“And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2: 47). What an incredible reminder to the church! While we read and research, plan and prepare, labor and love—it is the Lord who sends his word abroad and adds to his numbers. Truly missions is a work of the Lord!
It is, nonetheless, a work of the church as well. By his grace, Christ uses his church to accomplish his work of missions. The book of Acts puts Christ’s missional work on full display, and his church is shown to be right for the task. The church, then, would do well to align her thoughts and heart with the Lord’s words and ways. This post will attempt to apply the theology of evangelism and missions found in the book of Acts to the church today.
Specifically, this post will discuss the definitions of evangelism and missions before revealing the biblical motivations for them. It will then explore the relationship that the church has with evangelism and missions, then give a final look at what evangelism and missions have as their chief end.
An exhaustive treatment will not be possible here, and there will be many worthwhile truths left unmentioned. However, this brief study may provide a helpful starting point for local churches seeking to faithfully join Christ on his global mission to take the gospel to every nation.
The Bible is not a dictionary. Nor does it seek to provide a concise definition of the word missions or evangelism. Indeed, godly men from various cultural moments have defined these words differently. J. H. Bavinck encourages “a broad interpretation to the concept of missions” while Denny Spitters and Matthew Ellison assert that “Maintaining a narrow definition of missions will be a more useful tool.” The same diversity holds true for the word evangelism.
This assortment of definitions should encourage the church to not hold particular terminology too rigidly, but it should also encourage the church to go to Scripture when seeking theological accuracy. After all, missions began not with man but with the triune God who decided to make himself known.
Though one should make use of the whole of Scripture to form a robust definition of missions, Acts 13 is particularly helpful. This chapter gives a simple account that will help construct a biblical and practical definition of missions. Missions can be defined as a work of the Spirit (Acts 13:2a) accomplished through the church (Acts 13:2b) by sending individuals (Acts 13:3) to unreached peoples (Acts 13:5a) with the gospel of Jesus (Acts 13:5b). By definition, it is the Lord who sends his message and his messengers, and he chooses to do so through his church.
Two distinctions are helpful here. First, evangelism may be distinguished from missions as being a more individualistic work (not necessarily sent by the church nor necessarily to people groups). Secondly, ministry may be distinguished from missions as being a broader work (not necessarily to the unreached at all). However, all such works are of the Spirit and accomplished with gospel.
Though this definition might run the risk of creating a special missionary category of Christians, it is important to note that all Christians must be on mission. When Christ commissioned his people to be his “witnesses … to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8) he had everyone in view. Evangelizing one’s neighbor or coworker and ministering in one’s local church or seminary may not be missions proper, but it is no less a part of accomplishing Christ’s mission to take the gospel to the nations.
Now that the definition of missions is clear, what is the motivation behind it? John Piper points out that “God’s [motivation] is to glorify his Son by making him the conscious focus of all saving faith.” This is an accurate picture, but the details and textures of this truth are a bit blurry (at least when it comes to man’s motivation for missions).
Why did the early church evangelize and participate in missions? Robert L. Plummer asserts that a motivational “emphasis on [the theme of] ‘word’ harmonizes well with broader New Testament themes of ‘Spirit’ and ‘command’ as a theological basis for the church’s mission.” Indeed, the book of Acts reveals these same motivational textures.
Luke introduced the events of Acts with Jesus’ command to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8), and it was this very command that the apostles insisted on obeying (Acts 5:29). As noted above, it was the Spirit who led the church to send out missionaries (Acts 13:2), and it was the Spirit who directed their travels (Acts 13:4). Moreover, it was the dynamic power of the word that seemed to propel itself and its missionary endeavors (Acts 4:7, 12:24, and 13:49).
Even this is just a sampling of the Bible’s multitextured motivations to share the gospel. And, of course, the motivation to see lost souls come to Christ must not be overlooked. When Paul and his missionary companions were in Corinth, they were met with some hostility (Acts 18:6) as well as with some success (Acts 18:8). Jesus commanded Paul in a vision one night to stay in Corinth and to go on preaching (Acts 18:9), but note the motivation he provided. “I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10). Motivated by (and encouraged in) the desire to save sinners, Paul “stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:11).
None of this is meant to undercut Piper’s motivation to see Christ glorified and rightly worshiped in all the world. Rather, these motivations add texture and details to his picture. Surely, churches today must share the gospel of Jesus Christ out of obedience to the Christ who sends them, as they are led abroad by the Spirit, and propelled by his word, all while seeking to make disciples to the glory of the Son as the Savior of the world.
With definitions established and motivations revealed, the multifaceted relationship that the church has with evangelism and missions can be explored. This section will focus on the church as the soil, sender, cycle, and success of missions.
It is worthy of note that the book of Acts—the great missional book that it is—is really about what Christ continued to do through the acts of the church. While not a history book on the early church, Acts does spend a great deal of time telling what God did through his church, and missions is not the first step. In fact (according to the definition used in this paper) missions proper did not begin until chapter 13.
Does this make the first twelve chapters unhelpful as far as the theology of missions is concerned? Absolutely not! Remember that though ministry and evangelism may be distinct from missions, they all share the same mission.
Consider all that is done in the Jerusalem church prior to the first missionaries being sent out. New Testament commentator William J. Larkin Jr. sees the church in “Its Beginning … Its Growth … Its Mission to the Gentiles,” all before “Paul’s Missionary Journey” begins.
