If you attend a well organised missions event where your mind and heart are stretched by the need of the world and the urgency of the task of making Christ known, it is quite likely that you will have asked yourself a couple of questions that can be hard to answer – what part am I to play, and what part can our church play in the work of reaching the lost with the gospel? To spare our excessive guilt we have formulated a catchphrase which seems to cover things quite well – pray, give, go. This is undoubtedly a good ABC of what can be done, and it is helpful as far as it goes, but it does not do full justice to what local churches can and ought to do when it comes to mission.
In this post I want to look at some of the Apostle Paul’s teaching in the book of Romans, and from there highlight a ‘4th way’ where our walk with God personally, and our life as church locally, joins up with what God is doing globally. Romans 15 is an excellent place to turn to if we want to understand something of the dynamic which ought to exist between the church and mission. This is one of those pieces of tail end material in Paul’s letters that we often and easily overlook, but it provides for us two points of connection between the local and the global which I am convinced, if grasped, can give us a different approach to how we live day by day, how we serve side by side in the local church, and how we engage meaningfully with global ministry.
The health of the local church in global mission
It is all too easy with a book like Romans to forget the reason for its existence. If we come from a Christian background we will be familiar with the fact of Romans, this weighty book which lurks ominously behind the sweeping drama of Acts. We might even be familiar with some of the features of Romans, either its broad arguments, or sample texts that we have learned for evangelism. We tend to forget, however, that the transmission of this text and the motivation behind its composition are of enormous import in our understanding of what it has to say.
This is a letter, a real life document, subjected to the same processes and pressures that any epistle would have faced in travelling from one place to another in its day. Paul has written this letter to Christians in Rome, many of whom he has never met, and some of whom he is acquainted with. He wants to minister to them, and through them he wants to make a connection that might be profitable for them and the work that Paul hopes to do. This means that the weighty doctrine, the wonderful truths that this book contains, are in a certain sense a means to an end. Paul is establishing common ground, he is teaching the saving grace of the gospel, so that he might identify his ministry to these people, in order that they in turn might endorse his ministry as he presses on for Spain.
Paul, however, is also deeply concerned about the health and life of the local church in Rome, and so he teaches them. He writes to them ‘very boldly by way of reminder’ (15:15), a theme which he first introduced in chapter one. There he exulted in the fact that the Roman believers’ faith ‘is proclaimed in all the world’ (1:8), and shares his longing ‘to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you’ (1:11). Paul here marries the broad impact of the Roman church with their fundamental faith, and he wants to build them up, to bless them, and strengthen them.
Paul understood all of this as part and parcel of his apostolic ministry – he was given grace ‘to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’ (15:16). Serving Christ in this way for Paul was priestly, he was offering up the Gentiles to God in fulfilment of his commission, and he was proud of what Christ had achieved through him. The sweeping arc of converts and local churches which could be plotted from Jerusalem to Illyricum was testimony to what the Saviour had done through his labours. From this perspective, Paul is deeply concerned with Rome’s heart, with the church’s (or churches’) understanding and application of the gospel – their health was something in which he felt an investment, and for which he took responsibility.
That emphasis on local church health, that principle which Paul articulates through the context of his letter, is reflective of his wider practice. Paul was not content to win converts, he longed to make disciples, and we wants those disciples to form local churches, and he wants those local churches to be health and to grow deeply. This was a golden chain in the missiological approach of Paul – the work of making Christ known was never anything more than the local church, and it was never anything less. The health and growth of the churches was not just for the sake of their immediate context, but also for the sake of other cultures yet to hear.
Philippi would support Paul in prison, the church disguised as a conundrum that was Corinth, with all of its complexities and vexations, was also to be a base from which Paul would move further with the gospel (1Cor 16:5-7). So the health of these churches, their addressing of the issues Paul raises, their resolving the difficulties he highlights, their reconciling relationships within the church, their rejection of false doctrine, and their deeper understanding of the truth, is part and parcel of how they might be engaged in effective work in their own locale, and right around the world.
All of this is so helpful to us when we encounter the challenge of mission, when we ask ourselves those ‘what can I do?’ kinds of questions. We must certainly pray, give and go, but we also need to grow! It is clear from the New Testament that the health of the local church is at the heart of global mission, that Paul put no division between existing churches’ growth downwards with the gospels growth outwards, that the discipleship of individuals and the development of churches could only be to the praise of God’s glory and the furtherance of God’s kingdom.
This is no less true today, and we need to think this through in the most practical terms. Local is how God does his work. So the next generation of missions workers need a healthy church in which to hear the gospel, understand and apply the gospel, to grow in their faith and in its application. A stunning question that I occasionally ask myself is, if a young man from our church went today to the mission field to plant a church relying solely on what he gained through our ministry in Millisle, would he have the understanding and tools to plant a biblical and sustainable church? The purity of the gospel preached in the local church, will determine the purity of the gospel planted where there is no church.
