The church exists for mission. As Christopher Wright says, ‘Jesus did not give a mission to his church; he formed a church for his mission.’ Without the mission, a church is not a church; it’s just a group of disobedient Christians hanging out. The church is a movement before it is an institution. And the number one characteristic of a movement is… movement. If something is not moving, it can’t be called a movement. And people who are not moving are not part of the movement, even if they are members of the institution.
—J.D. Greear. Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send. (Zondervan, 2015), 38.
I think this is a great quote. It is strange, then, that I am going to try to undermine it. One spot in the quote I think is an effort to be move clever than true. That is the statement, “Without the mission, a church is not a church; it’s just a group of disobedient Christians hanging out.”
The problem with it is that, in a sense, the opposite is true. Almost definition, The Local Church IS “a group of disobedient Christians hanging out.” I fully agree that it is good for the church to be in the process of becoming LESS disobedient over time. Before it was an institution, it was a movement. B ut before it was a movement, it was an organism— and organisms don’t always move, or at least move very fast.
I am saying this all not completely seriously, but not fully in jest either. I have seen churches (I have been part of at least one such church) over the years that was so focused on its mission, but it stopped looking at itself as an organism… the body of Christ, made up of many members, but an organized machine made of many parts— parts that can be tossed aside and replaced if they fail to do their job.
A church, no matter how driven to serve God, worship God, obey God, is not a church if it is not FIRST, a group of disobedient Christians hanging out together.
“(Michael) Frost and (Alan) Hirsch who are great proponents of the missional church, make a clear distinction between incarnational and attractional churches. They see incarnational churches as the opposite of attractional churches. The attractional church, as they see it, does everything possible within the church to get more people flocking to the church, often ignoring their commitment to the community. This leads to a come-to-us stance rather than a go-to-them mentality. But I see missional families as both incarnational and attracti others to them. The missional familhy is incarnational because they do not detach themselves from the reality of their community, but are intrinsically connected to the needs of their own community and context. As Frost and Hirsch describe, ‘it seeps into the cracks and crevices of a society in order to be Christ to those who don’t yet know him.’ Missional families are also attractional because they live out a Christ-like lifestyle, which is noticed by others and draws others to them. Truly missional families will both shine out the life of Christ, attracting others like a lighthouse, and will also be actively engaged in the community within their own context as the presence of God to the community.’
P.C. Matthew, “Becoming a Missional Family–Fulfilling God’s Purpose in and through Your Family.” (Bangaluru, India: Urban India Missions, 2014), Chapter 2
Note: The quote of Frost and Hirsch is from their book, “The Shape of Things to Come–Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church.”
I don’t have my finger on the pulse of Philippine Missions. As an independent missionary, I don’t go to a lot of missions meetings— especially those involving mission agencies or mobilizers. Nevertheless, it seems like there have been some changes lately in Philippine Missions… for the good.
I am part of a denomination that sends missionaries to the Philippines through one primary organization, the IMB (with a few exceptions such as my wife and I). And the denomination has a daughter/partner denomination here in the Philippines that sends out missionaries through one primary organization, the OSB. It seems like things are really entering a new age.
IMB. When I came to the Philippines in 2004, the IMB was, to a large extent, closing up shop in the Philippines. At the time, the IMB decided that the Philippines generally was a “Reached Country.” Many Evangelical mission strategists would make decisions apparently based on the belief that every person who calls himself (or herself) an Evangelical must be a “real” Christian, and every person who does not, must NOT be a “real” Christian. If a region is less than 2% Evangelical, it is treated as unreached and missionaries should be out evangelizing, discipling, and planting churches (actually, trying to establish church planting movements— CPMs). If a region is over 2% Evangelical, it is treated as reached, and the local churches should be doing pretty much all of that. It seemed like leader development, theological education, urban ministry, holistic ministry and so forth was shoved aside. Things, however, have really seemed to change in the Philippines. While there is still a strong emphasis on unreached people groups, leader development, theological education, and more has opened back up. And yet, this doesn’t seem to be a step backwards toward treating the Philippines like it is a missionary-receiving country. There are missionaries coming to the Philippines, but now in more of an activity of cross-pollination of the universal church. They are also moving away from “our way or the highway” and toward collaborative partnerships.
