Christian community is supposed to be one of the most compelling testaments to the truth and power of the gospel. Jesus made this clear when he prayed for the loving unity of his people which would prove to the world that he was in fact from the Father. And Paul time and again points to the community of believers – the local church – as the place in which the truths of the gospel become tangible, where the hidden wisdom and power of the word of the cross are put on display, even to the degree that the traditional hostility between Jew and Gentile disappears as both become one body through the cross-work of Christ applied by the Spirit.
This should greatly impact how we view the local church and how we do ministry. But in my experience, often the very thing that is supposed to testify to the gospel’s truth and power – the local church – is often left out of the mission the church has been given in a very crucial way. Especially, in the context of pioneer missions.
This is not to say that the church as a missional institution or that an emphasis on creating community is neglected in pioneer missions, on the contrary, in the realm of Great Commission strategy the aim usually is church planting. But in this quest to create communities of disciples, I fear that the greatest tool in that quest is being underutilized – and that is communities of disciples as a whole. This tool is in fact the very mechanism by which God’s mission is accomplished – the local church. This is ironic, that the very thing missionaries hope to create is left out of the process in a way which I think is crucial for being a faithful witness and planting healthy churches.
Let me try to explain…
Wisely, the bulk of organized missions endeavours take place in the context of teams. These teams, which often have a leader or leaders who answer to an organization or sending church, serve to provide encouragement, accountability, safety, and equipping for the team-members engaged in the work of making disciples.This is a good thing, but a good thing that is wasted and falls short of its full usefulness because while doing many of the things a local church does, it does not view itself as being a church nor does it intend to become a church. And these teams while seeking to do the work of the church often operate outside of obvious biblical categories for the way in which Christians organize themselves.
Missions teams will often gather weekly for prayer, for study in the word, for worship, for fellowship and sometimes even for communion – all of which are clearly things a local church does. But often a few crucial elements are missing – preaching is absent, while there are leaders there are not pastors per se, and while being evangelistic, intent on making disciples, this outreach is done “out there” and not in order to gather in. People are not invited to come and see the most compelling witness to the truth and power of the gospel, people are not invited to sit under the preaching of the word, people are not invited to observe the fellowship of a beloved, eternal family. And this is a tragedy.
The mission of the church gathered
God intended that we would not simply be individuals sent out from the church on mission but that we would be a church – a living institution that as one is engaged in the mission of Jesus. It is the church gathered, again, which displays the power of the incarnation, the wisdom of the gospel, it is a peopleand not merely persons who proclaim the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his light. Certainly the church goes out on mission into the world when it scatters, but the church also plays out crucial aspects of its mission to the world as a body gathered. We gather not simply in order to be equipped and encouraged to go and do mission “out there” but we gather as a means of doing mission “out there”.
Teams that are church plants
Teams are a good idea, biblical even, but there needs to be a shift in how we view these teams. Not “church-planting teams”, that is teams that plant churches, but rather teams who are in fact church plants! 
Churches plant churches by sending people to proclaim the good news, to gather believers in that good news around that news and its signs, and to build them up in walking according to that good news until they receive the full benefits promised in that good news in the age to come. The example we see most clearly in Scripture, namely in the ministry of Paul, is when a missionary is sent to a new city, he gathers believers, lives as one of them – a part of the local church – where he shepherds them, trains leaders and then while maintaining a relationship with those churches for their building up and encouragement, he moves on.
At this point, I think it is important to talk in practical terms about what I have in mind.
What if six or eight people went to a place with no gospel witness and they began to live life and they covenanted to gather together around the gospel and its signs? What if they appointed leaders tasked with building up the body of Christ for the work of the ministry, and they invited the world to come and see? This is what I have in mind when I speak of teams as church plants. I mean simply teams being sent as the seed of the church – as church plants themselves, doing what the church does.
When teams are church plants a group of Christians is sent to a gospel-needy place where in that place they begin simply to do what a church does, with all the traditional marks of a local church – right preaching, right use of the sacraments, and church discipline (formative and corrective). And as through their collective witness, by the Spirit’s power, people are added to their number, they are brought in and raised up, faithful men are taught and trained and after time another team breaks off and starts a new church in a new area. It may take longer for the church to become purely indigenous, but over the decades the church will, by God’s grace, more and more take the shape of the community in which it exists.
I want to argue that viewing missions teams as church plants, and using them as such, is right on multiple levels. Christians are supposed to gather themselves in local churches where they live out their calling together in a way that is visible to the world around them. All Christians, even missionaries, need not only sending churches, they need the local church.And the unreached need healthy churches among them. They need communities formed and shaped by the gospel among them to point them to who Jesus is and what he has done and is doing.
Local churches are really the fruit of the gospel, they are organic institutions that take the shape of what God is doing in history. Therefore, a missionary team, a gathering of believers living on mission together, should take the shape of a local church. This is what the gospel they proclaim creates!
If anyone reads this, there are a few things I would like to come out of it. I wish that churches would support church plants to the farthest reaches of the world. I wish that weekly meetings of cross-cultural workers in gospel-needy places would begin to think biblically about what they actually are – churches- and would aspire to be this faithfully and fully. I wish that more missionaries would invite people to church, to their local gathering where the gospel is proclaimed and displayed. And I hope that from these church plants would come many, many more church plants.
So missionary, perhaps have a conversation with your teammates about how you view your team.
Churches, have a talk with the teams or individual missionaries you support.
Are we sending church-planting teams or are we sending teams that are church plants? I believe the difference between those two things is crucial.
John 17:21,26; Ephesians 3:10;1 John 3:14
By this I mean the work of taking the gospel to gospel-needy or unreached places or peoples
Another conversation is how a “church” is often defined in these contexts
By “local church” I mean a gathering of baptized believers who have devoted themselves to one another around the gospel proclaimed in Word, displayed in the sacraments, and lived out in discipline both formative and corrective
In many cases the leaders are appointed using the qualifications for an elder found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1
Two possible reasons this has not been done, in our era at least, is because of the fear that it will stifle rapid multiplication and lead to a church that is too dependent on foreign leaders. However, we must not allow fear of what could be, cause us to stray from what is faithful.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
1 Thessalonians 2:8-11, Acts 14:21-28; Acts 18:1-11,18; Acts 20:18
The quest for independent, purely indigenous churches, while a well-intentioned corrective to the paternalism often seen in missions history, has certainly extra-biblical and in some sense idolatrous. Language should really be the only homogenizing factor in the life of a church.
I would argue that the old, all-too-common attitude among missionaries which says “I’m a member of my sending church” grossly misunderstands what a church is and what a church does