How Should Missionaries Relate to Local Churches Overseas?
Every missionary’s first year is tough, but mine was unusually rocky. Just after I arrived, my team leader returned home permanently for medical reasons. My team dissolved, and I found myself adrift. As a single with little fellowship, I was in a precarious place.
Thankfully, I found a church.
It was a North African church and wasn’t a comfortable fit for me culturally or theologically, but it was a church: God’s people, covenanting to follow Christ together under common leadership; God’s people, gathering for worship, teaching, fellowship, and the ordinances.
A few months later, a brand-new missions team took me in. And then something happened that I didn’t expect. I was asked to stop attending church because our new team needed to bond on Sundays. This struck me as odd. What about the church? I thought. But I was told that our team was already a church: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20).
What was wrong with this suggestion? While any group of Christians are part of Christ’s global church, the apostles specifically expected Christians to assemble in local churches. These churches weren’t exclusive special-interest ministry groups within the body of Christ—with one church only open to the “missions-minded,” another to the worship-enthusiasts, still another to the theologically minded, and still another to only indigenous people. Instead, they welcomed all Christians based on the commonality found in Christ himself.
Now the bigger question: why does this matter? It matters because my experience illustrates an unfortunately common reality: many missions communities have an insufficient view of the local church. Our team was sent to the field to plant churches. And you might imagine that church-planting missionaries would have a robust view of the church, that they might even insist on membership in local churches where possible. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. I don’t blame missionaries for this: often, the cost of theological education is prohibitive, and many sending churches don’t encourage it. But having a low view of the church will inevitably cause problems for missionaries.
Many missionaries see their ministries as primary, and their involvement with the church as secondary. Some missionaries will even say joining a church gets in the way of what they’ve been sent to do. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us—missionaries have, after all, left their home churches! Certainly, some do so with great deference to the churches that send them, understanding that their mission is not simply to make scattered disciples of Jesus but to gather those new disciples into local churches. But not all missionaries understand this. And much evangelical teaching on our “personal relationship with God” sounds like being a Christian is not only a deeply personal but also a deeply private affair: just me and God, doing life together.
This misconception can easily turn into disinterest in or even contempt of the wider church. This has led some recent missions efforts to ignore the wider church’s theological critiques of their methods: Let the ivory-tower people do their Monday-morning quarterbacking. I’ll be living out the Great Commission while they write their academic papers. Such dismissals are dangerous, and missionaries can benefit greatly from the input of the larger church.
Low ecclesiology can also cause confusion about missionaries’ involvement in local churches where they serve, as it did in my team’s case. Should we attend? Should we be members? For many missionaries, the practical answers are “no” and “no.”
This is concerning, but admittedly, missionaries aren’t always mistaken here. Let’s look at some of the reasons they give for not getting involved in local churches where they serve, beginning with the more commendable ones.
1. “There are no churches in our pioneering setting.”
In these cases, missionaries should worship together with whatever Christians they can—possibly just each other if they can find no one else. It’s outside the scope of this article to fully discuss at what point this gathering might be considered a church, but it should fulfill as many of the functions of a church as it is able.
2. “I don’t know the language spoken in local churches here.”
In some cases, missionaries work with unreached ethnolinguistic groups, and the only churches nearby worship in other languages the missionaries haven’t learned. Missionaries are still free to attend these local churches, but they may quite reasonably prefer to worship together. We should be sympathetic to this concern. Paul writes of the futility of worshipping when we do not understand: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also. . .” (1 Cor. 14:15).
3. “My presence at local worship services is a security risk to local believers.”
In such cases, missionaries should be careful. In locations with few foreigners, missionaries’ movements stand out and may be monitored. I’ve known of situations in which missionaries’ lack of caution put local believers at risk of imprisonment and torture. Paul’s congregations sent him away for his own safety more than once—and we have Jesus’s own words, “When they persecute you in one city, flee to the next” (Matt. 10:23). So there’s wisdom, at least for a time, in separating for security reasons.
4. “We work in a large city, and there’s only a very small, recently-planted local church here. If all our missionaries attended, we’d substantially outnumber the locals.”
I’ve heard this concern in large cities. Missionary church-planters ultimately aim to teach and raise up mature local elders, and then hand leadership of the church over to them. But in large cities, there can be dozens of expatriate missionaries—many of whom are mature believers and may even have theological training. If they heavily outnumber local people in the church, this can stunt the growth of local leadership.
In situations like this, a large expatriate community might be wiser to form its own church. I said earlier that my missions team shouldn’t have seen itself as a local church. Why, then, would I think that a larger group of missionaries could act as one? The difference, I would argue, is in non-exclusivity. Expatriate fellowships can throw their doors open to a wider community—to all expatriates in the city, perhaps—which my little missions team was not planning to do.
