Not all missionary organizations are created equal. In fact, while the Great Commission is surprisingly succinct as founding documents go, it has germinated a host of extremely diverse ministries and methods. Today, hundreds of international sending agencies exist ranging from those committed to curbing sex trafficking to promoting the gift of prophecy, all in the name of global missions.

What this means is that pastors and churches and missions committees not only have to sift through the mailbag of missionary candidates, they also have to stay abreast of the ever-growing list of missionary organizations. To some degree, that’s an impossible task. Which is why most churches will choose to handle missionary requests on a case by case basis.

But it is not enough if a candidate meets the qualifications for support. The missionary organization should also be vetted. Because the ministry trajectory of missionaries will be steered significantly by the ethos of field leadership. Therefore, it is the job of the supporting church to confirm that the sending organization–not just the individual–meets their standards for receiving support.

Church: What is the role of the local church?

The first and most pressing question that should be asked of any missionary organization is one of ecclesiology. Local churches themselves will want to know how a given missionary agency conceives of the local church. Specifically, what role will the sending church have in the missionary’s personal accountability? Then once on the field, will the missionary be encouraged to (if at all possible) be a part of a local congregation?

If church is central to mission, partnerships will be made with existing gospel churches on the field, and new disciples will be funneled into those fellowships as the primary means for spiritual growth. When church planting is the goal or when in pioneer settings, the obvious question will come as to how churches should be established and governed. Some extremely basic but vital questions are these: what constitutes a Christian assembly, and what are the objectives to make this a healthy community?

Commission: How do you understand the fulfillment of the Great Commission?

The next question flows from the first, and it addresses our understanding of the Great Commission. There are a number of ways that agencies can organize themselves to participate in fulfilling the mandate. Over the years, specialized fields have developed within the missionary endeavor. We now have groups devoted to Bible translation and others focused on leadership training. Some direct their resources primarily to church planting while others to apologetics or literature and media. The list goes on.

These are all blessings to the church of Jesus Christ globally. But each specialized effort must contribute in some specific way to the overall mission. Whether it is relief work or campus outreach, all missions should flow toward the advance of the gospel, the teaching of disciples, and the establishment of churches, because that was the pattern of the Apostles’ ministry. Missionary sending agencies, therefore, should be able to articulate how their specialized mission fits into an understanding of the broader Great Commission.

Cooperation: With whom do you cooperate, and how?

Whether it is existing national churches or training schools, fellow expat believers or international workers, the question that ultimately comes up in missions is one of cooperation. With whom will you unite, and from whom will you separate? If there are disagreements on doctrine and practice, what are the issues that ultimately divide, and what are the ones where we can still collaborate for the sake of the gospel? In some instances it may be that partnership can work on an outreach level but not in actual church planting.

The fact is this, for all of our discussion about unreached people groups, most places that we send missionaries already have some kind of Christian influence. Even if a particular place doesn’t have an existing church, chances are people have access to resources online from a host of different theological traditions. There will often be paedobaptists and credobaptists in the same city. First generation believers will almost inevitably encounter issues about Catholicism and Charismatic gifts. In these cases the missionary agency must have clear guidelines for partnership in ministry.

Contextualization: What are appropriate levels of contextualization?

The issue of contextualization continues to be at the forefront of discussions on missions strategy. As such, a missionary agency’s approach to contextualization will reveal much of their practical approach to ministry. Churches should query sending organizations about expectations and appropriate levels of contextualization. These questions can address evangelistic approaches, discipleship methods, and church planting strategies.

Churches may be surprised to find what agencies at the far end of the contextualization spectrum will do in the name of fulfilling the Great Commission. For example, in Muslim contexts evangelists might use the Qur’an to point to Christ. In discipleship, some would encourage reading Islamic texts to discover truths about God. And when it comes to Christian worship, prayers in the mosque directed toward Jesus might be accepted as valid expressions of faith.

In such situations, it is ultimately the local church’s responsibility to hold missionaries and their sending agencies accountable. Whether it concerns methods for evangelism or matters of church government, levels of cooperation or contextualization, the local church under the authority of scripture is not just the supporter but also the arbiter of the missionary endeavor.


Elliot Clark (M.Div., SBTS) has been living in Central Asia for six years where he serves as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and three children.