OSB. Perhaps the change here is even bigger. When we came to the Philippines in 2004, our denomination hardly had anything to do with sending Filipino missionaries out of the country. Yes, there were Overseas Foreign Workers who were “released” (far less than “sent”) by local churches with no support (they should be sending money home after all), or perhaps some pastors leaving to go to already established churches, or perhaps diaspora ministries in other countries. However, churches supporting Filipino missionaries (“holding the rope”) to go overseas was extremely rare. One of my friends did in 2007 but was supported by a different denomination. In the 2010s, my wife and I gave a training seminar on missionary member care that was described as “controversial” to churches in the Philippines. But it is different now. OSB was set up in the early 2000s and has grown. It now is involved in supporting and sending dozens of Filipino missionaries to many countries. They are focused on making sure support is adequate and is working to establish a better foundation for medical care and retirement. They have partnerships with many different organizations (including Bukal Life Care, Celia and my organization) to increase effectiveness through mission member care and counseling.
Back in the early 2000s many Filipino churches believed that the “ends of the earth” meant reaching out to people in their province. Today, they see the “ends of the earth” as Asia… and beyond.
Are there still changes that must happen? I am sure there are. The mission conference I attended still threw around the old rhetoric of the early Lausanne Movement (and in some things before), like UPGs, UUPGs and “finishing the task” (we are called to be faithful to the task, until God says it is finished). But I am excited to see how things are changing… for the better.
How one sees the relationship between the church and missions has ramifications on how one sees missions. Consider three perspectives as shown above.
First let’s consider OPTION A. With this perspective, the church consists of local churches only. Missions occurs only to the extent that local churches directly carry out missions. There are two groups who embrace this perspective as far as I can see.
Churches that embrace a “Primitivist” perspective can see things this way. In this view, The local church is the only institution that is God-ordained to carry out His mission on this earth. Such groups are normally very limited in mission work. For some such groups this is exacerbated by a hyper-Calvinist theology that sees God’s predestination as negating the need for mission outreach by the church. But even for those who don’t embrace this, the rejection of specialized structures outside of the local church does hurt their competency for outreach.
Churches that embrace the Missional Church movement can move TOWARDS this perspective at least. The local church is missional at its core and so focus is placed on the church organizing and doing missions more than partnering with outside mission organizations. This can be quite commendable. My wife and I were sent out by a local church not a mission organization. However, the lack of specialized structures to deal with the unique challenges of cross-cultural work can be a challenge. In the case of my wife and I, we established ministries not directly tied to a local church, and also work with and through a seminary (which is a sodality structure, much like mission organizations).
Let’s jump ahead to OPTION C. In this case, mission organizations are outside of the church in some way. There is a strong separation. Those who embrace OPTION A sometimes start here. They see the universal church as from God and missions (mission organizations) as not part of the church. Thus they reject mission organizations (and other sodality structures) entirely. However, others can do a similar thing. One might argue that the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, and Anglican Church works this way with two separated groups— Diocesan or Secular priests and Religious Priests. The first group is tied to a bishop and normally linked to a parish/church. The second group is tied to a religious order— many of which serve as the missionary arm of the denomination.
In the latter case, it could be argued that there is a strong connection between religious orders and parishes in the Catholic Church (for example). In fact, in 1978 there was a push state that religious orders existed within the local church— autonomous but not independent. Be that as it may, history has at times (including in Protestant circles) where a denomination has a missionary arm that is funded and overseen by the denominational leadership, but whose link to and influence on the local church is very indirect. As the link becomes more tenuous, the missional vitality of the local church wanes.
In between is OPTION B. To understand this, I like to draw on different views of God. One view of God is Unitarian (Unitarian Christian groups, along with Muslim and Jewish groups). In this view. God exists as unity and there is no discernible structure within God’s unity. This is rather like Option A. Another view is Tritheism. This is where God is not a unity but exists as multiple beings (gods rather than God). These gods may have some form of relationship between them, but far from existing in terms of unity. The Hindu “Trinity” or the “Trinity” of Mormonism. This is rather like Option C. In between is historic Trinitarianism (or Binitarianism as well, I suppose). With this view, God is seen as Unity (not gods) but there is discernible structure within that unity. This is somewhat like Option B. The universal church exists as the assembly of the faithful, but there are discernible structures within that unity. Some are people-structured (local churches and bible studies, for example), while some are task-structured (mission organizations, training organizations, helps ministries, etc.).
To me, Option B has the best POTENTIAL. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. But seeing the work of God done by the church as existing not only in terms of work down by modalities, but sodalities, best fits the calling of God in the Gospels and Acts, as far as I can see.
Still, these three Options are still VERY GENERAL. Each has a wide range of minor variations that need to be considered.
Ultimately, we need to find a way to honor and empower the specialization needed often to carry out specialized work, without pushing such specialization completely outside of the church.
