Missionaries Cannot Send Themselves

Who Should (and Shouldn’t) Go

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“We shouldn’t be here.”

As my wife stepped into our home after a full morning of language study, I greeted her with these four hasty words. While she was conjugating verbs, I had been doing some studying of my own. After only a few months in the country, I was certain we weren’t fit to be missionaries.

I explained to her that we had been neither adequately trained for the task nor affirmed by a local church. “We should go home,” I abruptly concluded. My wife agreed with my convictions, yet she reasonably talked me off the ledge of a rash decision. We had, after all, committed to serve our team for two years. Surely God could use the remainder of our time to mature us and even make our labors fruitful.

Her counsel was wise. We stayed to finish our term and, in his kind providence, God did develop us in significant ways. We were folded into membership at a local church in our city, and the pastor discipled me until we returned to the United States to attend seminary.

While I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, I remain convinced that we were neither sufficiently equipped nor properly affirmed to be missionaries. Why would I suggest that? We both regularly practiced the spiritual disciplines, we were not coddling habitual sins, we loved the gospel, and we had previously spent time overseas. Why, then, had I become convinced that the title “missionary” was not ours to own? The answer boils down to this: we were not sent out from a local church to contribute strategically to the Great Commission.

Missionaries as Sent Ones

Our English word “missionary” comes from the Latin missio, a translation of the Greek verb apostellō. Apostellō refers to sending someone out to accomplish an objective. Bible readers are most familiar with the noun form of this verb, apostolos, transliterated into English as “apostle.” In the New Testament, the word apostolos does not only refer to the official apostles, Jesus’s specially appointed spokesmen, but also, in other contexts, to “messengers” sent out by the church to fulfill specific responsibilities in advancing Christ’s mission.

These all followed the pattern of Jesus, “the apostle and high priest of our confession,” who, sent by the Father, faithfully came to do his Father’s will on earth (Hebrews 3:1–2; John 6:38; 20:21). Like the sent Savior, a missionary is a “sent one.” And being sent, of course, requires a sender. There is no such thing as a self-commissioned missionary.

So, who sends missionaries? The Spirit of Christ is the primary sending agent for gospel laborers (Acts 8:29; 11:12; 13:4). Nevertheless, the New Testament also sets forth the pattern of missionaries being affirmed and sent by local churches (Acts 13:1–3; 15:40). Just as congregations call and affirm their own elders and deacons, so too their members test and commission those desiring to labor among the nations.

Since each local church determines whom they send, neither I nor anyone else has authority to create some across-the-board criteria of missionary qualifications. However, I would suggest three general characteristics a local church and its elders might look for in those they commission.

1. Love for the Church

One of my seminary professors once said, “Penultimate to worship, the local church is the fuel and goal of missions.” In other words, healthy local churches are the instrument and intended result of missions. Ideal missionary candidates, then, are meaningful members of a specific local church who desire to see healthy, reproducing congregations among the nations.

I have met Christians, even missionaries, who love Christ and claim to love his bride, yet fail to put this love to work by committing to build up and submit to a local church. However, biblical instructions regarding church discipline (Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5:1–12) and elder-congregant relationships (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 5:17–19; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1–5) assume that the universal church will organize itself into local assemblies with identifiable members. God calls Christians to gather and commit themselves to each other in local churches as a way of protecting and preserving his people and his word. Therefore, as a starting place, future missionaries should be faithful members of their local church.

Furthermore, missionaries need to know what a biblical church is, what it does, and the central role it plays in the Great Commission. The conviction that local churches are God’s kingdom outposts, designed precisely for advancing the name of Christ among the nations, is critical for those who aim to advance this work.

A full scriptural defense of the essential characteristics of a local church is beyond the scope of this article, but local-church leaders can help aspiring missionaries by providing a definition. For example, my church’s elder affirmation of faith defines a local church as a group of believers who “agree together to hear the word of God proclaimed, to engage in corporate worship, to practice the ordinances . . . to build each other’s faith through the manifold ministries of love, to hold each other accountable in the obedience of faith through biblical discipline, and to engage in local and world evangelization.”

