I have had the privilege of both serving overseas as a sent one from a local church and as a sending pastor of a local church. Both have afforded me the opportunity to talk with hundreds of missionaries who are serving all over the world. When I meet a new missionary I always ask this question: “Who sent you?”
Until a few years ago, the missionary always answered the question by telling me about their missions organization. However, a few years ago I started hearing a different answer. Missionaries began answering with the name of their sending church and then, if applicable, the name of the missions organization that facilitated their sending.
I loved that answer, but I was curious about the reason for this change. Why did the missionaries begin identifying more with their local church than their missions organization?
To put it simply, the reason missionaries identify as sent from their local church is because it is the local church that sends. While missions organizations continue to play a vital role in sending—helping the church send out their members and complimenting the church by providing strategic direction, training, and care—the local church is at the center of God’s global mission.
“To put it simply, the reason missionaries identify as sent from their local church is because it is the local church that sends.”
In Spirituality for the Sent, Susan Booth writes, “a renewed vision for mission recovers the understanding that the Great Commission is the responsibility of the local church.” (72) The heroes of the story are the churches who send out their own members to the nations so that the gospel can be proclaimed to the ends of the earth.
Missiologist Eric Wright writes, “In reality, missionary vision and nurture are meant to develop in the womb of the church. Missionaries are sent out from local churches.” (216)
Why is a Sending Church So Important?
The Great Commission was given to the local church. Obviously, missions organizations did not exist when the book of Acts was being written. While these organizations have stepped in over the years to provide needed assistance with strategy and structure, sending is the church’s responsibility. It should never be outsourced simply because a missions organization can do it better or more efficiently.
Sending is part of the identity of the church. According to theologian Eckhard Schnabel, “The directive to ‘make disciples’ demonstrates the ecclesiological dimension of the mission of the Twelve: missionary work and the church must not be separated, since the very goal and purpose of missionary work is the creation of a community of disciples.” (353-55)
One of the best places to see this example is the church at Antioch. Acts 11 describes how the gospel continued to progress outwardly—not only to the Jewish people, but also to the Gentiles:
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21, ESV)
The gospel was planted among the people of Antioch. God opened their hearts and many believed. This must have been exciting yet intriguing news to the church leaders in Jerusalem, so they sent Barnabas to check it out. Barnabas saw this real faith community in action and decided Saul—whom we later know as Paul—would be the one who could help shape and form this new community. Discipleship was the next step after these believers accepted the gospel.
Luke continued to write in Acts:
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. (Acts 11:25-26, ESV)
I have always been interested in what Barnabas and Saul taught during that year. Whatever it was, the church caught on, as illustrated later in Acts 11 when the church took up a collection for believers in a place affected by famine. God had given them generous hearts.
Then, in Act 13, while the church was fasting and praying, the Holy Spirit spoke to them and said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2, ESV) Even though Antioch was a young church, they became a sending church.
There was something about how that young church was discipled that created an outward-focused ethos. I believe that a key can be found in Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (ESV)
“The discipleship that the believers received in the first days of the church at Antioch was vitally important to how they lived as a community of Christ-followers.”
The apostle’s teaching contained the eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus from the mouths of the apostles. The early church leaders told the story of Jesus. They saw him perform miracles. They saw him put on trial, tortured, put to death on a cross, buried, and then resurrected. They were with him in the days after his resurrection. They learned from him—how he loved people, how he provided nourishment to the hungry, how he cared for the poor, how he gave himself away. They saw him ascend to heaven. Then, they poured his teachings into the young church.
The church of Antioch must have simply followed that example. Believers were even first called “Christians,” or “little Christs,” at Antioch. Many scholars believe this distinction as “little Christs” was not a description the believers gave each other during that time period, but it was how the community in which they lived viewed them. They actually saw these followers of Jesus as “little Christs."
I believe the discipleship that those believers received in the first days of their church was vitally important to how they lived as a community of Christ-followers. With such a focus on prayer, the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and the breaking of bread, they instinctively knew that the Great Commission was part of their identity. Antioch was a church that understood that mission was a normal part of their day—in their own city and to the world around them.
Paul’s missionary journeys continued in Acts 13 and 14, and it’s clear that he and his fellow workers followed a pattern. There was a rhythm of planting the gospel, making disciples, and forming churches. But there’s one significant aspect that can be easily overlooked. When they finished their journey, Paul and his companions returned to their sending church—Antioch—and gathered with them to tell stories of all that God had done.
The concluding verse of chapter 14 sums it up, saying, “And they remained no little time with the disciples,” Acts 14:28. Because of their deep relationship with the local church, they were able to return and speak back into the church. This practice of pouring back into their sending church gives sending churches and missionaries an example to follow today.
Larry is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Upstream Collective. He and his family have lived in Europe for nearly 20 years, where he has served in a variety of strategy and leadership roles. Prior to moving to Europe he was a church planter and pastor in the US. He is a co-author of Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission, The First 30 Daze: Practical Encouragement for Living Abroad Intentionally, and The MarketSpace: Essential Relationships Between the Sending Church, Marketplace Worker, and Missionary Team.