BY DIRECTOR OF CONTENT, BRADLEY BELL
One of the most prayerful, deliberate, and proactive tasks required of a sending church is the development of sent ones. As already mentioned, the initial stage of this process includes educating the entire church in their sent identity. In other words, a sending pipeline begins with every single church member thinking and acting like a sent one, as represented in this graphic:
Then the church shepherds some members through an intentional process toward being sent from the church into a new work. This process includes three broad phases: identification, assessment, and development.
Over twenty years ago I joined the Royal Ambassadors (RA’s), a church-based missions discipleship program for boys in grades 1-6. It was great. We camped and played basketball and made boxcars. I loved it so much that my leaders called me “the general” because I made it through all the workbooks and earned every possible badge you could imagine. But as great a church boy scout as I was, I never sensed any grand missionary call. In fact, I don’t remember learning much about God’s mission at all. Nor a lot about the gospel.
Is programs like this the best churches have to offer when it comes to raising up missionaries?
Thankfully, I still ended up with a sense of mission, primarily via the age-old missionary factory: the transforming power of the gospel, the compelling call of the word and Spirit, and the deal-sealing affirmation of the body of Christ. Programs, conferences, books, and websites are great contributors to the awakening of missionaries, but none should hold a candle to “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
Ironically, Paul’s quote above comes at the end of a detailed description of key identifiers in potential leaders. And that’s really where development begins: identification.
Identification at its core means recognizing that God is a sending God, therefore all Christians are sent ones, and some of them are missionaries. With this perspective, suddenly every boy in RA’s really is a potential future missionary, not depending on his surrender to a missionary call, but rather his surrender to the call of Christ. For Jesus never says, ‘Come to me!’ without also saying ‘Go with me!’ (see Mark 3:14). That reality alone should have massive implications for how the sending church raises up sent ones. Preaching, discipleship, and strategy should reflect the weight and wonder of every believer’s commission to their home, neighborhood, classroom, and cubicle.
When full grown, identification also means the recognition of those with the apostolic capacity for being sent out to start new works, often internationally. Missions leader George Miley addresses this element of identification in a helpful spirit:
Think for a moment how much initiating energy is still needed to fill the earth “with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). We need to initiate among the nations, within our own countries, cities, neighborhoods, and churches. Let’s anticipate that there are far more of these called-and-gifted-by-God leaders than we might initially imagine (110).
God is faithfully supplying himself with laborers to bring in his harvest. But what are the characteristics and qualifications of a healthy missionary? Before we kid ourselves by trying to answer that in a chapter, we first need the church to feel its responsibility in figuring it out together.
No matter how many books you pick up on the topic, the bottom line is that identifying potential missionaries is hard to discern. And hard decisions are best kept in the family, among those who know each other best. Missions organizations have in some ways professionalized identification processes and brought great insight to the table. Yet the spiritual authority to make such decisions has always rested with local church, amidst the covenant community and under the responsibility of pastors.
The biblical model also showcases a theme of identifying new leaders. Missiologist Bruce Carlton highlights Barnabas and Paul as prime examples of patrolling for potential: Barnabas’ affirmation of newly-converted Paul (Acts 9:19-30), Paul’s identification of young Timothy (Acts 16:1-3), and both Barnabas and Paul’s raising up of elders in every church (Acts 14:23), just to name a few (504).
Greater still, however, is the very example of our Lord, who “went out on a mountain to pray, and all night continued in prayer to God” before identifying the twelve apostles in whom he would invest his life (Luke 6:12-13). If the identification of leaders was that important and that challenging for the Son of God, then what about us? Shouldn’t our attempts at missionary identification involve more intentionality than scanning for church members with Chacos and Nalgenes?
One missions pastor describes his approach to missionary identification as ICNU conversations. These are moments where he proactively builds up the body of Christ by speaking words of affirmation—“This is what I see in you…” It’s his way of speaking into the lives of people about their character, giftings, and obedience. And it naturally suggests a deeper commitment to God’s mission.
Larry McCrary adds that missions pastors should consider what he calls a mobilization pool. This is hosting something like a monthly missions event that draws together people from different affinity groups in the church, such as marketplace workers who have potential to take their job overseas, students who might want to study abroad, and childcare workers who might want to serve TCKs (third culture kids). He also suggests that lead pastors leverage preaching and liturgy to consistently call people to clear, attainable next steps in God’s mission.
The culture of a healthy sending church ultimately creates a two-way street in identification. As church leaders proactively equip an entire body of sent ones, they are also on the lookout for potential missionaries; and as church members deliberately grow in their identity as sent ones, they bring their growing sense of calling as a missionary to their leaders. The key here is not process but relationship, life on life investment. This helps to avoid separating “the mission of the church from the missionaries of the church” (Thomas and Wood, 62).
Developing through identification means recognizing Christ in every believer. Whether RA or PhD, chances are there’s a potential missionary or two in your church just waiting to be identified.