I am going to be facilitating a seminar on the Missional Church. This is not an area of expertise for me (one of a plethora of topics that is not an area of expertise for me). But I do know some of the edges of what it is not. I know that the Missional Church is not the same as a Missions-focused Church… despite some who think that it is. I know that the Missional Church is not anti-Missions… despite some missions folk that seem to think it is (and some missional churches that do act like it is at times). I also know that there are so many different understandings of the term “Missional Church” that it is hard to say that it is actually a movement. And people who don’t like the term “Missional Church” are able to find the strawman definition of choice to knock down.
In preparation, I am reading a book written from in the middle of the movement (2007 being well after 1998, but well before 2021). I am a bit more up-to-date on some like Reggie McNeal and Ed Stetzer in terms of writers on this topic in recent years… so I am reading THE MINISTRY OF THE MISSIONAL CHURCH: A COMMUNITY LED BY THE SPIRIT by Craig Van Gelder.
The missional church conversation is being popularized largely by the fast-becoming seminal work published in 1998, entitled Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. This volume is the product of six missiologists who spent two years in intensive discussions attempting to develop a shared argument about the very nature of the church. They sought to explore how the discipline of missiology (understanding God’s mission in the world) is interrelated with ecclesiology (the study, ology, of the church, ecclesia). The result was the construction of a missional ecclesiology, or in short hand, the concept of the ‘missional church.
This conception of the church is now catching hold among church leaders and congregations across a wide range of denominations. The missional church discussion is capturing a basic impulse within many churches in the United States (U.S.) that there is something about the church that makes it inherently missionary. But it is clear that confusion still exists over what the term missional really means. Some appear to want to use it to reclaim, yet one more time, the priority of missions in regard to the church’s various activities. Unfortunately, the misunderstanding continues the effort to define a congregation primarily around what it does. The concept of a church being missional moves in a fundamentally different direction. It seeks to focus the conversation about what the church is—- that it is a community created by the Spirit and that it has a unique nature, or essence, which gives it a unique identity. In light of the church’s nature, the missional conversation then explores what the church does. Purpose and strategy are not unimportant in the missional conversation, but they are understood to be derivative dimensions of understanding the nature, or essence, of the church. Likewise, changing cultural contexts are not unimportant, but they are understood to be conditions that the church interacts with in light of its nature or essence.
Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit, p. 16-17.
In other words, we need to start with understanding what the church is, before determining what the church does. This means that one needs to start from a theological stance. The stance of Van Gelder is Missio Dei Theology. Personally, I think that is an excellent place to start… but I will have to continue reading the book to see where all fo this goes.
So… let’s talk about some well-known expansions of Christianity. One of these was the growth of the church in the Roman Empire, and adjoining territories during the first 3 centuries. The church grew rapidly. If I remember right (and am quite prepared to be wrong), the church averaged growth of around 20% per year. That is pretty huge. Both Islam and Christianity is recently growing around 3%, more or less, per year. Some smaller religions are growing at a faster rate, but 20% is pretty huge for any group.
China has been an area of great growth of the church (both “underground” and “above ground”) in the 20th century. In recent years, people have been writing about the apparent growth of the underground church in Iran, mirroring in some ways the growth of Christianity in the Iranian diaspora. Perhaps a fourth one worth mentioning is the African Indigenous (or Initiated) Church (AIG) movement.
What do these movements have in common? One is that there was persecution. That cannot be discounted. However, persecution is not a magic growth formula. In fact, the Chinese church has undergone several waves of persecution going back to the 9th century AD. Of those waves of persecution, it seems as if the only that last of these resulted in growth (Maoist persecution).
Persecution can lead to resiliency, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee growth— perhaps nothing guarantees growth. But a few more things seem worth noting for these growth movements. There Christianity is
…a religion of (relative) poverty. In some cases, Christianity in these movements was the religion of the poor, and the poorest of the poor. In other cases, Christianity is impoverished in terms of structure. Religious structure, in this case, refers to some things like complex organization, physical religious buildings, and paid clerical class within the church.
… a religion of the people. It is started, expanded and propagated by locals, rather than foreigners, and often by laity rather than clergy.
… a religion in which missionaries are not active. Or… if they are active, they are taking on a background, supportive role rather than a leading or controlling role. In fact, the AIC movement often found itself in conflict with missionaries. In China, the Christian church really began to grow after missionaries left the country. Successful missionary work done by foreigners there is now more often in terms of assisting with training or other support roles rather than leadership or apostolic tasks. Much of the early church growth in the Roman Empire happened in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Apostles/Missionaries as a group were slowly fading away. By the 3rd century, they were barely recognized as a group. I would also suggest that the Iran church have thrived in the absence of foreign missionaries planting and leading churches, while in Iraq, the access of foreign mission workers has NOT been a boon. (Again, open to correction in this area.)
