Today we get to the meat and potatoes of mission work. Part 1 and Part 2 laid the biblical foundation for what missions is by definition. Kevin DeYoung the author of this series spells out what missionaries do and what church mission committees should be looking to support.
A Three-Legged Stool
We see in these verses—and in particular in verses 21-24—the three legged stool of mission work. Luke gives us the apostolic model for missionary service and that model has three parts:
- New converts – “when they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples” (v. 21)
- New communities – “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church” (v. 23)
- Nurtured churches – “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith” (v. 22).
To be sure, Christian missionaries may be more active in one aspect of this work rather than another. But all mission work must keep these three things in mind. If the apostles are meant to be our models for what missionaries do—and as the sent-out ones tasked most immediately with the Great Commission, there is every reason to think that they are—then we should expect our missionaries to be engaged in these activities and pray for them to that end. The goal of mission work is to win new converts, establish these young disciples in the faith, and incorporate them into a local church.
Schnabel describes the missionary task with an almost identical set of three points.
- “Missionaries communicate the news of Jesus the Messiah and Savior to people who have not heard or accepted this news.”
- “Missionaries communicate a new way of life that replaces, at least partially, the social norms and the behavioral patterns of the society in which the new believers have been converted.”
- “Missionaries integrate the new believers into a new community.” (Paul the Missionary, 28. Cf. Early Christian Mission, 11)
Evangelism, discipleship, church planting—that’s what the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to do, and these should be the goals of all mission work. Missionaries may aim at one of these components more than the other two, but all three should be present in our overall mission strategy. The work of discipleship and church planting cannot take place unless some non-believers have been evangelized and some of them converted. At the same, we cannot leave new converts on their own once they come to Christ. They must be grounded in the faith and taught what it means to turn from sin, flesh, and the devil and follow Jesus. And if our missionary work only focuses on evangelism and discipleship, without a vision for the centrality of the local church, we are not being faithful to the pattern we see in Acts where conversion always entails incorporation. Missionary work is a three-legged stool: if we are missing any of the legs, the ministry will not be healthy, stable, or strong.
Of course, in saying that all missionaries should be engaged with these three components, I am not suggesting that the strategy is always simple and straightforward. We have to be patient and flexible in aiming for these goals. It make take years to learn a new language and win a hearing with the people you are trying to reach. You may be a doctor or nurse or teacher or business person or agricultural expert by trade. And yet, your bigger, longer-lasting goal is to win people to Christ, get them rooted in their faith, and make sure the new indigenous church is firm and established. In today’s world, reaching the least reached people takes risk, creativity, and patience. Acts does not give us just one way to do mission work.
But it does show us the work missionaries do.
On the one hand, we want to avoid the danger of making our mission too small. Some well-meaning Christians act like conversion is the only thing that counts. They put all their efforts into getting to the field as quickly as possible, speaking to as many people as possible, and then leaving as soon as possible. Mission becomes synonymous with pioneer evangelism.
On the other hand, we want to avoid the danger of making our mission to broad. Some well-meaning Christians act like everything counts as mission. They put all their efforts into improving job skills, lowering unemployment, digging wells, setting up medical centers, establishing great schools, and working for better crop yields—all of which are important and can be a wonderful expression of Christian love, but aren’t what we see Paul and Barnabas sent out to do on their mission in Acts.
I have no doubt God gifts some of us and calls some of us to care for orphans in other lands, or help people develop better sanitation practices, or help sick people with very little access to medical care. We should celebrate these callings. Full stop. With our full support. We may even give financially so that Christians can go and love their neighbors in these extravagant ways. And at the same time, without denigrating this good work in slightest, we must conclude from Acts 14:19-28, and from the entire book of Acts, that the church’s mission and the work of our sent-out missionaries is something more specific. Those demanding a “revolution” in our understanding of mission “away from the traditional missionary focus on winning people to faith in Jesus Christ, concentrating rather on a ‘holistic’ understanding of Jesus’ claims” do so without strong textual support (see Early Christian Mission, 1580-81). We see over and over in Paul’s missionary journeys, and again in his letters, that the central work to which he has been called is the verbal proclamation of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Rom. 10:14-17; 15:18; 1 Cor. 15:1-2, 11; Col. 1:28). Paul sees his identity as an apostle—as a sent-out one—to be chiefly this: he has been set apart for the gospel of God (Rom. 1:1). That’s why in Acts 14:27 the singular summary of his mission work just completed is that God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” Paul’s goal as a missionary was the conversion of Jews and pagans, the transformation of their hearts and minds, and the incorporation of these new believers into a mature, duly constituted church.
In their book Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, Andreas Kostenberger and Peter O’Brien describe what it would look like “if the apostolic model is to be followed by missionaries in the contemporary scene.” The work of these missionaries would begin with the winning of converts, but it would not stop there.
Forming believers into mature Christian congregations, providing theological and pastoral counsel against dangers arising from inside and outside churches, strengthening believers both individually and corporately as they face suffering and persecution, so that they will stand fast in the Lord, all fall within the scope of what is involved in continuing the mission of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. (268)
So what do missionaries do? They preach the gospel to those who haven’t heard. They disciple new believers in life and Christian doctrine. And they establish these disciples into healthy churches with sound teaching and good leaders.
We conclude this series tomorrow with some take away thoughts from Kevin DeYoung.