If aspiring missionaries can’t explain and defend the basic elements of a church according to Scripture, they are not yet ready to plant or strengthen local churches overseas.

2. Knowledge of God’s Word

Explicit communication of God’s word is central to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20). Therefore, global gospel laborers need deep roots in Scripture and the ability to articulate sound doctrine to others.

First, future missionaries should be personally transformed and increasingly sanctified by God’s word. The sacrificial love of Christ will form the central content of their missionary message. Missionaries faithful to this message will live in a manner that demonstrates deep gratitude for and dependence upon the gospel of Christ. Love for that gospel and that Christ will fuel their missionary ambitions.

In preparing candidates for missionary service, one of the local church’s tasks is to observe ongoing growth in godliness. Many churches have sent young people zealous for missions but lacking in spiritual maturity. Churches would do well, then, to ask a few diagnostic questions:

  • Does the word of God order their affections and behaviors?
  • Do they fight sin by the power and promises of the word?
  • Are their minds set on things above, or do they waste their time with social media and worldly anxieties?

Questions like these provide important data points for churches as they aim to send missionaries who are devoted to the truth, increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, and exemplary models for others.

Second, prospective missionaries need to know God’s word well enough to communicate it faithfully and effectively to others. Missions is fundamentally theological work. It requires missionaries to proclaim truth and teach others to know and follow Christ. The ability to faithfully explain sound doctrine and the meaning of biblical texts is not secondary to this task. Theological error, confusion, and syncretism easily arise in places where the gospel is newly advancing. This danger should encourage churches to send theologically astute members to lay solid foundations for the church in unreached regions of the world.

Sending churches can seek to discern candidates’ giftedness for proclamatory ministry by asking questions like these:

  • How frequently, clearly, and boldly do they share the gospel with others?
  • Can they give examples of people they’ve discipled and what that discipleship looked like?
  • Are they able and willing to gain fluency in another language and culture for the purpose of clear and credible communication of Christian doctrine?
  • Would we entrust them to teach in our Sunday assembly or in our Sunday school classes?

3. Fitness for the Task

Many influential evangelical voices have appealed to any and every Christian to consider becoming a missionary. Unfortunately, the emphasis on urgency sometimes overshadows the importance of sending those who are mature and competent.

The Bible does not call every Christian to be a missionary. Instead, it suggests that certain types of people will make good missionaries according to the abilities God gives them (Romans 12:6). The apostle John tells us that we ought to support gospel laborers “like these” or, more literally, “ones of such a kind” (3 John 8). We are wise to preserve a distinct category for those who go out “for the sake of the name” as evangelists, disciple-makers, church planters, and teachers (3 John 7). Churches can seek to use Spirit-led reason and judgment to determine which members they might faithfully send and what roles they might be best suited for.

Church leaders would do well to patiently observe the faithfulness and fruitfulness of members who aspire to minister cross-culturally. Just because someone desires the task does not mean he is competent for it. Discernment will come as churches fan the flames of those desires and test candidates’ zeal by guiding them toward robust preparation. If they endure and demonstrate effectiveness, churches can give them greater responsibilities and opportunities to develop. Asking pointed questions, calling attention to character flaws, challenging them toward growth, and watching how they respond form important aspects of this preparation.

At the end of the day, the nations need those your church would prefer not to lose — the people you would hire on staff, recommend for church office, or entrust with a major ministry area. We are not wise stewards if we send the unprepared and immature to the nonexistent or fledgling church abroad while we stack our own church staffs with the equipped and gifted. Be willing to dispatch to the nations those you’ve poured countless hours into, those you’ve seen grow in ministry effectiveness, those who have a proven track record of holiness and faithfulness to the word.

King Jesus transforms the nations through ordinary believers — each with weaknesses and sin struggles. But let us not use this as an excuse to send ill-equipped and premature people to the front lines of this work. If our goal in missions is to proclaim the gospel, make disciples, and gather them into healthy local churches, we will send people who love the church, know the word, and are fit for the task.