The personal walk of believers in the ordinary day to day of Christian living is also a measurable influence on the future health of missions. We have imbibed a mindset which rings with the siren song of individualism, but our faith isn’t really totally personal – it is central to the life and health of others within and without our acquaintance. We might rejoice that our faith means the world to us, but we also need to take responsibility for the fact that our faith also means us to the world – that there is a corporate dimension to the seriousness with which we follow the Saviour.
This is true in terms of giving as well. It takes considerable spiritual insight to see that giving what we have for what God can do is the best of offers, that our calling is to first give ourselves to God, then to give from our substance to his work.
The health of the local church is also vital to the souls of missionaries. Only a community of Christians growing in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ can give the support that a cross-cultural worker needs. In his poem ‘ The Send-Off’ Wilfred Owen reflected on the homecoming of troops following WWI in these terms,
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drum and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
Such sentiments can easily be those of workers returning on home assignment or furlough. They have spent themselves in pursuit of seeing Christ’s name being published on the hearts of men and women, they have discovered God’s gracious provision and patience, they have struggled and been stretched, they are weary and heavy laden, perhaps even spiritually depressed, and yet they can return to ‘still village wells’, to an environment where faith is assumed and assimilated to the point of lifelessness. A healthy local church is a powerful antidote to this phenomenon.
We need to see that the local church is not in the marketing and advertising department of global mission, where we provide billboard space and advertising slots to agencies and practitioners. We are, instead, in Human Resources, where we are spending ourselves in seeing Christ honoured here, and Christ heralded there, in a continuum which springs from the local church with a concern to see biblical churches planted. A nation which leans on a professional standing army can soon become complacent about the disposal of the lives of its troops in the theatre of conflict, their losses are for our gain, their suffering is to palliate ours, and to get jobs done which we would rather not devote ourselves to. An army composed of the sons and daughters of a whole nation, where a General’s offspring are exposed to shrapnel and to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will view the waging of war much differently. Mission was never meant to be delegated to para church agencies, and it was never meant to be something we followed from a distance.
All of this means that among the many things you do for mission, truly believing the gospel, truly loving the God of the gospel, faithfully living the life of the gospel, wholeheartedly committing to the community of the gospel, and faithfully passing on the truth of the gospel are indispensable pursuits. This mindset means that as pastors and elders we are going to have to see our health as both an immediate and an ultimate issue, it means that members of churches are going to have to take stock and take ownership for what we do here and now, week on week, seeing it as a vital component to Christ being honoured. It means when I sit at the kitchen table late in the day with my Bible open and my only company the rumbling of the refrigerator that my open hearted response to the gospel will carry consequences for those who have never heard. It is that personal, and that corporate.
The help of the local church in global mission
Paul had a bucket list, and high on it was his reaching Rome. He wanted to go there for years, he yearned to be meaningfully engaged with God’s people there, knowing how culturally, theologically and geographically strategic it was. He also wanted to use Rome as launchpad from which to push forward into Spain, an area which he may have identified with the ends of the earth. Paul wants the Roman Christians to know that he can’t reach Spain without them – ‘I will leave for Spain by way of you’. As a gospel worker he wants a good relationship with these brothers and sisters, he wants them to be part of how the gospel goes forwards.
What could that kind of relationship yield to Paul? It could give him fellowship – ‘I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while’ (15:24). Fellowship is not the slightly less fun part of Christian company where we have to talk about God, it is the open handed, open hearted, mutually enriching joy of being together and believing together. Paul hungered for this. The ministry arc from Jerusalem to Illyricum had not been littered with lots of fraternity, Paul had suffered and faced solitude for the gospel and being in Rome could give him cause to rejoice in the company of other Christians, it could allow him to be joyful and ‘refreshed in your company’ (15:32).
It could provide him with prayer. Paul invokes the person of Jesus and the love of the Holy Spirit in his soliciting of prayer from the Romans. He is facing the formidable task of bring an offering from Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem. This was subject to outside hostility from ‘unbelievers in Judea’, and to internal misunderstanding which could push potential divisions between Jews and Gentiles wide open. Paul asks the Romans to partner with him in prayer.
It could also provide him with support. These people would be in Paul’s company, eating at table, talking together, praying together, learning from one another, and the day would come when they would say farewell and watch him sail for Spain. Paul wants them to ‘help’ him on his journey, to assist him the venture of pushing back the boundaries of unbelief in Europe. John Stott states,
The verb translated assist seems already to have become almost a technical Christian term for helping missionaries on their way. It undoubtedly meant more than good wishes and a valedictory prayer. In most cases it also involved supplying them with provisions and money, and sometimes providing them as well with an escort to accompany them at least part of the way.
This help that Paul enjoins will depend on the health the church enjoys. To be healthy workers, missionaries need healthy local churches who love God enough to build deep relationships, to invest in mutual discipleship, and to communicate deep ownership of what God is doing among them and around the world. This is not something which should be legalistically observed by church fellowships, but which should organically flow from their own growth, from their own engagement with God, and their deeper understanding of what it means to serve him. We should pray, give, and go, but behind all of this lies the urgent need for us to grow, to love God more deeply so that our local work might reach more widely.