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Ask-a-Missiologist: Gregg Allison on “Does the Holy Spirit or the Church Send Missionaries?"

This is the second part of our interview with Gregg Allison. Gregg Allison is a professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological seminary. He is the author of Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, as well as Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, and other books. He is also an elder at Sojourn Community Church East in Louisville, KY.

In Part One, we asked Gregg Allison, “Does the Holy Spirit or the church send missionaries?” He affirmed that there is both a divine aspect as well as a human aspect of sending, but because the church is human, we can get it wrong. The church must take its responsibility to send seriously in order to listen and have good discernment. We must notice the Spirit directing in every aspect of life, including the mundane.

The Proactive Sending Church

Zach Bradley: We’ve witnessed that many evangelical churches have a reactive dynamic in how they send, rather than sending proactively. The individual comes to them and says, “I want to go. Will you please sign these papers for this agency and send us?” and the church feels an obligation to send them. What do you think primes that kind of response?

Gregg Allison: Let’s examine a darker motivation first. The church may view the situation as putting a feather in its hat. If it sends out one of its own, the church may be reasoning, “We’re not much of a missional church, but have you considered what Zach is doing? We fulfilled our missional obligation because we sent out Zach.”

Generally speaking, if there is an individual who shows a lot of interest in reading the Bible and evangelism, that person gets elevated on a pedestal. Without discerning, the church declares, “You need to go to seminary. You need to be a shepherd. You need to be a missionary.” They don’t recognize they ought to be equipping the whole church to be like that person.

When we disciple members to maturity, it’s not as complicated to discern each individual’s call. It also helps the agency receive better assessed, affirmed, and equipped candidates to go to the mission field. I see some missionary candidates, and I know it’s a mixed bag. I think, “You really haven’t engaged in much ministry here. You don’t know how hard it is!”

The church should be incrementally educating and raising the tenor of its people. A church that does that can be depended on to send good missionaries.

What about the Experts?

ZB: We’ve also witnessed that missions agencies can sometimes develop the attitude toward churches of “give, pray, and get out of the way.” They want final say over the churches’ involvement. The reality of this balance between the triune God sending and the church responding—does this speak to how this issue should play out?

GA: I appreciate that a sending organization would know what is needed and has a good sense of character quality, competency, etc. We don’t want them to lose their expertise and be silent.

But we also don’t want to overlook the priesthood of all believers—that God may be raising up people within churches, and the church may have a sense that those people are being raised up. We shouldn’t weed those people out, so agencies need a way to listen to churches and affirm those who are really called by God.

Regulations are good, but we should seek to communicate regulations in an encouraging way. Also, we need a process in place to say, “This person doesn’t check all of our boxes, but we do have a sense that God is calling this person.” There must be room for hearing the voice of God above our rules and documents.

The Extremes and Everything in Between

ZB: What are the dangers of leaning in one direction or the other? Saying the Spirit sends and not the church, or the church sends and not the Spirit?

GA: If we emphasize more of the divine aspect, we will have unchecked subjectivism, zeal, and enthusiasm. We will end up sending people who are not really called by God. We could wreck people whom we send.

If the human side is emphasized, we will create a bottleneck and control sending. We will only send people we like and reflect our interests. We grow in pride thinking we’ve already done our part in missions.

ZB: If you historically take a group like the Jesuits, for instance, would this be an example of seeing only the church as the sending entity? As we saw in the movie Silence, this was Japan’s first instance historically where the gospel was introduced and spread, while it was simultaneously being muddled.

GA: The Catholic Church would say Christ and the church both send because they are one and the same thing. This is so hard for us as Protestants to understand. It’s a different understanding of incarnation. Catholic theology in its doctrine of the church self-identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the ongoing incarnation of Jesus Christ. The church is the whole of Christ—his divinity, his humanity, and his body. They say there is a principle of incarnation in the world, the primary example being the Son of God. But another example, they say, is the church as the ongoing incarnation of Christ.

Therefore, they say the true church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, which is why they say we Protestants are not churches but only “ecclesial communities.” It’s a horrific Christology and Ecclesiology—the church as Christ on earth. This is also closely tied to politics and monarchy. We forget this because the Pope lost monarchical status in 1870.

The popes were some of the most powerful kings ever, and all of this was intermixed with their theology. When the Jesuits went, of course, it was colonial and imperialistic. The Pope in their minds was the Vicar of Christ, the monarch of Europe. Today, we can still see the Pope wielding huge moral authority. Why did communism fall in Poland? It was largely because of Pope John Paul II.

ZB: I think the picture of who sends is becoming clear. It is the Spirit-filled church who sends. We have to ask ourselves questions like these because sending is often so pragmatic today; we almost have to work backwards from our practice to our theology by implication. Can you recap the main points of your original answer to the question one more time?

GA: The Father sent the Son. The Son sends the church, empowered by the Spirit. The church is at the heart of the human aspect, but it is in the Spirit, reflecting the divine aspect. The church in the Spirit discerns the leading of the Spirit for whom it will identify and send. It is ultimately the local church’s responsibility to identify, assess, equip, and send, confident in its God-ordained role to do so.


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