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Ten Years of Pushing Mission Upstream

This article is by Larry McCrary, Co-founder & executive director

It’s been ten years since we had our very first meeting of The Upstream Collective in Barcelona, Spain.

Ten. Years.

It’s hard to believe! Those initial gatherings were more of just talking about what was so important to us instead of anything official. Eventually we got around to what “we” might be called. Honestly, it took a while to settle on “The Upstream Collective”. There were many ideas (some good and some hilarious), but after a lot of discussion, coffee, and even a few mugs flying through the air, we decided on Upstream. That story could be another article in itself…

A Vision for the Church on Mission

We knew our vision wasn’t flowing with the current of much mission thought ten years ago. We also knew it wasn’t just for a few people, but a smattering of like-minded leaders—a collective, so to speak. It was a vision that all Christ-followers should think and act like missionaries wherever God placed them.

As we worked through the practical implications of this vision, we realized that the local church had to become central in the task. We saw how the local church had often “outsourced” God’s global mission to missions organizations. That didn’t mean we saw missions organizations as a bad thing. Both then and now, they have a rightful place in helping to facilitate what God is doing through his church around the world. But the local church captured our full attention—it was her that God had tasked to spread the gospel among the nations. And she would accomplish it by sending out her own.

We fell in love all over again with Acts 13 and the church at Antioch. The Bible didn’t give us a full history, but it did unveil how this passionate little church sent out Paul and Barnabas. We saw afresh how Paul and Barnabas related to their sending church. It compelled us not to see Upstream as a sending agency, but as a hybrid missions organization focused on equipping the local church to send out their members—all their members—into the neighborhoods and the nations.

Acts 11, 13 and 14 really became the heartbeat of Upstream. There, we marveled at a holistic description of sending as disciples were made locally, domestically, and globally. At first we wondered what exactly Paul and Barnabas taught at Antioch (we thought it would make a great Upstream resource!) (Acts 11:25-26). Then it hit us—we knew exactly what they had taught. Of course it was the good news about Jesus and the basic content of the New Testament, but it was also the DNA of God’s mission. How did we know that? Because when God told them to send out their senior leaders (Paul and Barnabas), they were ready to obey sacrificially (Acts 13:2-3).

And yet the church at Antioch showed us not only how to send out, but also how to stay in relationship and to receive sent ones back (Acts 14:24-28). This was a beautiful taste of sending well. But honestly, we had no idea what it looked like in real life. Was it actually possible? If so, who was doing it, and doing it well?

A Collective of Churches on Mission

Over the next few years, God kindly answered our questions. He connected us with several churches around the world who had been asking the same questions and seeking to be obedient to the same sending God. After about five years and many miles, a group of sending church leaders met at LifePoint Church in Smyrna, Tennessee. We had one goal in mind: creating a clear definition of a “sending church”. Here is what ended up on a (big) whiteboard:

Over the next year, Zach Bradley began writing through this definition one word at a time. The popular blog series eventually became our book, The Sending Church Defined. That definition and book put into print hundreds of conversations we had enjoyed with church leaders around the world.

In time we started to see specific “elements” vital to growth as a sending church. These elements were evident in both Scripture and the practices of sending churches. Since we had found no other resource like it, we decided to write out and organize these “Sending Church Elements”. When we submitted our pitiful drawings to a graphic designer, we didn’t how much the Elements would come out looking like the periodic table. But hey, we like science.

The Sending Church Elements then became the basic foundation for all our resources, training, and consulting. They’re also a diagnostic tool that churches can use to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in sending. We’re pretty proud of them.

As we celebrate ten years, we want to press on with the many resources God has forged through Upstream, and we want to keep locking arms with like-minded Christ-followers. Our Collective has grown so much since those Barcelona meetings. We have key leaders on our team who serve as practitioners in the local church, the mission field, and/or the mission organization.

We are so grateful for the journey thus far, but know the work is far from over. May God continue to send out his church into his mission!

-Larry McCrary & The Upstream Team



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