For as long as I can remember, the concept of missions has been a part of my life. My parents met in Lima, Peru, at a school for missionaries’ kids. My maternal grandparents were missionaries in multiple Latin American countries. My paternal grandparents still serve in Peru. I also have several other family members who are overseas missionaries. Growing up, I thought being a missionary was the coolest job in the world. I poured over the biographies of Hudson Taylor, Gladys Aylward, and Jim Elliot. Before I was old enough to drive, I had been on three different overseas missions trips.
Despite all this, missions largely remained a theoretical concept for me. I think I shared the perception that many American Christians have of missions. It was a mysterious, almost mythic, phenomenon that happened exclusively in far off, exotic lands and was performed by a exclusive company of divinely selected experts.
Though I was interested in and cared about missions, it didn’t really affect my day-to-day life. Part of my offering went to missions and (when I remembered) I would pray for missionaries. But beyond that, it didn’t really impact my life. Apart from my family members, I didn’t know any of the missionaries my church supported. I might have met them a few times. But I couldn’t tell you how their ministry was doing. Of course I knew it was important, but missions still seemed distant and aloof.
Being taught at Bethany has helped renew my passion for missions. But it’s also helped sharpen my thinking about what missions is and what it requires of me. Most churches, including (perhaps, especially) Fundamental Baptist churches, are committed to supporting missions. While we’re committed to supporting global missions with our money, prayers, and time, Bethany is also committed to doing missions in our community and beyond.
Where does missions happen? Doug McLachlan says, “Global evangelism is the business of every New Testament church. The Great Commission requires of us a vision and a strategy which demands local (Jerusalem), regional (Judea), cross-cultural (Samaria), and international (uttermost part of the earth) involvement (Acts 1:8, Mark 16:15).”
In Bethany’s context, we think about it this way:
- Jerusalem = Local = Des Moines
- Judea = Regional = Iowa/Midwest
- Samaria = Cross-cultural = Minorities
- Uttermost part of the earth = International = Overseas
These are the “four contexts” in which missions happens. I appreciate that Dr. McLachlan provides such a comprehensive vision of missionary activities. This description of missions requires us to reach out to communities in Iowa as well as Indonesia. Many churches make an attempt at local evangelism, though this rarely tied to missions and church planting. Token support is given to global missions through offerings. Despite this, many churches fail to passionately engage in all four fronts of the Christian mission. At Bethany, we believe that all four contexts are important.
We further believe that the New Testament presents a picture of churches that were actively involved in the missionary enterprise (Acts 13:1-3, 14:23-28, 15:40; Philippians 1:7, 27). This is a level of involvement that we don’t often see in modern American churches. Beyond their names and what country their in, most church members are unlikely to know any real details about the missionaries they support. This accounts for the “please bless the missionaries” approach to praying for them. Michael Griffith laments, “The present shallow and superficial relationship between congregations and the work of mission societies is a parody of the vital relationship that existed in the New Testament times.”
Every Christian is called to do the work of missions. This will vary in degree, but every disciple of Christ should be involved in making more disciples. Likewise, as a church we want to be involved in planting other churches in Des Moines, in Iowa, amongst different cultures, and around the world. Though we do support foreign missionaries, we don’t believe our job is over after sending a monthly check. We want to actively participate in the fulfillment of the Great Commission, even as we aid others in doing the same.
The Pauline Cycle
What does New Testament missions look like? To discover the answer, let’s take a look at the strategy of the premier missionary, the apostle Paul. David Hesselgrave has outlined the approach that Paul used in his missionary journeys. He called this approach “the Pauline Cycle”:
- Missionaries Commissioned (Acts 13:1-4; 15:39-40)
- Audience Contacted (Acts 13:14-16;14:1;16:13-15)
- Gospel Communicated (Acts 13:17-41;16:31)
- Hearers Converted (Acts 13:48;16:14-15)
- Believers Congregated (Acts 13:43; 14:23)
- Faith Confirmed (Acts 14:21-22;15:41)
- Leadership Consecrated (Acts 14:23)
- Relationships Continued (Acts 15:36)
- Networks Conceived (Acts 14:26-27; 15:1-4)
The first step to New Testament missions is that missionaries are sent out by a church. This means more than simply having the church’s address on the back of a prayer card. We see that the church at Antioch played an active role in the mission of Paul and Barnabas.
