Which Comes First – The Church or the Missionary?

Interest in missions may start with an individual, but it takes the whole church to carry out the vision. Seth and Emily’s church had a heart for Central Asia even before they did.

By Mike Pollard, Pioneers USA Church Partnerships Team

This summer three families and a single man will board a plane to begin new lives in Central Asia. Their vision is for helping establish a church planting movement among unreached Muslim refugees. But the idea didn’t start with them. Their departure is rooted in years of prayer and effort at Lakewood Baptist Church of Gainesville, Georgia. Lakewood’s story and its partnership with Pioneers serve as a great model of principles transferrable to any local church interested in purposefully influencing an unreached people group for Christ.

Putting a Face on the Unreached

Lakewood has long placed unreached peoples at the center of its global ministry efforts. To put a face on the potentially vague term “unreached peoples,” leaders began praying for a connection with a specific people group. A minority group with a population of more than 10 million captured their attention. Lakewood started years of praying for this people group, and everyone from the octogenarian “Golden Nuggets” group to the young children grew in concern for a people group halfway around the world. Eventually the church “adopted” the group and began asking, “What can we do?”

God Draws Seth and Emily—and Others, Too

Seth and Emily (pseudonyms) have grown deeply in their faith and authentic community through their years at Lakewood. “If you’re a part of Lakewood, your heart will grow in love for the unreached,” says Seth, a local school teacher. Seth and his missions pastor, Benji Lavender, attended a Pioneers Church Partner Forum in Orlando, and there Seth began seriously considering moving to Central Asia to work within their adopted people group. “I initially had absolutely no desire to do that,” admits Emily. Eventually, God changed her heart. Daily she drove by the multitude of churches in her area, increasingly realizing that in most places in the unreached world, not one church exists. But she insisted that if they went, she wanted to go with a team of people they already knew.

The whole church had been praying for more than a year that God would raise up people from their midst to go to Central Asia.

Seth and Emily approached Benji Lavendar with what they believed God was calling them to do. They were unaware that several others in the church were also telling him of a similar desire. A team had already been taking shape. They gathered to meet each other for the first time one night at Seth and Emily’s home. At this point, the whole church had been praying for more than a year that God would raise up people from their midst to go to Central Asia.

Whole Church Involvement

The team has been meeting weekly for months to prepare for its launch. Its preparation has included the input of almost every part of Lakewood. The worship pastor met with the team to discuss biblical principles of worship for the church they hope to plant. One pastor taught the team principles of ecclesiology (the organization and practice of the church). The adult ministries pastor taught the team about biblical one-another commands for functioning as a healthy team. The senior pastor taught the team about the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

“When the whole church is tangibly behind this team, it makes a powerful difference.”

The team has visited every Sunday School class to explain its future ministry. The church has paid for the team’s Bible courses and language acquisition training. News of the team goes out in the church-wide weekly prayer email, with links to each team member’s current newsletter. A church-based care team is assembling to champion the team’s care and prayer needs once the team has launched. The church has gathered for occasional worship and prayer nights for this ministry. “When the whole church is tangibly behind this team, it makes a powerful difference,” says Seth.

A Foundation in Scripture, Unity and Prayer

Several foundational factors have been instrumental in cultivating the culture that is sending this team to Asia, believes Lavender:

1. The church is committed to obeying Scripture.

“We stress the whole counsel of the Bible, including what it says about reaching lost people.” Leaders consistently teach in such a way that inevitably points people to the fact that, as J. Herbert Kane declared, “God is a missionary God. The Bible is a missionary book. The gospel is a missionary message. The church is a missionary institution.” Lavender adds: “When churches reduce their teaching to what helps people in our culture, they miss a huge piece of the Bible’s overarching narrative. A church’s preaching and teaching must align with God’s whole heart as revealed in His Word, and the church must be willing to follow where that leads.”

2. The leaders know the call is for all.

For decades senior leaders in the church have constantly demonstrated a personal passion for the gospel and its expansion. They have unambiguously and consistently explained the unreached, and declared, “if it’s the church’s call, it’s everyone’s call. We are all walking toward the unreached together.”

3. The Holy Spirit led the strategy.

The church spent much time in prayer before deciding on a strategy.

Can Any Church Do Something Like This?

Lakewood is a larger church. Yet Senior Pastor Dr. Tyler Smiley is convinced that any church’s faithful application of these principles Lakewood has followed can, by God’s grace, result in a church that loves missions and sends out its own. “What is happening here began with several of our staff members praying. Then we began praying for this people group. And we prayed God would use us in any way He desired. Eventually, the Lord answered this prayer by raising up people from within our congregation to go, but it started with faithful, open-handed and consistent prayer.”

Second, Dr. Smiley encourages churches not to wait for the mythical “one day” when strong missions involvement will later be possible. “We’ve always sought to communicate that we are not here primarily for ourselves, but for Gainesville and the world.” Start with small steps now. If a church is small, partner with another church or ministry. Avoid the trap of simply copying another church’s missions ministry. Consider the unique people and talents God has placed in your church.

Why Partner with Pioneers?

Smiley encourages churches to partner with mission agencies that prioritize the local church. Lavender echoes this sentiment, as he reflects on why Lakewood chose Pioneers as its sending partner in Central Asia. “Pioneers doesn’t just want our people and money. They don’t prescribe our involvement, but they do insist on a genuine dialogue with the local church. They truly believe that the local church is where missions starts. And that allows us to fully play our unique role.”

“The local church is where missions starts.”

Join us in praying that God would use Lakewood’s example to spark a desire in other local churches for evangelism and missions work in their own regions and around the world.

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Mike Pollard has been coming alongside local churches for decades. He is a member of the Church Partnerships Team at Pioneers are serves churches throughout the Midwest and Mid-South regions.

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