worship, hearing the Word preached and receiving the sacraments.
So, if the task and goal of missions is the planting of churches, then those sent out ought to meet the biblical requirements of elders found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. If a man does not meet the requirements of an elder in your own congregation, then he has no business in seeking to establish a congregation across the world with your blessing. If the man claims to have a calling, and the elders recognize potential, he should submit to their leadership and receive training toward that end. Otherwise, we risk the rebuke of the Lord to the scribes and Pharisees, who would travel land and sea only to make worse sons of hell (Matt. 23:15).
As Pastor Douglas Wilson has written, “The evangelical world in North America is doctrinally confused, morally compromised, liturgically anemic, and culturally superficial. So what happens when we take the show on the road?”You can only export what you have. If the desire is to see the gospel faithfully proclaimed and a church planted, then the laborer being sent must be called and equipped first so that the mission is a success. Missionary Paul Washer has said that he would rather receive one qualified man than one thousand partially trained men in the field.The distinction is that vital. If it is not bittersweet to see a man and his family leave your church for the mission field, then that may be an indication that they should not go.
Adhering to this standard and practice does not automatically rule out those in our churches, such as young men or women, who have a desire to go overseas to either support a church plant (through evangelism or administrative help), or those whose primary focus would be works of mercy (medical aid, education, providing access to clean water, etc.). If the elders of a church believe that these individuals are correctly discerning a call from God and could be of help to those on the field, they should be encouraged and supported as the budget allows. But not in place of called and qualified men ready to do the work of church-planting.
One or Many?
This leads to another practical question: how many missionaries should one local congregation support? Of course, exact numbers can only be determined by the size, budget, and situation of a particular local church—but guidelines can be established.
First, priority should be given to qualified missionaries seeking to establish a local church. In order to centralize the missionary’s accountability, it would be best if he is fully funded by his home church, or a few churches in his presbytery or denomination. This method allows the local church to remain focused on and helpfully engaged with their missionary, and frees the missionary from the stress of support raising and spending furloughs traveling to sponsor churches.
Missiologist Ralph Winter has lamented the “amateurization of missions,” found in short-term trips and the sending of “ordinary members out on tourist-mission jaunts.”It is more valuable to fully support one man and his family who is doing great work for Christ in the field, then to drain the missions budget on individuals or groups doing various short-term trips throughout the year. Short-term trips are not inherently bad, but they must be done with wisdom and in partnership with those laboring overseas. Unfortunately, they are often found to be a burden on the long-term missionaries, who need to take a break in their work in order to entertain their guests.
Equipping Indigenous Pastors
Once converts are made and a local church is established through the work of a missionary, he must begin to prioritize raising up indigenous men to help lead the church and continue the spread of the gospel. As Paul charged Timothy to entrust his teaching to faithful men who could likewise teach (2 Tim. 2:2), a missionary should strive to identify men who could become elders and evangelists with further discipleship and instruction. Once these men are trained and commissioned, the local church is now capable of (1) having a plurality of elders from among its own people, (2) receiving biblical teaching in their own language from trained elders, and (3) reproducing itself.
Unfortunately, of the 2.2 million evangelical churches around the world, 85% of them are led by pastors without formal theological training.Beyond sending long-term missionaries to come alongside these pastors, another effective strategy is to establish schools or seminaries in partnership with the local churches. Two organizations currently doing this work are Training Leaders International (TLI) and Reaching & Teaching International Ministries. TLI has split their work into three categories: sending pastors, professors, and graduate students on short-term assignments to teach classes, sending missionaries long-term to teach and do administrative work at schools, and to continue to plant new training schools.
Lastly, another method is that of providing translated literature for the global church. While no substitute for the sending of missionaries, books can be published and distributed (either physically or electronically) at an incredibly fast pace today. Organizations like TGC International Outreach (TGC-IO) and Third Millennium Ministries are at the forefront of these efforts. Since 2006, TGC-IO has distributed over 850,000 theological books and resources to more than 130 countries in 38 languages.Like the apostles in Jerusalem, we too should seek to fill the earth with the gospel and sound doctrine (Acts 5:28).
A Plea to Postmillenialists
An optimistic eschatology can be found in the Church from its beginning up through the Reformation. In Athanasius’ treatise On the Incarnation, we see a glimpse of this confidence as he proclaims, “Since the Savior’s Advent in our midst, not only does idolatry no longer increase, but it is getting less and gradually ceasing to be… and everything else that opposes the faith of Christ is daily dwindling and weakening and falling, see, the Savior’s teaching is increasing everywhere!”
John Calvin shared this victorious vision, stating that God the Father has appointed Christ king “to rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers to the ends of the earth.”He also taught that the reason for the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost was so that the gospel would “reach all the ends and extremities of the world.”
Inheriting this biblical confidence, and trusting in the authority and power of Christ, Reformed evangelicals ought to be audacious on the mission field. Unreached people groups in dangerous contexts should not be avoided, but instead, should be engaged with wisdom and faith. Pastors should be bold in their preaching, calling members of their congregations to go into the world. And when they lay their lives down for the cause, these same pastors should be unashamed in seeking their replacements.
Contrary to what the late Keith Green used to say, all Christians are not by default called to go to the foreign mission field. That said, we shouldn’t let the overzealousness of some groups dampen our own biblical zeal. Nor should we allow our churches to become so inward or locally focused on good things like cultural reformation and Christian education, that we become complacent in regard to seeing the gospel reach those perishing in foreign lands.
Jesus has purchased all of the nations of the earth with His blood, and He is worthy of our lives. We know that as the waters cover the sea, the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will one day fill the earth (Hab. 2:14). It is to that end, for the glory of God and the joy of all people, that we labor.
Many more aspects related to the work of missions could be discussed, and a few of these ideas could be defended or explained in separate position papers (such as postmillennialism, evangelism, and the education of pastors). But these five distinctives would serve local churches and missionaries well as they share their part in seeing the nations victoriously won for Christ.
Christ Church Philosophy of Missions(Moscow, ID).
Douglas Wilson, Heaven Misplaced (Moscow, ID: Canon Press).
Douglas Wilson, Mother Kirk (Moscow, ID: Canon Press).
G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).
M. David Sills, Reaching and Teaching (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers).
M. David Sills, The Missionary Call (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers).
Michael A.G. Hayken and Jeff Robinson Sr., To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers).
Paul Washer, Indigenous Missions(Radford, VA: HeartCry Missionary Society).
HeartCry Missionary Society
HopeRussia (formerly Slavic Reformation Society)
Iceland Project (Reformed Baptist church planting)
Joint Eastern European Project (CREC)
Reaching & Teaching International Ministries
Third Millenium Ministries
Training Leaders International
WeGoInFaith.org (Presbyterian church planting in Norway)
Wycliffe Bible Translators
Douglas Wilson, Mother Kirk (Moscow, ID: Canon Press), 254.
Ralph D. Winter, Part II: Eleven frontiers of Perspective (International Journal of Frontier Missions), 20:4 Winter.
Training Leaders International, What We Do (https://trainingleadersinternational.org/about/what-we-do).
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 93.
John Calvin, 1541 Institutes of the Christian Religion (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust), xxi.
Michael A.G. Hayken and Jeff Robinson Sr., To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers), 53.