Should Missions ONLY Be Done Through the Local Church?

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

So, we get this email (immediately below) asking a question revealing a commonly misconstrued position of Propempo. The subject is one we field with some regularity. So we thought it might be good to post the exchange as a blog post. What do you think? Register for a User account on so you can post your comments. 🙂

[a few details have been edited for security]


On 8/11/15 6:53 PM, Mr. DR wrote:

Hi David,

First – thanks for your leadership in missions. I can see you have a great heart and passion for it.

I wanted to ask if you could give me (in a paragraph or two) the Biblical or theological case for why missions should only be done through a local church?  This (to me) is a very narrow view of missions and honestly the only time I have been exposed to in my church background(s). It rules out (of God’s plan) a pretty large percent of the missionaries that are on the field today, and many organizations doing many works.

I know you mentioned this … one night, but we never really finished the conversation. It’s hard for me to be excited about a  church that seems to split hairs (in my opinion) over what seems like preferences – when it seems there are so many great avenues for missionaries to be supported. We support a number of people through other organizations ourselves.

I am just being honest, and figured that maybe I’d take a new approach and just ask!




Dear DR,

I’m glad you followed up and asked about this. I’m wondering if it might be better to have a lunch over it. Nevertheless, let me try to answer your concerns succinctly here, if not thoroughly or as completely as might be.

First, it absolutely OK for individuals to support missions outside and beyond the local church. We do; you all do; I expect most all long-time Christians to have friends and connections in missions outside of their local church’s support relationships.

I wouldn’t say that “missions should only be done through a local church.”  Ralph Winter makes a good case in an article included in the Perspectives book that argues that entrepreneurial missions pioneers are always going to arise outside of the initiative of the local church. That does not disqualify them from doing and guiding important and significant ministry in line with the Great Commission mandate. I agree with the point that non-local-church-based missions ministries will and should arise to fill gaps in local churches’ vision, expertise, or capacity. The flip side of Winter’s argument, however, is that the local church is still the basic corporate unit recipient and owner of the Great Commission.

I don’t view the local church as the total or sole source and means of missions. Still, it’s obvious (to me, anyway) that the Great Commission cannot be fulfilled without planting churches as the end result.  You can’t have the “teaching” and “obeying all that I’ve commanded” without a mutually committed body of believers in a particular locale worshiping and fulfilling the one-another commands of Scripture. The local church is the natural engine for producing, screening, preparing, and shepherding missionaries. And that doesn’t mean releasing responsibility for them to a mission agency when they leave for the field. Evangelism and discipleship without a connection to the local church is definitely not the New Testament norm.

So, risking thin ice here, we are both familiar with our beloved friends at Op*n Mob*n. I praise God that, as O*M* has matured both in age and experience, it has become more and more apparent to the leadership that local church planting in their fields of ministry should be at least a part of their overall goals. it doesn’t make good common sense to do guerrilla evangelism forays and leave new believers to the wolves as the ship sails out of port, hypothetically ;-). The witness and ministry which carries on spiritual development is the presence of a good local church.

If the end is a local church, as I believe is supported and modeled by all of Acts and the epistles, then the danger is viewing the means as the end in itself. Putting it into the context of this example:  bookstores, marketplace book tables, book-selling, drama, skits, music, literature, tract distribution, support of national evangelists, sports camps, youth camps, etc. are all legitimate means. But the means are not the ends.

Here is a segment of some training for church and mission agency leaders given last September. The first 1min12sec of the video is explaining biblical insight from Ephesians 3:10-11, 20-21 showing that it was always God’s plan to make the local church the center of His plan for world evangelism/missions.

In an ideal world, local churches all over the place would step up to their God-given biblical mandate and take their rightful role in involvement in missions. NOTE!: I still don’t think that local churches should replace good sending agencies! Agencies play an important and, often, irreplaceable role. Yet, most churches don’t step up and do that; most of them don’t even know that they should. So, we find a lot of good mission agencies filling in. I have never met or seen a US-based missionary sending agency that didn’t have a statement in their founding documents stating that they were organized to “help,” “come alongside,” “serve,” “assist,” the local church in …….. whatever is their designed specialty or focus of ministry.

Is it a mistake that agencies would have such a statement in their Bylaws or Articles of Incorporation? I don’t think so. I think it is biblically consistent. Is that little founding phrase sometimes lost in the myriad details of history, administration, “vision-casting,” etc. Yes. Part proof of the verity of what I’ve just stated here is that you are asking these questions. No one, missions agency or local church, has taken the time to help you see this biblically and practically.

