Fulfilling the mandate of the Great Commission by planting churches is the sum of what is known as “missions.” Most central in the missionary enterprise is the faithful work of the local church.
What is Missions?
Missionary activity is widely considered to involve sending people to locations near and far with the task of spreading Christianity. Missions has its roots in the Great Commission where Jesus commands his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). We see this unfold in the book of Acts as the apostles spread the gospel from Jerusalem, out into the Gentile world. The effect of the Great Commission, churches being planted, seems to reflect what Jesus predicted in Matt. 16:18:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
There seems to be a progression here where Jesus wanted to build his church in Matt. 16, he commanded his disciples to go and build his church in Matt. 28, and he empowered his disciples to go out and build his church in Acts. The apostles did well to carry out the desires of Christ, but not solely to preach the gospel and baptize others for individual salvations. When speaking of the apostles, Michael Griffiths says it best in his book, What On Earth Are You Doing?: Jesus’ Call to World Mission, when he said:
Certainly they did preach and teach, heal and serve—but why? For what purpose? Not just to save individual souls. Acts is absolutely clear. They planted churches. (39)
That much is clear. Paul, for one, did well to preach the gospel, plant churches, appoint elders and move on to the next mission, sometimes revisiting or writing loving letters to the churches he helped establish.
The Responsibility of the Church
If planting churches is what makes up the goal of missions, what role do ongoing local churches play in the missionary enterprise? Considering that Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven to the apostles and the church (Matt. 16:19), reading through Matthew and Acts gives us the strong impression that the local church will always play a central role. This becomes clearer with an adoption of the concept of “apostolic succession.” Paul says in Eph. 2:20 that the household of God was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” In Acts 20, Paul also says to the Ephesian elders before departing that he is “innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” This means that the apostles helped to build the church and, once the whole counsel of God was handed over to the church by the apostles, the apostles would be confident in leaving the church, passing on ministry responsibilities to the elders in Ephesus. These responsibilities certainly included the Great Commission and thus, the charge to effectively plant new churches. In his book, A Biblical Theology of Missions, George W. Peters says:
Thus, if there is any apostolic succession, the line of succession is as follows: from the Father to the Son, from the Son to the apostles, from the apostles to the church. (220)
This is strictly speaking of responsibility and ministry. The Son did only what the father did (John 5:19), the apostles were obedient to the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:22), and now the church is called to devote themselves to the apostles teachings (Acts 2:42).
Since our focus is on the responsibilities of missions, we can conclude that the local church continues to play the role of sending people out to plant more churches and continue the apostles’ mission.