I love reading the great missions texts, and Stephen Neill’s A History of Christian Missions is no exception. Today, I want to share a few paragraphs with you from his opening chapter. These words were great encouragement to me and I pray they would be for you, whether you are a pastor or simply a church member who desires to see the Great Commission fulfilled.
The Church of the first Christian generation was a genuinely missionary Church. There were, of course, the whole-time workers, such as Saul and Barnabas, specially set apart with prayer for the prosecution of missionary endeavour. Paul had his helpers, whom he trained and sent out in their turn to be the founders of Churches (Epaphras for Colossae, etc.). It was laid down as a clear principle that those who served the Gospel with all their time and strength had a right to be maintained from the Gospel, and that therefore responsibility for their support rested on the Church.
Apart, however, from these special workers, the Church could count on the anonymous unchronicled witness of all the faithful. Our first mention of this comes in Acts 8:4, where we are told that those who were scattered as a result of the persecution that followed on the death of Stephen went about preaching the word; some of them, more venturous than the leadership of the Church, seem to have made Christian history in Antioch by preaching directly to Gentiles, without the intervention of any preliminary preparation through the law. But these were far from being the only volunteer missionaries. When Paul came to Rome, he was welcome by believers; how they had got there we are not told. Doubtless there was much coming and going on the great trade routes and the wonderful Roman roads of the Mediterranean world. Some of the Christians were slaves, as we know from Paul’s epistles; such would naturally be carried hither and thither in the retinues of their masters. Some Christians were probably merchants and travelled in the interests of their trade. Over all this, time has cast the mantle of obscurity.
What is clear is that every Christian was a witness. Where there were Christians, there there [sic] would be a living burning faith, and before long an expanding Christian community. In later times great Churches were much set on claiming apostolic origin – to have an apostle as founder was a recognized certificate of respectability. But in point of fact few, if any, of the great Churches were really founded by apostles. Nothing is more notable than the anonymity of these early missionaries. (Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 23-24)
The greatest moments in church history are often the ones for which no one, save the Holy Spirit, can lay claim. Encourage anonymity. Pastors, remember that elite and polished leadership is not what brought the church into existence. The church did not rise on the personalities of the greats, but on the backs of thousands of lay members too excited about the good news to keep it to themselves. We need to celebrate the anonymous.
Church leaders, instead of looking for your next superstar personality, take a minute to examine your congregation for the anonymous witnesses, the ones who are faithful to share the gospel message with others. Find the people who are quick to speak of Christ with others, and encourage it. Fan the flames of anonymous witness and pray for a congregation full of them.