So suppose these three things are true? What does this mean for foreign missions? I would suggest three things.
Missionaries today seem to be selected wrong. Many mission agencies, including the main one in my denomination, tend to select missionaries based on their “evangelistic spirit” and sense of calling to plant churches. Maybe, however, this is NOT what is needed. Maybe we need missionaries who support locals who are called to be evangelists, apostles, and churchplanters. Perhaps missionaries should be selected on their passion to serve locals rather than lead, and support locals rather than replace.
Be very careful as to where missional churches send short-term mission teams. In many places in the world they can easily do great damage. And in places where they can go, they are more likely to be useful in supportive tasks requested by the receiving Christians, not doing the stuff that their sending churches think is needed.
However, missionaries, in the broader sense of the term, should be everywhere. The church is universal and we tend to remember this when we learn and grow with and from each other. Perhaps this means having people who are less thought of as “missionaries” (leaders, evangelists, churchplanters) and more as cross-cultural workers, supporting local work, as requested by locals.
This last point may seem a bit odd, but it is pretty straightforward. When Christians come to the US to serve, they do so without much “hoopla.” Some may pastor churches or be involved in various ministries, but there is no presumption that as a foreigner that they must have a very specific role of leadership or task. Rather, the assumption is that there are needs, and if that person can meet that locally-determined need, then they can serve. What makes sense in the US, should perhaps be recognized as making sense elsewhere as well.
A lot of Short-term Mission teams come from “The West” to the Philippines. And quite a few STM teams leave the Philippines to serve in other parts of the world as well.
And they can do genuine good. When they come in as genuine partners of local ministries, when they come in with welcome skills (especially) and resources, when there is a humbleness of spirit, such teams are great. The best teams, from what I have seen, are small… less than 10. Some of the best ones are just 2 or 3 people– there for transfer of specific needed skills. STM can also be a reminder that the church is not merely local, it is universal– it is not merely united, it is diversified.
But then there are other STM teams. They are a different story. There are many sub-stories in this, but I would focus on five groups. These groups are somewhat related and overlapping.
Churchy Vacationers. People who join STM often have jobs or school, and so are investing their limited vacations in the trip. But even though it is vacation time, it is still not vacation. Some focus on sight-seeing and creature comforts. Others are shutterbugs taking pictures of (exploiting) people who are struggling. It is tempting, and in many parts of the world, the rules of hospitality can make this attitude seem okay for STMers. At the other end of the spectrum, rarely, one can see the opposite where a STM trip was set up to work, work, work, and leave. However, a properly designed STM trip is more like work, work, fun, work. Mixing a bit of fun with the work will also help make the work more fun.
Cultural Critics. Some come as (very poorly trained) cultural anthropologists. They bring their ethnocentric views of their home with them, and can’t help but note how the food is not as good in their ministry location as it is at home– How the people are so “primitive”– How their houses are so crude, their clothes so odd, and their work so unorganized. Of course, a good cultural anthropologist would not come in and critique compared to one’s own culture. And in STM, one is not generally in a location long enough to critique competently anyway. Even if one is competent, it is commonly wise to keep one’s mouth shut anyway. None of us really enjoy outsiders coming in a disrespecting our country or culture.
Unwitting Burdeners. Some STMers come in and want to help. But too many people helping too much can prove a very big burden on the locals. A team of 15, for example need to be fed, housed, and driven around. Even if the team comes with finances to cover the costs of their stay, the visit can still be a logistical nightmare, and a drain to time, and energy. When we have had short-term mission teams come, I have talked to my church here first, and let them know that it is likely that the STMers will gain more from the experience than the church. Is that okay? That understanding up front really can help. I have seen short-term mission trips where the host got the impression that the STM trip would be a financial and ministerial boon for them. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly not a healthy attitude regardless.
Visionary Dominators. Sometimes, STM teams come in with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. In many cases, the local hosts are seen more as means to accomplish their vision, rather than partners in ministry. Since locals are experts of what is needed, typically, the vision should come more from them. Often locals have a greater sense of what needs to be done, but are not able to bring that across to the STM mobilizers who are dictating what will be done.
Often STM is touted as a great boon for missions, or even a substitute for a long-term mission presence. Such views are far too rosy. A more realistic view is needed. On the other hand, some see STM as a problem, or at best a good way to inspire the members of the STM team to greater missions awareness. That may be true, but short-term missions can be far more than that.