For starters, Paul and Barnabas were already serving in the church at Antioch when they were called (Acts 11:22-26, 13:1). They were not strangers, but members and leaders of the church. And it was to the church that the Holy Spirit said, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” (Acts 13:1-2). Consecrating and sending missionaries is the job of the local church. The church clearly cared for Paul and Barnabas, as evidenced by the intense prayer offered over them (13:3) and the time spent with them (14:28). The church identified with their missionaries through the laying on of hands and sent them out with their blessing and backing (13:3). Though the church didn’t micromanage the missionary team, their ongoing and authoritative role in their ministry is seen by the fact that the missionaries reported to the church (14:26-27), shared extended fellowship with them (14:28), and were re-commissioned by them (15:40).
Once sent, these missionaries would find a way to contact an audience (Acts 13:14-16;14:1;16:13-15) and communicate the gospel to this audience (Acts 13:17-41;16:31). As the Spirit worked, some would believe in Christ (Acts 13:48;16:14-15).
To some, that would be the end of the effort. Mission accomplished; let’s move on. But not to Paul. He quickly organized these new converts into local churches (Acts 13:43; 14:23). These churches were then grounded in the faith (Acts 14:21-22;15:41). Soon, they had their own leadership appointed (Acts 14:23). Though these church plants gained stability and autonomy, they continued to have a relationship with their missionary (Acts 15:36). They also worked together to continue the missionary effort (Acts 14:26-27;15:1-4). This network of churches then sends out its own missionaries and the process continues.
We want to implement this approach to missions here at Bethany. While we appreciate the contribution of mission agencies and believe they have a legitimate role, we believe that the local church is the central mechanism for fulfilling the Great Commission, both here and abroad.
New Testament missions in Twenty-first Century Des Moines
What does all this practically mean for Bethany Baptist Church? It means both supporting and doing missions in all four of the contexts of Acts 1:8.
Locally, we encourage our members to actively share their faith with those they come in contact with. We also work together in corporate evangelistic efforts. We believe we have a responsibility to witness to our community. Beyond sharing the gospel with people, we also desire to see them discipled in a good local church.
Regionally, we aim to plant churches in communities that are in need of a(nother) New Testament church. It’s remarkable how many people even in this state struggle to find a church they can attend in good conscience. We are always looking for opportunities to plant churches. We are currently planting a church in Oakland, IA, and hope to involved in more church plants down the road. These new churches can then help us take the gospel to new regions more effectively.
Cross-culturally, we try to make contact with the many different sub-cultures in the Des Moines area. Some of us spent an extensive amount of time working with Bhutanese refugees. We shared the gospel with them while teaching them English and helping them adjust to life in America. My wife and I were even invited to attend a Bhutanese wedding.
Globally, we do support a number of missionaries in the traditional fashion. We try to deepen our relationships with our current missionaries. Likewise, we’re looking into sending and/or supporting additional missionaries with which we can spend even more concentrated time. When it comes to missionary support, our philosophy is depth over breadth.
Key to all of this, is training faithful men. These evangelistic efforts will need guidance and oversight. Someone must pastor these church plants. Men must be trained to do missionary work. Furthermore, the mission of this church will die in a generation if there aren’t men in place to perpetuate that vision.
This is why we put a high emphasis on training leaders from within our own church. As with mission agencies, we appreciate the contributions of Bible colleges and seminaries. But we also believe that churches are called to the teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) and all that Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). Would this not include higher theological education and pastoral studies? Pastors in particular have a duty to pass on truth to others who will also pass it on (2 Timothy 2:2). As a young pastor, I’m very grateful for the church-based theological education I’ve received at Bethany.
The church at Philippi actively supported missions. And I believe this involved more than passively sending paychecks. Paul said that the church members were “partakers of my grace” in regards to the “defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Philippians 1:7). But he also encouraged them to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). The church wasn’t just supposed to support missions. They were called to do missions.
This is the kind of church Bethany wants to be. We do want to actively support missionaries as they take the gospel to the ends of the earth. But we also want to be united as missionaries to the Des Moines area; doing missions ourselves, rather than simply financing it. With this dual vision, we desire by the Spirit’s power to accomplish the Great Commission here and beyond. My younger self was right. Being a missionary is a cool job. But this cool job is done by ordinary Christians in ordinary places through the might of an extraordinary God.
Douglas R. McLachlan, Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism (Independence, MO; American Association of Christian Schools, 1993) p. 55
Michael C. Griffiths, Who Really Sends the Missionary? (Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1972)
David Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross Culturally (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker, 2000) p. 42-54
Hesselgrave calls this stage “Sending Churches Convened”. I think our wording better describes what’s going on in the cited passages. The point in this: autonomous local churches worked with each other and with the missionary team to ensure the continued advancement of the gospel.