In Acts 13:1-3 we find the first record of a church recognizing, commissioning, and sending out missionaries. Saul and Barnabas are sent by the church in Antioch on what would become known as Paul’s first missionary journey. What can the church today learn from this first missionary adventure?
Especially in the book of Acts, we should work hard to determine what in a passage is descriptive (simply describing what occurred) and what is prescriptive (something that the church for all time should imitate). That is true in this passage as well. With that caution duly noted, there remain several principles we can draw from this passage.
- Paul and Barnabas were in a church where biblical church leadership was in place.
Whatever else “prophets and teachers” might mean at this time in church history, certainly it means that the church in Antioch was led by men of spiritual maturity that could discern the Spirit’s leading. We have no indication of how long Paul and Barnabas had been with this congregation but it was sufficient that the leaders recognized their calling.
We might assume that it is a given that someone desiring to move to the mission field is heavily invested in a local church with biblical leadership. Yet that is not the case. When I was responsible for interviewing potential missionaries, there were times when an applicant had no meaningful relationship or involvement in a church. This is a red flag for many reasons, not least of which is how a person who is not committed to the local church here can be effective in championing the local church overseas. Whether their ministry is international orphan care or campus ministry or something else, it should be connected to a local church in some way. A potential missionary who has been haphazardly connected to a local church at home will likely be a hazard overseas.
- The church in Antioch was committed to the Word (hence prophets and teachers) and to Spirit-driven worship.
John Piper has often stated, “Seeking the worship of the nations is fueled by the joy of our own worship. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. You can’t proclaim what you don’t prize. Worship is the fuel and the goal of missions.” A church that is focused on worshipping the all-powerful God of the universe who is worthy of worship from all corners of the globe will naturally raise up people to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Significantly, there is no mention of the worship style of the church of Antioch, because it does not matter. Their focus was on the risen Christ and the glory of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The danger of churches with weak theology and weak worship is that they will produce weak Christians with little passion for the glory of God among all peoples. At the same time, churches that magnify the glory of God fuel a passion for missions.
- The church recognized the work of the Spirit and the calling on the lives of Paul and Barnabas.
Much has been written about the internal call (someone feeling called to missions) and the external call (that call being affirmed and commended by others, especially the church). The external call is not possible without the church and her leaders truly knowing those who are being called.
A potential missionary sitting across from the pastor telling him he feels called to move to India and be a missionary should not be the first time the pastor hears about it, or worse, the first time they meet! Churches and leaders can feel awkward questioning someone’s feeling of call. Yet, for the sake of the spread of the gospel and healthy, well-led churches around the world, churches must examine the potential missionary. Has the Holy Spirit really set this person or family apart? Or, are they simply pursuing an adventure?
- The church commissioned and sent out Paul and Barnabas.
The prayers, support, and oversight of a local church are essential for every missionary. The danger of lone-ranger missionaries is real. Our text does not say that the church in Antioch provided for Paul and Barnabas financially. Yet, it is hard to imagine a church in our day not financially supporting missionaries that they send out. I can tell you from experience that this a great encouragement to missionaries. It signals that the church is really behind you and invested in your ministry.
Of course, commissioning and sending are much more than money. The other danger is a church only supporting a missionary financially and not committing to praying for them and providing spiritual oversight for them on the field. Some missionaries go to where there may be a good, healthy church. Others go where there are churches, but they are unhealthy and weak doctrinally. Others go to where there are no churches. In each of these, it is essential for the sending church to provide encouragement, prayer, and accountability.
- The church in Antioch provided follow-up and ongoing accountability for Paul and Barnabas upon their return.
In Chapter 14, verses 26 and 27, we see Paul and Barnabas return to the church and inform them of “all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” No doubt, there was rejoicing on the part of Paul and Barnabas in giving this report and from the church in Antioch upon hearing the report.
Today, such reports can happen more regularly thanks to e-mail newsletters and social media. The missionary should be diligent in sending such reports so that the sending church can “mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice.” Further, the sending church should require an update for purposes of prayer, encouragement, and accountability.
Praise God for this description of the first missionary sending church! While we must be careful not to take as prescription what the Biblical author did not intend that way, we have much to learn. Whether the First Century or the Twenty-first, the local church is the goal and the means of missions. Let us labor to have healthy missionaries sent out by healthy churches in order to see healthy churches around the world.