Do We Need Missionary Societies?

This article leads us through biblical and theological concerns that highlight the place of the church in God’s plan for world evangelism and points out historical evidence of men and women gathering into fellowships and moving out to share the good news. It includes recent examples and provides a practical perspective on how sending churches, mission agencies, and receiving churches can partner in a way that enhances our gospel effectiveness.

Having lived in Africa, Asia and Europe, David Harley and his wife, Rosemary, have expertise and experience in a variety of areas within Christian work. David has served as Principal at All Nations Christian College (1985 to 1993) and as General Director of OMF International (2001 to 2006). He studied at Cambridge University and holds doctorates in missiology from Columbia University in the USA and the University of Utrecht in Holland. He is the author of several books, including Preparing to Serve and Missionary Training. Since his retirement, David has continued to minister through speaking and preaching around the world.


Do We Need Missionary Societies?

Mission Round Table Vol. 14 no. 1 (Jan 2019): 4-9


In my first year as General Director of OMF International, I was invited to speak to a group of pastors in Singapore on the question “Do we still need missionary societies?”[1] I accepted the invitation with some trepidation. I had been a member of OMF for less than five months. My wife Rosemary and I had lived in Singapore for only five years. On the positive side, we had worked as missionaries in Africa and had spent fifteen years teaching at All Nations Christian College and reflecting on the theology, history, and practice of mission.

In this paper, which is substantially what I presented at that gathering in Singapore, I reflect on the ways God has worked in his redemptive mission to the world, both in the history of salvation as recorded in the Scriptures and throughout the subsequent history of the church. I then consider the distinctive contribution mission societies and local churches can make to the task of global evangelism and the benefits that can be achieved through mutual cooperation.

Before we look at the specific question before us, it will be relevant to start by considering the nature of the church. We would all agree that the church is God’s agent for evangelism. As Melvin Hodges says in his book, A Guide to Church Planting, “The church is God’s agent in the earth—the medium through which he expresses himself to the world. God has no other redeeming agency in the earth.”[2] But the question needs to be asked: “What is the church?”

We may think of the institutional church—the church down the road or the denomination to which we belong. We may say “I belong to the Grace Street Baptist Church,” or “I am a member of the Methodist church.” Both are valid statements but we all know that that is not what the Bible means by church. When Peter or Paul or Jesus refers to the church, they do not mean denominations or the building down the road. They see the church as the body of believers who have been born again and become the children of God, members of Christ’s body in whom his Spirit dwells.

In the NT, the church is described primarily in spiritual rather than institutional terms. The primary focus is on the dynamic union between its members and its Lord and founder. Certainly, there are some institutional aspects of the church: entrance into the Christian community through public baptism; participation in the Lord’s supper; having a group of leaders or elders. These are visible expressions of what it means to be a body of Christians. But it is recognised that although people may belong to the visible institution, they may not be members of the body of Christ—the invisible church, the true church. In Philippians, Paul refers to some who were apparently members of a local church and yet were living as “enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction” (Phil 3:18–19, NASB).

In the NT, neither denominational structures nor paradenominational structures existed. There were no denominations. There were no Christian schools, evangelistic associations, or missionary societies. It should be self-evident that such structures have no explicit biblical basis. Whether we think of a local church with its organisational structures, committees, constitution, etc., or of a denomination, or any other Christian organisation, mission, or agency, they are all, from one perspective, parachurch organisations. They provide the framework within which members may worship God, grow in their faith, and witness in the world.

We need to distinguish between the church as biblically understood and auxiliary ecclesiastical structures which did not exist in the NT but have grown up subsequently. There seems to be no biblical basis for making a distinction between denominational structures or local church structures on the one hand and parachurch structures on the other. The more basic distinction in Scripture seems to be between the church as the body of all true believers and all institutional structures, including denominations, churches, and parachurch organisations.

Both the parachurch organisation and the local church serve the body of Christ. Biblically, it is irrelevant whether evangelism is carried out by a denomination or some non-denominational structure, for in both cases the sponsoring structure is in reality a parachurch institution. The key question is how effective and appropriate that evangelism is in a particular context.