Likewise, churches today must be established, and they must minister to their own congregations. It is out of these very congregations which missionaries will grow. Churches must participate in the spreading of the gospel to their own families and communities. Moreover, they must equip their congregations to spread the gospel cross culturally—first in their own cities. (One would rightly question a church who wants to reach the other side of the world but does not seek to reach the other side of town.)
The church, then, is the soil in which both the future missionary and his future supporters are grown and nurtured.
The church is not only the soil of missions, but the church also relates to missions as the sender. Consider again Acts 13:1–3.
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
There are several things here worthy of note. Paul and Barnabas were (at least in some way) a part of this church. It was during a church service that this missionary calling took place. It was the church to whom the Spirit spoke. It was the church, after prayerful time of consideration, through whom the Spirit sent out these missionaries.
The specifics can get controversial, but surely these things are for our example! It is through the church that God sends out missionaries. These missionaries are (at least in some way) a part of the churches that send them, and church involvement is essential. No sending should be done without the prompting of the Spirit. All sending should be done with prayerful care and consideration.
Lest this sound too rigid, a few caveats should be given. Missional organizations need not be excluded from the sending process, but they should not (in name or practice) be the ones to send out missionaries. Churches need not be solo-senders. Surrounding churches of like-mind can send a missionary jointly, but it is important that the leadership and congregation know the person and character of the missionary who is an active member in one of those churches.
More importantly, churches need not sit on their hands waiting for the Spirit to speak. Churches should be active and prayerful listeners, expecting to hear from God. Churches should be (as the Lord provides) saving funds for when the Spirit does send forth his word, and they may even support active missionaries sent by other churches.
The church must desire and prepare for the opportunity to send and support missionaries, and they must be active in that process as the Lord blesses.
The church, then, is the soil and the sender of missions, but it also serves as the cycle of missions. Whereas it is the church’s commission to make disciples of people from every nation, making a single convert and heading on to the next group is by no means in view. This does not fulfil the commission (to teach them the way of Jesus) nor is this the pattern given in the book of Acts.
When Paul and Barnabas were first sent out, they ended up in Derbe and then went back through hostile places such as Lystra and Iconium. At this point, Luke says that “when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).
On their missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas indeed shared the gospel with unreached people groups. However, when those groups were reached, they established churches (complete with elders) that would perpetuate the missions work in that area.
The assumption was that (like the church in Jerusalem) these churches would go about preaching the word (Acts 8:4), devoting themselves to prayer (Acts 2:42), and sending out missionaries of their own (Acts 13:3).
In other words: Churches send missionaries, and missionaries plant churches! In this way, church is the cycle by which missions to the whole world can be sustained.
The church is the soil, sender, and cycle of missions, but the church is also a picture of the success of missions. In many ways, the church is a microcosm of the eschatological kingdom of heaven. Jonathan Leeman describes the church as “an outpost or embassy of heaven … where Christ’s kingdom becomes visible and active.”
What does the success of missions look like? It looks like church! Missions will have succeeded when there is one great big church that stretches to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), where the kingdom is proclaimed and Jesus is taught with all boldness and without hindrance to all the world (Acts 28:30). Indeed, the church universal is the success of missions.
Now that the church’s relationship to evangelism and missions has been explored, the chief end of evangelism and missions should be clear. God’s aim, as he sends forth his word, is to reach the whole world of God with the whole word of God.
In the book of Acts, that road led through Rome. John Stott speculates that Paul must have thought to himself that, “If only Rome could be thoroughly evangelized … what a radiant center for the gospel it could become!”
Indeed, the church’s aim must be to see the word of God go forth to every nation, despite how Godless that nation may be. The early missionaries carried God’s word through danger and disaster all throughout the book of Acts (Acts 23:12–22 and 27:39–44). According to Michael Haykin, by the time of its writing, the word witness (martyromai), used in Acts 1:8, had come to imply “bearing witness to the person and work of Christ to the point of death.” Still, Paul desired to go into the belly of the beast (Acts 19:21) for, there, he would testify (diamartyromai) about Jesus (Acts 23:11) and spread the word of the gospel to the leaders of the Roman world.
Evangelism and missions seek to carry the word of the gospel to the ends of the earth, motivated by a plethora of biblical desires. God uses his church to equip, send, and support missionaries who in turn plant, nurture, and grow churches who do the same. Yet it is chiefly God who does the work of his mission. It is God who saves, and it is God who sends. If he does not send, the word simply does not go forth.
The church today must join the great hymn writer Issacs Watts in praying
Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.
We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice, and heart and soul,
Sing Thy redeeming grace.
 All Scripture citations in this work are taken from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016) unless otherwise noted.
 J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Phillipsburg: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1993), 67.
 Denny Spitters and Matthew Ellison, When Everything is Missions (USA: BottomLine Media, 2017), 48.
 John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2010), 133.
 Robert L. Plummer, Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006), 67.
 William J. Larkin, Acts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 34–35.
 Jonathan Leeman, One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 41.
 John Stott, The Message of the Book of Acts: The Spirit, the Church and the World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 384.
 Michael Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 35.
 Isaac Watts, “How Sweet and Aweful Is the Place” in Hymns of Grace (Los Angeles: The Master’s Seminary, 2015), 350.