People have many ideas about what missions is and should be, as I noted last week. But there is no such confusion on the part of the Lord Jesus Christ, who sent his apostles into the world to carry out his charge.
Looking to Jesus’ commands and to his apostles’ example will show us in great measure what the task of the church today should be.
Here are four dimensions of biblical missions that are Christ’s intended design for what the church should be busy doing.
Making New Disciples
Jesus gave the original disciples his command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This is the starting point for Jesus’ “Great Commission” – turning people who are not Christians into people who are. The church’s goal should be to persuade people who are not believers to become believers.
The commission of the Christian is not to tell them many things to do first, but rather, one thing is primary: make conversions.
But a disciple is also more than a one-time believer. He comes to faith in Christ and stays there. And on top of that, he turns from sin to serving God, giving up a life of following his own prescribed path and now following after Christ.
And this following does not come in a vacuum. It is to be carried out among the number of other disciples. This means that the second dimension for the task of the church is…
Assembling New Churches
First, the church is a gospel witness. It is involved in making new disciples by:
- Being an inexplicable testimony of the divine commission of Christ (John 17:20-21)
- Showing that they are distinct and belong to Jesus by their love for one another (John 13:35)
- Being a well-ordered place where visitors can come and hear God’s word and be convicted and converted (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).
- Being the place where the saving truth of God is preserved (1 Timothy 3:15)
But second, the church is a gospel gathering area. Those who have come to faith in Christ now have a particular place to carry out a large portion of their life as a Christian: the church. When they are baptized (Matthew 28:19), they are now marked together as belonging to Christ in distinction from the world. They are not saved to their own independent Christian life, but to corporate life together.
The church is where people find encouragement from others (Hebrews 10:23-25); it is where teaching of the word of God takes place (1 Timothy 3:15); it is the place where biblical leaders can help care for you. The exercise of most spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament depends largely on having the arena of the church to even carry them out.
What happens when the church is neglected in missions? Long-term gospel witness is hurt as people don’t grow properly; commands concerning “one another” are neglected; and Christ’s presence is not put on display to the world.
The church is essential to missions. New disciples are to be gathered into local assemblies as soon as humanly possible.
The leaders of that assembly now serve as the third dimension of biblical missions:
Appointing Church Leaders
So it was that everywhere a church was planted, the goal was to appoint a group of men to lead the church together. Sometimes they are called pastors (Ephesians 4:12). Sometimes elders (Titus 1:5). Sometimes overseers (Titus 1:7). But these are three dimensions of the one leadership office.
Paul did not view the churches as being in good order and with proper conduct until elders had been appointed (Titus 1:5, 1 Timothy 3:14-15). He was never content to leave churches leaderless to figure things out on their own. Everywhere he went, he made sure that godly men who could teach God’s word and defend against error were appointed as per these qualifications.
These men teach what is true while warning against false teaching (Titus 1:9-10; Acts 20:28-31). They model godliness (1 Peter 5:3). They lead the church with high accountability to Christ (Hebrews 13:17).
Combined, they carry out Christ’s instructions to his disciples concerning “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
Preparing and appointing church leadership is an essential part of missions work.
Finally, from this point, the goal until Christ’s returns is this:
Building Up Churches
Churches were not simply to be properly assembled and structured, but now through the teaching ministry they were to become solid churches that would grow and mature.
Consider the example of the Apostle Paul toward the churches he had already established.
- He appointed elders in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra (Acts 14:23)
- He planned to go back and check on them (15:36)
- He left Luke in Philippi (Acts 16)
- He only left Thessalonica and Berea because he got driven out by the hostile Jews (Acts 17)
- When Paul got driven out of Thessalonica, he remembered the intensity of that new church’s faith and hope and love; he was certain that they had been chosen and saved by God; they responded to God’s word as God’s word (1 Thessalonians 1:2-4; 2:13). But he was not content to leave them where they were, or even just to write instructions to fill in the blanks!
- He sent Timothy – his key gospel partner – to go check on them and to strengthen and encourage them (3:1-5).
- He prayed most earnestlyday and night to see their face personally, and “to complete” what was lacking in their faith (3:10)
- He stayed in Corinth 18 months (Acts 18)
- He went back on his 3rd missionary journey to Galatia and strengthened the disciples (Acts 18)
- He stayed at Ephesus for 3 years (Acts 19)
- He went back to Macedonia (Philippi, Thess, Berea) and gave them “much exhortation” (Acts 20:1)
- So you essentially have churches in 5 areas where Paul had been:
- Syria and Cilicia (including Antioch)
- Ephesus (Asia [Minor])
- Greece / Achaia
- In all of these areas except Ephesus, he returned after his initial ministry to spend time strengthening the churches.
- And for Ephesus, he:
- Had already been there three years, not just a few weeks or months.
- Stopped nearby and called the Ephesian elders to himself (Acts 20:17-38)
- Sent Timothy there to make sure it was in good order (1 Timothy 1:3)
- And for Ephesus, he:
Clearly, Paul did not see his task as simply gospel proclamation or church planting! It was the entirety of church ministry that was in view.
This is consistent with his entire theology of the church: it was to grow up (Ephesians 4:13-16).
What do you do when this is done and a church is growing? Start the whole process over in a new place!
That is the work of missions, in a nutshell:
… in new churches
…. with qualified leaders
… being built up in the faith.
… sending out workers to start the whole process over again.
Do your missions efforts fall in these categories? Are they truly faithful to God? And will they therefore carry out the task of Christ’s mission for the church?