The church is God’s agent for evangelism. That, of course, is absolutely true. Only the church can evangelise. Only believers can share the gospel. Non-believers cannot. Those who do not belong to the church cannot reach out into the world. It is theologically misleading to say the local church is the sole or primary agent for evangelism. A more precise statement of the biblical teaching would be to say that it is the church which is the agent of evangelism.

Having said that, I do not want in any way to belittle the role of the local church or the denomination. The local church plays a critical role in mission. It is in the local body of believers that most of us come to faith, are fed, discipled, envisioned, and sent out. Every local church must have a global vision and must assume the primary role in sending out workers. It must have a primary role but not an exclusive one.

The evidence of Scripture

As we read the OT story, we notice that God loved to act in a variety of ways. Sometimes he worked through institutions which he had established and sometimes he acted independently of those institutions. In Numbers 11, Moses called for the Spirit to come on seventy elders. They gathered together and were duly anointed with the Spirit. But two of those who were called were not present at the meeting. They remained in the camp where they also received the Spirit and began to prophesise. Joshua was most concerned at their behaviour and viewed it as a threat to Moses’ authority. In his mind, these two were not operating within the established institution. Moses, on the other hand, was not upset as he did not see these two as rivals to his ministry. Rather, he rejoiced at what God was doing through them.

Moses Elects the Council of Seventy Elders by Jacob de Wit (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.


Through the major part of the history of Israel, the central religious institution was the temple and the main religious leaders were the priests. But frequently, God operated outside that system and inspired prophets to serve the people in ministries that were parallel to the ministry that pertained in the central place of worship. Amos is a good example. He did not belong to the establishment. He was sent out, not by the mission committee of the Jerusalem temple, but by the direct instruction of God to go as a missionary from the south (Judah) to the north (Israel). The prophets were often used by God to act independently of the religious establishment so that they might fulfil a particular ministry and, sometimes, challenge or revive the establishment. Jonah, of course, is another example of someone who received an independent call to go as a missionary with no apparent connection with the leaders in Jerusalem.

In the NT, we find a similar pattern. We see the emerging church in Jerusalem under the leadership of the apostles. At the same time, we find a number of individuals who were inspired to “do their own thing.” While the Twelve remained in Jerusalem, God sent Philip off to Samaria. This does not appear to have been part of a planned missionary strategy on the part of the church in Jerusalem. Rather, it seems to have been an example of the spontaneous leading of the Spirit. Later, Philip was led into the desert so that the gospel could be preached to a man from Africa.

Acts 13 is often seen as a classic example of missionaries being sent out by the local church and, it is argued, it therefore provides the normative pattern for the church today. It is, however, a matter for debate how far the NT can provide models for every aspect of the church’s life today. Indeed, it is not easy to discern a clear and consistent pattern in matters of church leadership or styles of worship. But let us leave that aside and consider the model of Paul and Barnabas.

It should be noted that neither of these two men originated from the church in Antioch. Indeed, they could be appropriately described as missionaries to the church in Antioch. What is clear is that after they had spent some time ministering and teaching in that city, they were sent out by the local church (or was it a group of churches?) in Antioch. It is also true that they reported back to the church in Antioch and told them what God had done. It is also clear from the text of Acts that they did not remain under the control and direction of that church, and this could be seen as an early prototype of a mission agency.

Although Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church and subsequently reported back to the church, once they had received their initial commissioning they appeared to act largely independently under the guidance of the Spirit. They were financially independent. They selected team members. They decided team strategy. They accepted new workers into the mission team from the churches they had founded. They received finances from those churches. They appointed elders in those churches without any reference to Antioch. They did feel a sense of responsibility to the whole church and did make it their business to keep in touch with and report to the church in Jerusalem. What they did not do was act as an extension of the church in Antioch.

Antioch does not provide a model of a local church sending, guiding, and controlling mission. Rather, it gives a model of a church or group of churches choosing, sending, and releasing members to form an autonomous, self-supporting, self-directing missionary enterprise for the evangelisation of the world. The mission work of Paul was not just an extended outreach of the Antioch church. It was not simply the Antioch church operating at a distance from its home. It was something else. Something different. It was an autonomous structure, answerable to the whole church. Hence, the fact that Paul reported back to the church in Jerusalem was significant.

