A Better Way to Look at Missions


People often ask me: “Is such and such a good idea in missions?” The reason for this question is that there are thousands of different things going on in the missions world today. It makes sense why pastors are at a loss in sorting through the good and bad. How do we know what amounts to “good” missions?

Several friends and I are presently working on a series of books on church-centered missions. In that series, we define missions as church planting across significant barriers, barriers that are usually linguistic, geographic, and cultural, or some combination thereof.

Yet contained within that big picture are four different channels we can view as “missions.” Before I explain all four, which is the goal of this article, we should remember that not every strategic missions effort is an “ends of the earth” effort. This is where John Piper helps us in distinguishing between Timothaine and Pauline missions.[1] Timothy and Titus left their homeland and went to places where churches already existed in order to strengthen and build them up. Timothaine missions, therefore, are when you leave your homeland, culture, language, etc. to strengthen existing churches and establish more churches in areas where the gospel has gone but maybe has not yet prospered.

Paul, on the other hand, had a different objective. While Paul loved all churches and worked to strengthen those he planted, he also pressed into places where no church yet existed. Paul actually left areas where there were healthy churches, though they may be few in number, in order to go to those places where Christ had not been named (Rom. 15:19-20).[2] This is the heart of Pauline missions—to go where the gospel hasn’t yet gone.

The reality is that both Timothaine and Pauline missions are important in fulfilling the Great Commission. Without Timothaine missions, many churches would fail to prosper and may even falter. In such cases, there would be fewer Pauline efforts because the churches that nurture and produce the “Pauls” would not mature to the point of raising them up. Something similar needs to be said about the necessity of Pauline missions. If Pauline missions doesn’t exist, then the ends of the earth will never be reached, entire language groups will remain without any gospel witness, and the Great Commission will not be accomplished.[3] Both Timothaine and Pauline missions, therefore, are necessary.

With this spectrum in mind, below are four categories, or lanes, which encompass the primary thrusts of good missions today.

1. Training of National Pastors

National pastors are those who pastor outside the English-speaking world, speak a national or minority language, and often understand English at an intermediate-high level.[4] Strengthening these men and their churches clearly counts as “Timothaine.” This type of missions strengthens impoverished pastors and helps them distinguish good doctrine from bad.

An example of where such missions is crucial is what is now called the “Global South.” Christianity in the Global South bears a number of strengths, but it also has some clear weaknesses. For instance, these pastors and churches would benefit from more teaching and training against the health and wealth gospel. Churches should grow in a robust historic faith that does not falter at lesser substitutes.

There are a variety of factors that boost and diminish the value of these training programs for national pastors. Depth of teaching, length, regularity, who teaches, goals, cultural awareness, and network of pastors associated in and out of the country are the big factors. Again, such work does not quite count as church planting, but it is nonetheless a critical part of developing healthy churches; and it merits its own category in good missions. Those that do this particularly well are our brothers among the conservative Presbyterians, HeartCry Missionary Society, Training Leaders International (TLI), The Masters Academy International (TMAI), and a variety of seminaries.

2. English Speaking Churches in Cross-Cultural Contexts

Planting healthy English-speaking churches in cross-cultural contexts is a recent trend in missions, historically speaking. Nonetheless, there are countless examples which prove this kind of missions to be a fruitful effort. English-speaking churches preaching the gospel serve to disciple missionaries and other English speaking-expats living abroad. Additionally, they can strengthen national churches, plant new churches in the local language, and generally serve as an in-country platform for further evangelistic and missions activity.

Unfortunately, there are many instances of unhealthy English-speaking churches overseas. These churches regularly fail to respect the culture they exist in. Worse, they fail to recognize and partner with the national churches already established. Sadly, this leads to ineffective evangelism and discipling, suspicion and animosity drawn from locals, and troubled relationships with other churches.

Ministries such as 9Marks, Redeemer City to City, and Acts29 have all partnered with English-speaking churches in international contexts with varying levels of success. Additionally, various sending agencies have begun to employ this strategy.

3. The Planting of Churches in National or Majority Languages

Language is one of the clearest biblical ways for breaking down the remaining task of the Great Commission.[5] In fact, language often provides the best view of where the church is strong, weak, or non-existent.

Planting churches among national or majority languages involves the church going where there simply aren’t enough churches. The country of India offers a great example of a country where the national languages remain in dire need of more good churches. It is the most populous country in the world with six national languages (Hindi, Telugu, Kashmiri, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati), all in great need of more churches. Many other countries and languages (Bahasa, Tajik, Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu, Swahili, etc.) also merit much attention from the missions world due to how little gospel influence there is there.

It is especially important to know what methodology a missions agency ascribes to in this category because movement/multiplication methods are most prevalent here.[6] Reaching and Teaching, ABWE, and HeartCry have historically done excellent work in church planting in national languages. Additionally, there are pockets within the International Missions Board, Pioneers, Send International, Africa Inland Mission, Frontiers and others that have not bought into the movement/multiplication methodology and are doing good work among majority languages around the world.

4. The Planting of Churches in Minority Languages

There are many languages in the world where there is no gospel witness and, consequently, no church among them. The missionary task has always included planting churches among those who have never had access to the gospel. Church planting among these language groups is distinctly “Pauline” missions as it aims to go where no foundation has been laid. There are roughly 3,100 language groups who still have yet to hear the name of Christ.

Church-planting in this category is often slow hard work due to the lack of translated materials, the need for language acquisition, harsh living circumstances, and governments hostile to Christianity.

Good organizations that work exclusively in this category include Global Serve International, Ethnos360, FinisTerre Range, and Beyond the Reef. Many other organizations work in a mix of this category and one of the three others. Reaching and Teaching, HeartCry, and a handful of others are growing their footprint in this category.

Other areas of ministry in missions include aviation ministry, medical missions, mercy ministries, Bible and literature distribution, etc. These are good works to encourage and be encouraged by. However, in order for these kinds of missions to be most effective, they need to connect directly or indirectly to church planting. Seeing mature churches established is the goal of the Great Commission, nothing less.

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[1] Chapter 5 in Let the Nations be Glad is quite helpful on this topic.

[2] Paul’s statement in Romans 15 of “having no more work to do in these regions” is shocking, especially since most church historians agree that less than 20 percent of the population had been exposed to the gospel. Yet Paul presses on. His metric for a “reached” area was, did they have a healthy church? If they did he pressed on.

[3] This is not meant to be read in Matthew 24:14 eschatologically over-stretched manner. No man, missions agency, or tool of this world will bring about the King’s return. However, the King will return someday . . . and missions will be over. We long for that day that only the Father knows.

[4] The ACTFL levels of language acquisition are a good resource for churches to evaluate if their missionaries are fluent. Advanced-High is what a missionary should be in order to translate or teach, but Intermediate-high is enough to listen and understand mid-level content. Teachers that do this type of training need to be careful that those who attend these types of training can actually comprehend at an Intermediate-high level. Often that is not the case.

[5] This subject could consume an entire article but the quick version is; Genesis 11 shows how God separated the world, by language, Genesis 12—all families (families is not nuclear like we think of today, more like a clan or tribe . . . separated by language) of the earth will be blessed through Abrahams seed (singular). Acts 2—the mark that the King has come and the beginnings of the reversal of Babel—men from all gathered nations hear the glory of God being expressed . . . in their own language. Who will the represented Bride be in Revelation 7:9 and 5:9, every tribe, language, people and nation. Is language the only metric of the Great Commission, no. Is it a primary and often forgotten metric in our day, yes.

[6] This is a listing of resources that speak to that issue.

Brooks Buser

Brooks Buser is President of Radius International.

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