Some friends of mine are getting ready to head to the mission field in South America. When asked what they will be doing there, the answer was pastoring a small church and discipling the believers while doing evangelism.
Here is what I wrote to this young couple:
You guys are supposed to be doing much more than pastoring and evangelizing in a remote village!
Do you really think the purpose of God is for Americans to go to Latin America and become pastors and evangelize? No. The pastoring should be done by the people of that region, and so also the on-going evangelism. Our work should always be to build the church among the nationals, and not to import American pastors and leaders. Build the church there!
I hope that you will become more involved in the work of building the church throughout that region – developing and establishing leaders from among the people of country where God has sent you – and then working toward seeing it duplicated it throughout Latin America.
Work toward building the church in such a way that you are out of a job there!
After I wrote this I became a bit nervous, second guessing myself and wondering if I had come on too strong. So I just decided to review the pattern of Paul’s ministry during his missionary journeys.
The First Missionary Journey
Observe that at this initial stage, even during the first journey, Paul worked to establish churches with local leadership in those places where he had made a few converts – immediately.
The goal was to establish the people so they could “continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43). It was only a few weeks after he preached in three cities of Asia (Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch) that Paul returned to confirm the souls of the disciples (Acts 14:21-22). He was not establishing himself as the pastor in that region; rather, he was making disciples of Jesus – and ultimately entrusting them to God to be built by Him through experience (Acts 14:22).
Indeed, even during the first journey Paul already “appointed for them elders in every church!” (Acts 14:23). Note also that they did not require an extensive six months of training in catechism. He did not send them back to a seminary in Jerusalem before they could begin to lead.
So for our work in missions today, it must be all about recognizing and quickly establishing connection with people who God has obviously marked as qualified functioning leaders. It is not about years of education in American seminaries, or even sending new leaders to an Americanized six-month Bible school – though that could be a good idea – but it is not what happened in Paul’s ministry.
The Second Missionary Journey
Then after this first missionary journey, Paul returned to those regions (Acts 15:36), not to establish himself there, but to see to it that those people could stand on their own. He was not seeking to establish the parent organization, or to make the people dependent on help from Jerusalem or Antioch, but to put them in real connection with God and to establish them in the faith – with local leaders, and that very quickly – confirming the churches in the faith (Acts 15:41).
Confirming means to establish them, and to help them to stand through prayer and relationship and teaching them. Notice also that it is churches that he is confirming – churches with indigenous leadership from among the new believers!
This was the practice for those who had newly come to faith, for those who had come to embrace the good news. Paul did not settle down with them to confirm them, but instead he would recognize and establish leaders from among them. They did not import leaders from the outside. Local believers were immediately thrust into the experience of leading, and then Paul would return to visit them periodically.
From among the “nationals” in Derbe, Paul recognized Timothy as a quality emerging leader, and took him under his wing as a helper (Acts 16:1-3).
As Paul moved through the areas in which he had previously ministered, the churches were there already, with pastors and living communities of faith, growing in number without the presence of Paul (Acts 16:5).
Then Paul ventured into new territory (Acts 16:6-10) with a company of helpers. These were not trained theologians from Jerusalem, but new disciples who joined Paul from the regions where he had previously ministered. It was this group of “national workers” who concluded “that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10). It is national leaders and workers who are being immediately raised up to do the work! This team of indigenous workers came to Philippi and “stayed certain days” (Acts 16:12).
After laboring in a new region, when it was the right time, or out of constraint of persecution, Paul “departed” (Acts 16:40). We notice immediately that there is a strong group of believers confidently left behind!
. . . They met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left. (Acts 16:40)
Did he leave them “high and dry?” Not at all. Paul did not abandon these people in the city of Philippi – but apparently some of his traveling companions stayed behind to help them for a while. Nevertheless, the goal always remained the same, to establish the people of the region in the faith so that they could stand on their own, in their own real connection with Jesus.
Paul then came to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9) but he could not stay long. Shortly after he had come to this place Paul was forced to leave. Yet there was a church immediately established in that location, within only a few weeks’ time!
The apostle moved on to Athens, but sent word back that his fellow-workers should come and join him “as soon as possible” (Acts 17:15). The church in those locations is left to function on its own, under the care of the Holy Spirit! The pattern continues: local leadership is recognized and installed immediately. Within only a few months a church with local leadership was rapidly established in Philippi and in Thessalonica.
At Corinth again he desired to identify and establish local leaders – not to set himself up as the man in charge. Indigenous leadership was always his priority. In Corinth a work was initiated in cooperation with new residents of that city, Aquila and Priscilla! (Acts 18:1-3).
Jesus, appearing to Paul in the night by a vision, made it clear that He had many people in that city (Acts 18:9-10). The people belong to Jesus! Paul trusts that Jesus will take care of these new believers (1 Cor. 1:7-9).
