Priorities of a Servant-Sending Church
One of the greatest joys of local church ministry is seeing God call members of the church to serve Him to do Great Commission ministry. Such servants of the Lord may be missionaries, pastors, Christian school teachers, church builders, tentmakers or others who have sensed the call of God which has been recognized by their local church. If your church currently has such people serving the Lord across the globe, you know the joy of which I write. Sadly, that joy is not shared by as many churches today as it was in the past. The trend in our circles is that fewer people are following God’s call to the ministry.
This trend is reflected in shrinking classes of candidates for mission agencies. If you were to ask the leaders of our mission agencies that we affiliate with the most closely, you would find out just how small those classes are. In some cases, it has been some time since the mission hosted a missionary candidate class. This trend is alarming! Recently I heard a Bible college president say that his college had far more requests for graduates than they possibly could send to fill the various ministry needs. The tendency might be to assume that the problem lies with the Bible colleges, seminaries and mission agencies. But the problem is not the mission agencies. The problem is not the Bible colleges or the seminaries.
The problem – if there are fewer people – is in the pew. The problem is in the churches. The issue has to do with the churches because it’s the church’s responsibility to train and to equip and to sense God’s call in the life of a couple or an individual or a family. It is the local church’s responsibility to send those who have been called by God to serve in vocational ministry. Agencies don’t disciple and send missionaries. Agencies assist local churches. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the local church. Spiritually vibrant and Biblically purposeful churches will disciple, recognize and send out called servants of the Lord. God wants local churches to train and equip servants of the Lord. The question we must ask ourselves is what the priorities of such servant-sending churches are. If your church wants to be used by God to send people out to fulfill the Great Commission, what must be of utmost importance to it? Consider seven priorities.
The first priority of a sending church is balancing Biblical evangelism. Acts 1:8 states, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” That is balanced, Biblical evangelism, and it is balanced in at least two different ways. First, balancing Biblical evangelism means that reaching people with the Gospel is a local priority, not just a global one. There is a tendency sometimes for churches to say, “We give tons of money to missions,” but if you asked what they are doing to reach their neighborhoods for Christ, we find that their gospel focus lies in supporting others to do the work they won’t do themselves. In many cases, churches and individual believers find it easier to send money and to send people across the globe than to go across the street. But a church that is truly balanced understands the local priority of reaching people for Christ. A church that doesn’t take the Gospel across the street won’t produce people who will take the Gospel around the world.
Second, a church that is truly balanced in its evangelism sees evangelism as a personal responsibility, not just a pastoral responsibility. Many believers view evangelism as the pastor’s job. In reality, evangelism is every believer living out their life in the context of their workplace or neighborhood and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in those contexts. Every member is a witness, not just the pastor. There is no substitute for your personal witness through the relationships that God has given to you. As a matter of fact, the Bible says that we owe it to people to share the Gospel – Romans 1:14. David Platt put it this way, “Every saved person this side of Heaven owes the Gospel to every unsaved person this side of hell.” It’s true. We owe it to people to share the Gospel of Christ with them. We have a long way to go here as the body of Christ in America when it comes to sharing the Gospel. Not too long ago Lifeway Research gave the following statistics: in the next seven years 55,000 churches in the United States will close! Lifeway also stated that those who attend church on any given weekend in the next few years will drop from seventeen percent to fourteen percent. That means that on any given weekend only fourteen percent of Americans will be found in any kind of church. Their study went on to state that only twenty percent of American churches are growing. To make matters worse, of those that are growing, only one percent of those churches are growing because they are reaching lost people. You know what that means? Most church growth is simply shuffling Christians around. Most churches that are growing are attracting Christians from other churches, perhaps because they got upset about what was happening in their church and decided to go to a “growing” church. That’s not really church growth. Real, Biblical conversion growth is when unbelievers are coming to faith in Christ and following the Lord in believer’s baptism.
Recently I spoke with a ministry leader who provides direction and counsel to a fellowship of churches organized on a state level. He shared his burden for the Baptist churches of his state. One of the greatest burdens he shared was related to this matter. As he visits and helps local churches, he regularly asks a very penetrating and important question. It goes something like this, “When was the last time you saw an adult trust Christ as Savior, get baptized and join your church?” Guess what the two most common answers to that question have been! “We can’t remember the last time that happened,” or “It has been a long time!” What an indictment on the condition of our churches! Remember, a church that doesn’t take the Gospel across the street won’t produce people who will take the Gospel around the world. We must take the responsibility of reaching souls seriously if we ever expect that burden to be caught by others who will be passionate about taking the Gospel across the street and around the world! Biblically balanced evangelism must be priority one!
