Why Is It Essential for Missionaries to Join a Church Where They Live?
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) performed two studies so that they could identify causes of, and hopefully reduce, unnecessary attrition among missionaries. In their first study, published under the title “Too Valuable to Lose” (1997), they unearthed deficiencies in the missionary experience and provided recommendations to help improve longevity. In their second study, they hoped to show improvement in the missionary experience after applying their solutions for a decade.
Among their initial findings, the WEA demonstrated that a lack of “pastoral care” is common among missionaries and contributes to them returning home too early. Their follow-up study showed little-to-no improvement—“pastoral care” remained “very poor” among overseas ministers.
These findings may surprise us. After all, aren’t missionaries usually some of the most dedicated church members back home? How do they find themselves in a situation where they lack pastoral care?
In more than twenty years of involvement with missions, I have seen that, too often, these dedicated church members turn into “free agent” ministers with at best very loose membership commitments to any local church where they live. This is not always true, to be sure. But more often than they should, missionaries fail to pursue church membership commitments in their country of service.
The churches in the missionaries’ host countries have been trying to bring this situation to our attention, if we will but listen to them. National pastors or expat international pastors regularly say, “The missionaries won’t join our church! We ask them but they resist!”
Or: “Missionaries say they love the church, but their poor church involvement is setting a bad example for our flock.”
Or even: “One missionary wanted to join our church, but her missionary agency forbade it.”
These faithful brothers and sisters would never act this way back home. They would be faithful church members and, through that membership, would receive the care from their pastors that the WEA says they lack overseas. But what’s seriously missing from the WEA’s proposed solution is membership in a healthy church near the missionary’s home. In this article, we will identify some common reasons missionaries use to explain why they don’t need to join local churches where they live. Then we will examine biblical considerations that show missionaries must seek healthy local church membership in their ministry context whenever possible. Finally, we will re-evaluate the common reasons in light of the biblical considerations.
COMMON REASONS MISSIONARIES RESIST JOINING LOCAL CHURCHES
There are at least five reasons why faithful missionaries might actively resist local church membership.
First, some missionaries believe their church membership might lead national Christians to rely too heavily on an outsider for ministry responsibilities. No one wants the expat missionary to “do everything” in the church. Indeed, missiologists like Venn, Anderson, Nevius, Allen, and many others have long since warned us against missionary practices that foster dependency and hinder the indigenization of the church. As a safeguard today, some large, well-known agencies have adopted the practice of strongly urging missionaries to avoid pastoral roles in local churches. Perhaps some missionaries have extended this “indigenization strategy” to membership.
Second, the local churches near the missionary could be very unhealthy. In many areas of the world, the churches that have multiplied have very little understanding of orthodox doctrine, are beset with prosperity gospel, fail to teach the Bible well (if they attempt to do so at all), do not administer the ordinances faithfully, or are otherwise seriously misaligned with any biblical understanding of the local church. Missionaries could hardly be faulted for not joining these “churches.”
Third, the ministry context could be a “pioneer” situation where there are no churches and/or no true Christians. This situation is similar to the previous one. Unless a solution is found, there is simply no church for the missionary to join.
Fourth, and perhaps most complex, the missionary’s “home” church (sometimes called their “sending church”) might urge the missionary to keep their membership at home. The home church can state this explicitly, continuing to refer to the missionary as “our church member.” Or the home church can state this implicitly, by not encouraging the missionary into the loving care of another healthy community. As a result, the missionary believes their current membership status in a church thousands of miles away is adequate to fulfill the biblical expectation to be meaningfully involved in Christian community.
Finally, there are pragmatic concerns. In a desire to maximize the number of locations with gospel witness, sometimes missionary families are placed by their agencies alone in a city far away from all other Christian fellowship. Too often, these families suffer a slow decline. Other agencies receive missionaries from multiple denominations, such that ecclesial matters are necessarily minimized. In this instance, strategy is pulled to the least common denominator of conviction: details of church involvement aren’t discussed.
Each of these reasons is ultimately unsatisfying. Yet, in each, there are wise cautions to be heeded. The situation of missionaries in pioneer locations is particularly complex. Before returning to each of these reasons, let’s examine why missionaries simply must seek healthy local church membership in their ministry context whenever possible.
