But from the moment we step off the plane in a new place, we face internal and external pressures we didn’t expect.
Cultural and language barriers make us feel out of place. We find ourselves watched and judged from new angles. People don’t respond to our message in ways we expect. We grow tired. What seem like small challenges grow and threaten to break up our teams and families.
Within a year or two, many new missionaries who start with great passion and vision are ready to pack their bags and fly home.
The good news is that Jesus didn’t just tell us to do a job and leave us alone to do it. He gave us his Spirit to lead and sustain us, his body the Church, and the wisdom and experience of sending agencies.
A close look at Scripture and nearly a century of work in the world’s least-reached places have taught us that mobilizing and sustaining missionaries works best in relationship with a sending church.
The relationship between a missionary and a sending church offers mutual encouragement, wisdom, resources, and roots in God’s Word that make the gospel come to life locally and globally.
A Biblical Model
The idea of mutual support between missionaries and local churches goes all the way back to the very beginning of the first missions venture. In the New Testament, we find living instruction and examples to guide us.
In Acts 13, the church in Antioch was worshipping God, seeking him in prayer, and fasting. The original Greek tells a powerful story about how their sending took place. The Holy Spirit “sent” Paul and Barnabas, and then they were “released” by the local church for their mission.
Throughout the rest of the book of Acts, the mission team made decisions on the field under the instruction of the Holy Spirit. Paul lived with great apostolic focus and strategy. He mobilized others from local churches, raising up disciples, and equipping them for the work.
The mission team maintained a deep, partnering connection with their home church. They returned for visits, prayed together, shared mutual encouragement, and gave thanks for their partnership in the gospel.
The churches sent short-term workers, finances, supplies, and prayer. We see Paul constantly growing his relationship with the churches. In Philippians 1:3–7, Paul calls the believers in Philippi his “partners in ministry.”
Biblical mission teams direct their ministry under the counsel of the Holy Spirit. They are sent, sustained, and shepherded by the local sending church.
When I speak with potential workers for the mission field, they ask why it’s so important to have a healthy relationship with a sending church. From identifying the right laborers, to sustaining the work, to engaging more disciple-makers, the relationship between missionaries and churches drives the mission.
If we want to know a person’s growth and obedience to Christ, we ask how that person has walked in obedience to Christ within the community of the local church. A missionary known for integrity in her home church will be known for integrity overseas. A missionary prone to conflict at his home church will carry that tendency into the field.
Once churches identify and release workers to share the gospel, the mutually supportive relationship continues to the field. A sending church partners with its missionaries to provide spiritual, pastoral, and sometimes financial support. And missionaries provide sending churches with opportunities to extend their reach and to experience and learn from God’s work around the world.
A missionary family with Encompass recently suffered from a dangerous situation on the field. The situation rattled them and made them question the work to which they were called. As the sending agency, Encompass reached out to their home church to prepare for an evacuation.
The hurting family returned and was met with a caring community that was ready to walk with them through the healing process. This was a great example of how local churches provide the spiritual and relational care that missionaries need so badly. The home church even provided for their practical needs, finding housing and a vehicle for them.
These opportunities to provide care bring local churches to life. Many of our missionaries are now on the field because they joined a short-term team through their local church. Others have been inspired to greater discipleship by hearing the stories of missionaries who return and share how God is working in and through them.
I recently had the joy of watching a local church commission a family for work overseas. The pastor, elders, mission team, and some close friends gathered around to shower them with love, prayers, and affirmation in their mission.
After walking with this family through the whole process of mobilization, seeing them released to their mission with so much love was a profound experience. Only the Spirit of God can do this!
The discipleship the church had invested, their words of sending, their prayers, and their ongoing care will be a sustaining force in the life of this family in the years to come. And that family’s work will in turn bless, excite, and deepen the life of the church in their pursuit of God’s mission.
A Cord of Three Strands
Missionaries are essential. They are the vessels by which the Spirit of God empowers bold and consistent witness of who God is and what he’s accomplished through Christ. They sow the essence and the glory of the Church to be reproduced in any given culture.
To do all this work sustainably and in close relationship with Christ, every missionary needs to understand that when God calls us to go, He doesn’t call us to go alone.
God calls his church, he uses missions agencies, and he draws cross-cultural workers to go together. The gospel exploded throughout the world by the work of missions teams sent by local churches and led with apostolic authority in the New Testament. Those biblical models hold just as true today.
Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Under the spiritual authority and shepherding care of sending churches, with the strategic and specialized focus of missions agencies, missionaries will be equipped to live and make disciples among new peoples, until every tribe and tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord.
John Ward is Director of Mobilization at Encompass World Partners. He is part of a team seeking to mobilize and equip people and churches who are following Jesus into the missional work he’s doing to make disciples of all nations.