Notice what Ephesians 4 says in relationship to the ministry and to those that God has given to the local church and their role. Ephesians 4:11 puts it this way, “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.” For what? “For the equipping of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”
The pastor’s job is to work himself out of a job. The pastor’s job is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. Pastors are to equip their people to serve the Lord. Someone put it this way, “I left the ministry when I became a pastor.” Pastors are not the ministers! Every person in the church is a minister! As a pastor preaches and teaches God’s Word he fulfills the role of preparing and equipping others to serve. A servant-sending church is all about equipping – training rather than entertaining. This is especially important in a local church’s model for youth ministry. Many churches have large youth groups because they have adopted a youth ministry model that is entertainment-oriented. While in the short-term the numbers may make such youth ministry look like it is successful, in the long run it will not be! A Biblical philosophy of ministry teaches and trains teens to serve the Lord Jesus with the rest of their lives. As a former youth pastor, I have seen the training model bear amazing fruit. I have pictures of teen missions teams that we led. These trips were great proving grounds for ministry training. Interestingly, almost every teen that went on those trips is still serving the Lord twenty to twenty-five years later! Some are pastors, others are deacons, and almost all are actively serving in their local church. That stands in stark contrast with the statistics that about two-thirds of teens today abandon the faith. A servant-sending church will train all its members to serve the Lord, especially the next generation!
Matthew 9:36-38 is a familiar text. There we are told to pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into the harvest. I have always thought it was interesting that Jesus didn’t simply tell them to go. We know that He did that later, but He started with prayer. I think part of why Jesus did that is because when we pray about something long enough and hard enough, sometimes we become the answer to our own prayers. Warren Wiersbe put it this way, “When we pray as He commanded we will see what He saw, we will feel what He felt, and we will do what He did.” All of us pray for what is important to us. Think about your prayer life. Is praying for laborers for the harvest near the top of your list? Jesus specifically commanded us to pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into the harvest. What if we prayed persistently and passionately for a missionary to get into a region of the world where the Gospel is not proclaimed? What if we prayed as diligently and persistently for such a missionary as we pray for someone to get out of the hospital or to get out of some other illness or struggle? I wonder if we don’t pray the Lord of the hospital more than we pray the Lord of the harvest! That’s not to say that we shouldn’t pray for sick people, but God is pretty specific when He tells us, “pray the Lord of the harvest.” Churches that are servant-sending churches are churches that are consistently, passionately, and intentionally praying for more harvest laborers. Is that an important prayer in your life?
I remember as a teenager that it seemed like every other youth rally I attended featured a sermon from Romans 12:1-2. I cut my spiritual teeth on “surrender messages.” Unfortunately, as a result of that, as a youth pastor I decided I wasn’t going to preach from Romans 12:1-2, thinking that every teen had already heard too many messages on surrender. Eventually, God began to convict me about my wrong thinking. I started to read about the topic we are considering – the shortage of people who are being sent into ministry. I realized that I was a part of the problem! If I was not willing to preach texts like Romans 12:1-2 and the concept of surrender, I was contributing to the problem. The heart of the text is the command to present our bodies as living sacrifices. Living sacrifices have no will of their own. Surrender is saying to God, “I will do whatever You want me to do with my life.” I can’t help but wonder if that’s not part of the problem in our churches today. So few people are willing to say that to God. It is amazing to me – our world contains 7 billion people, yet the Gospel in terms of percentages of population appears to be losing ground in a lot of places. The population growth is outgrowing the spread of the Gospel. That is especially true in the United States. When we combine that with fewer people who are headed into ministry, we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case. Is it that God is calling fewer people to the ministry? Would that not seem contradictory to the nature of God, that God is calling fewer to be missionaries, that God is calling fewer to be pastors? Is the problem that God is calling fewer people or that fewer people are surrendering to the call?! Churches that are used of God to send servants are churches where surrender is emphasized and is a priority, not just preached from the pulpit, but practiced in the pew. Is that true of your church? More importantly, are you truly surrendered?
Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward.” What is a heritage? A heritage is something you receive from someone else. Woodrow Kroll writes, “A heritage is this – they are on loan to us from the bank of heaven.” Our children are on loan to us. They are ultimately God’s children not ours. They may have Daddy’s eyes, and they may have Mommy’s personality, but they belong to Him. One of the challenges we face as parents in materialistic, affluent America is rearing our children with God’s purpose in mind instead of with our purpose in mind. Sadly, for many parents the American dream can supplant the will of God. For many parents, the American dream translates into wanting your children to have it better than you had it. Consequently, parents want their kids to get a better education, make a better living and live a more comfortable life. The problem with this way of thinking is that the will of God in their children’s lives is given little consideration. Pursuing God’s will ought to be the primary focus of Christian parenting.