Does this mean the local church has no role in mission? Of course not. The local church may be in a position to direct a specific ministry in another place but, like the mission agency, it must avoid the dangers of exerting tight control, placing limitations on the initiative of those sent, dominating the newly founded churches, or imposing its own denominational patterns. At other times, the local church may find it more effective to work through an agency which is specifically set up to facilitate global mission.

The evidence of history

In the early church, groups of believers gathered into fellowship or house groups, after the pattern of synagogues. These later developed into congregations, which could then forge formal or informal links with similar congregations in the same region.

At about the same time, some groups of men and women who felt called to a life of service to God and to their fellows started living together in communities. These later became known as monasteries. During the dark centuries of the Middle Ages, it was the monasteries that kept the faith alive. The monks were committed to Christ, to prayer, to care of the poor, and to evangelism. They became itinerant preachers, and their monasteries became mission stations. So, the gospel spread and the Scriptures were faithfully copied and passed down. Many significant Christian leaders came out of this movement, and serious biblical and theological study was continued.

After the Reformation, the Protestant churches wanted nothing to do with these monasteries. Rather, the Reformers emphasised personal faith, the supremacy of the Bible, and the importance of the local congregation. They were not concerned with the evangelisation of the world and, even if they had been, they had no structures with which to carry out a programme of global evangelisation. Consequently, during the next three hundred years the expansion of the Christian church depended almost entirely on the Roman Catholic religious orders. The Roman Church had a structure, outside the local or diocesan level, which could and did undertake outreach to the far corners of the globe. Protestants, alas, had no such structure and did virtually nothing towards reaching those who had never heard the gospel.

Protestants slowly woke up to their missionary responsibility and started to develop their own structures at the time of the Pietist movement and the Wesleyan revival. Three hundred years after the Reformation, William Carey was burdened to find “the means for the conversion of the heathen,”[3] a pursuit that led to the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS). Within the space of thirty years, another twelve mission societies were founded, including the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the London Missionary Society (LMS). The “great century” of mission ensued. Christianity grew with such unprecedented speed that at the Edinburgh Conference of 1910 many anticipated that the task of global evangelism would soon be completed, or—as the constant refrain put it—“in this generation.”

              1910 World Missionary Conference, University of Edinburgh (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

It is important to emphasise that in the sovereign grace and purpose of God it was not the local church but the missionary society that became the primary agent in reaching the world with the gospel. In a hundred years, the Protestant church changed from being a self-contained, impotent European and North American backwater to becoming a universal family. It was wave after wave of evangelical initiatives—mostly undertaken by parachurch groups, many of them “faith” missions—that transformed the religious map of the world.

Yet all along, some Protestants have been a bit unsure about the model of the missionary society. They still insist that the primary responsibility for mission rests with the local church. Does this come from an inadequate understanding of the church, or a failure to recognise that mission is God’s task rather than ours and that he may use whatever structures he will to complete his purpose?

Some of the denominations have developed their own mission agencies or allowed such agencies to be started in their name providing they maintain a loose affiliation with the denomination. After WWII, most of the older denominational mission boards, which had once enjoyed partial or complete autonomy, were brought back under the control of their respective denominations. The same movement took place in the amalgamation of the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches. In both cases, the missionary budget became part of the unified budget of the church. The predictable result was that concern for evangelism decreased and the vitality of the missionary movement—the voluntary society—was lost in a sea of bureaucracy.

In the last fifty years, the most remarkable development in the mission world has been the rapid growth of the missionary movement in the Two-Thirds World. While it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics, many researchers suggest that the number of missionaries being sent out from the churches of Asia, Africa, and Latin America now exceeds the number being sent out by the West. Some of these have joined international missions like OMF, WEC, SIM, YWAM, etc. Others have decided it is preferable to found their own mission agencies to meet the needs of their own people and to conduct mission in a way that is more appropriate to their own cultural context. Back in 1989, Larry Pate identified 351 missionary societies that were founded in these continents between 1980 and 1988 and estimated that the number of such agencies would be nearly two thousand by the year 2000.[4]

These figures would seem to indicate that God is continuing to do what he has done in the past, and to use both the local church and the mission agency to reach out to his world.