And that is one of the reasons Propempo exists. We help BOTH churches and agencies figure out the proper role of the local church and of the agency. I am super-thankful that God has allowed me to help found a number of missions agencies (non-profit, 501(c)(3) orgs.).  I am super-thankful that God has allowed me to have some influence in some great missionary sending organizations to help them give better respect and role of local churches in their processes, both pre- and on the field; e.g. – Pio*, A* W* M*, Fro*, W* T*, O*M*F*. I’m not against mission agencies! I’m for them!

Hey, my “one paragraph” turned into a dissertation.  I’d love to have lunch with you and bat this around some more. Hope you get to see the video clip and the articles from “HERE to THERE” below.

David, Propempo

	from the HERE to THERE book (click on this link to buy the whole book)

============================= from Chapter 3


Sharpen your skills for the field through practical experience in ministry.

In the remake of The Karate Kid, Dre Parker (played by Jaden Smith) finds himself in China with no friends in a strange land. He becomes the bullying object of a group of teen karate students. Dre discovers that the maintenance man, Mr. Han (played by Jackie Chan), is secretly a Kung Fu master, and persuades Mr. Han to train him. The early days of training prove exasperating, as Mr. Han’s instruction calls for seemingly irrelevant repetition of activities unrelated to karate.

Dre allows himself to believe that Mr. Han isn’t really capable of training him in martial arts, and complains. Mr. Han patiently pushes Dre to see that the very repetitive motions required of him are the basic moves he needs to defend himself with karate. Suddenly the training makes sense. The menial repetitive motions have equipped him for his journey toward becoming a gifted young karate champion.

Much as Dre needed training, arguably the most essential step toward the mission field is developing the ministry skills in and through a local church setting that you’ll need on the field. The apostle Paul, the greatest missionary in church history, is a highly appropriate example of this truth.

1. The church at Antioch observed Paul doing significant ministry in the church at Antioch for several years before he was released to the mission field (Acts 11.25-26). In fact, Paul was “in training” for as much as twelve years between the time of his conversion and his original “call” to missions and his actual departure for missionary work.

2. Paul did not simply volunteer to go to the field. The elders set him apart through the direction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:1-3). While this incident is not typical, and while it is not wrong to volunteer for the mission field, confirmation of “the call” does not happen in a vacuum. Michael Griffiths writes, “The most that an individual can do is express his willingness. Others must determine his worthiness. The individual may be free to go, but only his church knows if he is really fitted to go.” (in Get Your Church Involved in Missions!)

Confirmation of the missionary call happens in a local church setting. If friends and leaders in your local church context don’t see missionary qualities in you first-hand, then you may not be ready to go.

The local church attests to the veracity of God’s calling as it confirms your mix of gifts, skills, training and inclination. The Bible does not authorize missionary candidates to “lay hands on” themselves.

Let this sink in! It is important for you to understand and make it practical in your spiritual values and priorities:

The local church is central to God’s plan for ministry and missions to all nations!

Here is a simple overview of biblical principles showing the centrality of the local church in understanding its priority for the task of missions.


  1. Those who received the Great Commission directly–the Apostles, their contemporaries, and their helpers–fulfilled the mandate by planting and organizing indigenous churches (see all the book of Acts!). They understood that the fruit of obedience to the Great Commission resulted in the establishment of new local churches everywhere.

  2. The Great Commission, as expressed in Matthew 28:16-20, cannot be fulfilled apart from a mutually committed group of believers meeting together for worship, teaching, and edification, under biblically recognized church leadership, and observing the ordinances given by Christ. i.e. – The natural product of completely fulfilling the Great Commission is local churches.

  3. The vast majority of New Testament epistles were addressed to local churches or leaders of local churches. This presumes the local church to be the nexus of the practice of Christian life and maturity.

  4. Jesus’ promise to build His church (Matthew 16:18) and biblical teaching regarding church discipline (see Matthew 18:15-20, and all of 1 Corinthians) is set in the context of the local church.

  5. Jesus’ messages to “the seven churches of Asia” (Rev. 2-3) speak to the significance and centrality of local churches in the perspective of Christ, some 60 years after the giving of the Great Commission.

  1. The 40+ “one another” commands of the New Testament all refer to the dynamic relationships of Christians within a local church. You can’t obey these outside of a church.

  2. The local church in Antioch is the scriptural setting through which the Holy Spirit worked to set apart the first New Testament missionaries. Clearly, in the outlook of Paul and Barnabas, the local church is intended as the initiator, the means, and the ends of Gospel missions ministry.

