by David Zac Niringiye
I am constantly intrigued and challenged whenever I look at the logic and strategy of the young missionary church in the book of Acts, as it sought to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
I am constantly intrigued and challenged whenever I look at the logic and strategy of the young missionary church in the book of Acts, as it sought to "make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19). Considering that the early church did not enjoy the numerical strength we have, nor the technological advances we take for granted, one cannot but wonder how this small band of disciples made such a tremendous impact on their world. What was their secret? What can we learn from their strategy?
I first grappled seriously with technical issues in missions when I was studying at Wheaton College Graduate School, 1985-87. The missions program did not provoke my struggle, because I was not in that program. Rather, my concern grew out of the questions I was often asked, especially at church missions conferences. How did you come to Christ? people asked me. Was it through missionary effort? Do you still have missionaries in your country?. Is the church in your country being persecuted? Is your government communist? Do you still need missionaries? Do your people still live in jungles?
It disturbed me that me and my fellow students from overseas were often paraded as "fruit of our missionary efforts." It made me feel as though our churches in Africa had never done anything in missions. So, I had to grapple with my own role, the role of the churches in Africa generally, and in Uganda in particular.
I turned to the Bible with many questions. Who qualifies to be a missionary? What is the mission field and where is it? What role does a "young" church like ours in Uganda have in accomplishing the missionary task of the universal church?
Naturally, I focused on the book of Acts. The more I read, the more I was struck by the variance that exists between our strategies today and those of the early church. In this article I want to look closely at the missionary zeal of the Jerusalem church in planting churches, and the characteristics of the "daughter" missionary church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3).
FROM JERUSALEM TO ANTIOCH
The first gospel witness to Antioch was incidental. Those who had been scattered by the persecution in Jerusalem in connection with Stephen went about gossiping the good news, so to speak, but only to the Jews. But believers from Cyprus and Cyrene decided that if Jesus was such good news to the Jews, he must also be good news to the Greeks as well. The result was a great number of Greek and Jewish converts, but the missionary outreach of the Jerusalem church was not an organized effort.
The first organized missionary outreach of the Jerusalem church was the sending of Barnabas. He was the first Jerusalem missionary to Antioch. They sent him to see first-hand what was happening there.
When Barnabas saw the evidence of God’s grace, he started to disciple the young converts. He also evangelized, because as a result of his witness "a great number of people turned to the Lord." While discipling and evangelizing, Barnabas planted a church. The work became too much for him and he sought Paul to come and help him.
The sequence is important. First, the faithful witness of the Jerusalem Christians wherever they went. This should be true of all who know and love Christ. Second, the missionary concern of the Jerusalem church, a concern that moved them to actionâ€”the sending of Barnabas. Unlike some of today’s missionaries who decide in advance what programs and ministries to take to the field, Barnabas first took time to examine the needs in Antioch.
Third, once Barnabas found many converts, he knew they had to be discipled. It was not enough to leave them as raw converts. After he taught and made disciples, the church was started and the people were called Christians. The missionary objective in all cases should be to make disciples. With the sending of Barnabas, Jerusalem planted the Gentile church in Antioch.
Once a church has planted, the next crucial step is leadership. I am sure that while Barnabas and Paul were teaching, they identified key people who together with them would lead the church. They are named in Acts 13:1. Although Barnabas and Paul were the missionaries, they are cited as belonging to the church in Antioch. Antioch was their home church.
This is quite different than what we see today. Barnabas and Paul did not step aside to let the "nationals" lead "their" church. As part of a team of elders they were mutually accountable to one another. The Antiochians no longer viewed Barnabas as "the missionary," but rather as one of them, leading them with others in a team. Their relationship is a rebuke to the "we-them" dichotomy that often exists between nationals and missionaries.
Incidentally, about that term we are called in the United Statesâ€”"nationals." One day I asked a key church leader in the U.S. if he called Americans in America "nationals." "No," he said, "the nationals are those others on the mission field." When I asked him if he saw America as a mission field, he said No. I was stunned.
FROM ANTIOCH TO JERUSALEM
Could Jerusalem ever be a mission field? Would the church there ever receive missionary help? We are tempted to say No, because, after all, Jerusalem was the mother church. But in Acts 11:27-30 we see a different story.