The practical perspective

I have tried to show that the missionary society is every bit as much a part of the church—the body of Christ—as any denomination or local group of Christians. I have also argued from the evidence of both Scripture and history that God has often used the church and the parachurch to fulfil his purpose. In this section, I wish to consider how these two structures can work effectively in partnership. Clearly, each has a key role to play, although the role of the local church is primary.

There are a number of things which the local church is far better equipped to do than the missionary society.

  • It can provide initial discipleship training for new believers who may eventually serve God in mission.
  • It can provide the right context in which spiritual gifts can be developed and suitability for mission service can be assessed.
  • It can provide further training and/or provide guidance and support regarding attendance at Bible or missionary college.
  • It can interact with the mission society in discussing candidates’ gifting and appropriate fields of service.
  • It can commission candidates by the laying on of hands.
  • It can provide realistic support according to actual needs.
  • It can give practical help in departure arrangements.
  • It can provide loving concern and moral support.
  • It can send representatives to visit the missionary.
  • It can provide care for parents and family left behind.
  • It can give pastoral care, especially during home leave.
  • It can provide a role for the missionary in the local church.
  • It can provide an opportunity for further study and refreshment.
  • It can care for the missionaries’ children.
  • It can ensure that the needs of the retired missionary are met.

There are also many things which the mission society is better equipped to provide than the church.

  • It can provide detailed knowledge and experience of life and work in other countries.
  • It can provide or identify the best language schools.
  • It can provide opportunities for bonding with national believers.
  • It can provide on-going orientation to culture, religion, and society.
  • It can provide informed medical services, advice regarding inoculations, preventative medicine, etc.
  • It can provide pastoral care during the difficult period of “settling in” and “culture shock.”
  • It can provide support services regarding visas, forwarding baggage, transferring money, permits, etc.
  • It can facilitate evacuation procedures in times of natural disaster or military conflict.
  • It can provide immediate communication in emergencies and regular news of progress.
  • It can provide prayer support for the overseas work.
  • It can link the workers with other Christian organisations in the area or country.
  • It can determine policies and strategies on the basis of local experience.
  • It can act as a middleman between missionary and receiving (national) churches.
  • It can provide, supervise, or advise about children’s schooling.
  • It can assess the missionary’s progress in language and ministry and report back to the church.

Working in partnership

It is clear that both the local church and the mission society have a vital role to play in God’s mission to the world. Of course, there may be occasions when a church has grown so large that it feels it is in the position to undertake the role both of the church and of the agency. This may be possible, especially if the church’s mission concern is focused on one country and where there is sufficient experience and expertise to provide the kind of guidance and support that a missionary will require. What often happens, however, is that the church finds that it is reinventing the wheel and having to provide a complete department to supervise their missionaries that is as large as that of a missionary society. I would strongly advise such churches to proceed with real caution, both for the sake of their missionary and for the good of the work.

The key word today is partnership. As we realise the enormity of the task that faces the church we must work together as closely as possible to obey Christ’s Great Commission. We can accept both these structures, represented today by the local church and the mission society, as legitimate and necessary, and recognise that both have a vital and distinctive role to play in God’s mission to the world. Churches within Asia and elsewhere may need to form their own mission societies or utilise existing ones if they are to exercise their missionary responsibility. Only if both structures are fully and properly utilised and working in partnership will our mission be fully effective.

Possible objections

Some people may raise objections, many of which are perfectly valid and demand an answer. Let me close by addressing some of these.

1. You cannot use Paul as a model because he had apostolic authority and did not need to be accountable.

And yet, he was held accountable on several occasions and his authority may be more obvious to us now than it was then. If one dismisses Paul and his colleagues as a model of a mission team because he was so special, by the same token one must dismiss him as a model for local church control of their missionary.

2. Acts is history, not theology.

True, but it is the record of how the church grew. It shows that Paul was an integral part of the church. His mission team emanated from the church. He planted churches, related to churches, and saw himself as part of and responsible to the whole body of Christ. Paul and those who worked with him served as members of the body of Christ. They received their inspiration, strength, and guidance from the same Spirit who empowers the whole church and were directed by the same Lord who is head over the whole church.

