Elders From Ground Zero

Jesus said in Matt 16:18 “… I will build my church…” This is a wonderful promise from our Savior.  It is at the same time an amazing privilege God has given us to be involved with Him to see this promise fulfilled.

Having worked as a missionary for many years in the Philippines, I have seen over and over again how the Lord has raised up men/leaders/elders in each new local church that has been started.

As missionaries go into areas where the Gospel has not been preached, we ask ourselves how we should do it or where we should begin.  Maybe the first question probably should be, “What is our goal?”  To bring them the Gospel. That is a good start! But it is not enough!  Jesus told us in Matthew 28:19 to “disciple them”.  What did the great apostle Paul and all his coworkers do? They planted local churches. 

 Is it Sustainable?

One of the buzzwords nowadays is sustainability. We hear it a lot in the industry. Our hunting and fishing needs to be sustainable so that stocks will not be depleted. But is our missionary work sustainable? What do I mean by that? Let me say it this way – once we are done in an area, what do we leave behind? Something that functions without continual support from the outside?

A functioning New Testament Church? We need to establish local churches like Paul did. As we work towards the goal of a mature church, the work does become sustainable.  As the Gospel is preached and people get saved, they start gathering together for mutual teaching, encouragement and support. They become part of a new local assembly and are trained to do what the missionary has done.

It is very exciting to see as we start from “ground zero” how God is raising up men who develop a burden for their unsaved relatives, how little by little they start sharing the Gospel and teaching the Word and gradually take on a spiritual/pastoral/leadership role among their own people.

Make Disciples

I remember a true story of one old man (let’s call him Pedro) who after hearing the Gospel for the first time, told the missionary (let’s call him John) that he had relatives on the other side of the mountain and that John needed to go there and also tell them about Jesus Christ. The situation was that the Gospel had recently been presented in this village and several people had believed and gotten saved.  John knew that he needed to disciple these believers, trusting that they would see the need to take this message to the villages surrounding them.  As John talked to Pedro, he explained that he could not go, but encouraged Pedro to go.  Initially, Pedro had the same excuses as Moses did in Exodus 3:11-13.

Later on he got angry at John, blaming him for not caring if his relatives ever heard about Jesus. Some time later, Pedro went! John spent extra time with Pedro, teaching him how to share the Gospel with his relatives. As John continued to disciple and teach these new believers the Word, they grew spiritually and at the same time, there were several more who followed Pedro’s example, hiking over the mountains with the Gospel.  As believers became involved in the ministry, they started to show keen interest in the teaching of the Word and in discipling their own people.

Many of them in reality were functioning as elders, although the topic of church leadership had not yet been taught. As the teaching continued, many of these men did become the elders of the original church in this language group. The good news is that there are now many local churches in various villages. As far as direct involvement, the missionary was only involved in the village where he started. The missionary followed the principle of Paul as set forth in II Tim. 2:2.

Internal Leadership

From a practical viewpoint, these new local churches that God has raised up are in a society or culture where it is impossible for them to financially support a full time worker.  If we would “import” a “qualified” leader from outside of their locality, (which by the way also means a different language), we are creating a local church that will depend on discipleship from without rather than from within, which is unhealthy for the local believers.  And are we at the same time saying that none of the local believers are qualified because they are not educated? Think about it!

When we work with people in remote tribal areas, there are some things we need to do that are not needed in the assemblies in the Western World. For example, we need to teach these people how to read and write. We also need to translate the Bible into their language. These times of Bible translation and adult literacy lend themselves to excellent discipleship times.

Plurality Makes Sense

Another example – I am thinking of one particular language group where the missionaries were involved in Bible translation and starting three local assemblies.  Today, there are 18. What happened? The local believers, under the leadership of the local elders, were responsible to reach other villages with the Gospel. As people got saved in these villages and the number of believers increased in each location, new groups of believers were added. If, for example, all their resources would be needed to support the one-man leadership of an “imported” man, their resources could not have sustained the outreaches that did happen. Praise the Lord for the clear teaching of the Scriptures of plurality of leadership – from within the local group.

As we see the Gospel spread in the book of Acts as a result of the persecution, the news reached the Jerusalem elders, who in turn sent Barnabas to visit and encourage the believers.  Notice what Barnabas saw upon arriving there. He saw “the evidence of the grace of God” Acts 11:23. This is exactly what we are seeing among these uneducated but yet faithful believers, who are actively preaching the Gospel and teaching the Word – the evidence of the grace of God.

It is also very interesting to see how Jethro noticed what Moses was doing in Exodus 18 – where he (Moses) was alone to serve “as judge for the people” (verse 13).  Jethro understood the principle of plurality of leadership.  It is very interesting to learn of the good, practical and Scriptural advice that Jethro is giving his son-in-law. Notice the first two points of “advice” in verse 20 – “teach them and show them”.

Is there a better example or definition of discipleship than just this? By Moses following even only this advice, he would be certain that there would be somebody to replace him. Notice further advice from Jethro though, as to the character of the men he is to choose: 1) capable men; 2) men who fear God; 3) trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain.  Then he is to appoint them. The Bible also says in Proverbs 11:14 “… in the multitude of counselors there is safety”.

It is exciting to see how God is building HIS church, as he promised in Matthew 16:18.

Rocky Niclasen
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