Jerusalem was in need, not for teachers and disciplers, but for food. The Christians in Antioch sent relief to their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. The "daughter" church came to the aid of the "mother" church. Although a new church, Antioch had a missionary responsibility to Jerusalem. These two churches needed each other. At that time, Jerusalem needed Antioch’s food; earlier, Antioch had needed Jerusalem’s experienced, trained leaders. Such partnership is radically different from the normally accepted pattern today. We are told that the churches in great need today are the younger churches of Africa. They need missionary attention. What can the young churches of Africa do for the older churches in the West? Nothing, it seems, because all the Africans can do is receive help from the mother church. The unfounded premise is that there are no needs in Western churches that can be by African churches.
The truth, however, is that there is a spiritual famine in the West. There is staleness, complacency, and hypocrisy in many churches in the West. Many churches in Europe have closed down. By way of contrast, there is life, growth, vibrancy, and joy in many African churches. It is time for these churches to share their resources with Western churches. Just as much as Jerusalem needed Antioch, the churches in the West need the African churches.
True missionary relationship between two churches means sharing resources. Each church must identify its needs and resources and share them. Unfortunately, very often some resources are thought to be more important than others. It is often assumed that the church with greater financial resources has all the resources. Once you have transferable currency, you have all you need.
Partnership discussions between the younger and the Western churches often never come to anything because the younger churches have no money. Partnership becomes a one-way street. There is more discussion about helping younger churches to become independent (like the mother churches) than there is about how the younger and older churches can become interdependent. As the daughter Antioch church grew, it changed roles. It became a sister church to Jerusalem. These two sisters needed each other.
FROM ANTIOCH TO THE WORLD
Was the task of evangelism and planting churches only for Jerusalem? No. Once Antioch had disciples and leadership, the church there moved out to reach the needy world (Acts 13:1-3).
The church in Antioch was characterized as a worshiping community. The secret of its worship lay in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In such worship, God speaks. The Holy Spirit identified Barnabas and Paul for a new work.
Several important facts stand out in this account: (1) The message was to the church. (2) The message was about individual members. (3) After hearing the message, the church prayed more. (4) The church sent Barnabas and Paul. (5) Barnabas and Paul were two of their elders. They were two of the most crucial leaders. (6) Barnabas and Paul agreed to go. Their decision to go is not explicitly recorded, but it is clearly implied.
The young church in Antioch knew that it had to respond to the missionary mandate. What a joy to see in our generation the so-called "emerging," or "Third World" missions from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But we need to ask why it has taken decades for these young churches to discover their missionary task.
It is very disheartening to hear of unreached peoples in Kenya, for example, when the church there is 100 years old. Or, of unreached peoples in neighboring Sudan, when we’ve had churches in Uganda for more than a century. Many of these "young" churches see themselves as receivers and not as senders. Their receiving mentality is, of course, heightened by the constant message that the Western churches are the sending churches.
We must correct this false impression. The sending church is a receiving church, and the receiving church must send. Only then can we talk about a living church like the one at Antioch.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the decline of the churches in Europe is that they have always been sending, and not receiving. Now, they have no more to send. On the other hand, from the African standpoint, receiving also stifles growth. This may account for the lack of quality leaders in our churches.
At Antioch, the call to Paul and Barnabas came through the church. The church sent them. Sending missionaries is a call to the church and to the individual.
Too often today an individual feels called and then he or she seeks out a mission agency. Once the person is accepted, the next step is gaining financial support from the churches. Where does the church fit into the decisions about who is sent and where they go?
Our failure to follow the biblical pattern in too many cases is revealed in the lack of discipleship and training among missionaries sent to the field. The missionary comes to us, feeling that he or she would like to do evangelism and church planting in a different culture. But in some cases they have never done evangelism and discipleship in their own neighborhoods and churches.
Why did the Holy Spirit pick on Barnabas and Paul, and not on some younger, less strategic people in the church at Antioch? Because they were proven leaders, the best choice for the mission field. What I see today is quite different. Young college and seminary students are challenged to go from America, not experienced pastors and elders. We need more proven leaders on the mission field. Unfortunately, I have met many missionaries who need more learning and experience.
LET US LEARN FROM THE YOUNG CHURCH IN ACTS
God is moving in his world to redeem rescue people from the pangs of sin. The church is his instrument. He has given the church all the blessings and resources it needs to accomplish the task.
The 20th century church in the West, Africa, Asia, and Latin America needs to identify the resources and the needs, and then together as one church strive together for the proclamation of the gospel. We need to reexamine our strategies and with much prayer and fasting in the power of the Holy Spirit proclaim the good news to a needy world.
To do so will require the whole church with all its resources. Scripture must remain our only authority. Perhaps we have lost the spirit and vision of the early church and replaced it with sophisticated cross-cultural techniques.
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