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Church-Centered Mission

Are all apostles?
Are all prophets?
Are all teachers?
Do all work miracles?
1 Corinthians 12:29

Did you know that the word “missionary” is not found in the New Testament? (Unless you’re reading the Latin Vulgate translation!) In the Latin, the Greek word “apostle” was translated with the Latin word “missio,” from which we have our word “missionary,” one who is sent to spread the gospel to places where it is not yet known. The word missionary is not in the New Testament but there were missionaries in the New Testament; they were called “apostles.”

Sometimes the ordinary apostolic ministry (missions) in the New Testament is overshadowed by the big name Apostles, the “Twelve,” and the Apostle Paul. The big name apostles were pillars; their letters held the very authority of God (1 Cor. 14:37, 2 Pet. 3:16). But the big name Apostles were not the only apostles. Let’s not forget Barnabas and Silas who were called apostles and were also engaged in church planting and missions. Let’s not forget that Jesus wrote a letter through the aged Apostle John, probably the last of the big name Apostles still living, and Jesus at that time commended the church of Ephesus for rightly discerning between false and true apostles (meaning there were still some true apostles other then John out there). There was an ordinary apostolic ministry in the New Testament and theologically, it is the information about these men and their ministry that grounds our theology and practice of missions.

The biggest impact this has for us is that we hold that the purpose of missions, strictly considered, is always the formation of local churches. Now that does not mean that there are not many, many wonderful forms of ministry to be engaged in throughout the world–ministries that serve needs, open doors, care for the poor, and glorify Jesus. However we would carefully distinguish between global ministry and global missions. Almost anyone who feels called to serve others, especially those throughout the world, should be rich in their zeal to pursue such God-glorifying, Christ-exalting good works. But we would distinguish that from missions. A missionary, for us, is essentially a common New Testament apostle. Such a one needs to be called, equipped, gifted, and sufficiently experienced not just to evangelize people overseas, but to then also identify, train, and ordain local elders.

Unfortunately, because missions is not properly distinguished from the much broader category of ministry, the word missionary is also applied too broadly. And the call to “missions” is directed broadly and without proper context to many–particularly to the young. Missionaries in the New Testament founded churches, established churches, set up elders in churches, and served local churches. Missionaries therefore, properly and strictly speaking should be drawn from among elders and pastors, not so much from among the very young–who may be wonderfully zealous, but who are unequipped, untested, not yet ordained, and inexperienced in basic pastoral ministry–nevermind being able to train and appoint pastors.

Missions then, for us, is a very important, church-centered work. The formation of mature Christian men, whose character and gifting is sufficient to serve the church in eldership are the life blood of missions. And the church should cultivate and get behind such men. We should invest long-term and on-going support for their calling through prayer, finances, and participation — just like the church in Philippi got behind Paul and supported him.

The vision of missions in the New Testament is specific, targeted, and concentrated. Missionaries are fewer, but their calling is deeper. Supporting them is costly–but a necessary part of fulfilling the mission of the gospel.

Sadly, today’s missions models tend to confuse mission and ministry. It calls forth many young volunteers rather than investing years to cultivate mature, experienced, and godly elders for the work. Missions is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is frequently ineffective. The failure rate of the volunteerism approach is extremely high. Of course the sacrifice of the mission will always be high and costly, but we don’t think that the suffering that comes from sending young, inexperienced, people in over their heads is the kind of suffering in view in the New Testament. Timothy was a young man, but he was probably close to 40 years old when Paul called him that. Paul spent 15 years in relative obscurity after receiving His definite calling from Jesus Himself to be an apostle to the Gentiles before he set out to plant his first church. We should feel great urgency for the mission, but that urgency should drive us to live holy lives, to cultivate godly men, to produce robust elderships, and to identify those particularly gifted elders who can take the gospel to other peoples. We should then focus on standing behind these men for decades–for as long as it takes for the gospel to take root. We should supply a deep well of support when it comes time to establish elders in those churches. This is a high and deep calling indeed. We need to build deep and stay focused when it comes to the sacred task of forming Christ into new cultures through the establishing of local churches among unreached peoples.