How does the elder in the local church fulfill his responsibility to “actively promote the work of missions”?1 What does this look like practically? How should we define the work of missions? Why is it necessary? What is the goal? And how can the elder actively encourage this work in the church he serves?
If you have asked these questions, you are not alone. It is common for church leaders to wonder how their congregations should be involved in missions. The goal of this article is to provide some clarity and confidence regarding the elder’s task of promoting the biblical work of missions in the local church. It cannot possibly say everything that needs to be said on the vast subject of missions, but it aims to encourage church leaders by taking a closer look at our Lord’s Great Commission in Matthew 28 in order to understand how we can apply its principles in the life of the church.
After he finished his work on earth and before he ascended into heaven, Christ commissioned his apostles, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18b–20, English Standard Version). Known as the Great Commission, this is arguably the most important text in all of Scripture for understanding the church’s responsibility in missions. It provides us with the basis, goal, means, and promise of the church’s mission to the world. In this article we will look at the goal and the promise of missions.
The Goal of Missions
The goal of doing missions is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Christ did not commission his church to make mere converts but to make committed followers who are set apart by and devoted to Christ and the Christian faith so that God will be worshiped and glorified: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19a, emphasis added). The main verb in this sentence is not “go” but “make disciples.” This is the whole point of missions: to train people to become worshipers of the living God. As John Piper once put it, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.”2
We should be careful, therefore, not to confuse missions with evangelism. Evangelism is a necessary part of missions, but it is not the complete missionary task of the church. “Evangelism,” as J. I. Packer said, “means declaring a specific message . . . [It] means to present Jesus Christ, the divine Son who became man at a particular point in world-history in order to save a ruined race . . . Evangelism means to present Jesus as Christ, God’s anointed Servant, fulfilling the tasks of His appointed office as Priest and King.”3 Evangelism is essential for bringing the gospel to the unconverted, for “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10.14, 17). But the whole scope of missions is not limited to evangelism. If the goal of missions is to make disciples and worshipers of Jesus Christ, then evangelism is only one component of a larger process.
Church planting, therefore, both on domestic and foreign soil, is the sine qua non of missions; without it there is no mission. It takes precedence over all other mission-related endeavors, especially parachurch organizations. It is in the local church that the new convert enters the lifelong school of discipleship. It begins at baptism and continues until death as the disciple is continually instructed by God’s Word. Throughout their pilgrimage in the wilderness of this world, disciples are being nurtured in the faith, trained for good works, and sustained with the nourishment of the gospel. This is our Lord’s chosen way for gathering his redeemed people, feeding them with his Word, receiving their worship, nurturing their faith, and bonding them as a community rooted and established in love (Rom. 12; Eph. 4; Phil. 1:27–2:11). The local church is a manifestation of the people who belong to Christ, and also the place where he meets them through the means he has ordained.
Since this is true, we must conclude that every local church is a mission church. Regardless of whether a church is established with its own elders and deacons or is still in the infant stages of a church plant, it is the primary place where disciples are being made. The elders, therefore, as they seek to “actively promote the work of missions,” must consider how they can be faithful in the task of making more disciples. The leaders in the local church must devote time, thought, and energy in discovering how they can reach out to their communities, be involved in the planting of a new church, and sending out missionaries to foreign fields. No church is exempt from the Great Commission. Not only must elders be faithful to make disciples with the flock entrusted to them, but also they must be zealous for the cause of making disciples in places where there are very few.
The Promise for Missions
Just as Jesus’ Great Commission to the church begins with an encouraging indicative, so also it ends with one: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). This should fill us with confidence as we evangelize our neighbors, send out missionaries, and plant churches. It should cause us to be unashamed of the gospel, and to have an urgency for reaching the lost. Christ has promised to be with his church in all of his authority until the great day of his return. He has already been victorious in his conquest. Our task is to be faithful in announcing his victory throughout the world and instructing those who receive it.
Until the end of the age, Christ continues to advance his kingdom and create his new society from peoples all over the globe. The old covenant confined God’s kingdom to one particular nation and language, but the new covenant expands Israel’s borders to ends of the earth, making one new man between believing Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14). The gospel is for people of every race, tribe, and nationality. God promised Abraham that he would be a light to the nations, and that has come to pass. The apostles were sent as Christ’s witnesses not only in Jerusalem and in all Judea but also in Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). It is because of God’s promise to Abraham that Christians are black, white, Asian, Hispanic, and more. The Christian faith is not a northern European faith or a Semitic faith but an international, global faith in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In a world that is typically segregated by our cultural identities, consumer preferences, and political affiliations, the gospel creates a multiethnic community that is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9a). Nothing but the gospel of Jesus Christ can create a community like this one.
In light of all the above, we can summarize several practical ways that elders can “actively promote the work of missions” in the churches they serve:
Remind the congregation that Christ possesses all authority in heaven and on earth, and that we need not fear or be apprehensive about the work of missions.
Remind the congregation that Christ has commanded us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, and that we must be obedient to him.
Instruct the congregation on the necessity of church planting on domestic and foreign soil, and how it is God’s primary way of making disciples through the means he has ordained.
Help the congregation to become familiar with their denomination’s missionaries by praying for them regularly, staying updated through the missionaries’ newsletters and websites, and inviting the missionaries to preach in a worship service and/or give a presentation.
Invite the denomination’s missions coordinator or general secretary for foreign or domestic missions to give a presentation of the current work in the field.
Consider adopting one or more missionaries by committing to regular financial support and communication.
Volunteer to serve on the church’s missions committee or a Joint Venture Committee with neighboring churches in the mission of planting a church or overseeing a missionary.4
Encourage the congregation to pray earnestly for an open door of opportunity in missions, and to give thought to where and when a new church might be planted.
Christ has not yet returned. He is still bringing the gospel to the nations and making his disciples throughout the world. And he continues to use ordinary local churches, led by ordinary elders, in this great missionary task. This is an exciting time to be alive and, by God’s grace, bring the gospel to the world. Having received so much, it is an enormous privilege for us to participate in the planting of churches where there are few. May God fill our sails with wind so that we never tire of making disciples of all nations!
1 CO art. 14 states, “The duties belonging to the office of elder consist of continuing in prayer and ruling the church of Christ according to the principles taught in Scripture, in order that purity of doctrine and holiness of life may be practiced. They shall see to it that their fellow-elders, the minister(s) and the deacons faithfully discharge their offices. They are to maintain the purity of the Word and Sacraments, assist in catechizing the youth, promote God-centered schooling, visit the members of the congregation according to their needs, engage in family visiting, exercise discipline in the congregation, actively promote the work of evangelism and missions, and ensure that everything is done decently and in good order” (emphasis added).
2 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 17.
3 J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 38.
4 For more information on the URCNA model of the Joint Venture Committee, see “Biblical and Confessional View of Missions: Study Committee Report Recommended to the Churches by Synod Escondido of the United Reformed Churches of North America 2001,” https://www.urcna.org/urcna/StudyReports/Biblical%20and%20Confessional%20View%200f%20Missions.pdf.
Rev. Michael G. Brown serves as missionary to Chiesa Riformata Filadelfia (URCNA) in Milan, Italy.