High Impact Missionary Teams

By Steve Richardson, President of Pioneers-USA

God calls you to launch a new mission movement with a bold vision to establish churches among hundreds of unreached people groups in almost every imaginable geographic and cultural setting. You realize the structure you choose for the new mission will be critical. The future will depend on the versatility, reliability and reproducibility of the overall model. You want an approach that combines the right blend of freedom and accountability and draws the best out of people, encouraging them to reach their full potential. It should attract young and old, Easterner as well as Westerner. Preferably, values will prevail over protocols and policies.

Suddenly it hits you. Why, of course! Apostolic teams—an expanding network of them all around the world. How do we take the simple mission model that transformed the first-century Roman world and apply it to today’s globalized environment?

Rediscovering an Old Idea

When Pioneers first began applying the team approach in the early 80s, few agencies thought in these terms. Today we have 278 teams in 101 countries. The model has multiplied rapidly, and many agencies now use some form of team approach to ministry.

What do these teams look like, and how do they function? What lessons have been learned? Our teams generally feature at least eight important characteristics reminiscent of the high-impact missionary teams of the first century.

First, teams have a clear goal. A team without a clear objective and game plan will likely struggle or fall apart. Most Pioneers teams focus on starting a church movement in a particular unreached ethnic group, but the specifics of each strategy will vary greatly from place to place. It is essential that healthy relational and decision-making patterns are established as soon as a new team is launched, and that everyone shares a personal sense of ownership for the plan and their own role.

Second, teams are cohesive. Members are deeply committed not only to the work but to one another. They help each other grow and develop. They see the wisdom of experiencing the journey together rather than going it alone. Their relational commitment in challenging circumstances can be a magnet to a watching world.

Third, most teams are relatively small. A healthy team will often attract more and more workers, and eventually multiply. Our own team multiplied after reaching 20 members. Most Pioneers teams have 6-10 members. Teams in a geographic area meet together regularly for mutual learning and encouragement.

Fourth, teams are versatile. Being small, committed and specialized, they can navigate more easily around ministry roadblocks. Visas may be a challenge. Security is often a concern, and open evangelism not an option. A resourceful team will find ways to share the gospel and plant churches whatever the situation.

Fifth, team membership is fluid. The Apostle Paul's team retained its core leadership but changed its composition rather frequently. Some members will be committed for the duration, while others may serve for a season before taking new roles or launching a new work.

Sixth, teams have capable servant leaders. Most teams tend to be non-hierarchical, relational and empowering. Maintaining this kind of team can be a real challenge. Leadership is a matter of both gifting and experience. Effective teams and good leaders go together. The team's leadership can change, depending on who is best suited to lead the effort. The person who started the team may not be the one to lead in later stages.

Barnabas, for example, played the lead role in the first missionary team, but it wasn’t long before Paul’s experience and gifting propelled him to the forefront and eventually to the leadership of a new team. A leader models the culture, values, and ministry priorities of the team, ensuring that each member is developed and fruitfully engaged.

Seventh, teams enjoy significant autonomy in the field, within a decentralized accountability framework. This framework includes experienced field leaders, sending churches, nearby teams and local partners. An Area Leader monitors the overall progress of the team, but the strategy and day-to-day decisions take place at the team level. Location? Priorities? New members? Financial requirements? Local partners? Such decisions are not made in a vacuum, and there are basic principles and training involved. Nevertheless they are largely up to the team. Mistakes will be made, but these, too, contribute to the maturing process.

Finally, teams are diverse. When different backgrounds and perspectives on a team—often from different cultures or countries—blend with common vision and mutual understanding, tremendous potential is unleashed. Good teams leverage their God-given strengths. No two teams will be the same. Finding a "model" team is like searching for the ideal church. Building a team is an adventure—you don’t know where the process will lead. Like the churches it births, the missionary team is God's own handiwork.

The vision for starting a new team can come from almost anyone—a church, missionary candidate, mobilization base, or field worker. Early considerations include, “How does this fit our mission statement and values?” and "Who will lead the effort?" A new team is led by a “team coordinator” until it meets minimum requirements of a team—at least three members and a viable ministry strategy. Team members will normally locate in the same city or area. The team coordinator is mentored by an experienced leader. It is imperative that a new team gets off to a good start.

Over the last 30 years we have seen that the simple concept of apostolic teams can be a powerful way to impact the world and take the gospel to difficult places. Pioneers has experienced challenges along the way, as well as the many rewards that healthy teams can yield in terms of morale, retention and ministry outcome. We are convinced that relationships are foundational and the fruits of biblical teamwork are worth our investment of time and effort.

Steve Richardson has served as a team leader, area leader and since 1999 as President of Pioneers-USA.



We want to connect you with the unreached—through prayer, financial investment and even exploring how your gifts, talents and passions intersect with the expansion of the Kingdom of God among the nations.