A camp leader was in the habit of interviewing teenagers who attended his camp. All summer long he interviewed hundreds of teenagers, asking, “If you could be anything you want to be, what would it be?” One said that he would like to be a youth pastor, three said that they would like to be a missionary, and none said that they would like to be a pastor. When asked, it was discovered that 81% of the campers came from homes where both mom and dad were born again believers! The camp leader concluded, “This tells me that Christian parents, in their quest to have financial security in life, have held up all of those secular options. Very few are holding up service to the Lord as an option. In my opinion, kids are not being urged to serve the Lord in full-time ministry.” I think he is spot on. One of the biggest obstacles to our young people pursuing ministry is their own Christian parents! Rather than their primary aspiration for their children being to serve God and find God’s will, teens are pushed toward material success. God does not call everyone to be a missionary or a pastor, but you would hope that Christian parents would desire and pray that He would call one or more of their children! This issue should cause Christian parents to ponder some vital and personal questions. What are your aspirations for your kids? To get the best job possible or to serve the Lord wherever possible? Are you praying that God would call them into ministry? Are you encouraging them to consider it? Remember, they are simply on loan from God. Servant-sending churches are full of Godly families and individuals who purposefully strive together to rear children for God’s purposes and not their own.
There is a Biblical pattern set for this in Acts 14, the account of Paul and Barnabas and the conclusion of their first missionary journey. When they came back to Antioch, the church that had sent them out on that missionary journey, they reported on their ministry. Acts 14:26 says, “From there they sailed to Antioch where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they had completed. Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them.” They came back to their home church and told about the people who trusted Christ as their Savior and the churches that were established as a result. They reported that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. They championed what God was doing. Churches should want to hear how God is using those in whom they have invested to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, many churches relegate missions and missionary reports to the most poorly attended service of the church or only give them ten minutes to give a brief report. In many churches, missions has been pushed to the side, and it seems that missions conferences have been eliminated. Yet churches wonder why interest in missions has plummeted. One of the ways to keep the fire for worldwide evangelism burning is to regularly stoke it with missionaries reporting about what God is doing. Our prayer ought to be that God would light that fire for missions in every one of our hearts as well.
Finally, a sending church will measure its health by sending capacity rather than seating capacity. This idea is from a book entitled, “Gaining By Losing,” by J.D. Greear. He makes the point that historically we have measured whether or not a church is doing well by numbers that reflect growth and increased offerings. Yet in Acts 13 God took Paul and Barnabas away from the church and called them to missionary ministry. “Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers . . . and as they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts 13:1) The church kicked them out – to go be missionaries! The church gained by losing, measuring their success by sending capacity rather than seating capacity. Greear uses a metaphor that illustrates his point powerfully. Churches can be described as one of three boats – a cruise liner, a battleship, or an aircraft carrier. People who see the local church as a cruise liner act as if the church is all about their needs. The cruise liner church provides all kinds of ministries for every member of the family – relevant preaching, sports ministries, youth groups, nursery, comfortable seating, exercise classes, social events, feel good music, etc. Someone with a cruise ship mentality often jumps from one cruise ship to a better cruise ship that happens to be going by. Others have the mindset that the church is a battleship. This church is always in attack mode. It is made for a mission, and success is determined by how loudly and dramatically it fights the battles. Greear says, “The role of the members is to pay the pastors to find the targets and fire the guns each week as they gather to watch. They see the programs and the services and the ministries of the church as the primary instruments of the mission.” The last example of a church is the aircraft carrier which exists to take the battle away from the ship and to the enemy. The church should be like an aircraft carrier, but sadly, a lot of churches think the battle goes on in the church, and they are waging little wars inside of it. Christ said, “I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it!” The picture that Jesus is creating is that the church ought to be attacking the gates of hell by winning souls to Christ. This kind of church prepares and launches Christians into the battlefield to take the Gospel into their neighborhoods, workplaces, families, social environments, and maybe even across the world, sent out from the aircraft carrier church! The great thing about churches like this is that some of those who are so thrilled about being sent out locally will realize that there are people in other places where nobody has ever flown with the Gospel before. Such churches have a hard time holding back people like this because they are so excited to be sent on their mission! Aircraft carrier churches become great servant-sending churches!
If our churches are going to reverse the trend of seeing fewer and fewer servants of the Lord sent into the ministry, our churches will need to place a premium on all seven of these priorities! That will require leadership, prayer and change, but by God’s grace, all of our churches can be the servant-sending churches that God wants them to be!
This article was adapted from Pastor Odle’s sermon preached on July 9, 2017 at First Baptist Church in Elyria, Ohio and it was originally published in 4 parts through the BCP C0nnect (Summer issue 2018 through Summer issue 2019).