Working Together as a Global Body: How to (Re)Engage National Churches

by Matt Bennett & C.M. Watkins September 11, 2019

In July 1974, Ralph Winter gave an address at the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelisation that altered the landscape of missions. In this address, Winter called attention to the fact that nation-states are different than people groups. Thus, even if one has seen the gospel spread within a particular nation state, that does not necessarily mean that all of the people groups within its borders have access to the gospel. Language barriers, cultural differences, and historical animosities are no respecters of geographic borders. Therefore, in sensitivity to these barriers to gospel transmission existing within nation states, Winter argued that the biblical call to bring the gospel to the “nations” (ethne) is better understood as a call to engage all the world’s people groups with the gospel.

The Positive and the Painful Ramifications

As a result of Winter’s epoch-shaping address, many missions organizations shifted their priorities toward unengaged people groups. The positive effect of this shift was that missionaries paid closer attention to the marginalized people within the countries in which they worked. The negative effect, however, is that along with a shift of focus, many missions organizations also shifted their investment of resources. Personnel and finances were redirected to unreached fields, often leaving former national partners feeling a sense of abandonment. 

The Foundations Document and Re-engagement 

Since 1997, beginning with a program called New Directions, the IMB has been among those missions organizations in shifting focus toward unreached people groups. Recently, however, the IMB released a new training manual called the Foundations Document. In this manual, workers are again being encouraged to (re)engage with like-minded congregations in their midst, working with, through, and alongside national churches. This is a very encouraging development as it recognizes the both-and work of frontier missions and church partnerships. 

However, though we may be ready to re-engage churches with whom prior missionaries had relationships, we should not assume that our brothers and sisters will immediately welcome us with open arms. Whether justified or not, there are many places where local church leaders are sceptical of western missionaries’ long-term commitment to them. In light of the historical baggage that can haunt such partnerships, we offer the following three suggestions as steps that can help renewed partnerships start off on good footing.

1. Recognize the Bride with Whom You Are Partnering

First, we need to recognize that these local evangelical churches—whether big, small, or struggling to stay afloat—are every bit the bride of Christ in their communities as are the churches that sent us to their land. Put yourself in the shoes of a local pastor who finds out that a foreigner has been living under the shadow of his church’s steeple, sharing the gospel and making disciples for years. If that missionary has never introduced himself or herself to the Christian community in their neighborhood, what conclusion are the local believers to draw concerning the missionary’s estimation of spiritual state? 

A lack of engagement with local churches communicates a lack of confidence in the church’s grasp of the gospel and its implications. There certainly may be times when a local church is unhealthy or unwilling to partner. Some churches will be theologically incompatible with a given missionary team. Others may ultimately be uninterested in catching a missionary vision for their community. However, this conclusion must be reached through interaction rather than assumption. Even if these churches are under-equipped or have yet to catch a vision for mission, our default posture should be to view them as faithful brothers and sisters gathered by the Gospel and under the Word as the Body and Bride of Christ. 

2. Ambassadors of the Local Church 

Many missionaries struggle to discern how best to re-engage local churches. This struggle is particularly acute when there is a perceived history of conflict, abandonment, and schism between national churches and Western missionary organizations. In many ways Baptist polity makes this a uniquely Baptist issue with a uniquely Baptist solution. 

Due to the emphasis on the autonomy of the local church, Baptist missionaries must remember that they are first and foremost ambassadors of their sending church. Sending organizations like the IMB are extremely valuable partners for the church. Yet, by their very nature as para-churches, there are theological limits to their role. The IMB doesn’t plant churches or commission missionaries. This is the church’s job. In keeping with Baptist polity, autonomous congregations are the ones that send missionaries and plant churches. Thus, when reengaging national churches and conventions, it may be appropriate and helpful for missionaries to first identify themselves as being sent from their church, not their organization.  

Our team took this approach when we began to reach out to a local Baptist convention. Rather than identifying ourselves in relationship to the IMB, we asked our pastor to write a letter introducing us as members of his church living and ministering in the country. The letter postured us as two young families who want to know how we can be a part of what the Lord is doing through the churches in our new home. We didn’t hide from the national church that we were part of the IMB, and we didn’t hide from the IMB that we were trying to re-engage the national church. However, knowing the complicated history between the two, and believing that missionaries are called from their local church, we chose posture ourselves accordingly. 

3. Listen for Needs Rather than Leading with Proposal

Finally, once an introduction has been made, the details of the partnership can be defined. This process requires us to do one thing that Westerners do not always do well: listen. It is much easier and more natural for those of us sent to a place surrounded by lostness to think that we know what needs to be done. Furthermore, being trained by a mission board and/or seminary in church planting and disciple-making, we come equipped with lots of things we could give.

Yet it is far more important—if genuine partnership is what we are after—for us not merely to come to the table with what we want to give, but to come to listen to what these pastors, leaders, and laity already have identified that they need. When we listen well at the beginning of a partnership, we focus on serving the church rather than using them to advance our own plans. When we all sit together under the Great Commission, we find that the Lord uses us all to advance the gospel of his kingdom.