Having seen that Scripture informs us why we should be involved in missions, the next questions are what should be done and how we should go about it. Thankfully, God’s word has very clear principles to guide us in these questions. The primary prescriptive passages are the Great Commission texts, which serve to define the task for the church. There are additional descriptive passages in Acts and other NT books that inform us how the apostles thought about how to carry out the task of missions. The principles that arise from those descriptions help shape the way we do missions today.
What is involved in the task of missions?
- Going (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8): Jesus Christ was clear that some manner of going was required. The participles in the Matthew and Mark passages have the force of imperatives. Whether to the other side of the world or to the other side of the street, some “going” is necessary. This means that we must be intentional and extend ourselves beyond our normal patterns of life, beyond our usual circles of friends, and beyond our ethnic, cultural or geographic boundaries.
- Preaching the Gospel (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8): The centerpiece of missions is to spread the good news about redemption in Jesus Christ. The Mark passage calls it preaching the gospel. The Luke passage gives the core content of the message as repentance for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. In the Acts passage Jesus tells his disciples to be his witnesses, ones who testify to the truth of what they know. Every activity of missions must serve to advance this central purpose.
- Making Disciples (Matt 28:19–20): The ultimate goal of missions is not just to make converts, but disciples. A disciple is someone who continues to learn from and follow after Jesus. The Matthew passage specifies two means by which we are to make disciples: Baptizing: When a person repents and believes in Jesus, he is baptized in one Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13). The starting point for a new disciple, therefore, is to break from his former manner of life and to identify with his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. He does this, first of all, by being baptized in water, which represents the spiritual realities of which every true disciple partakes, such as death to self and new life in Christ. Once baptized, these new disciples gather together into local churches as an expression of their incorporation into the universal church, which is the body of Christ.
- Teaching: Teaching converts to obey all that Christ commands is a non-negotiable, central component to true missions. It has been well said that the NT can scarcely conceive of a disciple who is not instructed. Jesus spent three years with his disciples; Paul did not shrink from declaring to his the whole counsel of God’s word. Unfortunately, far too much that passes as missions today aims at making converts instead of disciples. But a person’s turning away from sin is secondary to the primary goal of turning to God in obedience of all that he commands. Missions must include teaching unto obedience, for Christ demands nothing less. Implicit in this command is the necessity for churches to be planted wherever converts are made, and for leadership to be adequately trained and appointed in each church. Only then is the great end of missions attainable, which is to see God glorified, worshiped, and enjoyed by all peoples everywhere.
How should we go about accomplishing this task?
In deciding how to accomplish the task of missions we can make observations from how missions were conducted in the time of the apostles. While the descriptions of missions in that day are not necessarily normative for us in our day, they do provide valuable information. From our observations of biblical patterns we may derive the following principles that will help us as we continue the Great Commission task today:
- Missionaries should be sent by local churches (Acts 13:1–3): The church at Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul off on their missionary journey. In our day we also have missions agencies and societies that are involved in getting missionaries to the field and sustaining them there. The efforts of these organizations can be very valuable, but they should be in support of the local church, not in place of it. The ultimate responsibility of local churches to send and sustain missionaries should not be passed off to others.
- Missionaries should be among the most qualified people in the church (Acts 13:2): Barnabas and Paul were the most distinguished leaders in the Antioch church. Missionaries are ministry leaders in a difficult and often hostile environment. They should not be the people who could not hack it in local church ministry. Rather, missionaries that are sent out should be some of the spiritually strongest and most mature members of the church. In most cases, a missionary should meet all the qualifications of an elder as listed in 1 Tim. 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9.
- Missionaries should remain accountable to the church that sent them (Acts 14:26–27): Paul and Barnabas returned to the church at Antioch to report on their ministry. This indicates that the relationship between the missionaries and the church was ongoing. Missionaries are an extension of their local church’s ministry in another geographic location or among a different people. The elders should continue to exercise oversight over the missionaries they have sent to ensure the maintenance of sound doctrine and ministry practice. This would imply that the church also remains responsible for the care of the missionaries they have sent in terms of prayer, comfort, encouragement, etc.
- Missionaries should be supported by churches through prayer and material assistance: The Philippian church financially supported Paul’s ministry (Phil. 4:15–16). Paul also requested that the Roman church aid Phoebe (Rom 16:1–2) and that the Corinthian church aid Timothy (1 Cor 16:10–11). Paul specifically asked for the Ephesian church to support his ministry in prayer (Eph 6:19). The apostle John exhorted the support of itinerant gospel preachers (3 John 8). Significantly, he also said that support should be refused to those who distort the gospel (2 John 10–11). It is evident then that it is right for those who cannot directly engage in missionary activity to provide material and moral support to those who have been called to that effort.
- Responsibility for missions resides at the level of leadership in the church (Acts 13:1): This principle follows from the fact that Jesus tasked his apostles, as the leaders of the church, with the Great Commission. Similarly in any local church, the elders and pastors should shoulder the responsibility for one of its most central tasks. The church in Antioch modeled this principle in that the group listed in Acts 13:1 were the elders of that church. This does not mean that lay people and general church members should not take an active role in the conduct of the missions effort, but the elders should be the champions of the missions effort and should ensure that it is accomplished.
Missionaries should prioritize those activities that most directly achieve their mission.
The core task of the Great Commission is to make disciples. A missionary, therefore, prioritizes those activities that most directly achieve this end. By observing what activities Paul and his associates were involved in we can draw principles as to what should be the highest priorities today. The primary activities in which we see Paul engaged are:
- Preaching the gospel publicly (Acts 9:20, 28; 13:5, 16–49; 14:1, 7, 21; 16:10, 13; 17:2, 10, 17, 22–34; 18:4–6; 19:8; 20:20; 28:30–31): Paul preached in synagogues, from house to house, in an academic gathering on the Areopagus, and in the marketplace to all who would listen. The evidence shows that Paul took every opportunity to speak the gospel, whether to individuals or to groups and in every possible setting. Missionaries, therefore, are ideally those who are most able to faithfully proclaim the gospel and unfold its riches in any and every circumstance.
- Planting churches: After people were converted to Christ, they were not left scattered, but were gathered into churches and leaders were appointed (Acts 14:23). This priority explains why there were churches in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica to receive Paul’s letters! It is important, then, that missionaries be qualified and able to establish churches for new converts.
- Strengthening churches through teaching and encouragement (Acts 14:21–23; 15:41; 16:4–5; 18:11, 23; 20:2; cf. the Epistles): Related to planting churches is the need for their continued support and pastoral care. It is irresponsible to win people to Christ and yet leave them to languish apart from the necessary nourishment of God’s word. Missionaries should be involved in shepherding, strengthening, encouraging, and teaching all that Christ commanded to fledgling churches.
- Training leaders (Acts 14:23; 19:8; 20:17–35; 2 Tim 2:2; letters to Timothy and Titus): The New Testament associates up to 100 names with Paul, of which around 36 could be considered close partners and fellow laborers in gospel ministry. Church leaders and “co-workers” seemed to spring up around him wherever he went. Paul knew the ministry had to be passed on before he died, and so he trained a new generation of leaders to replace him. Missionaries should engage not only in planting churches and helping them start, but also in training up local leaders to replace them and carry on the gospel work.
- Mercy ministry (Acts 11:29–30; 19:12; 28:9): Though a more minor part of Paul’s ministry, it was certainly part of it. The purpose was either to provide relief to fellow Christians in difficult times or to authenticate the truth of Paul’s message as coming from God.
This post was adapted from the booklet, How to Build an Effective Missions Program.