3. Mission agencies often act too independently and ignore the local church.

This is sadly true and many missionary societies need to repent and mend their ways. Both structures need each other and must work closely together.

4. Missions often take away our best people.

It can be difficult for a church to lose gifted members of the congregation but we must recognize the sovereignty of the Lord in this matter. The Antioch church displayed a sacrificial obedience in sending out two of their best people. But God is no one’s debtor and those churches that willingly release those whom God calls will themselves be blessed.

5. Mission agencies do not involve the local church in the decision-making process regarding location and type of ministry.

This is often true and again the structures need to work in synergy. Churches should express their desire to be more involved. Mission agencies must listen.

6. Mission agencies may not reflect the local church’s denominational position exactly.

In mission today, we must be concerned primarily for the extension of the kingdom of God. Sometimes it may be appropriate to establish churches in the name of one’s own denomination. Sometimes it may not be appropriate to do so, especially if there are a plethora of denominations already or if the local churches have united into one church. We must be willing to work alongside other Bible-believing Christians as we plant the church. We must avoid perpetuating our divisions.

7. People in the local church want to be involved closely in what is going on and not to be held at an arm’s length by a third party—the mission agency.

This is a laudable goal and one that can be developed in partnership.

8. Mission agencies are too expensive and not cost-effective. We can do a cheaper job by ourselves.

Those who make this claim need to look carefully at the facts and to be realistic about the costs and the services they can provide. Provision must be made for administrative costs, news bulletins and prayer letters, travel, language learning, education of children, medical costs, insurance, pastoral care on site, and all other services that the mission agency can give. Churches that choose to send out their own workers independently need to consider the level of back up and expertise they can provide compared to that provided by a responsible and experienced mission agency.

Mission agencies are not perfect nor should they expect to continue beyond their sell-by date. The time may come when some agencies are no longer needed and new agencies may be developed. But for the past two centuries, at least, they have played a significant role to the spread of the gospel worldwide. Local churches, likewise, are not perfect but God graciously works through them too. Mission agencies and local churches together can achieve more by working together. The following two examples illustrate the value and importance of such cooperation.

A large church in Kuala Lumpur had five thousand members. The pastor and elders of the church had a strong desire to be involved in world mission and they believed they had the necessary resources, the personnel, and the vision. They saw no reason why they could not send out missionaries by themselves instead of depending on a mission agency. At the end of a week’s teaching on mission, a young couple responded to the call to missionary service. Within a few weeks, they were sent out to start a work in another Asian country. They were given words of encouragement but no formal training or preparation. They struggled for two years and discovered that they were unable to cope with the pressures and challenges they faced. Depressed and ashamed, they returned home to Malaysia to apologise to their church for their failure, but the pastor said it was not the couple who had failed but the church that had sent them. He concluded that in the future the church should not be reluctant to use the resources and expertise of a mission agency.

But if it is true that the church can benefit from working with a mission agency, it is equally true that the mission agency can be more effective if it works as closely as possible with the local church, both in the sending and the receiving countries. Those who, like Paul, have a burden to preach where no one has yet preached are to be commended, but if they are coming from outside a particular country, their starting point should be to find and work with national Christians who share their vision. This is well illustrated by a Burmese mission leader with a very effective ministry who lamented the attitude of some missionaries. “We welcome any who wish to come to Myanmar to work with us in the task of evangelism. What we do not want is people who want to work independently with their own strategy worked out in a Western seminary.” Mission agencies and individual missionaries must echo Paul’s desire that we become of one mind with local believers “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27). When mission agencies, local churches, and denominations partner together in gospel ministry, our effectiveness can greatly increase.

[1] Singapore, 16 October 2001.

[2] Melvin Hodges, A Guide to Church Planting (Chicago: Moody, 1973), 15.

[3]William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (Leicester: Ann Ireland, 1792).

[4] Larry D. Pate, From Every People: A Handbook of Two-Thirds World Mission (Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1989), 16–25.



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