How many Christians have resisted the call of missions work because they couldn’t see past the cultural stereotypes of what a missionary is and does? Likewise, how many Christians have served as missionaries for years without even realizing that they were doing missionary work?
The stories of David Livingstone, Jim Elliot, and others like them loom large in Christian history. For better or worse, they have helped shape Christian thought about mission work. As a result, many people believe that missionaries necessarily live in a distant place and minister to people whose language and customs are foreign to them.
Certainly there are many missionaries who fit that description. However, the vast majority of mission work takes place much closer to home. Jesus Himself makes that clear. His final recorded words to His disciples, delivered just before He ascended to heaven, contain a strong local flavor.
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He starts the trajectory of the disciples’ future ministry in Jerusalem, a place they were very familiar with. Their ministry ultimately would reach the four corners of the earth, but it also would meet the needs of the people closest to them.
In Matthew 22:34–40, a lawyer tries to test Jesus by asking, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus replies, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
You can’t get much more local than your neighbors. Jesus elevates local ministry to a place of supreme importance. He suggests that it’s inextricably tied to loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
The New Testament writers expand on His message. The apostle John writes, “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Local ministry is the Christian faith in action. It’s been said that no one cares what you know until they know that you care. That’s the essence of John’s words—as well as the essence of local ministry. When we sacrifice our time, energy, and resources to minister to the people around us, we speak volumes about the Lord we serve.
The apostle Peter ties local ministry to our spiritual gifts. “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). God didn’t create in us certain talents and abilities just to give us a spiritual identity. Instead, He has equipped us so that we can minister to others in service to Him. That ministry starts with the people nearest to us.
The apostle Paul points out that local ministry is exactly what we’re made for. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). God created us as we are—and placed us where we are—for a reason. The good works that we do in our community, the ones God has prepared us for, make a difference.
The words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah give us a sense of the impact our local ministry can have: “If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58:10). For people who are struggling in darkness, that light can be life-changing because it means that someone sees them, someone recognizes their need, and someone cares enough to help them.
Isaiah’s fellow Old Testament prophet Micah summarizes the responsibilities of God’s people this way: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). We “do justly” by carrying out God’s good, righteous justice in our communities and ensuring that no one is overlooked or cast aside. We “love mercy” by sharing the compassion Christ has shown to us with all people, especially those who can do nothing for us. We “walk humbly” by humbling our wills to that of Christ so that He may freely use us to minister to the needs of those around us.
We fulfill the mandate of Micah 6:8 when we commit to missions work—on another continent or in our own backyard. When we pull back the layers of cultural stereotypes, we find that missionaries look very much like local volunteers, valued community members, and helpful neighbors.