What follows is adapted from an assignment I completed as part of my study of Acts for the Antioch School. This assignment was to demonstrate that I had “developed convictions on the role of the local church in missions today.”
Churches have a number of functions, many of which are specifically local. It is within the local context that a church baptizes believers, interacts with its community, carries out discipleship, practices communion, participates in regular corporate worship, and invests in the lives of one another. If, however, we are to understand the church as being the vehicle for the Great Commission to carry the gospel of Christ to all the world, then there needs to be some means by which the local church functions on a global stage. Now, no local church body can carry out the fullness of its mission on a global scale — people from Malaysia simply will not attend a communion service in Iowa on a regular basis — so how is the global function of the local church related to the local function?
Historically, the primary means by which the local church extends its mission to the global stage has been by sending out individuals who have a working partnership with the local church and operate in a different, frequently overseas, local context. A working partnership is more than simply sending money, however, and requires that the church actually participate in global work on a fairly regular basis. One way local churches have addressed this need in recent years has been short-term mission trips. Short term missions, however, are a fairly new phenomenon in American Christianity. Bob Garrett, then-professor of missions at Dallas Baptist University, wrote in 2008 that “in the 1960s and into the 1970s most denominational mission boards and missionary sending agencies were still sending out exclusively career personnel” and went on to explain that the rise of short term missions was not only unexpected, but actively opposed by some.1 That it is now one of the primary activities of many American churches is a significant shift; and not necessarily one that has been handled well. As Brian Howell noted in an interview,
I am not for the narrative that has typically driven these trips: ‘We are going because there’s this tremendous need out there that we have to meet. And there’s this burden that we have as the wealthy country to go and do something in another place.’ I support transforming this narrative so that it becomes, ‘How can we connect with what God is doing in other parts of the world? How can we learn to be good partners with Christians already in these places? How can we participate in what the church is already doing in these countries in effective ways?2
Short term trips are not inherently wrong, but they, and all aspects of church missions, must be determined in light of the local church’s role in missions. The above quote suggests that we have lost sight of that role, and in doing so, have lost sight of how we are to carry out that role. Or, as Hesselgrave put it, “to allow any understanding of mission to obscure the proclamatory, sacramental, and didactic responsibility of the church is to put the knife to the heart of the Christian mission.”3 If these are the responsibility of the local church, and the means by which the church is to engage in mission in other environments, then the means the local church must use center on the establishment of a local church within the new environment. The role of the church is, then, to reproduce churches and equip those churches to be missionally active.
This is not to say that other work cannot be part of this model. Short-term mission trips, service ministries abroad, and long-distance tools such as radio ministries and websites can all serve the mission of the church if they are carried out with the mission always serving as the focus. Griffiths warns that other approaches and organizations, good as they may be at achieving good purposes, must never cause us to “lose sight of the fact that such organizations are only auxiliary, ancillary, secondary and supplementary to the chief task of missions, which is to plant new churches” (emphasis original).4
This is, after all, the example we see in Acts. The church in Antioch was established by faithful people who came from the church in Jerusalem, with the short-term assistance of leaders sent by Jerusalem and the long-term work of Barnabas. This church then sent Barnabas and Saul out into the field, where they established churches while remaining in contact with, and under the authority of, the church in Antioch.
The role of the local church in missions, then, is to focus its energies and resources toward the establishment of a new local church, using whatever tools are suitable for the context and can be used faithfully, by making and gathering together disciples who will continue to engage in and pass along the church’s mission, under the authority of the local church, in accordance with the Great Commission.
1 Bob Garrett, “Towards Best Practice in Short Term Missions,” Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry 5, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 103, Accessed January 24, 2019, http://www.galaxie.com/article/jbtm05-1-10.
2 Jeff Haanan and Brian M. Howell, “Better Partners: How Can Short-Term Mission Best Advance God’s Mission?” Christianity Today, January-February 2013, 79. http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A315069366/ PPRP?u=vol_b43nbc&sid=PPRP&xid=b20c0ba8 (Accessed January 12, 2019).
3 David J Hesselgrave, “The Heart of Christian Mission” in Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000. 22.
4 Michael Griffiths, “What Do Missionaries Do?” in What On Earth Are You Doing?: Jesus’ Call To World Mission InterVarsity Press, 1983. 39.