Why Missionaries Need a Healthy Relationship With the Local Church—Part 1

Missionaries often look more to a mission board than to the local church, but Paul’s example shows us why this shouldn’t be.

PART 1: Why Missionaries Need a Healthy Relationship With the Local Church
PART 2: Why Missionaries Struggle to Relate to the Local Church 

When my best friend got married he made the mistake of asking me to officiate his wedding. No, it wasn’t so much that I dropped the bride’s ring on the floor, or that it rolled within an inch of falling into a vent. It was that when she came down the aisle, I almost outcried him. I loved my friend so much. Seeing his bride, the woman who made him so happy, filled me with the kind of emotion guys don’t know what to do with. So I just smiled and made that awkward snort that signifies choking back tears.

If we love Christ, then we will love his bride.

This is the legacy of the man of whom Jesus himself said there was none greater, John the Baptist. Nestled in John 3, this man’s love was put to the test when Jesus began to out-trend him. As he literally watched his hard-earned disciples depart to follow Jesus, this is what he said:

“The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete” ( vv. 27–29).

The joy of John was the joy of Jesus. It was seeing him get his glory, come into his kingdom, receive his bride. With a posture only possible by the Spirit upon him, John concluded humbly, “He must increase; I must decrease” (v. 30). A healthy posture, simply put, loves what Christ loves. And what does Christ love more in all creation than “the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28)?

Yet I have seen some unhealthy postures in my day. Honestly, I’ve had them myself. I have been a missionary who didn’t love the American church very much; particularly because she was inwardly focused and slow to change, I found her to be a burden to either reform or escape. Now there were many good reasons why I initially desired to serve as a missionary, but I am sad to say that it was, in part, disillusionment with the church that helped turn my eyes toward foreign fields. Furthermore, I often found common ground there among fellow missionaries. It lurked not so much in our words, though we often verbalized our disappointment with pastors and church members who “just don’t care” and “don’t get it.” The real proof was in our actions: that we were willing to try the work of missionaries without deep, abiding relationships with local churches.

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Now as a pastor (insert irony), I’m thrilled by the changes I see. With God’s help I’ve come a long way, and so have many churches. We’ve begun to recognize that the Great Commission was given not simply to individuals, but to local churches. If you keep up with Upstream at all, you’re familiar with our blog project that eventually became the book, The Sending Church Defined. Its purpose was to take a definition of “sending church”—written by sending churches—and explain it one word at a time. Throughout the research I was blown away by the clear message of Scripture and scholarship: local churches are responsible as the sender of their people into the neighborhoods and on to the nations. They’re all in with God’s mission, not merely outsourcing their missionaries to agencies, nor simply donating money to their cause. They take the primary responsibility in shepherding their missionaries before, during and after their service overseas.

What troubles me now, however, is what I didn’t find during that project. Though there is much written about the posture of the church toward the missionary, I have found almost nothing about the missionary’s posture toward the church; except for one notable book, that is: the Bible. It portrays so much regarding the missionary’s love for the church, an affection as zealous as that which burns in them for unreached people.

Take Paul, for instance. We look to him as the prime example of a pioneer missionary. Yet his life is actually a helix of both church and field. As he is converted and affirmed alongside churches (Damascus, Jerusalem and Tarsus), he is called and formed into an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9). As he co-pastors the church at Antioch (Acts 11), he is commissioned to be sent on his first missionary journey (Acts 13). After planting new churches on that first journey (Acts 13–14), he settles back into his sending church for a while (Acts 14:24–28). Then fast forward in his life. As he writes a letter to the church in Rome while spending time with the church in Corinth, he expresses his need for support in getting to where Christ was not yet known—Spain (Rom. 15). Church and field are so intertwined in Paul that it’s almost unhelpful to distinguish between the two.

Even a cursory glimpse into his life begins giving proof to this statement: Just as the church continually sends love (Phil. 4:10), prayer (Eph. 6:18–19) and resources (Rom. 15:24) to the missionary, the missionary continually sends love (Phil. 1:4), prayer (Eph. 1:16) and resources (Col. 4:7–9) to the church. And yet it’s still not quite strong enough to capture their New Testament relationship. Take out “sends” and add “initiates”. You get this:

Just as the church continually initiates love, prayer and resources to the missionary, the missionary continually initiates love, prayer and resources to the church.

Paul’s relationship with churches is rarely one of merely reciprocating. Rather, his initiating affection for those churches is written all over his missionary identity. We find him writing heart-felt letters to them (2 Cor. 2:4), agonizing over their growth (Gal. 4:19–20), praying for them constantly (1 Thess. 1:2), being delighted to spend time with them (Rom. 15:23-24), wooing them to join in the mission (Phil. 1:27–30), avoiding being a financial burden to them (2 Thess. 3:7–8), rejoicing over them (1 Thess. 2:17–20) and weeping with them (Acts 20:36–38).

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So, why is it often different today? Why do many missionaries look to the leadership of their missions agency more than their sending church? Why is there bitterness toward struggling churches rather than patience, encouragement and exhortation? Why is a missionary candidate’s posture toward the local church not a significant part of their assessment? Why is a deep, abiding relationship with a sending church something so easily laid aside?

I’ll try to answer that question in my next article.

Read more from Bradley Bell »

Bradley Bell is lead pastor of Antioch Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the director of content development at The Upstream Collective. He is the author of The Sending Church Defined and Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning “Home” and How Churches Can Help. This article originally appeared on TheUpstreamCollective.org.

PART 1: Why Missionaries Need a Healthy Relationship With the Local Church
PART 2: Why Missionaries Struggle to Relate to the Local Church