Not everyone is called to be a cross-cultural missionary who takes the gospel to unreached places. So what does Scripture say to those who stay behind?
It is just as much a church’s responsibility to send as it is a missionary’s responsibility to go.
One of the greatest missionary rally-cry passages in the Bible, Romans 10, contains a sobering implication for the majority of believers who will stay planted within their native culture:
“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” (Romans 10:13-15 ESV)
In sum, Paul writes, the only way for anyone to be saved to call on Christ—which assumes someone has gone and told them the gospel with real words.
“Amen. Get out there, missionaries!” we may respond in our minds. But that isn’t where Paul goes. Instead, he hones in on those who stay behind—the senders.
In our individualistic culture, we often agonize on how the missionary him or herself discerns a calling to the field, sacrifices to get there, and gathers the necessary support. Yet the New Testament places major responsibility on the local body of believers as the senders.
Sending others into the harvest, far from being a cop-out to the true missionary call, is a divinely ordained function of the church.
Perhaps no congregation in the Bible modeled sending better than the church in Antioch, mentioned at various points throughout the book of Acts. Most of Paul’s ministry was owing to their support. From their example, we can identify five marks that distinguish a church that faithfully embraces the ministry of sending.
1. Sending Churches Evangelize Locally
In Acts 11, after the first Christian martyr is stoned, a wave of persecution a group of believers fleeing in multiple directions. The church in Antioch is born.
Yet notice what these Christians are doing as they scatter across the Romans Empire: “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews” (Acts 11:19).
These everyday church members weren’t merely trying to escape suffering; they were taking the gospel with them everywhere they went. They were making disciples in their everyday lives, opening their mouths to tell others the good news about Jesus.
At times, the New Testament is surprisingly light on direct commands for individual Christians to engage in evangelism. Perhaps that’s because, as we see here, Scripture’s authors assumed true believers were already doing that, both corporately and individually.
Today, churches that don’t foster a culture of personal evangelism will find it hard to faithfully send missionaries. Church members who struggle to share the gospel with their immediate family and friends won’t fare better in a foreign culture. Neither will church members truly understand the purpose of missions if they don’t see themselves as gospel-heralds already in their local contexts. Antioch reveals that God sends those who are already obeying the Great Commission.
2. Sending Churches Think Cross-Culturally
As the narrative goes on, we learn: “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:20-21)
The Christians in Antioch weren’t the only ones practicing personal evangelism; believers in Cyprus and Phoenicia were doing so as well (see v. 19). But what marked Antioch as a fertile sending church was their sanctified discontentment with reaching only people who walked, talked, and dressed like them. They hopped cultural barriers locally without crossing borders, witnessing not only to Jews but the Hellenists as well.
We have the same opportunity today. Cross-cultural missions is not just something to do “over there.” Immigrants from across the globe are pouring in to the United States in pursuit of refuge, opportunity, or family. Even in some of America’s least diverse cities, one is likely to find pockets of expatriates forming communities around local businesses or schools representing some of the world’s most unreached nations. God is literally bringing millions of unreached Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus who have never understood the gospel within walking distance of our churches.
God blessed the church at Antioch when they focused not only on evangelism but also on reaching across linguistic, ethnic, and cultural barriers. Perhaps the believers in Antioch had called to mind what Peter preached years earlier on Pentecost: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39).
3. Sending Churches Train Vigorously
When the church leaders in Jerusalem caught wind of this diverse, missions-minded church to the north growing rapidly, they had to check it out. And it wasn’t long until they recognized that God was working in a unique way that warranted outside investment.
“The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:22-26)
The church at Antioch had a heart for lost people who didn’t look like them. Barnabas and Saul’s response was to go, galvanize the troops, train, and teach them God’s Word. God had lit a spark; now Barnabas and Saul were pouring on the fuel. To borrow from Henry Blackaby’s maxim, they found out where God was working and joined him there.
Church leaders have a responsibility to mentor and support believers who are seeking to serve in God’s mission. Individuals in the church join this process by hearing missionaries’ stories, encouraging them, praying for them, and discipling other members of the body. Where God produces willingness in believers’ hearts, God also raises up more mature believers to spur them onward.
4. Sending Churches Give Sacrificially
Every missions-minded church wrestles through the question of prioritizing physical needs versus spiritual needs. How did the church at Antioch handle it?
“Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:27-30)
Not only was this church excited to share the Gospel, reach other cultures, and be strengthened from good teaching, but they also had a sincere desire to meet the physical needs of their fellow believers elsewhere.
The result is a grassroots relief ministry. The individual believers themselves determined to donate to the hungry believers in Judea, “every one according to his ability” (v. 29). Everyone in the congregation sensed their personal responsibility to respond to need.
In the West, we think in dichotomies. Spiritual needs or physical needs; evangelism or soup kitchens; missions or homeless ministry. But in Acts, we see no such false dichotomy. Proclaiming the gospel and discipling all nations is always the church’s key mission (see Matthew 28.19-20), and serving the impoverished believers is the duty of love.
In the New Testament, most examples of charitable acts happen within the body of Christ, and for good reason: consider what a witness it is when the unbelieving world looks at the church and sees a mutually supportive, global community in which, when one member suffers, all suffer! A faithful sending church runs to need. “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6.10). “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.35, emphasis added).
5. Sending Churches Worship Passionately
A faithful sending church evangelizes locally, thinks cross-culturally, trains vigorously, and gives sacrificially to physical needs. But where can believers who stay in their native cultures find the drive for all these behaviors?
In Acts 13, we get a glimpse into a robust prayer gathering of the church’s key leaders and laymen. It’s here where we see the church actually send Paul and Barnabas missionaries now, but not apart from a real encounter with God first.
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:1-3)
This fifth mark of a faithful sending church is the root of the previous four. Antioch was a worshiping, praying, fasting, listening church. It wasn’t so focused on its programs and objectives that it neglected communion with God. They didn’t rush off to work in their own strength; they sought God’s face first. “Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 19:38)
Antioch’s unquenchable passion for the glory of God compelled them to send missionaries.
Perhaps what is keeping us from sending more missionaries isn’t just a lack of evangelistic fervor, although that’s key. Neither is it merely an absence of a love for other cultures, a lack of biblical knowledge, or apathy towards the physical needy. At root, perhaps many of us don’t send faithfully because we are simply satisfied with very little of God’s glory.
How desperately do yearn to see the earth “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11.9)? How do we long to see God display himself for who he is and not simply to vindicate our outreach strategies? Do we treasure him enough to seek his face and skip a meal? Have we made room for God to break in and say, “Set apart for me so-and-so for the work to which I have called them?”
May we who are not yet called to go be faithful senders in the mold of the church at Antioch.