Should Missionaries Join a Local Church?

Leon Blosser, one of the founders of our church, Evangelical Christian Church of Dubai (ECCD), began evangelistic work in 1964 among Bedouin desert tribes in the Trucial States, later the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Blosser recalled the flight with his family from Baghdad to the city of Sharjah. Gulf Arabs from the ruling families got on the plane, “each one with a falcon on his wrist, with a leather sleeve.”

Blosser was a consummate missionary. He knew five of the seven sheikhs (rulers) of the Emirates. His Arabic was so good that he was often mistaken for a Palestinian. He wrote the orientation training manual for new missionaries coming onto the field.

To Blosser, being a missionary also meant being a churchman. He was critical of missionaries who remained aloof from the local church. In an address in 1974 called “The Missionary and Churches Abroad,” he questioned missionaries who “continue to exercise the privilege of oversight and guidance, while exempting themselves from membership because they could not become members of a ‘local church.’”

Almost fifty years later, Blosser’s words still ring true. One missionary wanted to join ECCD, but her mission agency forbade it. Some missionaries have attended church but have remained on the margins, refusing to join and associating mainly with other missionaries. On the other hand, others have deeply invested in the local church and have borne much fruit as a result. So why are some missionaries hesitant to join a church where they are?

Five Reservations About Joining

Sadly, many missionaries who are hesitant to join a church were not exposed to a healthy one before they left for the mission field. As Blosser observed, “We’ve been treating symptoms on the field which have roots in a disease at home.”

Here are five reasons why missionaries shy away from the church overseas. (I’m contemplating situations where there is already an existing Christian congregation.)

  • “The church will just slow me down.” Some missionaries fear being sucked into the vortex of unending committee meetings and the pastoral demands of expatriates who are not their target audience.
  • “I’d rather keep a low profile for security reasons.” Some in Muslim contexts, for example, fear being marginalized or endangered by identifying with churches.
  • “My sending agency (or my team) is my church.” Some believe spiritual accountability happens best in small clusters of people who go out in common cause for the gospel, regardless of biblical elder qualification, church order, ordinances, or discipline.
  • “I don’t want to taint the local people with Western church culture.” When a national believes the gospel, there is a concern that he will be misshaped by foreign (expat) church practices, compromising a more relatable, indigenous expression of Christian worship.
  • “There are no healthy church options here.” When the word is not rightly preached, or the ordinances are not rightly administered, those are serious obstacles to membership. (But there is a difference between a weak church, which can be reformed, and a false one.)

“Many missionaries who are hesitant to join a church were not exposed to a healthy one before they left.”

These concerns are understandable. It’s true that church life can be messy and time-consuming. We do risk backlash for identifying with God’s people (see Hebrews 10:34), and wisdom is required to navigate security concerns, especially when local believers may be endangered by foreign presence. It is easier to associate with those who are just like us (on the same team). There may be cultural elements in our churches that are foreign to the host culture. And unhealthy churches may at times feel like a drag on one’s ministry.

Four Bigger Reasons to Join

As real as the hurdles and challenges may be, I agree with the Southgate Fellowship Affirmations and Denials Concerning World Mission:

We affirm that missionaries should seek vital connection with a visible church in their mission context.
We deny that missionaries should deem it unnecessary to join with other believers in membership in a visible church.

There are at least four good reasons for why missionaries should not only attend overseas churches but also join them.

1. Missionaries Are Christians

Missionaries need God’s appointed means of grace like everybody else — for their own spiritual growth and for their marriages and families. They too need pastoral oversight, accountability and discipline, sound teaching, and the Lord’s Supper, through which the risen Christ grants perseverance and staying power in ministry. They can’t get that from their home church across the ocean.

During eighteen years in the UAE, I have noticed a trend: the most fruitful missionaries are the ones committed to a local church here, whether English- or Arabic-speaking. Those who remain apart from the church tend to leave sooner or spin their wheels without making a lasting impact evangelistically.

“I have noticed a trend: the most fruitful missionaries are the ones committed to a local church.”

The World Evangelical Alliance tried to identify why so many missionaries were returning home too early. The two-part study, “Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Good Practice in Missionary Retention” (1997, 2006), concluded that a “lack of pastoral care” was one of the leading factors in ministry attrition. True pastoral care is best expressed in meaningful local church membership on the field. Drawing on years of experience in Central Asia, Scott Logsdon observed, “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” (“Why Is It Essential for Missionaries to Join a Church Where They Live?”).

2. Missionaries Model Love for the Church

For the sake of the people they’re trying to reach, missionaries should show a commitment to and an affection for their local church. After all, the church is Jesus’s discipleship program, where new believers learn to observe all that Jesus commanded through means of grace like the following:

  • regular assembly (Hebrews 10:24–25)
  • pastors and teachers equipping the saints (Ephesians 4:12)
  • observing the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23–33)
  • submitting to leaders (Hebrews 13:17)
  • addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)
  • mutual exhortation (Hebrews 3:13)
  • fellowship (Acts 2:42)

How will new converts establish churches of their own if they cannot watch missionaries engage with the local body of Christ?

