Mission and Maturity
“I’m not a missionary, coming home to report amazing stories from faraway lands. To make matters worse, I sometimes feel more burdened for people in my neighborhood than lost people overseas. Am I immature?”
“Teaching at a small midwestern Christian middle school is clearly less important than bringing the gospel to people in Iran. I just hope it counts for something.”
Lots of Christians resonate with these sentiments, but do they follow biblical logic? A glance at the apostle Paul and his understanding of missions will help answer this question. Be forewarned, Paul’s understanding doesn’t neatly nestle inside the categories we often utilize today.
PAUL’S INITIAL MISSIONAL VISION
Sent by their church in Syrian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas took the gospel east to Gentiles and Jews in Galatia’s Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 14). By God’s grace, conversions happened and Christian communities were formed. Surprisingly, Paul and Barnabas did not consider their work complete.
Instead of immediately setting out for places where the gospel had not yet gone, Paul and Barnabas retraced their steps—risking their very lives—to strengthen, encourage, teach, and even appoint elders in their church plants (Acts 14:21–23). They wanted these churches to reach maturity in Christ and so they worked to that end. Paul and Barnabas then returned to Antioch (Acts 14:26).
The conclusion of Paul and Barnabas’ “first missionary journey” did not see an end to their care for those church plants. Instead, Paul later wrote to the churches in Galatia, saying, “I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in and among you all” (Gal. 4:19). Additionally, Paul regularly returned in person to “strengthen” these disciples (Acts 15:36, 41; 16:1–5; 18:23). This is evidence that his missionary work entailed a long-lasting concern. His mind and heart were set on seeing people trust Christ and being rooted in local churches so that they may reach maturity in Christ.
SENDING LETTERS ON MISSION
Through Paul’s letters (like Galatians), he consistently pursued the same missional end. For example, he and Timothy wrote to the saints in Colossae (and Laodicea): “Christ we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28).
Presenting converts to Christ was not Paul’s ultimate missional dream. Nor was presenting planted churches. He wanted to present communities of mature believers to Christ. Conversions and church planting are necessary for this, to be sure! But the mission goes beyond both.
SENDING HELPERS ON MISSION
In addition to letters and personal visits, Paul sent his co-laborers to encourage the churches. For example, Paul sent Tychicus and Onesimus to Colossae to encourage the Colossians’ hearts and provide updates on Paul’s ministry and personal well-being (Col. 4:7–9).
Other members of Paul’s missionary teams, like Timothy and Titus, would move to areas for extended stays to help strengthen and encourage the churches there. They were sent to equip church leaders—elders and deacons—for the same mission Paul began with his first visit: presenting everyone mature in Christ (see 1 Cor. 4:17; 1–2 Tim.; Titus). Paul’s deployment of fellow agents to places he had already been showcased his persisting sense of responsibility.
LOCAL CHURCH PASTORS AND TEACHERS ON MISSION
Apostles, prophets, and evangelists (like Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, etc.) are not the same as local, long-term pastors and teachers. Nonetheless, their distinct roles share the same mission from Christ: “the preparation of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–12).
From this particular angle—and it is a crucial angle—Paul saw no distinction between his apostolic missionary work and that of the local pastors and teachers. Jesus gave all these gifts to build the saints until everyone matures in Christ and stands fast in him (Eph. 4:13–16).
This mission for maturity is bigger than Paul and his visits, letters, co-laborers, and local pastors and teachers. It includes all the saints. According to Ephesians 4:12–16, all saints participate in the same mission through activities like:
- building each other up in Christ
- helping each other mature in Christ
- encouraging one another to continue trusting Christ
- helping each other be unified in the knowledge of God’s Son
- helping one another resist false doctrine
- speaking the truth in love to one another
Like a human body is dependent on all its members, the church matures through the contributions of every member. See also 1 Thessalonians 3:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 16:13.
US ON MISSION?
I have briefly attempted to sketch Paul’s understanding of mission. What then should you do if you hear a brother or sister disparage their ministry because they aren’t “missionaries”?
You could respond with, “But you are a missionary” and highlight Paul’s approach to mission. And you’d be right, kind of. After all, every Christian, from apostles to evangelists to pastors to all the saints, is on the same mission.
And yet, it’s useful to have a word to denote those specific Christians who leave their homeland for the gospel and cross national borders. Those are the folk for whom we typically reserve the word “missionary.”
So, what do we say? How should we encourage the teacher who works at a suburban Christian middle school in the Midwest? Is their work less important than making disciples in Iran? I don’t think so. In both cases, the work and the goal should be the same—helping people know Christ and reach maturity in Christ. Paul was passionate about this work in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth. His love for God’s mission spanned the spectrum. So should ours.