Celebrating the Role of "Sender" in World Missions

Regarding the Christian's options for missions involvement, John Piper once famously offered three: "Go. Send. Or disobey"(from his sermon, “Let the Nations Be Glad,” preached June 15, 2000). In one sense, we are all sent. Jesus has given the Great Commission to all Christians. We are all to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). But regarding world missions, and to Piper’s point, we should recognize that there are some that God calls to cross-cultural ministry and there are those who co-labor behind them. Paul explains this relationship to the church in Rome: "And how are they to preach unless they are sent?"(Rom. 10:15, ESV) Go or send. Those are our options for world missions involvement.

However, there seems to be a massive difference in the way that these two roles are viewed. Those who go, the missionaries, are viewed as nothing short of heroes. They are celebrated. They are given much attention. No doubt, they are important. Again, from Paul: "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"(Rom. 10:14, ESV) The world is in need of men and women who will cross cultural and political borders to share the gospel. But it seems the role of sender does not always receive the celebration it is due, and thus, the one who stays home praying for and giving to missions might feel as if he or she isn't accomplishing as much for the kingdom as those who go.

It is vital that senders see the immense value and importance of their role in getting the gospel across the street and around the world.

Paul and the Philippian Senders

You can't get very far into Paul's letter to the church at Philippi without realizing that this is a special church to Paul. Notice his opening statement:

3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:3-8, ESV)

Paul is thankful when he thinks of the Philippian believers (v. 3), joyfully prays for them (v. 4), treasures them (v. 7), and longs for them "with the affection of Christ Jesus"(v. 8), an “affection,” we should never forget, that led Jesus to lay down his life for his people. Clearly there is a deep connection between Paul and this church.

A Missions Partnership

But notice this gratefulness and joy that Paul experiences is due to their "partnership in the gospel"(v. 5). In partnering with Paul, the church gave financially (4:15), sent help (2:25-30), and prayed for him (1:19). The word Paul uses that is translated as "partnership" here is the Greek word koinonia. It can mean "fellowship," "community," "joint participation," and even "intimacy." It is the same word that is commonly used to describe the close fellowship of the local church. In other words, the closeness of relationships that are experienced in the local church can and should be experienced with missionaries abroad. Koinonia isn't limited by geographical location; it stretches across oceans and continents.

And this close "partnership" between Paul and the church wrought incredible fruit in the missionary's life. The main theme of Philippians is often considered to be joy, a staggering truth considering Paul penned this letter while sitting in a Roman jail cell. Because of their partnership, the close fellowship of the senders of Philippi with their missionary, Paul could have joy in the thick of suffering.

I can speak from personal experience of the encouragement that can be found from such relationships. Though I haven’t found myself in a jail cell, there have been many days that I have experienced discouragement due to a variety of other reasons. Frustration with government offices, paperwork problems, cultural issues, language inadequacy, trying to raise children in a foreign culture, and handling difficult people both outside and inside our church have all been challenges in our life and ministry. So many times when I am going through one of these difficult seasons, I receive a letter in the mail, or an email, or maybe a Facebook message. They often come from our supporters back home with simple messages such as, "Thinking about you today" or "Praying for you" and "Keep up the good work." I cannot explain the encouragement that a simple note brings to a weary missionary. Despite feeling the overwhelming weight of cross-cultural ministry challenges, senders can breathe new life into a worn-out missionary's heart.

A Shared Grace

Paul also explains that his affections for the Philippians believers are appropriate because they are truly "partakers with [Paul] of grace" (v. 7). Not only do they share in the grace of salvation that is found the gospel, they also share in the grace of Paul's "imprisonment and defense and confirmation of the gospel,"that is, Paul's missionary ministry. Paul is saying here that God had entrusted the very same assignment to both the missionary and the senders as a shared grace. Together, the sender and the sent work to see the gospel move forward to every nation.

Our roles might be different — some send while others go — but our task is the same: make disciples of every nation. Never think that just because you stay back while others go that you are less important or less meaningful in the cause of world missions. You simply have a different role, but it is a vital one. Those that go depend on you.

Are you a sender? Have you seen the importance of this role and taken up the privilege and responsibility to partner with those bringing the gospel to the world?