WHY MISSIONARIES MUST SEEK HEALTHY LOCAL CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IN THEIR MINISTRY CONTEXT WHENEVER POSSIBLE: BIBLICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Church membership is a mutual promise between a local church and a Christian. In this covenant, the church promises to continue affirming that the Christian’s behavior matches their confession of Jesus as Lord and to help guide the Christian toward that end. For their part, the Christian promises to join into the activity of the church and to submit to the church’s guidance and correction. The church promises oversight and the Christian promises submission to that oversight.
The idea of community is deeply woven into our nature (Gen. 1:26–27) and in the gospel itself (1 Pet. 2:9–10). Church membership brings our created nature and the gospel together. In Christ, we actively fulfill our obligations to love other Christians with whom we live in community. In part, belonging to Christ includes an obligation to love our neighbor, especially those who also belong to him (Rom. 13:8–10).
Whether the hundreds of biblical plural commands or the dozens of “one another” commands, loving other Christians seems to be an expected way of life for every believer. These passages direct how we should love one another. In fact, some passages can only be obeyed within the context of a church—commands like “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17) and “do not neglect meeting together” (Heb. 10:25). Interestingly, we never read of Christians living an isolated existence, nor is such an existence described as an acceptable alternative to living within the bounds of Christian fellowship. It’s as if God is telling us that any lonely Christian should not remain so for very long—either Christian community should occur through searching out other Christians or community should occur through evangelism and conversion. Corporate living is the normal expected life for all Christians—even for international missionaries.
To belong to Christ also includes being equipped by the Holy Spirit with gifts that serve and build up the church (Eph. 4:11–16; 1 Cor. 14:12). We are gifted to serve others to the glory of our King! God has specifically designed spiritual gifts to benefit a Christian’s incorporation into Christian community (Eph. 4:16). Therefore, missionaries who serve without membership in a nearby local church are living an “unnatural” spiritual existence. They are equipped with spiritual gifts but can profit no Christian community.
Even evangelism is meant to include Christian interaction. Jesus famously said that we express Christian truths about the unity of forgiving, gospel love to non-believers through our relationships with each other (John 13:34–35)! The best evangelism includes both proclamation of the gospel and the demonstrable effects of the gospel through the changed lives and loving relationships of Christians. Forgiveness, peace, and love between Christians powerfully display Christ’s ability to bring peace to conflicting nations.
For at least these reasons, missionaries should become members of a nearby local church. Bruce Milne says, “To be a Christian, if it means anything at all, means being gathered out of isolation into the corporate life of the body of Christ.” If Milne is correct, then the call to missionary service should not be a call back into isolation.
WHAT ARE WE MISSING?
Without local church membership, we will likely continue to see missionaries return home too early. Church membership is a means by which God provides for our spiritual nourishment, our spiritual growth, and the general encouragement we all need in the day-to-day ups and downs of life.
Just consider all that they miss out on:
- regular enjoyment of committed gathering with other believers (Heb. 10:24–25)
- observance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–33)
- submission to leaders (Heb. 13:17)
- mutual encouragement with other members (1 Thess. 5:11)
- mutual exhortation (Heb. 3:13)
- mutual teaching (Col. 3:16)
- bearing with other members (Rom. 15:1)
- singing to other members (Eph. 5:19)
- praying for other members (James 5:16)
- mutual rebuking (Titus 1:13)
- loving other members (1 Pet. 1:22)
- giving preference to other members (Rom. 12:10)
- serving other members (Gal. 5:13)
These activities are for our good! Without church membership, years could pass before missionaries reach the end of their term or they are proficient enough in the host culture to be able to enjoy these activities with national believers. Through the activities of church membership, missionaries are held accountable to live their lives openly before other Christians and receive regular encouragements to love Christ.
Christians grow spiritually through their involvement in the lives of other Christians, not in isolation from one another. There is an important link between Christian fellowship and growth in Christ-likeness (Col. 1:28). Christian community protects Christians so they can “grow up” into Christ Jesus (Eph. 4:11–16). Maturation happens both to communities and within the context of community (2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:16). The church equips each member for ministry and aids in the maturation of each one. If a church is functioning correctly, then its members will be protected from deception, false teachers, and immaturity. Wise missionaries will seek these means of grace as they serve with a community near them.
RE-EVALUATE THE COMMON REASONS IN LIGHT OF THE BIBLICAL CONSIDERATIONS
In light of these biblical considerations, how might we evaluate some of the reasons missionaries do not join local churches where they live?
