This seems a glaringly obvious question, but I have found from experience that even Christians who ought to know better give a variety of vague answers that fall short of a biblical answer. To do good, to preach the gospel, to save souls, to heal the sick, to baptize bodies are all good and true answers, but fall short of what stands out a mile in the New testament account in Acts.
What did those first apostolic missionaries like Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Timothy actually do? Certainly they did preach and teach, heal and serve – but why? For what purpose? Not just to save individual souls. Acts is absolutely clear. They planted churches.
Now this is something that needs emphasizing. We live in a day of techniques, methodologies and specializations. Enthusiastic individuals found new movements and organizations specializing in evangelizing young people, students or hospital patients; or provide useful services by translating the Bible, flying airplanes, relieving famines, broadcasting, helping refugees, printing and distributing literature, or making a host of other excellent and worthy contributions to the Christian cause. We should note that most of these movements have arisen first in countries where there is already an existing network of local churches of various denominations. But we must never lose sight of the fact that such organizations are only auxiliary, ancillary, secondary and supplementary to the chief task of missions, which is to plant new churches.
Unless we see this clearly, we shall be misled about the nature of missionary work. It is obviously excellent that the gospel should be preached by every possible means to all sorts of people, and that tracts should be widely distributed and every opportunity taken for witness. But we should not think that by doing so we have necessarily accomplished anything permanent and lasting. We know that for every thousand tracts distributed, only a few will be read and only a very few of those read in such a way as to bring people to faith in Christ. Again only a relatively small portion of non-Christians ever get into Christian meetings at all, and only some of those get converted.
While all these specialized groups do a worthy work, then, they need to do it in such a way as to assist a solid church-planting work so that the growing church can nurture and build up those who may be reached by such methods. In recent years there has been a fresh realization that the local churches are the best soul-winning agencies there are.
This biblical emphasis on a church-planting will also warn us of the grave limitations of short-term outreach in which young people spend a few weeks or months “blitzing” an area with the gospel. This kind of service is excellent for training, for enabling young people to see the immensity of the need; but on its own it is an inadequate means of planting churches. Church-planting requires the patient work and steady slog of preaching, teaching disciples and building them together into viable self-propagating congregations. This requires the ability to speak and teach clearly in the local language, to understand and respond to problems created by the local culture, and that knowledge of people, places and situations that make a Christian worker not only devoted, but relevant to the situation of people where they are. Above all, the church-planter needs to work in one place for an extended period of time.
So quite unequivocally I want to stress that missionary work must always center on the local church – and that means that in pioneer areas, the primary, long-term task of missionaries must be to plant churches… Church-planters are the infantry of God’s army: there may be more colorful groups of cavalry, commandos, artillery, signals, engineers and ordinance, but they all exist to serve the main body so that they can win battles.
What on Earth Are You Doing? (1983)
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