From the New Testament, we know that the Apostle Paul preferred to engage in pioneer missionary work, not “building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). Interestingly enough, however, the Christians in Rome to whom he addressed this letter and among whom he later had a significant personal ministry (see Acts 28:30-31; cf. Romans 1:8–15), were not members of a church that he himself had founded. Thus, we see that Paul’s preference to preach where Christ had not already been named was just that: a preference. He was quite willing, however, whenever circumstances dictated a different way of working, to sacrifice his preference.
We also learn from other passages that, although Paul himself preferred not to build on someone else’s foundation, he did not invalidate or delegitimize the ministry of those, such as Apollos, who apparently had a regular practice of doing just that:
1 Corinthians 3:5–11. What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.
In other words, although Paul himself, in accordance with the calling he had received from the Lord, preferred not to build on someone else’s foundation, he freely recognized that others have different callings, and that, as long as they did it the right way, there was nothing wrong with building on someone else’s foundation. The bottom line: while it is okay to “build on someone else’s foundation,” we must always “take care how we build upon it” (1 Corinthians 3:10).
Today, while there are, perhaps, still some places where Christ has not already been named, the great bulk of missionary work takes place where other Christians have previously preached the gospel. In spite of the current emphasis on preaching the gospel to “unreached people groups,” the reality is that many of these “unreached people groups” live in places where other “reached people groups” also live. Even if the particular city, town, or neighborhood in which one is working may not have had any previous evangelical ministry, there are usually those who have preached the gospel, in some way or another, in neighboring cities, towns, or neighborhoods, and have established some precedent in regard to Christian work. The situations where we are not in one way or another “building on someone else’s foundation” are truly rare.
Ten Principles for Building on Someone Else’s Foundation
Here are ten principles taken from Scripture (I strongly recommend looking up and studying the references), refined in the crucible of my personal experience, regarding how to best go about missionary ministry that involves “building on someone else’s foundation.” These principles apply both to long-term missionaries beginning work in a new area, as well as to short-term mission teams. I think these principles are especially relevant for churches that send out short-term teams.
1. It is okay to preach the gospel where others have already preached the gospel before us. There are plenty of lost people to go around, and God gifts different people differently, so our gifts and ministry may “scratch an itch” that someone else’s gifts and ministry do not. We should look to be faithful to put our gifts and ministry to the best use possible for the building up of the body of Christ (see Rom 12:6; 1 Pet 4:10; Acts 18:24; 27–28), and to carry out the particular ministry God has assigned us (1 Cor 3:5). At certain stages and places of the history of evangelical missions, different missionary organizations have jointly established comity agreements, officially assigning one region or people segment to one organization, and another region or people segment to another organization. While, in theory, this may sound like a good idea, in practice, it has usually created more problems than it has solved. As fellow workers in the harvest, we are not to have a turf-protecting mentality.
2. It is important to know about and know personally the other churches and Christian workers in the area. To the degree possible, this should include not just those of our own denomination, or our direct “ministry partners,” but the entire body of Christ. Evidently, in certain places, such as some large cities with lots of churches and ministries, it may not be practical to get to know everyone. However, even in these situations, we should still seek, to the degree possible, to put the same general principle into practice. Upon arriving in a new area, one of the first things we should do is to seek to set up meetings with other Christian workers, explaining our intentions, and seeking their advice and blessing on our ministry.
3. It is important to preach the gospel in solidarity with the church that already exists in the place we are preaching the gospel. We should not work on our own, as if the foundation that was laid before we arrived did not exist. You may think, “We’ll do our thing, and they’ll do their thing, and why do we need to bother with each other, as long as we’re all preaching the gospel and doing legitimate Christian ministry?” But the truth of the matter, according to the Word of God (1 Cor 12:24–26), and centuries of collective missionary experience, is that what we do affects the other parts of the body. Also, sooner or later, we may well find ourselves in need of the support of the rest of members of the body of Christ, in order to carry out our own ministry (see Acts 18:27).
4. We should be willing to learn from other workers, especially those who have come before us. Apollos, though he was “an eloquent man, and competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24), was willing to learn from Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26). In some cases, we may need to learn how to better understand and apply the Scripture in the particular context in which we are working. In other cases, we may just need to learn more about the culture and the history of the evangelical work that has gone on before us. Almost always, though, the first impression we make is important. No matter what previous experience and training we may have, we should do our best to communicate to other Christian workers—by our words, actions, and attitudes—that we don’t think we already know it all.
5. Where those who have come before have laid a solid foundation, it is important to validate the legitimacy of that foundation, and not destroy the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16–17). We should strive to maintain a positive relationship with other Christian workers in the area, looking on each other as fellow players on the same team. We should not speak disparagingly of other Christian workers in the area (see the example of Paul, with regard to Apollos, in 1 Cor 16:12 and Titus 3:13). In some cases, we may want to officially join forces with those who have come before us. This may be tricky, and may involve learning appropriate patterns of authority and submission. In other cases, it may be best not to work directly underneath previously existing ministries, but rather side by side. In either case, though, it is important to carry out our ministry in such a way as to validate and affirm the ministry of others who are preaching the same gospel as we are, and not tear down what they have already built.
6. Where those who have come before us have laid a defective foundation, it may be necessary to correct, and even, in some cases, undo some of what they have built. In many places in which we go to work, there may be people teaching false doctrine or carrying out their “ministry” in ways that are more harmful than they are helpful to the edification of the body of Christ in the region. As long as we are doing our best to diligently carry out the other principles in this list, there is a time and a place for the careful and sensitive correction and rebuke of other workers (see, for example, Paul’s pointed instructions with this regard to both Timothy and Titus: 1 Tim 1:3-7; 4:1-6; 6:4–5; 2 Tim 2:15-19; 3:16; 4:1–5; Titus 1:5).
7. When evaluating other ministries in the region in which we are working, we must be very careful to discern between a truly good foundation and a truly defective foundation. Just because people do things differently than what we are used to does not mean they are necessarily worthy of our correction or rebuke. The work of some consists of a mixture of both good and defective elements. In such a case, while we gently work to correct their errors, we should be careful to not tear down or delegitimize the good elements of their work.
8. Usually, we need to earn the right to speak into a situation before opening our mouths. This comes, more than anything else, from building up a long-term track record of faithfully carrying out the other principles in this list. “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). If we are only working in area for a short period of time, we should preferably work alongside those who have already built up this long-term track record, and if for some reason this is not practical, we should do what we can to encourage and help them to build up this long-term track record.
9. Though there is almost always room for planting new congregations, we should generally strive to link these new congregations to a previously existing “city church,” or “regional church.” In some cases, this implies joining a nationwide denomination, or a regional association of churches. Where local evangelical councils or ministerial associations exist, it is generally a good idea to lead newly planted congregations to affiliate with them. Though there are exceptional cases where these organizations may be unhealthy or doctrinally defective, we should, in one way or another, seek to steer the new churches planted toward a healthy interdependent relationship with the other gospel-centered churches and ministries in the region.
10. If we are only working in a particular place for a limited period of time, we should take special care to defer to the ongoing work and plans of those who will be left behind long after we move on. We should be aware of the harvest cycle (John 4:35–38; 1 Cor 3:6–9; Gal 6:9), and adapt our strategy accordingly. For example, we should be careful to not be overly eager to reap when it is not reaping season, potentially damaging the harvest for those who will still be around when it is reaping season. We should ask long-term workers to explain their long-term strategy to us, and do our best to plug in appropriately. We should also take special care to not abandon newborn babies in Christ, doing everything possible to hook them up with long-term workers who will be responsible for following them up and ongoing discipleship.
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