Now I’ve heard other reasons that leave me concerned:
1. “After a hard week in the local culture, it really blesses me to be with other expats on the Sabbath.”
I’m partly sympathetic. Culture stress is difficult to bear. And of course we feel “blessed” when we can worship with people who share our culture. But this reason, on its own, fails to explain why we shouldn’t join a local congregation. We don’t go to church primarily to feel blessed or get recharged. We participate in church—through encouraging and dispiriting seasons—because it’s our family and God’s family. My sending church has a talented worship team, and I’ll often hear people say, “This church has great worship!” I think it does. But that’s more because God is pleased with our worship than because we enjoy the music.
2. “The local church is spiritually weak, has no evangelistic vision, and operates in ways that are culturally offensive to the people I’m hoping to reach. Associating with it will damage my ministry.”
Let me share part of my story to tease out what is and is not valid in this concern.
My wife and I work in a Muslim area. Churches do exist here because Christians from the south of our country have traveled in for work. These southern churches hold their services in a language most local Muslims don’t understand. And men and women dance close to each other—in ways that could easily be perceived as sensual—during worship. Our Muslim neighbors would find this deeply offensive.
Nevertheless, my wife and I are members at one of these southern churches as we wait for God to raise up mature churches from our team’s church planting efforts among local Muslims. We are members for two reasons.
First, despite their weaknesses, we refuse to be ashamed of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Don’t get me wrong, we wish they’d cool down the dancing! But all churches have weaknesses. So do we. It would be deceptively easy to see ourselves and our fellow missionaries as a sort of idealized “super-church” and to see local churches as mediocre—especially when their weaknesses seem to impede our mission-minded goals.
There are cases to avoid association with local churches. In countries near where we work, vile rhetoric has sometimes been spewed from pulpits that encouraged the persecution—or even massacre—of Muslims. In such cases, we would refuse to be associated with supposed “Christians.” Yet this would not be due to evangelistic expediency but to unrepentant sin—severe enough that a church’s allegiance to Christ himself is in doubt.
Second, we refuse to be ashamed of our brothers and sisters’ cultural peculiarities, even those that are offensive to the people we are ministering to. Paul rebukes Peter for refusing to associate with Gentile believers even though it was likely a ministry concern—not wanting to offend Jewish believers—that drove him to do so (Gal. 2:11–14).
Ultimately, we don’t expect that new, Muslim-background believers will worship in southern churches that are culturally offensive and linguistically incomprehensible to them. But if God raises up churches among the Muslim peoples where we work, they’ll have to relate to these southern churches in some way. Will it be arms-length contempt?
You call yourselves Christians but your women shimmy during worship?
Or will it be gracious and inclusive:
We don’t understand—or perhaps even condone—everything you do, but you’re still our brothers and sisters. We refuse to be ashamed of you.
The latter could even lead to constructive dialogue between new Muslim-background believers and existing churches. Perhaps this would help southerners in our area learn how to evangelize their neighbors more effectively. Our membership in a southern church positions us to contribute to such dialogue, if it should occur.
In conclusion, there are factors that may prohibit missionaries from joining a local church. But our default setting should be: whenever I can, I will find a church to join. Paul writes:
“Here, there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free…” (Col. 3:11)
Nor are there missionaries and non-missionaries, enlightened people with an evangelistic vision and ordinary people without. The eye can’t say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” (1 Cor. 12:21) and missionaries can’t say to believers without a missionary gifting, “I have no need of you.” Being a member of a church may not feel necessary. Sometimes, it may feel like a drag on our ministry. But we need each other all the same.
You see, the eye doesn’t need the hand primarily for its own sake. Certainly, it will benefit from having a hand to protect it, but far more fundamentally, the eye needs the hand because the body is useless to Christ if it is only an eye. We need each other first because we can only serve Christ effectively as part of his church, and only secondarily for our own sakes. Every scriptural image we are given of the church drives this truth home. The church is one body, made of many parts (1 Cor. 12:12–13). How will disembodied parts form a functioning body for Christ? The church is one house, made of many stones (Eph. 2:21–22, 1 Pet. 2:5). How will scattered stones form a functional temple for God? The church is one nation, made of many citizens (Eph. 2:18–19, 1 Pet. 2:9). How will a fractured nation serve God? The church is one family, made of many children (Rom. 8:15–29, Gal. 4:6). How will a distant family bring joy to God?
We need each other, not only for our own benefit—though we do benefit, make no mistake!—but because we can only serve God as he desires by serving him together.