In his poem ‘The Send-Off ’ Wilfred Owen reflected on the homecoming of troops following WWI in these terms,
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drum and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
Such sentiments can easily be those of workers returning on home assignment or furlough. They have spent themselves in pursuit of seeing Christ’s name being published on the hearts of men and women, they have discovered God’s gracious provision and patience, they have struggled and been stretched, they are weary and heavy laden, perhaps even spiritually depressed, and yet they can return to ‘still village wells’, to an environment where faith is assumed and assimilated to the point of lifelessness. A healthy local church is a powerful antidote to this phenomenon.
We need to see that the local church is not in the marketing and advertising department of global mission, where we provide billboard space and advertising slots to agencies and practitioners. We are, instead, in Human Resources, where we are spending ourselves in seeing Christ honoured here, and Christ heralded there, in a continuum which springs from the local church with a concern to see biblical churches planted. A nation which leans on a professional standing army can soon become complacent about the disposal of the lives of its troops in the theatre of conflict, their losses are for our gain, their suffering is to palliate ours, and to get jobs done which we would rather not devote ourselves to. An army composed of the sons and daughters of a whole nation, where a General’s offspring are exposed to shrapnel and to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will view the waging of war much differently. Mission was never meant to be delegated to para church agencies, and it was never meant to be something we followed from a distance.
All of this means that among the many things you do for mission, truly believing the gospel, truly loving the God of the gospel, faithfully living the life of the gospel, wholeheartedly committing to the community of the gospel, and faithfully passing on the truth of the gospel are indispensable pursuits. This mindset means that as pastors and elders we are going to have to see our health as both an immediate and an ultimate issue, it means that members of churches are going to have to take stock and take ownership for what we do here and now, week on week, seeing it as a vital component to Christ being honoured. It means when I sit at the kitchen table late in the day with my Bible open and my only company the rumbling of the refrigerator that my open hearted response to the gospel will carry consequences for those who have never heard. It is that personal, and that corporate.
The help of the local church in global mission
Paul had a bucket list, and high on it was his reaching Rome. He wanted to go there for years, he yearned to be meaningfully engaged with God’s people there, knowing how culturally, theologically and geographically strategic it was. He also wanted to use Rome as launchpad from which to push forward into Spain, an area which he may have identified with the ends of the earth. Paul wants the Roman Christians to know that he can’t reach Spain without them – ‘I will leave for Spain by way of you’. As a gospel worker he wants a good relationship with these brothers and sisters, he wants them to be part of how the gospel goes forwards.
What could that kind of relationship yield to Paul? It could give him fellowship – ‘I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while’ (15:24). Fellowship is not the slightly less fun part of Christian company where we have to talk about God, it is the open handed, open hearted, mutually enriching joy of being together and believing together. Paul hungered for this. The ministry arc from Jerusalem to Illyricum had not been littered with lots of fraternity, Paul had suffered and faced solitude for the gospel and being in Rome could give him cause to rejoice in the company of other Christians, it could allow him to be joyful and ‘refreshed in your company’ (15:32).
It could provide him with prayer. Paul invokes the person of Jesus and the love of the Holy Spirit in his soliciting of prayer from the Romans. He is facing the formidable task of bring an offering from Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem. This was subject to outside hostility from ‘unbelievers in Judea’, and to internal misunderstanding which could push potential divisions between Jews and Gentiles wide open. Paul asks the Romans to partner with him in prayer.
It could also provide him with support. These people would be in Paul’s company, eating at table, talking together, praying together, learning from one another, and the day would come when they would say farewell and watch him sail for Spain. Paul wants them to ‘help’ him on his journey, to assist him the venture of pushing back the boundaries of unbelief in Europe. John Stott states,
The verb translated assist seems already to have become almost a technical Christian term for helping missionaries on their way. It undoubtedly meant more than good wishes and a valedictory prayer. In most cases it also involved supplying them with provisions and money, and sometimes providing them as well with an escort to accompany them at least part of the way.
This help that Paul enjoins will depend on the health the church enjoys. To be healthy workers, missionaries need healthy local churches who love God enough to build deep relationships, to invest in mutual discipleship, and to communicate deep ownership of what God is doing among them and around the world. This is not something which should be legalistically observed by church fellowships, but which should organically flow from their own growth, from their own engagement with God, and their deeper understanding of what it means to serve him. We should pray, give, and go, but behind all of this lies the urgent need for us to grow, to love God more deeply so that our local work might reach more widely.
Part I of Andrew's article can be found here.