Churches and Missionaries: A Marriage Made in Heaven
By Don James and Mark Lehmann With Scott Harrup
Look in the back of your study Bible and you will most likely find several maps of Israel and its surrounding regions during different historical eras. Often included is a map of the Mediterranean coastline during the early years of the Church. Several color-coded arrows indicate the three missionary journeys of the apostle Paul as recorded in Acts.
If that final map were truly complete in its analysis of Early Church’s missions endeavors, a large star would indicate the church in Antioch. Paul’s journeys were only part of the missionary equation — his sending church was a silent partner whose influence Paul felt through the remainder of Acts.
Reading Acts 11 and 13, you learn that Paul and Barnabas first contributed their ministry to the church in Antioch. Later, the church in Antioch sent them to be a blessing to the church in Jerusalem (also meriting a star on the map, since the Jerusalem church had sent Barnabas to Antioch in the first place). Finally, after the church in Antioch gave itself to a season of prayer and fasting, the believers there sent Paul and Barnabas into the greater Gentile world with the gospel.
This was not a partnership of human design. Repeatedly, the text reminds us of the Holy Spirit’s commanding and nurturing involvement. Nothing in this church/missionary relational dynamic has changed between the first and the 21st centuries.
“After they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3).
Imagine a truncated version of the above verse: “They sent them off.” Strip away the fasting and prayer, and you have a group of Christians who heard of a need, identified two emissaries of the gospel, and merely provisioned them for a journey.
But the church in Antioch was not about entertaining the shallow enthusiasms of the moment. Those believers had a Spirit-driven commitment to the Great Commission. And their commitment had a solid foundation in prayerful communion with the Spirit.
Visit Cornerstone Church in Bowie, Maryland, pastored by Mark Lehmann, and you will discover the same ongoing process.
Pictures of missionaries line the walls of the sanctuary. During a regular Saturday evening missions prayer meeting people move from picture to picture, placing their hands on the images and praying fervently for God’s provision and anointing on missionaries and regions by name.
No brief generic pleas here for God to “bless all the missionaries.” They bathe their prayers with tears.
A similar drama plays itself out at Bethany Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey, pastored by Don James. Every service bulletin lists missionaries from the 150-plus supported by the church. Every service includes specific prayer for specific needs.
Concerted, faithful prayer is just one aspect of the deep relationships built between both churches and the missionaries they support. At Cornerstone, the congregation views nearly 160 missionaries as members of the church staff. Why? Because they are a direct extension of Cornerstone’s vision to reach the lost.
When missionaries and churches relate this closely, they create an environment of long-term mutual blessing. Early in Cornerstone’s ongoing 12-year relationship with missionary Bill McDonald, it sacrificially gave toward the construction of a church in Cuenca, Ecuador. The tables recently turned when Cornerstone moved into its own building campaign. The Cuenca church flew its pastor to Bowie to hand-deliver a check toward that construction.
But the priority of relationship supersedes any dollar figure. Bethany’s families are contributing more than $100 a month to each of the 150 missionaries they support. The church’s large-scale commitment demonstrates an established missions vision. But the congregation at Bethany keeps a prayerful focus on the missionaries themselves and the people they are reaching.
The greatest impact any church will have on the nations is not merely through funded ministry projects. As exciting as it is to partner with local believers in building Bible schools or churches, the real focus is the people themselves. The greatest impact for the Kingdom comes when the church sends missionaries supplied with a foundation of loving relationship and support to communicate Christ’s love to people on a mission field.
Missions is a people enterprise first and foremost. Any church that merely underwrites missionary budgets, large-scale outreaches, and building projects will accomplish little for the Kingdom. The church that weeps over lost people will reap eternal harvests.
“The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4).
Paul and Barnabas did not embark on their ministry with a tether holding them to Antioch. In spite of the technological differences of that day and the lack of communication, these missionaries journeyed with the trust of their sending church. There is no mention of representatives from Antioch telling Paul and Barnabas that Seleucia should be their embarkation point, or that the church would expect a report on the first boat back from Cyprus.
Paul and Barnabas were “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit.” The church in Antioch exercised trust in their missionaries — and in the Spirit’s leading.
The same way in which a pastor desires the trust of a congregation, a missionary desires the trust of a pastor and supporting church. Missionaries need to sense a congregation believes in them and in their commitment to pursue God’s plan, hear God’s voice, and obey God’s leading on a distant field.
Missionary communiqués are not stockholder reports or memoranda to some collective board of directors. Excitement in reaching the lost, and trust in the missionary’s God-given direction, should energize communication between the missionary and a supporting church. Our wired world allows for regular newsletters, e-mails, even teleconferencing and Internet video. All of these tools can serve to deepen a partnership between a supporting church and missionary.
It is unrealistic for a church to expect a report from every missionary they support on a monthly or quarterly basis. It is unrealistic to demand personal responses to every letter from a parishioner or Sunday School class. If a church places such expectations on a missionary, trust has evaporated. The church is treating the missionary like a ministry employee rather than a ministry partner.
On the other hand, when trust permeates the church/missionary relationship, information can flow between the field and the home base with Spirit-inspired timing and significance. Cornerstone and Bethany prize those opportunities to intercede for a missionary who calls or e-mails from the field with a timely plea for prayer. Both congregations, above their regular financial support, are ready to take on momentary material needs created in crisis.
When trust permeates the church/missionary relationship, such appeals never carry the overtones of begging. Missionaries communicate their need with a supporting church as one partner sharing vital information with another in the context of a common endeavor.