3. Missionaries Multiply Through the Church

Missionaries multiply themselves, and not just as a plus-one addition to the missions enterprise, but rather as a force multiplier. They enlarge the evangelistic footprint by joining the church, committing to the body of Christ, and influencing others for good. During my time in Dubai, I’ve already seen lots of missionaries come and go. Sometimes I say to missionaries, “In ten years you might be gone. Your missions team might be disbanded. But if you’ve been a fruitful member of a local congregation, then you will leave behind a brighter light than was there before you came.”

Youssef and Reem (not their real names) are faithful Egyptian members of our church in Dubai. They aren’t missionaries but are growing Christians who love Jesus and are zealous for evangelism. We gather regularly, sit under the same teaching, take the Lord’s Supper together, and encourage one another. A while back, they were sharing the gospel — in Arabic — with Syrian and Palestinian Muslims in their apartment building. They continue to do this type of ministry in Arabic and will still be doing it long after I’m gone.

4. Missionaries Strengthen Churches

Unhealthy churches are powerful anti-missionary forces. They smear Christ’s reputation, making everybody’s job harder in evangelism. Isn’t that a reason to invest time and energy into strengthening the body of Christ that’s already there on the mission field?

After years of pioneering ministry in Arabia, Samuel Zwemer (1867–1952) explained why he thought Muslims were so hard to reach. His main reason? Weak churches.

From the very beginning the examples of Christ’s way of life that they had before them were so repellent as to widen the breach rather than to bridge it. . . . Christ’s way of life in Muslim lands has never won multitudes because it has never been lived among them on a noble scale over a considerable period of time. (Islam and the Cross, 56)

In other words, bad churches malign the gospel we proclaim. In Zwemer’s experience, local churches were too often marked by lives that were inconsistent with their profession of faith. Instead of shining cities on a hill, too many churches were immature and worldly, projecting a confusing, even “repellent” vision of the Christian life.

What About the Sending Church?

The greatest work of the sending church happens before the missionary goes. As Andy Johnson, a pastor in Central Asia, put it, “Churches are where faithful missionaries are made” (Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global, 46). It is in the local church that character, fruitfulness, and Bible knowledge are properly assessed. No missions-application process can ever substitute for a missionary candidate’s proven involvement in the life of a local church. Therefore, it’s vital for missionaries to be members — before they go.

Thereafter, membership should follow the missionary. It’s not about a sentimental attachment to the church “back home.” Membership is a mutual promise (a covenant) between a local church and a real Christian. The New Testament’s “one another” commands require physical proximity to obey. If they are not in the same assembly, how can Christians “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17) and “not neglect to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25)?

None of this means that missionaries should sever their relationships with their home church. Those relationships remain intact, although they change when the missionary is sent out. Paul and Barnabas were released by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:3), but they regularly returned there and reestablished ministry relationships (Acts 14:27). Sending churches (and missions agencies) still have important roles to play, but biblical membership and accountability happen where the missionary lives.

Not all kinds of authority are the same. To generalize, the division of responsibility looks like this:

Sending churches affirm, send, and hold accountable the missionary in the task.
Local churches affirm and hold accountable the missionary in his walk and faith.

The local church is the final earthly court of appeal in matters of discipline and doctrine, exercising the exclusive responsibility of affirming or denying the validity of one’s profession of faith. Such binding-and-loosing authority (Matthew 18:18) makes sense only where the missionary actually lives. One cannot be in covenant with a church on another continent.

Sending churches should remain committed, supportive, and involved in the missionary’s ministry, without calling him or her a member. All of this shows the delicacy of the relationships involved (not to mention those with the sending agency). The missions enterprise can’t be carried out independently. The work is cooperative and interdependent. As the Southgate Fellowship put it, “We affirm that a visible church which sends a missionary, and the visible church which a missionary plants or ministers in, share a vital and mutually important relationship.”

What If There Is No Church?

Of course, in some places there is no church yet. There, we must do what we can. In some cases, a small team may need to covenant together, recognize elders, and commit to gathering, preaching, and administering the gospel ordinances, even as they continue laboring among the indigenous people. In the absence of any other church, some missionaries in Arabia have faithfully formed their own congregations for Christian community. But they did not just declare themselves a church; they intentionally adopted biblical church structure, purpose, and activity.

My focus here is on the global cities today where there are churches. People can do something as dramatic as cross an ocean, move to a foreign land, obtain a residence visa — and then forsake the local church already meeting there. There is a breed of missionary that sees the church as (at best) incidental or (at worst) an actual hindrance to the gospel. That’s shortsighted.

For missionaries, according to Blosser, “The New Testament pattern is clear: membership in a local expression of the body of Christ is not optional.” We should join a church not merely to feel blessed, or to get our batteries recharged, or because we get something out of it. Ultimately, we should join a church because of our allegiance to Christ and his body. Missionaries cannot say to non-missionaries, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, missionary and non-missionary — we all need each other.

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