The Fulfillment of the Great Commission: A Responsibility of the Local Church
In the week-to-week grind of my work as a Mobilizer for the International Mission Board, I often meet with college students interested in spending a portion of their college years overseas to make the gospel of Christ known in a cultural context not their own. This is a noble aspiration and one that I’m thankful to see in students. Our conversations typically start with the student’s communication of a deep passion to proclaim Christ to the unreached: a passion that is good, right, and biblical. Over more cups of coffee than I care to consume, I’ve talked with many students who are looking for some sort of affirmation. Can I do this? What are my next steps? Am I qualified? Am I ready? Without a doubt, the first question I most often ask—before anything else—is this: “To what church do you belong?”
Mission and the Primacy of the Local Church
Though I work for a missions sending agency, I do not believe the International Mission Board—or any other agency for that matter—holds the primary responsibility for fulfilling the Great Commission. Though our work consists of sending Christians all over the world to proclaim the gospel, the primary responsibility for this belongs to another institution: the local church. The local church is God’s primary instrument for completion of the Great Commission, and it is the local church that must first approve and send any believer willing to go. Don’t get me wrong; we care about the fulfillment of the Great Commission. However, missions cannot and should not be divorced from the local church. In his book Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global, Andy Johnson communicates this concisely and clearly.
Johnson encourages his readers to imagine “a church where the congregation’s mission to the nations is clear and agreed upon” (19). His book is for interested church members, missions leaders, and local church pastors to see that missions should be “a core ministry of the church” (19-20). His overall purpose in Missions is to help local churches send and partner with missionaries for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. This work is desperately needed in a time where “global missions is tragically neglected,” a time in which many have “no access to the gospel” (14). The local church is God’s primary instrument for completion of the Great Commission, and it is the local church that must first approve and send any believer willing to go. Click To Tweet
Chapter to chapter, Johnson’s continual, central aim is to help the local church do missions. He starts by asking, “What does the Bible say about missions?” Scripture is clear that the local church is to be “the engine of world missions” (27). Johnson then moves to demonstrate the proper, biblical motivation for missions—a motivation that will last: the gospel. Churches should find their utmost joy in the gospel; this “joy in the gospel” should naturally lead church members to participate in the work of getting this “joy” to the nations. And so, Johnson often recommends creating a gospel-culture, even more so than a missions-culture. If pastors talk more often about the gospel, then a missional heartbeat should burst forth. Furthermore, he thankfully says missionaries should be “connected to a local church,” for it has “always been that way” (40). Churches should equip their members to go by offering meaningful membership, specific training, international experiences, and local engagement with internationals. Churches should care for those who are sent through regular communication, pastoral visits, sending short-term help, extending hospitality, and providing additional teammates.
Most helpful is Johnson’s recommended strategy for missions. First, his strategy is simple: preach the gospel to those who do not know it. It’s a difficult work, but it’s not complex. Second, churches must “prioritize, focus, and decide” what’s most important to them (61). A local church’s involvement in the Great Commission should not be akin to something like the World Race. So many churches look to do everything, help everyone, and go everywhere. Rather, a local church’s involvement in missions should be one of depth rather than breadth. The focused partnerships a local church makes should be healthy: servant-minded, pastor-led, relationship-based, commitment-centered, congregation-wide, and long-term focused. Johnson concludes his book with two chapters on significant issues in missiology: short-term missions and alternate ways for involvement in missions. In sum, short-term work should “aim to benefit the work of long-term missionaries and local believers,” whatever that entails for each trip (93). Short-termers must remember that they are not the wisest and most capable missionaries; what they long to do in one week likely takes years and years of missionary effort. As for alternate ways of participation, churches should be active in: (1) reaching the nations at home, (2) reaching the nations through international expatriate churches, and (3) reaching the nations through international job opportunities.
All in all, Johnson’s Missions doesn’t provide groundbreaking research in the field of missiology as much as it brings us back to the basics, with a healthy focus on how the doctrine of Sola Scriptura should inform our missiological practices. We should constantly ask ourselves: What does the Bible say? For our benefit, “God has told us everything we must know [about world evangelization] right there in the Bible” (28).
