When considering a biblical model of mission work, it's probably not surprising that the apostle Paul comes quickly to mind. Yet it is not the missionary himself, but rather his church community at Antioch, that will be our focus as it offers a compelling model for mission work that we would be wise to follow today.
In the first few verses of Acts 13, we get a glimpse into this community of faith at Antioch. The chapter begins with identifying prophets and teachers that were a part of the church, with Saul (Paul) and Barnabas both included in this group (13:1). During a time of worship and fasting, the Holy Spirit speaks, saying, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). After this time of fasting and prayer, the church responds in obedience to the Spirit’s instruction. They place their hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them off (13:3).
The Church as the Sender
These opening verses of Acts 13 offer a model of mission work where the Church is in the position of Sender. Paul and Barnabas are rooted in a community of faith where they are known and where they are exercising their gifts for the good of the church.
It’s within this context of community, not separate from it, that Paul and Barnabas receive their call. This body of believers supporting them will certainly be important in the days to come, as their missionary journeys will lead them into many trials.
The Holy Spirit as the Initiator
This passage also identifies the Holy Spirit as the Initiator of this call. While the church plays a critical role in sending Paul and Barnabas out, this passage points to the reality that it is the initiating work of the Spirit of God that prompts and directs this work.
There were other prophets and teachers in the community of faith at Antioch (Acts 13:1). Yet, Paul and Barnabas are specifically identified by the Holy Spirit as the ones who are to be sent forth. It was during a time of prayer and fasting that this community heard the Holy Spirit’s instruction – and responded in obedience.
Time as the Preparer
It is also important to notice that the sending of these missionaries came after an investment of time. Acts 11:26 tells us that “for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” They had invested their time and gifts and were known deeply by this community of faith.
Paul and Barnabas did not decide independently to go, and then tell the church of their plans. Nor did they set out to do something other than what they had already been doing: namely teaching “great numbers of people” about God’s word (11:26). This time of being rooted in a community and exercising their gifts was an important time of preparation for the work they would do upon being sent.
There is much that can be learned from the example of the church at Antioch, and the sending out of Paul and Barnabas. All too often we see Christians running off to evangelize the world with no accountability, preparation, or guidance of any kind. Unfortunately, this careless approach to mission work can do far more harm than good, not only to those being ministered to but to the missionaries themselves.
In my current role as Director of Mobilization for a missionary agency, I have the privilege of working with many people who are exploring a call to mission. As our team works with potential missionary candidates, these lessons from Acts 13 provide some filters through which we discern and determine potential next steps:
Is the potential missionary part of a church community in which he or she is truly known? It's probably not surprising that current research affirms the role of the church as seen in Acts 13: “However you may define ‘calling,’ the research is clear, that having a clear sense that God has called you and the church has confirmed that call, is the strongest factor in preventing missionary attrition.” Just like the church at Antioch, we view the church as the sender and affirm the importance of the church in discerning and confirming one’s call.
What is the Holy Spirit saying? While research and data are important and may lead to many best practices in mission-sending, Acts 13 refocuses our attention on the Spirit of God that initiates this work. A posture of worship and prayer prepares individuals and communities – agencies and churches alike – to listen and heed the Spirit’s promptings in this work of sending. We must maintain a posture of humility and dependence on the Spirit. Many may be qualified from a human perspective, but who is the Holy Spirit setting apart for the work?
What is the hurry? We often encounter potential missionary candidates who are in a hurry to be sent. Acts 13 reminds us that establishing a connection to a church community takes time, and the preparation that takes place during that time is essential for the work ahead.
Are you sensing the call to missions? If so, let these lessons from Acts 13 guide you in your next steps.
By Becky Buell