At the end of the day, all mission should be working to this end: the planting of a biblical church. If you are doing evangelism or running mission with no intent of building a local church, I will go as far as to say you are doing it wrong. All biblical mission ends in local church.
This is the pattern we see in the New Testament. Never does mission simply mean the creation of Christians who are then left to their own devices. Paul's missionary journeys led to his planting churches. He did pioneer mission work in unreached areas, saw people saved then brought those saved into local churches in which he later sent people to appoint elders. His mission work culminated in the local church. His letters are the pastoral and discipleship fruit in the churches which his earlier mission work formed.
I am wary of mission work for mission's sake. We are not sent into the world to create individual Christians. We are sent to make disciples. That necessarily means taking the gospel out and reaching people who don't know Jesus, telling them about him and encouraging them to believe in him. But it also involves placing them into local churches where they can be discipled and grown to the maturity in Christ to which all believers are called. You cannot make disciples without evangelism, but nor can you make them without the local church.
But far too many mission organisations have no thought or concern for the local church. They are quite happy going into an area, busying themselves with evangelism and then leaving. Or, they maybe stay in an area, but have no concern about working with or getting people into local churches. All that seems to matter is getting people 'over the line'. The mission is all, their conversion is everything, and thereafter, well we hope they'll press on and get into a church – we might even direct them to one – but that's not really our concern.
Far too many go into local areas without any real invitation from local churches, without any concern for what the local churches are doing. Often they go without any questions asked about whether their particular mission will be helpful. Some would argue that they do sometimes do that, but only when those local churches themselves aren't doing (in their view) any real evangelism. Rarely do they stop to ask whether there is a reason those local churches have decided not to that form of evangelism.
More to the point, if they are convinced that the local churches are so weak that no evangelism will happen, I am unconvinced that a short term mission will solve the problem. Either those churches need strengthening, and the time and effort that goes on running these missions might be better spent sending some of those recruits into struggling churches to help revive them and kickstart some longer term evangelism locally. Otherwise, if those churches can't (or won't) be revived and have no interest in ever doing evangelism, bussing in for a mission still doesn't rectify the problem. Instead, planting a church that will engage in long-term evangelism and discipleship is the solution. Whilst that may start out as mission to an area, if the goal isn't to create a church in the end, how much are we really helping? Mission should end in local church.
But this issue isn't unique to mission organisations. Churches themselves can do much the same thing. Of course, they are concerned about their own local church. But many would much rather continue doing missions in an area some distance away from them – presumably expecting all the people the manage to reach in doing so to come to a church miles away – rather than planting a church in their midst and seeking to meaningfully disciple people by actually living among them. I have been in churches that would rather run missions and evangelistic work in towns miles away from their own, sometimes separated by several towns in between, than consider actually planting something. Or, they gladly go somewhere to do their mission work away from their home town despite a multitude of churches (often good, sound churches of exactly the same ilk) in the very place they are going to do their evangelism.
Most perversely of all, assuming there aren't existing bible teaching churches in the town miles away, any talk of somebody else planting such a church there is met with disdain or contempt. Mission from a distance is either seen as adequate or better than planting a church in the place they are seeking to reach. But mission should end in the local church. It is particularly good when local churches begin the mission, but that mission should end in a new local church in that area. Otherwise, all we have really been doing is making ourselves appear busy without much thought for the what might be best for the people in the place we want to reach nor any great concern about what might best serve those who, by God's grace, do come to Christ. Telling people to get on several buses, taxis or even lifts – especially when nobody else from the church lives anywhere near them – doesn't do much for that person and, very often, does little to think beyond their attendance on a Sunday morning and, if they're lucky, a midweek meeting.
We need to think longer term about our mission work. I'm not at all suggesting it is wrong to go somewhere away from your own town and share the gospel. What I am saying is, your work should end in the local church. If there are local gospel churches in an area already, where people will be discipled, our focus should be on strengthening and supporting those local churches to do the evangelism, mission and discipleship locally that they have been called to do. If there are no local gospel churches, our aim should be to plant a church in the area that will then go on doing local evangelism and discipleship there. That could be done through mission work and, as people come to faith, grouping them together in a local church. It could equally be done by sending some existing believers to go and be a church in that community and begin that long term work of evangelism and discipleship. There are other means of achieving this too.
But in the end, our goal shouldn't be a week of mission – or a regularly weekly outreach – into an area with no other churches. It should be to strengthen the existing churches to do the work Jesus has called us to do or to plant the churches required to do the long term work Jesus has called us to do. If our mission work doesn't end in local church, if that is not at least the aim, whatever else we might be doing, it is difficult to see it as especially biblical nor, in the long run, can we expect it to be all that fruitful either.
This article first appeared on Building Jerusalem, the blog of Stephen Kneale, and is printed here with permission.