The preaching and teaching of the Word of God is not an end in itself. It has in view the establishment of assembly testimony. Often in a pioneering work, the believers have never observed the functioning of a local church since the nearest assembly may be hundreds of miles away. The examples in God’s Word must guide them. God has wonderfully planned the scriptures to be a sufficient guide for all people of all ages who would seek to be obedient to His truth. The missionary’s part is to introduce the believers to the truth and to help translate these divine principles into practical reality. He will often thank the Lord that the physical needs are so simple: A Book, a pool, a loaf and a cup.
In many overseas countries, this open step of obedience is sometimes bitterly opposed by a new believer’s relatives. They might tolerate a verbal confession of faith but not something as public as baptism. A great deal of support may be called for at this time. Experience teaches, too, that one needs the utmost care when interviewing believers before baptism and questions are often much more probing than one would be accustomed to asking in the homeland. It is a moment of great joy, however, when the first converts take this public step, although not all who understand baptism will immediately understand the responsibilities of assembly fellowship and be ready for reception.
Breaking of Bread
When should a company of new and baptized believers start remembering the Lord in the breaking of bread? One must lean hard upon God for wisdom and guidance. Acts 2:41-42 indicates that the Lord’s Supper was not a meeting in isolation from all the other necessary meetings of an assembly. Believers not only began but were able to continue steadfastly with regular times of fellowship which included teaching, praying and remembering the Lord. Where did such a large group of over 3,000 souls meet? They probably met in the open. Many local companies since then have met in homes, rented rooms or even under the trees and the Lord has graced them with His Presence as He promised.
Every assembly needs shepherds. In the early days of a pioneering work, the missionary may be the only preacher and teacher, and the local people may inevitably see him as their sole leader. He will be wise to teach them otherwise and look to God to raise up men with the heart and gift to care for the flock and keep them well fed. Timothy was encouraged to commit the same things he had learned of Paul to faithful men who would be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2). A most rewarding aspect of missionary service is when one witnesses the Lord undertaking for every need. It is a joy to work together in harmony with dear local brethren in the interests of the assembly, but wherever an attitude of “them” (the missionaries) and “us” (the local believers) has prevailed, a work is fundamentally flawed. However, there ought to be a gradual relinquishing of public leadership by the missionary. Handing over responsibilities too early can spell disaster, as can holding on too long.
The missionary needs to be sure what he is trying to build and why. He needs to start in the same way that he intends to go on and, in some measure, an assembly will take character and tone from his initial leadership. His goal should be the establishment of an autonomous group of Christ-like believers who will honor God, encourage and edify one another and also seek to cultivate and reproduce the same missionary zeal by praying for the unsaved and reaching out to the lost.
At Thessalonica. Paul preached to them and lived before them (1 Thess 1:5, 2:10). He gave them the gospel and gave them himself (2:8). He was both a spiritual mother and father to them (2:7,11). The happy outcome was that God blessed his labors and the Thessalonians followed his example by reproducing that to which they had been introduced. We may summarize three characteristics which marked the testimony of the young assembly.
The Testimony of their lives
True spirituality cannot be enforced, it can only be encouraged. The Thessalonians did not follow Paul (we dare not follow men), but they imitated him even as he followed the Savior in holiness and faithfulness (1:6-7). In societies marked by immorality, corruption and demonism, a holy life speaks volumes. It is a real miracle of divine power and grace that enables a new believer to overcome the constant pressure to conform and the furnace of daily criticism in a hostile environment. The missionary will give all the support he can.
The Testimony of their lips
As Paul had done in Thessalonica, so the Thessalonians in turn became examples by sounding out the word of the Lord over a wide area (1:8). There is great joy in seeing the Lord dispensing His own gifts to His people and the missionary should not resist this, even if it means his role will change. Paul trained a Timothy and there came a day when there was no longer a Paul, yet a Timothy remained to continue preaching and teaching.
The Testimony of their love
Theirs was a labor of love and Paul desired that this divine love should increase and abound (1:3, 3:12). They loved the Lord, they loved one another, they loved Paul, they loved the unsaved. It is a sign of maturity when new believers start developing a practical love and concern for their fellows in the assembly. In this, the missionary should set the example of holding one’s treasures lightly and using them unselfishly for the furtherance of God’s work.