There is much wisdom in the WEA proposal to provide pastoral care for missionaries. Ultimately, however, their proposal will prove inadequate if it continues to separate pastoral ministry from active church membership. Of course, we can and should encourage and counsel Christians who are not our church members even if they live very far away. But we can only do so much from afar. Week after week, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, pastors model following Christ as they nourish church members with Bible teaching, protect them, pray for them, and guide them. The difficulty with the WEA proposal is that it seems to reduce the pastoral role to occasional counseling and encouragement.
The idea that missionaries can remain members of their home church suffers a similar difficulty of reduction. The mutual promise of church membership cannot be adequately fulfilled if the Christian lives on the other side of the globe. Guidance and oversight is simply impossible, so too is submission and meaningful participation. This sort of arrangement leaves both the church and the missionary actively violating their promise in church membership. Instead, missionaries need church members who have easy access to their lives, those who can guide and serve them. Proximity is a vital characteristic of church membership.
While missionaries should join churches where they live, they should not sever their relationship with their home church. The relationship simply changes. We see this in Acts. When the Antioch church sent out Paul and Barnabas on their journeys, they released the apostles from the obligation of their ministry of teaching and explicitly handed them over to the gracious, protective care of God (see Acts 14:26; compare with 14:23). But this “release” did not sever the relationship. The apostles regularly returned to Antioch and re-entered ministry there (Acts 14:27–28). When missionaries return home, rejoining the activity of their home church could provide much needed refreshment.
That said, beginning in the Garden, God placed all of history on a weekly cycle. And he set aside one day for remembering him, spiritual refreshment, and rest. Missionaries—like every Christian—need this pattern because the weekly meeting with God’s people equips us for our daily lives and decisions. Missionaries have not transcended God’s weekly pattern for all of history!
Regarding issues of strategy, missionaries should be careful to avoid over-dependency and practices that make it difficult for locals to accept Christianity as their own religion (indigenization). However, principles of indigeneity cannot take precedence over the Bible’s commands and design for Christians to join a local church. The missionary needs the church, the church needs the missionary, and God lovingly directs us into this arrangement. In addition, the missionary can both join the church and continue to guard against dependency—we don’t have to choose between either being the lead pastor or avoiding the church altogether. We can faithfully become one of many church members. The exact details of this arrangement can vary widely. Each location likely will call for a tailor-made solution and many prayers for wisdom.
Furthermore, I appreciate the impulse among many missionaries today to guard against the colonialist instincts of the past which sometimes yielded an over-dependency among national Christians on their Western teachers. Yet insisting that missionaries must never join national churches is to jump out of the ditch on wide side of the road and fall into the ditch on the other side. It insinuates that national culture is stronger than heavenly culture, and that tribal identity is stronger than gospel identity. Ironically, the missionary’s stand-off-ishness risks committing the same error of colonialism, namely, the declaration that people from different nations cannot finally intermingle and attain fully gospel unity. By joining a national church and submitting to its oversight, even submitting to young national believers, missionaries have the opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel that, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Greek nor barbarian.
What about pioneer locations or locations with no healthy church? The short answer: missionaries can bring Christians with them and establish the community they need. Establishing a group of Christians in a pioneer place is easier than ever before. At one time in history, missionaries had to leave family behind to discover the interior villages of large swaths of countries or continents. In a more difficult time, the Moravian Brethren provided an example when they famously embarked on their missionary journeys in groups. William Carey also established the Christian community he needed with other missionaries in Serampore. In our day, by God’s grace, with the ease of travel and communication, the opportunities to establish fledgling Christian communities are unprecedented. Establishing community with other missionaries is not a simple solution nor the only one available. But church planters must be very careful: they cannot simply declare themselves a church. Biblical churches have structure, purpose, and activity. But with these in place, a team of church planters can serve as Christian community.
We all need Christians around us. Near us. We need to both serve them and be served by them; it’s good for our souls. This grace extends to wherever God may lead us—even if we are missionaries in a city where Christ is not yet named.
Church membership is not only good for missionaries, it’s also good for mission. Missionaries are often portrayed as spiritual giants, but they need church care at least as much as any Christian. Missionaries who are the very best church members where they live encourage national Christians to greater faithfulness. Writing in “Too Valuable to Lose,” Belinda Ng states, “Pastoral care is a lifeline for missionaries if the church seriously desires to have an effective, on-going work in Christ’s Great Commission.” In other words, church membership under the ongoing and effective care of pastors is not only vital to the health and well-being of missionaries—it will result in a longer, healthier, more vibrant witness for the gospel.
Church membership is vital to the on-going task of the church in the Great Commission.