The trust equation works in both directions. A visiting missionary will trust a pastor’s sense of timing and will not question his understanding of the Spirit’s direction for a church service. The missionary invited to share his ministry vision during a 5-minute window will not feel slighted because he did not have more time in the service. The missionary will trust that partnering congregation and pastor to follow the Spirit’s leading and give toward the need obediently.
“The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29,30).
The believers in Antioch had a history of outreach that went far beyond their commitment to prayer and funding. They sent emissaries (in this case, the very men who would become their missionaries) to the church in Jerusalem when that sister group of Christians faced difficult times.
The missionary-minded church will involve its members in outreach in capacities far beyond their signatures on monthly support checks.
Bethany maintains a giving philosophy of buying into lives. A recent project took Bethany pastoral staff to Italy to partner with missionaries Bob and Lynn Rose in training and encouraging local church leadership. Another Bethany team went to Poland to build ministry relationships and to offer encouragement in that nation.
Cornerstone goes beyond support of missionaries in Asia or Central Eurasia or Europe to personally connect with rescued Asian prostitutes, orphans in Uzbekistan, and struggling new churches in Europe.
Many local churches minimize and neglect the incredible advantage they have in connecting with missionaries and mission fields on a deeper level than just support. Missions is so much more than a fiduciary consideration. It is an expression and an extension of the life of the local church. As churches and missionaries partner on multiple levels to accomplish the Great Commission, they will reach people around the world for eternity.
Is partnership on the field always possible? No. One of the unfolding miracles of missions today is the assignment of missions personnel to restricted nations where the gospel’s propagation is challenged legally, culturally, and religiously at every turn. In such circumstances, a supporting church may only receive hints of the ministry going on. There can be no question of sending teams on-site or even sending funds directly to the missionary. But the church attuned to the Spirit and blessed with an ongoing partnership with the greater missionary family will find many creative ways to support the spread of the gospel in new and spiritually arid harvest fields.
“Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people” (Acts 11:26).
In the years before their travels, Paul and Barnabas began their ministry partnership as a powerful teaching force in their sending church. They directly contributed to the Antioch church’s growth and vision development.
Missionaries today can inject vision and vitality into their sending churches. Pastors who invite missionaries to hold a service should do so with the expectation the visiting missionary will speak into the lives of the congregation. Certainly there can be the communication of need and ministry goals on the mission field. There should also be the communication of encouragement and direction for that supporting church’s current and localized ministry.
The pastor needs to say to the visiting missionary, “Give me your heart. Share your heart with me. Go beyond the statistics and tell me what you sense God is saying.”
Such an invitation for revelation will create a context for dynamic proclamation of both the foreign harvest and the local growth of the gospel.
Case in point, a missions service held several years ago at Cornerstone by a missionary to a restricted country pulled no punches when it came to the need in that nation. The believers in that region are under constant threat from a multifaction government that blindly enforces an aggressive majority religion.
The visiting missionary’s presentation came in the midst of Cornerstone’s capital campaign for its current building. A dual miracle took place during the service. The people caught the vision of the guest, their hearts resonating with his call for total sacrifice for the cause of Christ. Cornerstone gathered one of the largest missions offerings in its history. Along with that offering, however, came a greater sense of commitment to needy people living within the shadow of that church. Within 6 months, the entire building project had been underwritten with sacrificial pledges.
“During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch” (Acts 11:27).
The churches in Antioch and Jerusalem point to another powerful dynamic in the church world today. The Holy Spirit uses networks of churches to address spiritual need. One church can powerfully encourage another in carrying out the will of God.
God has blessed the Assemblies of God with a network of churches, districts, and missions leadership united in carrying the gospel around the world and building up local ministries and believers. This is not a network built on self-growth or selfish improvement, but on the indigenous church principle.
Our network structure creates an environment for encouragement. Churches that have yet to develop a vision for missions might never do so if left in isolation. But when pastors from those churches attend sectional or district functions where leadership has invited a missionary to speak, the Holy Spirit finds ways to call out new partners in ministry from the ranks of those pastors.
In reality, it does not matter at what level a church is giving to missions today, that pastor and that church started at some initial level of participation at the Holy Spirit’s prompting.
District leadership can also be an invaluable source of encouragement to missionaries. The missions director at a district council does so much more than act as a liaison between district churches and itinerating missionaries. Again and again, missionaries can attest to the timely advice and comfort offered by a district leader. The road to a foreign field can seem long and the task of raising support, daunting. But our missionaries are not making that journey alone. Multiple levels of leaders and partners within our Fellowship are resourcing them and holding them up in prayer.
“The Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me’ ” (Acts 13:2).
What is the Holy Spirit asking of you and your congregation in regard to world missions? That is a question every pastor and church family would do well to evaluate prayerfully and regularly.
The struggling church with apparent meager finances, humble facilities, and dwindling attendance may be tempted to circle the wagons and look to its own needs while leaving missions support to others. They could make no greater mistake. Such a view will only perpetuate meager finances, humble facilities, and dwindling attendance.
Could there have been any more challenging circumstances than to begin a church in a corner of the Roman Empire dominated by a spectrum of Eastern faiths? In the very empire that only a handful of years earlier had crucified the Savior they would proclaim? Yet, the Christians in Antioch never shrank from the task before them. They were committed to obeying Christ’s mandate to reach the nations even as their immediate situation must have appeared impossibly constrained. As a result, their church thrived and the Gentile world was turned upside down by the power of the gospel.
The church that listens to the voice of the Spirit and opens its eyes to the lost around the world will inevitably discover an expanded vision for local ministry and an expanded understanding of heaven’s limitless resources. The growing partnership between a missionary and a church can only lead to two equally powerful expressions of God’s love and generosity: on the mission field in the form of changed lives and growing churches, and on the home front in the form of changed lives and growing churches.