Missions and Gospel-Culture
Johnson is to be commended for the gospel-centrality of this book. Churches need a gospel-culture, which means pastors should be preaching the gospel, church members should know the gospel, and both should be sharing the gospel near and far. Moreover, Johnson offers a helpful take on missionary success: “Good gospel work won’t always yield immediate visible results,” for God is in control of those who are saved. Missionaries should “resist the lure of immediate results,” and churches should resolve to support workers for the long haul, even if the work does not produce the immediate results we so desperately want (73, 119). The one major shortcoming of Johnson’s book is his assumption that with a gospel-culture, churches can naturally and organically expect a missions-culture. He basically assumes that if churches create a gospel-culture, then a lifestyle of missions and evangelism will naturally follow. He slightly moves away from intentional creation of a missions-culture, even if that intentionality is only needed for a brief time up until a congregation assumes evangelistic responsibilities more naturally. However, there are many churches with a true gospel-culture that have yet to assume much responsibility for their role in the Great Commission. Evangelism—one of the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines—cannot merely be assumed in the lives of our church members. Johnson could have said that a church doesn’t truly have a gospel-culture unless there is a robust participation in missions; yet, he doesn’t. Like Paul in the book of Romans, we most certainly should employ the gospel as a central motivation for participation in missions (Romans 1-8), but we must also be forthright and intentional about getting our congregants to participate in missions (Romans 10).
Johnson also answers a number of important missiological questions in this book. How is one to participate in missions (e.g., a college student with a passion to go)? Simple. One must go through the local church. Even though, in one sense, “The commission to missions was given to every individual Christian… in another sense it was given primarily to local churches” (26). Is there a place for mission agencies (like the International Mission Board for which I work)? Certainly. However, “The best agencies refuse to intrude and act like the church, and instead encourage and help, sometimes even impressing upon local churches their important role of caring for the workers they send” (52). How should one define “missions” and “missionary”? Primarily, Johnson believes we should look to our Bibles for proper definitions (28-29). At the same time, Johnson unashamedly holds to the most traditional definitions of these two terms. The church’s mission is “the unique, deliberate gospel mission of the church to make disciples of all the nations,” which includes “evangelism that takes the gospel across ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries, that gathers churches, and teaches them to obey everything Jesus commanded” (35). Missionaries are those “identified and sent out by local churches to make the gospel known and to gather, serve, and strengthen local churches across ethnic, linguistic, or geographic divides” (36). Does the church have a holistic mission or a prioritistic mission? Johnson clearly holds to the latter: “As we turn to the global mission of the church, I hope we can agree that the church should especially care about eternal suffering” (22). If the unreached are dying and going to hell without Christ, then “calling and discipling all the peoples saved by the Lamb is the primary mission of missions” (24).
For these reasons and more, I wholeheartedly recommend Andy Johnson’s Missions to the audience he intended. Christians who desire to go overseas will benefit from the constant recommendation that they must be actively involved in a local church. Mission leaders will be shown how it is they can prepare and care for those who are sent. Pastors will be implored to consider their primary role—as shepherds of local churches—to help their congregations play a role in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. It is my prayer that those who read this book will seek to “display the glory of God by declaring the gospel to all peoples, by gathering churches in every place, and by filling them with disciples who obey God and will praise him forever for his grace” (28).
 Andy Johnson holds a PhD from Texas A&M and serves as an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
 For a more thorough work on ministry success in light of the sovereignty of God, see J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012). As well, see the forthcoming book by Jared Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), now available for pre-order.
 For a brief overview of this issue, see Ed Stetzer, “David Hesselgrave on Holistic Mission and the Evangelical Consensus,” Christianity Today, March 27, 2012, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2012/march/david-hesselgrave-on-holistic-mission-and-evangelical.html. For a more thorough overview, see Jason Sexton, ed., Four Views on the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).