I wrote an article based on a series of four sermons I did back in 2012 that became four posts on this blog. If that was not enough, I am considering utilizing the article to develop a chapter of a book that looks at Acts 1:8, particularly structured on the four locations mentioned (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Ends of the Earth). If I do that, the goal would be practical for churches to think about missions from a local church perspective. Anyway, feel free to read the article, and tell me what you think. (If you are looking for a very deep article, this is not it, as might be determined by the complete lack of footnoting.)
Thom Rainer’s blogsite had a podcast on why it is important for churches to ensure that the missionaries they support have commonality of doctrine, vision, and focus. Associated with that post was a comment by a listener that appeared to be asking (paraphrasing and reading into it): “Why should churches select and support individual missionaries when they can (and should) be giving to the Cooperative Program?” After all, the International Mission Board is more competent to select and oversee missionaries than any one church. For those not in the know, the Cooperative Program is a collection from Southern Baptist churches for common support of international missions, regional missions, seminaries, and more.
i thought about responding to that comment on Rainer’s site, but decided to do it here instead. I don’t normally focus on denominational missions, but I will this once.
Disclosure #1. My wife and I are Southern Baptist missionaries who are not tied to the Cooperative Program of the SBC. Relatedly, a lot of our support comes from non-Southern Baptist churches and individuals.
Disclosure #2. I believe that if your church is Southern Baptist, you really SHOULD be supporting the Cooperative Program. I really believe that. It is a good system, and the legacy of Luther Rice, Lottie Moon, and others, is worthy of admiration and continuation. Many of the best missionaries I know (or knew) are/were funded by the CP. That being said, I believe that every Southern Baptist church should directly support missionaries or mission organizations beyond the cooperative program.
Here are a few reasons.
Churches that don’t directly support missionaries become disconnected from missions. The Cooperative Program, as good as it is in so many ways, insulates churches from missions decisions, missions partnering, and missionaries. When churches are taken out of the loop… except as a money source, it is hardly surprising if it is difficult for church members to feel connected to missions or motivated to see themselves as part of the mission movement. Churches, ultimately, don’t want to “Just Send Money.” And rightly so.
Churches that don’t directly support missionaries or missions don’t understand missions. I remember talking to a missionary who came home on furlough. He was invited to speak at a church that has no connection to cross-cultural missions. He noted that he was presented to the church much like one might present a novel archaeological discovery. That’s understandable since they did not know much about missionaries except images of missionaries trekking through jungles and mountains in the 1800s. When a church doesn’t understand missions, they have trouble being effective if they decide to be involved in missions. I have seen churches all over the world who have repositioned their missions giving to short-term missions teams and projects. Unfortunately, they commonly don’t understand that short-term work is made effective through integration with long-term plans and connections. Few things are more frustrating than talking to church leaders who really don’t understand Christian missions (though most will mouth support for the concept of Christian missions).
Sometimes the big organization is wrong. Sometimes, the individual church may have a clearer vision for missions that the top people don’t. A few years ago, the IMB decided to make drastic cuts of resources to the Philippines… especially in areas of theological education. This was horribly misguided. The Philippines has the potential to be one of the great missionary sending countries in the world. They need proper training, and empowerment. To remove Western missionaries from the role of training and empowering this potential mission force (something they are especially competent to do) and moving them mostly to cross-cultural pioneering (something they are less competent than locals in doing) was hugely flawed (yes… in my opinion). It was often other individual SB churches and groups that recognized this “error” and provided a well-needed corrective. A few years ago the IMB was “encouraging” missionaries to step aside who believe that women can be pastors. Since Biblically this is an uncertain (at best) issue… and the SB has a long history of “Bible women,” women serving in a pastoring capacity even if not embracing the title, it seems like a disturbingly arbitrary method of selection, and deselection, of missionaries. Ultimately, individual churches can SOMETIMES do things better.
SB missions is able to leverage the dual benefits of collaboration and autonomy. Some denominations (and religious sects) tightly control and allocate resources for missions. This gives greater focus and ensures resources for priorities, but it also leaves a lot of gaps… areas that are not seen because those making decisions see the big picture, but not the smaller details such as local opportunities, and threats. Autonomy greatly broadens the vision by adding more people and perspectives to the mixture. However, it also can lead to a wasteful lack of cooperation, and failure to leverage the scale of the denomination. Ideally, bringing together both the cooperative program as well as state convention, local church and NGO missions brings the strengths of each, and compensates for each’s weaknesses.
In the end, SB churches do need to seek out missionary candidates and mission agencies in which they share doctrine, vision, and focus. They also need to collaborate through the Cooperative Program. Both are needed and neither should be ignored.