My fear for you is not that you will fail, but that you will succeed in doing the wrong things.
Dr. Howard Hendricks (to his students)
As we approach missions there are so many different options. Just in Cameroon we know missionaries that work as: doctors, nurses, church planters, educators, agricultural specialists, librarians, linguists, and even a couple that are starting gyms. If you read this blog, you know that Stacey and I are working as Bible translators and most of our time so far has been invested in learning and analyzing the Kwakum language. In all that we do, I know that we, as missionaries, desire to be faithful. But, like Dr. Hendricks says in the quote above, I fear at times that we are succeeding in the wrong things.
When Christ gave us the Great Commission he said that our task was to: “make disciples of of all nations” and then told us how to do that: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that” he commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20). Conspicuously absent from this command is medical, agricultural, educational, and other types of aid. So, we must ask ourselves: how should we obey these commands? And further, do “mercy ministries” have a role in this process?
Here are a few thoughts that play a role in how we seek to obey the Great Commission:
1. The primary way that the disciples obeyed the Great Commission was through planting churches.
When the disciples went out to obey Christ, it quickly becomes clear that the Church was going to play a big role in this obedience. Immediately after receiving the Holy Spirit the Lord quickly inspired Peter to preach the Gospel to thousands of people. And immediately after that, thousands were saved. And immediately after that?
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42).
What happened after the first great evangelism campaign was the first great example of the church. The disciples obeyed Christ by gathering the new believers together, by teaching them, having communion, and praying. In short, they planted a church.
Paul Seger (the director of Biblical Ministries Worldwide) says, “There is no question that the primary aim of missions is to produce followers of Jesus Christ. There is also no question that the vehicle for doing that is the local church” (Seger 2015: 105). This seems to accord with what we see in the New Testament. As Paul went out he evangelized, taught, and then left missionaries to teach and lead these churches (i.e. Timothy – 1 Timothy 1:3 and Titus – Titus 1:5).
One of the clearest passages describing Paul’s methodology is Acts 14:21-23:
“When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
2. Planting churches was not the only way the disciples obeyed the Great Commission.
After describing the great evangelism campaign, and the beginning of the first church, the very next thing that we see the disciples in the book of Acts doing is healing a lame beggar (Acts 3:1-10). This great act of healing led to another great time of evangelism (Acts 3:11-26), which led to a tribunal (Acts 4:1-22), which led to the church gathering to pray and to share (Acts 4:23-37). This led to more evangelism, more arrests, more healing, more prayer. They served widows (Acts 6:1-7), participated in street witnessing and casting out demons (Acts 8:4-8), raised people from the dead (Acts 9:36-43), and all along continued to preach in Christ’s name, and suffer for it.
My point is that the ministry of the disciples was not single-faceted. It is not as though they only went out and planted churches. Instead, they participated in mercy ministry: they fed the poor, healed, cast out demons. This is not surprising, being that Christ commanded his disciples to teach new converts to obey all that he had commanded them. These young churches were doing what Christ did.
As missionaries go out, seeking to follow the example of the first missionaries, we should be going out and doing more than just church planting. We should be healing, praying, and feeding. And as we plant churches, we should be encouraging them and equipping the national Christians to do the same.
However, to expect that every single missionary that goes out is a generalist, able to plant a church, translate the Word, care for the medical needs of the community, all the while teaching the new church to do the same is unreasonable. And such an expectation is no doubt the reason that many of our missionary heroes died young. Instead, it makes sense to send out specialists together: send a church planter/discipler, with a translator, with a doctor, etc. You will note, however, that I say to send them out together. In order to this, we must have a point of unity. And I believe that point is the local church:
3. The local church must be central.
If you read through the Book of Acts, you will notice all the activities that I mentioned in the previous section (and probably even more). But you will also notice interspersed all throughout mentions of the church. For instance, it is not just Christians caring for widows in Acts 6, but men who have been set aside by the church. When Paul and Barnabas are sent out from Antioch, they are sent out by the church after this local church fasted and prayed (Acts 13:1-3). In fact, in this passage you will notice that the Holy Spirit told the leaders of that church to send out Paul and Barnabas. What I see in the Book of Acts is a great missionary effort, with many facets, working to care for many different needs of people. But what I see is that it is centered at, organized by, funded by, prayed for by, and staffed by the local church.
Now, our minds probably go to the local church in America when I say that. But do not miss what I am saying here: it is PLANTED churches that are doing all of this. New churches, grown at the hands of the apostles, are central in the efforts in their own neighborhoods and even abroad. Paul did not go out and start Stephen’s Memorial Hospital and run it separately. Instead, he worked in and through the newly planted local church. As we send out variously-gifted missionaries, to do various ministries, we must not forget the local church. Without connecting our ministry to the local church (either existing churches or newly planted churches) the effects of our ministry will be ephemeral at best.
I offer one example of how this can work well, from our field in Cameroon. There is a team of people working with the Baka people, not far from where we live. World Team has been sending missionaries to the Baka for over 20 years. Among them have been: doctors, nurses, agriculture specialists, and those who are focused on church planting and discipleship. But it would be wrong to say that only those in the final category are church planters. The reason is because everyone of them has been integral in the planting of the Baka church. Those who minister to medical needs pray with their patients, lead Bible studies, and have spent years forming relationships. Those who taught the Baka to farm did so in teaching them God’s Word and accompanying them to church.
And the result has been amazing. The Baka church not far from our house is led by a godly Christian Baka elder. He has proved himself to be discerning, steadfast, sober, wise, and hardworking. And where did he learn that? From the church planters of course. Those that labored to teach him the Bible through stories in his own language. Those that showed him how to teach and explained difficult passages. Those that sat beside him as his wife was dying, ministering to her physical needs and helping him to have the strength to remain faithful. Those that taught him how to farm on his own, not needing to rely on work from other people groups.
The Baka church is still small and they don’t yet have God’s Word in their language. Yet I have great hope for them, in part because of the years of faithful effort on the part of my co-workers, all of them. And in this ministry I see the results of a team of specialists working together for the cause of seeing the Baka become disciples, in and with the local church. And I pray that God would allow us not only to succeed, but to succeed in the right things.
Seger, Paul. 2015. Senders: How your church can identify, train & deploy missionaries.