Now here we recognize an example of Paul staying for an extended time in a particular location, but as he later writes to them, it was not to be the pastor or plant himself as the top dog here (1 Cor. 3:5-7), but rather to establish them. It was Paul’s hope that Corinth would become a jumping-off point from which to be sent forward to new fields (1 Cor. 16:6). But even the year and a half that he remained in Corinth is quite brief by modern standards when it comes to the time usually required to set up a church.
Paul left Corinth and went to Ephesus, accompanied by his new local friends, Aquila and Priscilla. Paul began to teach in the synagogue, as was his custom. We read: “When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined” (Acts 18:20). Paul departed from Ephesus and these “national workers” were entrusted with beginning the new work in that major metropolis as Paul went forward on his journey to Jerusalem. Paul trusted the Lord to use national workers!
Third Missionary Journey
After “some time” Paul went on a circuit through places he had been before, again for the purpose of “establishing all the disciples” (Acts 18:23). He returned to the places God had been working and building the church with local leaders – places where Paul had not been for many months. The Holy Spirit had managed to keep those churches growing apart from the on-going presence of Paul.
Meanwhile, in Ephesus, a young believer named Apollos was being used of the Lord. This indigenous worker was identified and then given some training – “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). Then without delay, this “youngster” was sent to minister in the Church of Achaia – that is Corinth (Acts 18:27-28).
Here we observe indigenous workers recognizing the leadership qualities of another indigenous worker, providing local training and sending him to serve in another location. They are doing this on their own, with no input from headquarters! What we are seeing is a pattern of rapid and immediate development of indigenous leaders.
The leaders who are “already doing it” are recognized and quickly on-boarded into the work of leading the churches in those regions. There is no pattern of sending them away to some other country, to the headquarters, to be trained and educated before they can begin to be used of God to lead. This is all taking place without the presence of Paul!
Finally Paul shows up and joins the work in progress in the major metropolis of Ephesus. He stayed for two whole years! This is quite different from those who labor in a village in some remote location for 15 or 20 years. Paul is here for what is considered a long time. Paul spent two years among the Gentiles, doing his teaching in “the school of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:8-9). But this city is to become a major center of Gospel outreach for the region and through this labor, people from all over the province of Asia heard the Word (Acts 19:10).
We gather that somehow from this setting, as Paul was teaching there, local people were used of God to take the gospel to places like Colossae, and Thyatira, and Pergamos and other cities of the region. Local people were planting and establishing churches with local leadership being identified and put in place!
Such a harvest resulted that the accusation raised that Paul “led astray large numbers of people . . . in practically the whole province of Asia” (Acts 19:26). The growth was so explosive that the craftsmen in the region who profited from manufacturing idols felt threatened by the loss of business (Acts 19:23-41).
After only two years Paul moved to a different location, placing the churches there in the hands of qualified local leadership under the care of Jesus who was building the church. Paul had confidence that God would enable the local people to be guided by the Holy Spirit in leading the new church in that location.
So Paul, “when he had exhorted them and taken his leave of them, left to go to Macedonia” (Acts 20:1). But even in this new mission, we see the involvement of local leaders who had been recognized from among the indigenous peoples – Timothy and Erastus, who went as an advance team (Acts 19:22).
Paul then traveled through Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and perhaps other locations) giving the churches there “much exhortation” and after this he “he came into Greece” (Acts 20:2). Note the impressive cadre of indigenous workers now with Paul (Acts 20:4) – from Berea, from Thessalonica, from Derbe, and from elsewhere in the province of Asia. Paul’s work has been to actively recognize and build leaders who could take up the labor of ministry!
It is also intriguing to observe that these leaders are now traveling with Paul! Hmmm. That raises the question – who is leading the church in those locations? Apparently these “nationals” had been busily engaged in recognizing and building leaders so they could move on to new missions in the kingdom of God! There were leaders being developed and multiplied in all of these locations.
Every place to which Paul had traveled there were left in his wake many churches with a strong group of quality leaders. Paul had been building leaders in all of his work of building the church. Next he will meet a church in Troas where he is preaching till midnight! These are indigenous people, nationals if you please! How did this church become established here?
Then as he travels on to Jerusalem he is able to stop at Miletus and call for a gathering of leaders to come and be encouraged in the Lord (Acts 20:17). Paul was speaking to local indigenous leaders, “nationals,” who had been given the responsibility to lead the local churches in those regions.
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with his own blood.
Now I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:28, 32)
The work of God was immediately put in the hands of local leadership, those that had been recognized and then set in place under the guidance and care of the Holy Spirit as the “missionaries” moved on to new locations. This is the way to do missions – build local indigenous leaders immediately and get out of the way!