  3. Paul appeals to the local church of Rome to partner with him in his pioneering aspirations for the last unreached area of the Mediterranean basin, the Iberian Peninsula, “Spain” (Romans 15:18-29). The reason behind Paul’s letter to the Philippians is to thank them for their ongoing financial support and encouragement. His relationship to that local church as a partner in his missionary ministry was a source of great joy and enablement. The relationship and accountability to his first “sending” church at Antioch is a model for all missionaries.

9 With Apostolic authority from Christ, Paul charges his colleagues, Timothy and Titus, to organize local churches and appoint spiritually qualified leaders in them. His goal, apparently, was to see indigenous local churches as the fruit of his and their work.

  1. John appeals to a church leader, Gaius, to continue his church’s good work of lavishly loving and providing for the needs of Gospel workers. Indeed, this responsibility is described as the privilege and duty of the local church body, as partners in the truth with missionaries. (3 John 5-8)

  2. The local church validates and approves workers set apart for ministry. (Acts 13:1-3; 14:26-28; 16:1-3; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:22; Titus 1:5-9)

===================================== APPENDIX D

Why “church planting” is THE priority ministry in missions

When the modern missionary candidate thinks of missions around the world, he/she is drawn to consider genuine, desperate human needs. We think of many solutions to those needs that seem so accessible for us to offer to the needy world, including:

Well-drilling Water supply projects Medical clinics Prevention of human trafficking Sports evangelism Mass evangelism meetings Community development AIDS-related programs Translation of Christian books Agricultural development Internet evangelism Cottage industry development Teaching English Computer/IT training Electrical supply projects Reforestation projects Dental clinics Sports training clinics Orphan care Aquaculture Building or construction Youth ministry and camps Poverty alleviation Primary health care Expatriate services

Special skills development Carpentry

Cabinet-making Plumbing Welding Auto mechanics Peddle-taxi, motorbike taxi Embroidery

Garment making Jewelry making Weaving Carpet making Pottery

Wood carving Sculpturing Art

“Business As Mission” Business skills development NGO service Micro-loan projects VBS or Bible clubs Music ministry Disaster relief & development Adoption services

Yet the greatest human need is for the Gospel. “I was obsessed with the issues of justice and human trafficking until I came to reckon with the ultimate injustice: folks who’ve never had a chance to hear the gospel,” said a candidate at one mission agency’s recent candidate orientation.

We should rightly be appalled by the deplorable circumstances and injustices that evidence a fallen world. We are appropriately gripped by catastrophic human needs, sometimes with life and death hanging in the balance. But it’s easy to believe that those presenting symptoms must take precedence. In some cases, they must. The spiritually lost may need to be rescued from death in order to even have a chance to hear to Gospel. Still,

we can confuse “means” with “ends”; we mix up “strategies” with “results.” Our desire for holistic transformation of life and society can eclipse a clear biblical ambition for proclamation of the Gospel.

Missions strategies that do not intentionally start, sustain and multiply indigenous local churches fall short of the biblical ideal. Projects that began as an entrée into or point of contact in the community in order to share the gospel very easily became ends in themselves. Sometimes a concerned outside observer can help a missionary avoid this trap. Again, your relationship with an involved sending church can help at this point. Disciple making is the core of the Great Commission. Great Commission- driven disciple making will naturally result in local churches. The baptizing, teaching and obeying of “all I commanded you” takes place in the context of a mutually committed and worshiping body of believers. That is clearly what the first-century believers understood and did; they were the original recipients of the Great Commission. Planting churches is how they obeyed it.

Discipling whole nations (people groups) must include gathering new disciples into self-supporting, self-governing, self-propagating bodies of believers. This is critical for a number of reasons. Indigenous churches corporately portray Christ to a watching world in credible, culturally appropriate ways–something impossible for cultural outsiders to do. They demonstrate lives committed to the “one another” commands of Scripture. Local churches stay when foreign missionaries cannot. Local churches persist when persecution mounts. Local churches express the Gospel and transformational biblical truth in ways no other non-church ministry can.

The many ministries listed at this appendix’s opening are good and legitimate means to the end of establishing indigenous local churches. These strategies should ultimately build bridges, establish relationships, open opportunities, and facilitate the goal of planting churches. Indigenous local churches are the God-ordained instruments for each people group reaching and discipling its own people group.

Jesus said, “I will build My church.” Matt. 16:18 Paul wrote, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”

Eph. 5:25

Paul also writes, “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known … This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” Eph. 3:10-11

And, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Eph. 3:21


#GreatCommission #ownership #localchurch #missions #sendingagency

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